Into The Green

Most people head to the Yucatan beaches when they visit Mexico, but I was taking a guilt-free holiday to the southern province of Chiapas, the final stop before Guatemala.

By Nic Havers on 06 February 2006 in Travel Articles

The little boy sitting next to me on the flight to Tuxtla Gutiérrez leaned towards me, and gazing out of the plane window, said with wide eyes, “the jungle looks like endless broccoli from above – not like what we left behind”.

He was right. Far below, there was an almost unbroken stretch of jungle, which was very different to the urban jungle of Mexico City. Most people head to the Yucatan beaches when they visit Mexico, but I was taking a ‘guilt-free’ holiday to the southern province of Chiapas, the final stop before Guatemala. It’s a one hour flight but light-years away from Mexico City.

Chiapas is cloaked in jungle with lost Mayan cities, isolated waterfalls and indigenuous tribes. It’s a “guilt-free” experience because the province’s eco-tourism projects ensure your vacation is not to the detriment of wildlife and the environment. My first excursion amply demonstrates how successful eco-tourism can be. We embark on a motorboat at Chiapa de Corzo on the banks of the Río Grijalva and scud beneath the 1,000 metre high Sumidero Canyon, passing 12-foot long crocodiles, the air swarming with black vultures that live in caves. My guide, Pepe, points out a waterfall that has eroded the walls away into strange curls of rock, resembling a Christmas tree shape. We drift into a red and white coloured cave, the Cave of Colours, with a ladder leading up to a shrine dedicated to the Virgin of Guadalupe.

Every December, locals make a pilgrimage by boat to bring offerings, make music and light candles. An isolated jetty heralds the Sumidero Eco-tourism Park, a small resort of traditional buildings with thatched roofs. The main purpose of Sumidero is to protect wildlife and the environment, whilst offering the creature comforts of a glorious swimming pool and restaurant. Pollutants in the river have caused crocodiles to be born with genetic defects, and so the Park’s projects involve cleaning the river, and they have their own organic water cleansing unit. An interpretive path leads uphill past orchids, ceiba trees and butterflies to an enclosure of toucan birds, spider monkeys, two female jaguars and a puma. Jaguars in the Mexican wilds are endangered species, but here they are cared for in a safe environment. The hill terminates at the Zip Wire where I hook myself on and ‘fly’ through the air at great speed on a series of metal wires high above the treetops. Some of the wires are ½ km in length between stations. The vista of vivid-green rainforest fringing the canyoned-river seduces me in one fell swoop. It’s a thrilling flight.

Leaving Sumidero, we pick up a bus which passes through settlements centred around crudely-built churches painted turquoise and lime-green. First impressions of the old colonial capital of San Cristóbal de las Casas are not good – we arrive in the dark after a bone-shaking journey that sees us at a chilly 2,100 metres above sea level.

My room is bitterly cold and smells of spent matches. There is no hot water. The meal, consisting of black beans, is like eating a mouthful of pins. But next morning, my spirits rise when we see the city in daylight. The central plaza is lined by colonial mansions, and a short distance north of here is Santo Domingo, a cathedral with a Baroque façade that combines Oaxacan and Guatemalan styles. The most compelling experience is the church of San Juan in nearby Chamula, its village peopled by Tzotzil-speaking indigenous Maya Indians. They wear extraordinarily-bright costumes and live in houses made from mud mixed with pine needles. From across the market square, San Juan looks like an ordinary white Spanish church. But the hot, sooty interior is crammed with thousands of flickering candles, there are pine needles sprinkled all over the floor, the walls are lined with glass cases containing statues of Saints, some with mirrors attached to their chests, and a man is playing a melancholy tune on a concertina. The burning of incense is choking. All around me, people are singing or chanting. There is a figure on the floor, taking a swig from an oily bottle, a spirit known as pox or ‘white water’. A Mayan woman gulps down Coca Cola, before burping loudly. She removes a live chicken from the bag beside her and raises it above the candles. With eyes closed and a look of intense concentration on her face, she chants, and then, shockingly, wrings the chicken’s neck. After several long moments, the chicken stops moving and she sprinkles pox over it’s lifeless body before placing it inside the bag. Pepe explains that the Mayans hold these healing sessions if they have a problem in their life – if they are ill or their crops fail – and that the chicken discharges all evil. Drinking Coca Cola makes them burp, which brings out the evil that has caused the problem. The chicken represents freedom because of its wings, and its sacrifice brings back health and good fortune. The dead chicken is kept inside the bag so no-one can touch it – it has absorbed evil – and then buried in the hills. Whole families come here, sometimes three times a day to meet with their shaman. They sometimes bring offerings – particularly eggs because the embryo represents a living thing. It is a moving experience.

Two days later, the going is easy and we head down to the sweltering lowlands, covering a good distance on the Pan American Highway, to the Usumacinta River at Escuda Jaguar, bordering Guatemala. Here, we get on a lancha, a yellow-painted narrowboat with a roof of tin and reeds and after half an hour, we pull in at a remote, muddy spot. Paths lead through the rainforest, and in the mid-day heat, pockets of hot air mug you. “Don’t wander off – there are deadly snakes here” yells Pepe. The howler monkeys are shrieking and we have to dart out the way as they try to urinate on us. The path deposits us close to a pyramid-shaped building which is the start of the ruined Mayan city of Yaxchilán, dating from 680 to 760 AD. There is a dark labyrinth, which I enter with a pen-light and I am feeling brave until I see the ceiling is literally covered in bats and there are spiders the size of your fist. Out in the daylight, the Pequena Acropolis and the climb up 200 steps to Edificio 33, a palace with beautiful carvings, is rewarding. There is a headless statue in one room and next door the head is displayed on a plinth. Lacandón legend has it that when the head of this statue is replaced upon its shoulders, the end of the world will come. Yaxchilán is an exciting place, it exudes an aura of mysticism, being completely wild without any tourist trappings and only reachable by boat. Visiting gives you a sense of how the first explorers felt when they stumbled across this city. We spend that night at the Hotel Nututum on the edge of Palenque. The hotel is pleasantly dated, with spacious rooms in 1970s style, and best of all, a large swimming area in the river. Like kids, we dive from the road bridge into the water. Palenque has great nightlife. At a table on the pavement, we sprinkle salt thickly onto half a lime, suck on it, and then down tequila. In this town, you can dance until dawn. Palenque also has its own world-famous Maya ruins which are truly superb, but get there early before the tourists hoards.

On the last day, after the heat of the rainforest has left my clothes sopping, we travel to the Misol-ha Waterfall. It’s a tranquil spot in the jungle depths and nothing beats shedding my clothes and plunging into the icy, lime-green pool beneath the falls. This corner of Mexico, however off the beaten track, holds some magical sights which make for a great two-centre holiday: one week on the Yucatan beaches, and one week exploring Chiapas.

Factfile: Chiapas-based ATC Tours ( tel 00 52 967 631 4324) can help you organise flights, road transport and an itinerary, complete with a guide and accommodation. It is strictly forbidden to take photographs inside the church of San Juan at Chamula.

Essentials: Take along a good Spanish phrasebook.

Shopping: Ornaments made of jade in San Cristobal, 100% real wool ponchos, brightly coloured fabrics in Chamula, or bead necklaces.

Safety: Most of Mexico is extremely safe for tourists but as in any country, you should always keep your wits about you. We found Mexicans to be warm, polite and friendly.

Internal Flights: AeroMexico (www.aeromexico.com) For more information, check out www.visitmexico.com or call the Mexico Tourist Board on 020 7488 9392

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