Inside the centuries-old church of the town San Juan Chamula, shamans kneel on pine branches and murmur pre-Columbian incantations, pour cane liquor over candles lit by villagers with a host of pleas—for health, wealth, even love—and strangle sacrificial chickens.
I’m taking in the scene with Paul Lehman, managing director of Montana-based Austin-Lehman Adventures (ALA), and Carl McLellan, one of the company’s guides. We’re on a test run for a new itinerary, a trip through remote and sometimes mysterious southern Mexico, home of Mayan sites—including the World Heritage–designated Palenque—colonial-era hill towns such as San Cristóbal de las Casas, and natural attractions like the Sumidero Canyon. The state of Chiapas remains largely unknown to travelers, a terra incognita stigmatized by the Zapatista uprising of the 1990’s, and for Lehman, that’s exactly its appeal. Adventure outfitters compete furiously to be first on the ground in regions too remote, undeveloped, or dangerous for everyday travelers, and Lehman’s company will be the first major player in a state that sees just a tiny fraction of Mexico’s foreign visitors. “Everybody does Baja,” he says. “One of the reasons we’re doing Chiapas is that very few operators are coming here.” In this sacred space for Tzotzil-speaking Maya, photography is forbidden and outsiders are barely tolerated—but the church is just the sort of otherworldly, authentic place Lehman has been looking for.
Austin-Lehman’s planned seven-day Chiapas itinerary—arrival and overnight in the capital, Tuxtla Gutiérrez, then two nights apiece in San Cristóbal and Palenque, with a final night in Villahermosa in the neighboring state of Tabasco—seemed to make sense on paper, but this run-through is all about real-world details. Lehman brings a critical eye and color-coordinated checklists to every hotel, meal, and activity. What are the best and worst rooms?The largest group a restaurant can seat at one table?The trail conditions of each hike?“I’m pretty demanding,” Lehman says. “So if it satisfies me, it’ll satisfy our clients, who expect service, quality, and a personal touch—even in the most remote destinations.”
On our first morning in Tuxtla, Lehman is not satisfied. Over a buffet breakfast at the hilltop Hotel Camino Real, he discusses ALA’s expectations with the guides. According to the pre-trip plan provided by Journey Mexico, then ALA’s ground operator, the group should have gone “out on the town for local Chiapaneco fare” the previous night. Instead we ate a fixed-menu dinner at the hotel. “It’s very important to Austin-Lehman clients that we do what we say we’re going to do—unless we do something better,” Lehman says.
After breakfast, we drive 10 miles north to Mirador La Coyota, an overlook clinging to the 3,000-foot walls of Sumidero Canyon. An hour later, a chartered speedboat zips us through the 20-mile-long gorge to view troops of spider monkeys, sunbathing crocodiles, and El Arbol de la Navidad, a misty waterfall. There’s too much drive time, Lehman feels, to include both the lookout and the launch; only the boat trip makes the cut.
Lunch in nearby Chiapa de Corzo, a river town of pastel-colored buildings, will definitely remain on the itinerary. Home-style fare of empanadas de cazón (sharklike dogfish) and lemonade with chia seeds is accompanied by a mariachi band that does not, fortunately, play “Guantanamera.” The town’s main square is distinguished by La Pila, a pavilion with unusual Moorish flourishes, but McLellan recommends pushing on 40 miles to San Cristóbal.
“Its zocalo [town square] definitely has more bang,” he says.