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New Adventure Travel in Chiapas, Mexico

Trujillo/Paumier The 16th-century cathedral in San Cristóbal de las Casas, in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas.

Photo: Trujillo/Paumier

We reach San Cristóbal’s central plaza in the golden hour, when the fading light bathes the ocher façade of the town’s 16th-century cathedral, and check into the Parador San Juan de Dios. A 17th-century hacienda that was once owned by Harvard University, this boutique property exudes a baroque air: stained-glass windows and heavy oak furniture.

“This is a place where we need to spend more time,” Lehman decides at the evening’s debriefing with McLellan and the other guides. Various scenarios are kicked around. Could they skip Tuxtla and go straight to San Cristóbal?Would they need to backtrack to Sumidero?What activities could fill a third day?Biking?Bird-watching?

The nearby Mayan town of Zinacantán, which is renowned for its handwoven textiles, stands in marked contrast to its neighbor San Juan Chamula, where residents who convert to evangelical Protestantism are expelled. Inside one Zinacantán compound, a family of weavers displays hand-loomed shawls bedecked with calla lilies. Then, the proprietors invite Lehman into a smoke-blackened kitchen, where a young woman kneels over a wood fire, baking tortillas. Ravenous, we sit on stools around the hearth and eat piping-hot wraps with local sausage, onions, and ranchero cheese. The food is simple and hearty, and made memorable by this gesture of hospitality.

“This is what turns me on about travel,” Lehman says. “I’m always looking for authentic experiences, which become harder and harder to find.”

McLellan has rented a room in San Cristóbal for a month; after this trip, he will scout out more activities, outfitters, and restaurants. He’ll also meet with other potential guides.

“There’s no way you can do this sort of thing without being here in person,” McLellan says. “You’ve got to see who the guides are, their charisma, their levels of competence. Many of our clients are successful corporate leaders—they’re reluctant to cede control. If they see problems on the first day, the rest of the week will be tough.”

It’s going to be doubly tough if these clients meet up with Zapatista rebels. On the 120-mile drive from San Cristóbal to Palenque, one of our guides provides a primer on the rebels, who seized San Cristóbal on New Year’s Day 1994 to demand land reform, services for indigenous groups, and the repeal of NAFTA. A police crackdown and the killing of at least 50 peasants ignited international condemnation of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, which had ruled Mexico since 1929.

The 2000 election of opposition presidential candidate Vicente Fox Quesada, however, brought a measure of reconciliation. But in these mountains, it isn’t difficult to gauge sympathies. The route north from San Cristóbal passes through Primero de Enero (First of January), an autonomous Zapatista town with a cinder-block school covered in revolutionary murals. In nearby Ocosingo, which saw some of the heaviest fighting during the conflict, a restaurant sells T-shirts with the slogan Todos Somos Marcos (We are all Marcos), referencing the Zapatista leader. For up-to-date security, ALA will monitor the situation through its network of drivers, guides, and hoteliers, as well as media and official travel-advisory websites.

The two-night Palenque stay is a home run: decent bungalow rooms at the Chan-Kah Resort Village; spectacular Mayan ruins; and a pair of expert local guides. The first, Alfonso Morales Cleveland, is a working archaeologist with an easy command of Mayan glyphs and American humor.

Nearby Bonampak owes its fame to the murals in its main temple: Mayan warlords in quetzal-plumed headdresses; prisoners spurting blood and begging for mercy; a severed head at the bottom of the steps. From there it’s an hour by boat to Yaxchilán, which lies half-hidden in dense forest along the Guatemalan border. As scarlet macaws screech overhead, Morales leads the way into a lightless stone labyrinth, presumedly built by the Maya to mimic their vision of the underworld. The tunnel spills out into a mall flanked by temples with soaring roof combs, straight out of an Indiana Jones movie.

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