How does an adventure outfitter create the next great itinerary in uncharted territory? Christopher R. Cox goes behind the scenes in Chiapas, Mexico, to discover the benefits—and the challenges—of getting there first.
Trujillo/Paumier The 16th-century cathedral in San Cristóbal de las Casas, in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas.
| Credit: Trujillo/Paumier

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.

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.

On the 2 1/2-hour return to Palenque, Lehman decides to reverse the course of the trip. The revised route would have a better chronological flow, leading from the lowland cities of the ancient Maya to highland villages such as Chamula and Zinacantán, inhabited by their descendants. The revised plan would also build to San Cristóbal, the crown jewel of Chiapas, and eliminate the need for a night in Tuxtla.

Our trip ends in Villahermosa, Tabasco, an oil town with global-economy trappings: Home Depot, Wal-Mart, and KFC. The ALA itinerary has promised “optional salsa dancing.” Our group, however, is too tired to consider any nonessential movement.

THREE weeks later, ALA ships its catalog to the printers, complete with a rebuilt Chiapas: Rainforest to Ruins trip. The new itinerary will begin in Villahermosa and then flip the scouting trip we took, with a two-night Palenque stay followed by four nights in San Cristóbal.

“There is no place to salsa the night away, however,” Lehman says.

But McLellan is still looking.

Austin-Lehman Adventures’ eight-day Chiapas: Rainforest to Ruins trip has three departure dates annually (in December and February). 800/575-1540;; $3,298 per person, based on double occupancy.