This Under-the-radar State Is the Key to Understanding Mexico's Rich Indigenous Heritage
As I stood outside the Iglesia de San Juan de Bautista in the village of San Juan Chamula, I marveled at the artistry of the traditional dress worn by the congregants filing in. Women of every age showed off ornately embroidered black sheepskin skirts and sashes and blouses the color of Easter eggs. It was a reminder of Chamula's status as a stronghold of ancient Tzotzil and Tzeltal Mayan culture—and the resilience of its native communities, which were exploited and displaced after the arrival of the Spanish in the 16th century.
Shyly, I poked my head inside the church. The haze of copal incense smoke, flickering candlelight, and the low hum of prayer drew me in. At first, the religious cues felt familiar enough. Worshippers knelt amid thousands of candles as rays of morning light streaked through windows into the cavernous space. But as my eyes adjusted to the dim glow, I realized everything else was unfamiliar. There were no pews, no formal mass, no crucifixes. Instead, saints with the iconographic power of Mayan deities lined the walls. Sewn onto their clothing were mirrors, which are thought to reflect the sins of onlookers and to serve as gateways to the spirit world for true believers.
Like most Indigenous groups in the largely agrarian southern state of Chiapas, the Chamulans believe they live at the center of the earth. Their religion, Mexican syncretism, worships the forces of nature, the animals of the jungle, and the planets in the sky. It's combined with a form of Catholicism that places John the Baptist above Christ. From my position at the back of the church, I watched a middle-aged shaman attend to a young boy whose head was wrapped in white gauze. Rocking back and forth, she took his pulse as his parents hovered, their eyes closed in prayer.
Chiapas is almost entirely forested, rising gently, and then precipitously, from the Pacific coastal jungles to the central highlands, before reaching 13,850 feet at the peak of the Sierra Madre de Chiapas. More than 25 percent of the state's roughly 4 million inhabitants are Indigenous, and most of its 12 ethnic groups trace their roots to pre-Columbian Mayan peoples.
Following Mexico's independence in 1821, a small landowning elite replaced the colonial rulers, and most of the farmers (with the exception of those who joined farming collectives) transitioned from slavery to serfdom. Linked with Guatemala during the colonial era, Chiapas only became part of Mexico in 1824 and never attracted the kind of investment in industry and infrastructure of other, more mineral-rich states.
Today Chiapas is, on paper, the country's poorest state, and yet I didn't come across a single panhandler—only a handful of vendors who asked for a "donation" when they hadn't succeeded in closing a sale. Nor did I encounter a single unreturned smile. Unlike in densely populated cities to the north, I saw an almost familial sense of community everywhere I looked.
For travelers, Chiapas's isolation and rugged landscape are both a gift and a curse (there are no direct flights from the U.S., so most visitors connect through Mexico City). There's also a lingering wariness due to the legacy of the Zapatista anti-globalization uprising that paralyzed the Mexican government in 1994, for which the region has become synonymous.
But now, with more travelers interested in understanding Mexico's Indigenous heritage (and thanks to a few truly excellent hotels and restaurants), the region is being recognized for its cultural and creative offerings. In Chiapas, travelers will find a bewitching mix of ancient and modern culture that's distinct from any other in the country.
Planning a Trip
If it's your first time in Chiapas, you'll need five to seven days to cover the region's dizzying trifecta of craftsmanship, nature, and archaeology—and have enough hang time in dreamy San Cristóbal de Las Casas, the state's third-largest (and arguably most beautiful) city. Plan to spend the first three or four nights in the San Cristóbal highlands, where you can take half- and full-day trips to visit weavers, ceramists, and markets. You can also witness ceremonies in the Indigenous municipalities of Zinacantán, Chamula, and Tenejapa.
San Cristóbal's historic center, meanwhile, offers abundant shopping, eating, and cultural experiences. It can also be a base for day trips to national parks and natural attractions like El Chiflón waterfall, where the main cascade drops 393 feet. It's hard to wrap your head around the region's extreme microclimates: on the same day you might need a puffer jacket in the morning as you set out from the San Cristóbal highlands and end up sweating through a tank top in the afternoon as you hike through the waterfall mist in El Arcotete National Park. You'll also want to make pilgrimages to the spectacular archaeological sites of Toniná and Palenque.
Though I had fantasies of renting a car and crisscrossing the region on my own, I quickly realized there was too much ground to cover. Even if you speak Spanish and trust your navigational skills, you will want the political, cultural, and historic context a skilled guide can offer. Which is why I enlisted the tour operator Journey Mexico, both for the deep knowledge of their seasoned local guides and for their help with logistics. Here's my suggested itinerary, broken down into regions.
You will likely connect through Mexico City by plane to Chiapas's state capital, Tuxtla Gutiérrez, but will probably want to stay in the region's de facto cultural capital, San Cristóbal de Las Casas (about an hour's drive away). Take an early flight so you can hit the awe-inspiring—if touristy—Sumidero Canyon en route to San Cristóbal. Formed 35 million years ago by cracks in the earth's crust and erosion by the Grijalva River, Sumidero is a showstopper on a par with Yosemite's El Capitan. If you have the energy after your flight, you can even hire a boat for a two-hour ride from Chiapa de Corzo along the Grijalva—the waters of which reach eerie depths of up to 860 feet—to the Chicoasen Dam and back. A welcome reprieve from the heat, the boat trip takes you within arm's length of waterfalls, spider monkeys, ocelots, and crocodiles sunning themselves along the riverbanks.
Chiapa de Corzo, about 30 minutes east of Tuxtla, is an iconic Spanish colonial town that's also worth a quick lap. The colonnaded square centers on a 459-year-old fountain that's dedicated to a group of Indigenous resistance fighters who are said to have jumped to their deaths in Sumidero Canyon rather than surrender to the invading Spanish army.
San Cristóbal de las Casas
The city, which was a Spanish stronghold against Mayan freedom fighters in 1528, is quickly nipping at Oaxaca's heels as Mexico's artisan capital. With a growing number of stylish boutique hotels and destination restaurants, the place has graduated from a backpacker haven to a destination for the creative arts. Its colonial-style buildings, with their wooden colonnades and red-tiled roofs, as well as its cobblestoned pedestrian streets, have also helped to draw its growing community of artistic expats (as well as its left-leaning politics). In Chiapas, there's nowhere else like it.
San Cristóbal is easily navigated on foot, and I ducked in and out of museums, stores, and cafés without much planning. At night, the streets, bars, and restaurants came to life with locals and tourists. It felt like a college town, only for grown-ups, with its mix of tradition, political charge, and sense of optimism.
On my second day, I met Margarita Cantu while she was replenishing some pieces of her clothing line at the beautiful boutique inside Hotel Bo. The 40-year-old Monterrey, Mexico—born artist and designer works with some 150 weavers from nearby communities for her women's clothing and home-goods line, Omorika. After starting her career in fashion in New York City, she arrived in San Cristóbal 12 years ago for a month-long stint to learn traditional weaving techniques—and never left. She told me it was "the mix of conflicts and traditions that make every day interesting" that kept her in town.
Amatenango del Valle and Zinacantán
About an hour's drive south of San Cristóbal I visited the small town of Amatenango del Valle. It's where Juana "Juanita" Gómez Ramírez has her studio-showroom, Taller y Galería Artesanal. She is something of a celebrity ceramist, known for her intricately painted sculptures of jaguars and fish, and her operation is a big source of employment in the community.
And in Zinacantán the next day, I visited the home of Catalina Pérez Hernández, who weaves textiles using the traditional backstrap loom (appointments with her are offered exclusively through Journey Mexico). Her shop has an impressive selection of embroidered textiles from the area, and for 100 pesos (about $5), she will invite you back for lunch in her kitchen, where her sister makes the most delicious corn tortillas I have ever eaten. She serves them with bowls of black beans, salsa, and raw onions, and each one is covered with embroidered linen. As in most places in the region, tortillas are made in the traditional manner, a laborious process that involves drying the maize on the husk and then cooking it overnight in lime water.
Toniná and Palenque
One of my favorite parts of this trip was the drive from San Cristóbal to Toniná en route to Palenque. As I was winding my way down from evergreen forests to sultry jungles, the pine trees competed with banana trees for position along the road, the temperature rose, and every once in a while I was left stunned by the dramatic views.
The truly spectacular Toniná is an archaeological site etched into a hillside. The stepped pyramid presides over the lush Ocosingo Valley; inside, the ceremonial core features a labyrinth used in religious rituals.
Palenque, meanwhile, is a magnificent Mayan city of the Late Classic Period (around A.D. 600–900) that was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1987. Its temples and palaces were abandoned after the ninth century. You'll see the delicate craftsmanship that went into the mythological reliefs in the Temple of Inscriptions; the building ingenuity of the elaborate civic, religious, and residential complex; and the architectural innovation of the palace's pointed vaults.
After you've walked the site for a couple of hours, head to the parking lot. You can hire a guide to take you deeper into the jungle, where smaller, lesser-known temples are hidden among the flora. Seeing the sophisticated relics of Mayan civilization emerge from these wild, impossibly verdant surroundings is enough to take your breath away.
San Cristóbal de las Casas
This hotel's restaurant is worth a visit for the octopus with cauliflower and chorizo. Entrées $12–$17.
Centro Cultural de los Altos
Occupying an old convent, the city's main museum traces regional history from the pre-Hispanic era to the evangelization of the Indigenous people.
This shop has a nicely curated selection of local pottery and textiles, including women's and men's shirts, scarves, shawls, and bags.
Locals consider this the best taqueria in town. It's ideal for a quick lunch of tacos al pastor. 1 Belisario Domínguez; entrées $3–$10.
With its handmade furniture and local textiles, this hotel is one of those gems that puts a city on the map. Doubles from $165.
Hotel Guayaba Inn
This tastefully appointed property feels traditionally Mexican, with its timbered ceilings and stucco construction, four-poster beds, and tile-lined bathrooms. Doubles from $91.
In the historic center, you'll find the Esquina San Agustín, a food-hall-style collection of stylish restaurants and bars, including this outstanding sushi spot. Entrées $3–$22.
Museo Jtatik Samuel
In addition to celebrating the life of Samuel Ruiz, the bishop of the Diocese of San Cristóbal de Las Casas, who championed land and human rights of Indigenous people, this museum houses some of the finest examples of textiles from the Oxchuc region of Chiapas.
Go for a michelada—prepared with a homemade tamarind mixture—at cocktail hour on the patio overlooking the public library. 13 Belisario Domínguez.
A small menu from chef Jorge Gordillo—who comes from a neighboring village—is served at Hotel Sombra del Agua. Entrées $6–$24.
Tierra y Cielo
Chef Marta Zepeda gives her elevated spin on the classics, such as quesadilla de tinga, in a chic dining room. entrées $5–$6.
Xut El Restaurante
Casual Chiapan dishes like chile relleno and chicharrón de queso are served with flair, as is a regional take on a tuna tartare. 17A Dr. Felipe Flores; entrées $5–$13.
Amatenango del valle
Taller y Galería Artesanal
Juana Gómez Ramírez and her team of artisans produce some of the best ceramics in the country. They are known for their depictions of jaguars, which still populate the jungles of Chiapas. 185A 16 de Septiembre.
El Huachinango Feliz
Seafood is made into phenomenal ceviche and soup and served in an airy dining room. Avda. Merle Green; entrées $6–$8.
Run by an Italian-German scholar of Mayan hieroglyphics, this hotel gets high marks for its warm service and excellent food. Doubles from $139.
How to Book
This trip was planned by Journey Mexico, which has a network of expert local guides and can arrange all the logistics for a customized itinerary. five-day trips from $2,000 per person. — P.G.