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Your definitive guide to Chiapas, Mexico

There’s something about Chiapas that makes my heart flutter. Perhaps it’s the scenery, the incredible coffee, or the abundant opportunities for adventure. Between the thick jungles, remote beaches and mountain peaks, this state of Mexico has so much to offer.

If you’re still not convinced to come to Chiapas, here’s a better idea of what to expect:

Waterfalls that will make you fall in love

You may have seen Chiapas waterfalls posted all over Instagram and Pinterest. Crystal clear pools nestled in the mountainous jungles, wow! What you see online about these waterfalls is reality. The areas where you can find these magnificent waterfalls are protected by government and non-government organizations and it shows. Here are a few that I personally recommend visiting:

El Chiflón Waterfalls

When you go to Chiapas, you can’t miss El Chiflón. It is one of the most beautiful places I have visited in Mexico and is unlike any other waterfall I have ever seen. It’s about 2.5 hours from both San Cristobal de las Casas and Tuxtla and 45 minutes from Comitan by car. The distance makes it a great option for a day trip from either of those larger cities.

As you enter the park, you’ll see a small river below with a trail leading to the waterfalls. As you move along the trail, the waterfalls get bigger and bigger until you finally come to the most impressive one, the Bridal Veil. At the end of the trail, there is an incredible view of the waterfall and the mist rising from below. From that point, you can see the other trails surrounding the falls, which are also breathtaking to explore.

As you make your way back, you can zipline over the falls as a fun shortcut. I found it an exciting way to see everything from above. The zip line costs 200 pesos (about 10 dollars).

The entrance to El Chiflón costs 50 pesos (about $2.50 USD).

Agua Azul

Ever since I arrived in Chiapas, everyone kept telling me I had to go to Agua Azul. After visiting, I understand the hype!

Agua Azul, gets its name from the intense turquoise pools both above and below the waterfall. It is considered one of the best waterfalls in Chiapas for its strength and beauty.

However, I found Agua Azul to be crowded with people. There were many food stands, souvenir vendors and large groups of tourists so close to the waterfall. It wasn’t a problem for me, but it’s something to keep in mind if you’re looking for a more low-key experience.

You can get to Agua Azul from San Cristobal de las Casas, which is about 4 hours away. If you’re driving through Chiapas independently, it could be a great stop on your way to Palenque from San Cris or just as a quick day trip from Palenque. However, if you want to keep San Cris as your base, this tour picks you up at your hotel and will take you to both Agua Azul and Palenque in the same day.

The entrance to Agua Azul can be confusing. At the entrance to the Salto de Agua ecopark (where Agua Azul is located), you have to pay an entrance fee of 10 pesos. Then, you’ll have to pay again to actually access the falls, which will be another 20 pesos.

Misol-Ha Waterfalls

While the other waterfalls on this list are bright blue havens, Misol-Ha has a totally different feel. Here you won’t find turquoise pools, but you will find a picturesque waterfall surrounded by bright green vegetation.

Misol-Ha is about 115 feet high and rises above a pool that you can swim in. You can also follow a small trail that will take you right behind the mighty falls, which have a spectacular view.

This is located near Palenque. It’s about a 45 minute drive and is often included in different tours that leave from there. If you are not interested in a tour, it is easy to visit Misol-Ha from Palenque on your own.

This waterfall is another one where you have to pay twice to get to it. The first entrance to the park costs 10 pesos, and then you have to pay another 10 pesos to access the falls.

The Clouds

This stunning waterfall and waterway is much more remote than the others and is close to the Guatemalan border. It is about 5 hours drive from San Cristobal de las Casas, but definitely worth the distance!

Las Nubes feels like you are entering the garden of Eden. The lush vegetation surrounding the sparkling blue waters with the round rocks above the waterfalls will take your breath away.

The best part of visiting Las Nubes is swimming in the blue pools above the falls. The water stays cool and refreshing all year round. Entrance to the park costs 30 pesos. You can also rent a raft at the park’s tourist center for about 1,500 pesos (about $75), which can accommodate up to 5 people.

Because of how far away Las Nubes is, I recommend spending a couple of days exploring the area. You can easily camp around the park itself, or you can find other accommodations in Lagos de Montebello (see below). I camped nearby and enjoyed it, but another great option is this ecolodge right on the river.

The best archaeological sites in Chiapas

Chiapas is located in southern Mexico, bordering Guatemala to the east. In fact, the general region of what is now known as Chiapas was part of Guatemala until 1824. This region of Mexico is known for being the most closely tied to its indigenous roots, which is evident in the local culture. You can often find the local women dressed head to toe in traditional clothing and there are many ceremonies and rituals still practiced here.

Chiapas is rich in indigenous culture and traditions that have been passed down for centuries. If you want a direct glimpse into the past to better understand the roots of the Mayan culture, take a trip to an archaeological site and immerse yourself in the beauty and mysticism of the ancient societies of Chiapas:

Palenque

The first time I went to Palenque to explore the Mayan ruins there, I was speechless. I have been to quite a few ruins and Palenque is by far my favorite.

The main temple in the compound has a tomb inside, which used to house the deceased kings of the ancient city. You can wander into the dark cave-like ruins and see where the kings lay. When touring the ruins, I recommend you hire a guide. There are many different symbols, sacred geometry and even paintings that would be difficult to decipher without an expert present.

The city of Palenque has its own airport, which you can fly into from Mexico City. There is not much to do there, but it is in the jungle and there are plenty of restaurants with traditional dishes to try. If you go to Palenque, be prepared for humid weather and lots of mosquitoes.

Getting to the ruins from Palenque is as easy as driving there or booking a tour once you get there. These tours range from 300 to 1,000 pesos, depending on what they include. They are organized by local travel agencies, but can also be booked through GetYourGuide. The entrance fee to the ruins is 75 pesos, plus the 35 pesos entrance fee to the surrounding national park.

Toniná

Toniná, which means “House of Stone,” is the tallest archaeological site in Mexico, standing 233 feet high. If you’re up for the climb of a lifetime, you can climb the stairs to the top. I visited Toninzá in 2017 and was amazed by the view from the top of the main structure. With the beautiful mountains in the background, the hike was worth it.

Toniná is not usually crowded, and you will most likely have the site to yourself. It is not yet a well-known archaeological site, so it doesn’t have the same crowds that you would find at Palenque or other popular sites.

The entrance fee to Toniná is 46 pesos, which is cheaper than other large sites. Toniná is located on the outskirts of the city of Ocosingo, which is almost equidistant from San Cristóbal and Palenque, so it is easily accessible from either of those cities. Tours to Toniná are usually included in those that visit other archaeological sites, so it is rare to find one that only goes there. One of these tours costs about 500 pesos, which usually includes entrance to the park.

Bonampak

Can you believe these paintings are thousands of years old?

These ruins have the best preserved Mayan murals ever found. When I saw them I couldn’t believe how old they were and felt like I had stepped back in time. The murals are the main point of interest in Bonampak, and it’s worth hiring a guide to explain what they mean. There are some striking images on the murals that give an insider’s view of ancient Mayan culture.

You can get to Bonampak from San Cristobal de las Casas or, more easily, from Palenque. I recommend Palenque because it is geographically closer and there are many more tours available. If you take a tour instead of tackling the ruins on your own, you won’t have the same freedom to be on your own schedule, but it takes a lot of the pressure off.

If you decide to visit on your own, the entrance fee to the park is 45 pesos, plus 25 pesos to enter the ruins.

Yaxchilán

Located near Bonampak, a trip to Yaxchilan will take you deep into the jungle. The area surrounding the ruins is one of the least populated places in all of Mexico, giving it an Indiana Jones feel.

Yaxchilan is famous for the Mayan hieroglyphs carved into the stones of the temples. These glyphs tell the story of the different dynasties of the ancient city. It is fascinating to learn about these ancient civilizations and it is also interesting to reflect on how much the world has changed since then.

Both Bonampak and Yaxchilan are off the beaten path and you won’t find the flocks of tourists that you do at many ruins on the Yucatan Peninsula, for example. A tour that takes you to both from Palenque will cost you about $40, which doesn’t include a guide. Last time I went, I paid 10 USD at each site for a Spanish-speaking guide. If you don’t speak Spanish, you can ask for an English speaking guide.

Getting to Yaxchilan is quite a journey that you can do at your own risk. You have to cross a river by boat, which can be expensive if you are travelling alone. Entrance to the town itself costs about 30 pesos, and there is another fee to enter the ruins of about 30 pesos.

For ease, safety, and cost, I recommend doing a tour that takes you to both Yaxchilan and Bonampak that includes park fees and transportation.

Tenam Puente

Tenam Puente is just outside the small town of Comitán. Its name literally translates as “defensive bridge” and it was used primarily as a trading center for nearly 1,000 years. You can climb to the highest temple on the site and get a breathtaking view of the surrounding landscape. There are also some ball fields where the ancient Maya used to play the sacred ball game.

One of my favorite things about visiting Tenam Puente was how empty it was when I went. Even though it was Holy Week, or spring break, there were only a few tour groups at the entire site. It was at Tenam Puente where I felt much more connected to the spirit of the place and could feel the peace and calm in this once bustling city. If you can get some space, it’s great to do a short meditation at the top of the temple.

The cost to enter the ruins is 45 pesos. If you’re curious about the Mayan ball game, consider hiring a guide to take you around the courts and explain how the game is played.

Historic towns

San Cristobal de las Casas

If you’ve read our post about San Cristobal de las Casas, you already know that San Cris holds a very special place in my heart. It’s a charming colonial city high in the mountains of Chiapas and a hub for artisans, yogis and creative people of all kinds.

San Cris serves as a great base when visiting Chiapas because of how central it is. From here, you can easily take a day trip in any direction to visit ruins, waterfalls, and nature parks. Plus, there is a lot of history and culture here. With plenty of museums to visit and long pedestrian streets to stroll through, you can spend a good amount of time here. I came here 4 years ago while traveling and have come back to stay: it has a magnetic quality!

San Cris is about an hour’s drive from the capital Tuxtla Gutierrez, where the nearest airport is. If you are going to rent a car to travel around Chiapas, I recommend that you do it in Tuxtla, as there is (literally) only one place in all of San Cris to rent a car. If you come during the high season (around spring break and December), there is a chance that the rental company will run out of cars to rent.

San Juan Chamula

As soon as you arrive in San Cris, you will see signs everywhere about tours to visit San Juan Chamula. This charming and mystical little town is only 20 minutes from downtown San Cris and can be easily visited by taxi.

San Juan Chamula is known throughout the region as THE place to go to experience the heart of indigenous culture in Chiapas. The main attraction is an ancient church where priests, shamans and local observers come to practice their sacred religious rituals. One of these rituals involves drinking Coca Cola and burping as a way of ridding the body of evil spirits. Yes, burp!

The cemeteries scattered throughout the town are a unique feature of Chamula. The tombs in these cemeteries seem to spring up out of nowhere. In fact, it is a common practice in many indigenous communities to bury their loved ones in their own backyard. When buildings change hands or are torn down, the tombs remain.

When visiting Chamula it is important to be respectful of the local culture and customs. In the church of Chamula there is a very strict rule prohibiting the use of telephones and photographs. There are signs outside announcing this rule, and it also applies to other sacred sites there.

Zinacantan

These backstrap looms date back to the ancient Maya civilization and are still in use in Zinacantan.

The first time I visited Zinacantan, I fell in love. This small town is known for its hand weaving and traditional clothing. You will see the women weaving fabrics by hand on a traditional backstrap loom. It’s fascinating to watch them carefully move the threads against each other. It made me appreciate the meticulous care that goes into the garments. Read more about our favorite ways to support women when we travel here.

Most of the people of Zinacantan make a living from the textiles and clothing sold there, so it’s a great place to buy souvenirs. In this way, you can directly support the hard work of the artisans. The atmosphere in this town is much more relaxed than in San Juan Chamula, so it is easier to strike up a conversation with the locals.

There is a beautiful church in the center of Zinacantán that is definitely worth a look. During Catholic holidays, the church is filled with flowers, which fills the space with a delightful floral aroma. There is no explicit “no photos” policy at this church. However, it’s best to avoid taking photos of the people in their place of worship, wherever you go. Stick to photographing the architecture, art, and altars, but avoid taking pictures of the people in the church.

You can easily go to both San Juan Chamula and Zinacantán in the same day on your own or with a tour. It will take you to both and even includes a traditional drink.

Chiapa de Corzo

The parachico dancers parading through the city.

Do not, I repeat, DO NOT go to Chiapas without going to Chiapa de Corzo! You may be partial to this magical town for its delicious food, but there is something for everyone. If you want to learn about Mayan culture, this is the place.

Chiapa de Corzo is famous for its big holiday celebrations, such as the Day of the Dead at the end of October, as well as Christmas and Holy Week. Stroll through the main square and watch dancers called parachicos move in synchronized fashion while wearing wooden masks and traditional wigs.

Beyond the town’s cultural richness, Chiapa de Corzo is located right next to the Sumidero Canyon. This canyon can be explored by boat as you float down the Sumidero River. There you will see the crocodiles, monkeys and birds that inhabit the area while gazing at the imposing rock walls. This tour includes both Chiapa de Corzo and the Sumidero Canyon and departs from San Cristobal, which is only a 45 minute drive away.

Comitan de Dominguez

Comitán is the best base for exploring the wonders of southern Chiapas, as it is closer to many of the waterfalls mentioned above. This picturesque town is known for its famous Christmas celebrations each year. The best thing about visiting Comitán is how simple and un-touristy it is. Walking through the streets, you are likely to see very few foreigners and not much English in general, so be prepared if you don’t speak Spanish.

There also seems to always be music playing. The most common music played in the plaza is the marimba, which tends to cause large crowds of people dancing. Join them if you can.

While you’re there, don’t miss the Rosario Castellanos Cultural Center, which hosts different art, music and language workshops for the local community. It also has a theater, cafe and bookstore inside and is right behind the Museo de Arqueología de Comitán. This museum is free and has some very interesting artifacts from the nearby ruins.

Coffee farms

You don’t have to be a coffee expert to recognize a great cup of coffee when you taste it. I’ve been ruined for life because after tasting coffee here in Chiapas, there’s no going back. Whether you’re an expert in all things coffee or just an enthusiast (like me!), here are a couple of places where you can try some delicious brews and see where it all comes from:

Argovia

This coffee farm is by far the most famous of the Coffee Route here in Chiapas. It is about an hour north of Tapachula in southern Chiapas and has its own hotel and resort. The hotel is a bit pricey, but you can take a day trip from Tapachula to visit the farm. There’s nothing like tasting the freshest coffee you’ve ever tasted against the backdrop of the green hills.

This tour includes two nights at the Argovia Finca Resort, as well as a tour of the Encrucijada mangroves, which are the highest in Mexico. Going to both places is the perfect way to enjoy the southern part of Chiapas, as you get the best of both worlds: nature AND amazing coffee.

Finca Hamburgo

This coffee plantation is one of the oldest in Chiapas and was founded by a German family. The finca hotel has stunning views of the coffee plantations and the mountains, which are covered with green vegetation.

They also have tours of the facilities where you can learn about the coffee making process, the machinery and the different varieties of plants on the farm. At the end of the tour, you can taste some of the freshest coffees straight from the farm itself. It sounds like a dream.

Finca Hamburgo is a little further out than Argovia, about two hours north of Tapachula, in the heart of the coffee region. Both places would make an excellent day trip from Tapachula, but could also turn into a longer trip if you feel like staying a while in one of the hotels.

A beach destination unlike any other

If you like the kind of destination that does NOT include big resorts and crowded beaches, the coast of Chiapas is for you. Boca del Cielo and Puerto Arista are the closest beaches to San Cristobal de las Casas, about a 4 hour drive.

To get to the beach from San Cris, you’ll have to take the long and winding highway 190D for about 3 hours to get to Tonala. This small town is the last place you can find a grocery store and the best stop to stock up on snacks and drinks if you want to take something to the beach.

From there, you can drive (or take a taxi) to Puerto Arista, where you’ll have to cross a lagoon by boat to get to the long stretch of beach where you’ll find a few hotels scattered along the coast.

My favorite place to stay there is Entremares, which has A-frame cabanas and a geodesic dome. The rest of the buildings are built with earth and sand, which contributes to the ecological environment of the place.

The biggest attraction of Puerto Arista and Boca del Cielo is the clear contrast of the lagoon with the mountains in the background and the gray beach on the other side of the isthmus. In this area you can take a dip in the lagoon and then walk for 5 minutes and then jump into the sea – the best of both worlds!

Because of how remote this beach is, I recommend booking accommodation in advance and clarifying with the host how to get there. Boats across the lagoon are relatively cheap during the day (about $3 per person, per trip) but can go up at night.

Bonus: Montebello Lakes

Imagine arriving at a misty lake surrounded by pine-studded mountains after sleeping in the car for several hours and realizing you’ve stumbled upon paradise. That’s exactly what happened to me when I went to Montebello Lakes on a full day excursion.

This dreamy lake has a few small islands and is part of a chain of lakes along the border with Guatemala. Because of the altitude, it gets quite cold, especially during the winter months. I went in December and it was freezing cold. When the air is cold, the temperature of the lake water stays a few degrees warmer, creating steam over the lake.

The main activity at Montebello is floating in a wooden boat, which is the same boat the Mayans used to cross the lake. From there, you’ll make a couple of stops at different islands in the lake and you can even take a swim.

Before you go

Since Chiapas is still relatively off the beaten path, there are a few things to keep in mind before traveling there.

Roadblocks: It is not uncommon to be driving down the road in Chiapas and see that a road has been blocked by protesters. If you are taking a road trip, be prepared to take an alternate route if you run into a long traffic jam due to a blockade.Children selling souvenirs: You can expect to see many children selling trinkets, bracelets and other souvenirs in Chiapas. Although some people feel called to buy from these children, I don’t recommend it. Check out this article or do your own research before deciding for yourself. Photography: As I said above, be careful when taking pictures in Chiapas. Many travelers feel inclined to take pictures of or with local children without parental consent. Here’s an article that will give you some perspective.Language: While other places in Mexico may cater more to an English speaking crowd, there are many places in Chiapas where it can be difficult to find an English speaker. Knowing a few key phrases is very helpful here, so it is not necessary to become fluent in the language. Try downloading the Spanish-English and English-Spanish dictionary from the Google Translate app in case you need a translation in a pinch.Leave No Trace: Leave No Trace’s core values are not limited to America’s national parks. Organizations are working hard to keep the natural beauty of Chiapas free of pollution. Consider this while traveling and try to avoid single-use plastic whenever possible.Support local communities: Chiapas has many opportunities to buy directly from artisans. However, there are many shops that sell cheap imitations of local handicrafts. If you want to read more about supporting local women and artisans, check out our post about it.

Wondering how to fit all these sites into one trip? Here’s a map of each of the places mentioned so you can start planning:

Chiapas feels like it carries the heart and soul of what was once Mexico. Going to these remote places to enjoy the natural beauty of the landscape gave me much solace during a time when everything else seemed upside down. Chiapas is often overlooked, as travelers tend to favor the Caribbean and Pacific coasts, but that’s what has allowed it to retain its originality. The next time you get the itch to visit Mexico, consider coming to revel in the beauty of Chiapas.

This article was written by Emily Becker, a Mexico travel enthusiast based in San Cristobal, Chiapas.

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