San Cristobal is a desirable place from the viewpoint of an expat. It has exceptional weather, a very low cost of living, gorgeous scenery, and it’s a 60-minute taxi ride from an airport and flights that will have you in Mexico City in about an hour.
However, unlike other cities in Mexico like San Miguel de Allende, Puerto Vallarta, and Playa del Carmen there is a distinct lack of an expat presence. That’s not to say there aren’t expats here as there most certainly are, but there is no real, cohesive expat community.
On one hand that’s a good thing. There is no us versus them mentality among the locals (as much as some might argue against that, I’ve seen it as a very real thing) but there is also no Facebook page where I can ask about things like hairstylists that can do blonde highlights or who is the best English speaking dentist and get immediate answers.
During our ten months here I can count the friends we’ve made on one hand. Two of these people were introduced to me via a mutual Facebook friend. Tom and Maya were living in Campeche and wanted to explore an area that wasn’t so damn hot. They arrived with the hope of purchasing property, and at that time Will and I were seriously considering becoming permanent residents of Mexico.
My how times have changed.
We bought a truck and will leave in August and Tom and Maya are leaving for Asia at the end of the month. This past weekend we all piled into a rented Jeep Patriot and took off for a weekend road trip through Chiapas, and these are the shenanigans we got up to.
Embarrassing Disclaimer: Will and I have been here for nine months and have explored very little of the state of Chiapas.
Cascadas el Chiflón
Located near the city of Comitan and about 70 kilometers from San Cristobal are the stunning waterfalls called Cascadas el Chiflon. Chiapas is teeming with waterfalls but most visitors flock to Agua Azul, as it’s closer to one of the other Chiapan hotspots, Palenque.
As we left San Cristobal behind I was delighted to be reminded of what I already know; we live in an alpine forest. Towering pines crowded toward the edge of the road, the traffic was light, and if it hadn’t been for the topes (Spanish for “Slow down or I’ll fuck your car up”) we would have made it to our hotel in an hour.
Regardless, when we did arrive it was to find a quaint little collection of souvenir booths, a row of modest yet comfortable rooms, a restaurant, and the sound of the rushing river in the background. As the light was beginning to fall we dropped our bags, took a short stroll along the river trail, hit the restaurant, then went to bed with the soothing sound of the river directly outside the window.
Unfortunately, I was so soothed that I slept until almost 9am and missed the morning hike to the top of the series of falls. Therefore, we mostly rely on Will’s photos for this portion of the series, because after breakfast we were back on the road.
Where we stayed: Cabanas at Cascadas el Chiflon. At 400 pesos per night, these rooms directly on the river can’t be beat.
Nudging the border with Guatemala this series of 59 lakes was the first designated national park in Chiapas and is now a UNESCO biosphere reserve. As we started the three-hour drive from Comitan we passed through grassy flatlands with almost nothing and no one in sight, until we spied the cemetery on the side of the road.
We stopped for a bit and trudged through the dusty grass to see the tiny cemetery, and many of the graves were simple concrete slabs with names and dates etched in with a stick. I imagined that the families of the deceased made a careful decision as to which member had the best stick handwriting.
The grassland turned to pine forest almost immediately, and when we left the highway to enter the national park the climate changed dramatically. The temperatures dropped and the view outside the car window was equal parts Oregon and Panama, as towering pines were battling with bromeliads and the swirling mist conquered everything.
The gray skies obscured the brilliant blues that these lakes are known for, but as we bumped along the gravel road to our hotel for the night, shivering in the shorts I thought we’d need, I was still enchanted. As I mentioned before, if I hadn’t known better I’d have thought we were in Oregon.
Our hotel, which was basically a series of cabins on the lakeshore, was hosting a large group and as the manager led us to our cabins it was hard not to think that they’d been built overnight. The earth was still torn up around them, the boards and slats were shiny and new, and newly-interred plants sagged listlessly in front. It was as if someone said, “Oh shit. We have four people with reservations and nowhere to put them. Quick! Build some cabins!”
The lake was beautiful and the area surrounding it was quiet with a number of small restaurants serving comida tipica. It was a lovely evening, but we had one more stop on our road trip and Sunday’s drive was the long one.
Where we stayed: Ecolodge & Villas Tzicao. For roughly 50 USD per night including breakfast, this was a fine place to enjoy the lake.
The Ruins at Tonina
To close the road trip circle our final stop was at the lesser known ruins of Tonina. Chiapas is packed with ruins but most visitors focus on Palenque. Tonina is special as it was just over five years ago that excavators realized the true scope of this ancient site when they unearthed what is said to be the largest pyramid in Mexico.
To get there we had to drive back to Comitan, then head northeast through gorgeous grasslands and more pine forests and straight through Zapatista country. The small towns that we did pass through still displayed billboards and painted walls emblazoned with the EZLN logo. Old resentments die hard here and if you want to know more I’ll recommend the book “Bordering on Chaos” to anyone who will listen.
When we got to the ruins we were pleased to find that the entrance was free and we pretty much had the place all to ourselves. There were no ropes, no guards, and climbing was encouraged. I retreated to the shade of the small cafe, but the pyramids were mesmerizing and the ancient ball court was remarkably intact. If you’re in the area and want an uncrowded and largely unspoiled ruin experience, I highly recommend Tonina.
After we piled back in the car we made the three or so hour drive back to San Cristobal without incident, which is fortunate as the locals tend to block the roads without notice and may or may not let cars, trucks, and busses though with a fee. This is happening more and more frequently here and as our time in Chiapas is winding down I wonder how the locals and the feds will resolve this as well as the many other issues that have plagued this state for over 20 years.
And it’s not a final goodbye for us. We’ll be passing back through Chiapas sometime early next year as we prepare to cross into Guatemala on our road trip to the end of the world. However, I still wonder if things will be different then, or if this almost forgotten state in Mexico will get the justice it deserves.