When driving to the United States from the Yucatan Peninsula it’s generally accepted that you should drive North in order to get there. But I feel that it’s not going to be that surprising or shocking to you to learn that Deidre and I don’t always do things in the manner other people might and so we decided that turning south and driving through the Mexican state of Chiapas was the best route to Kansas City. Why you say? It should be noted at this point that everything we own was already in our car, our office fits in a laptop bag and we’ve got no physical home to head for. So for us the answer was – why not?
We’ve both always wanted to see the Maya ruins of Palenque (check!), and it seemed silly to backtrack once we’d been there, so driving through Chiapas was the
most logical scenic choice. Oh man, and scenic it was!
Known for its natural beauty, Chiapas is packed with mountains, lakes, rain forests, valleys, plains, rivers and waterfalls. Just outside the city of Palenque the mountains begin to rise and continue to go up and up and up until they go down and down and down. I grew up backpacking and camping in the Ozark Mountains but I’ve never seen mountains and valleys so steep and jagged or so heavily wooded.
Parts of Chiapas get almost ten feet of rainfall per year and when that much rain falls on mountains this high you get some interesting results. One of the happy results of this union of altitude and rain is coffee. Yep, Deidre somehow tricked me into driving through one of the world’s most gourmet small batch coffee producing areas. As a well known coffee freak, she was in heaven!
Lucky for me tall mountains and lots of water also produce something more up my alley – rivers. Or more specifically – rivers that fall off of cliffs. After spending the day climbing the 28,398 steps of Palenque we were tired and sweaty and really glad to run across Cascada Misol-Ha. This beautiful waterfall crashes down a nearly ten story sheer cliff face into a cold and clear pool before continuing on through the jungle. We immediately parked the car, changed into our swimming suits and jumped in for a swim. Did I mention that we weren’t in a real big hurry to get anywhere?
So we’ve seen some of the happy results of this remarkable combination of altitude and water but there are some other not so happy results as well. Chiapas has some of the most fertile soil in the region but because much of it is located on steep hillsides it cannot be farmed mechanically or on a large scale. Most of the arable land is dedicated to the small family plots of subsistence farmers that are planted, tended and harvested by hand. These farmers up in the mountains tend to be very hardworking indigenous people and they also happen to be some of the poorest people in Mexico.
Some of you might be wondering why the name Chiapas is ringing a bell for you. Chances are you’re remembering the armed uprising that occurred here in this state in 1994. Without getting too political here I’ll try to explain basically what occurred (at least from my understanding). The Zapatista Army of National Liberation (Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional) AKA the Zapatistas rose in armed rebellion against the Mexican government and kicked the government out of huge parts of Chiapas including San Cristobal de las Casas, the cultural capital of the state and one of it’s largest cities. Due to it’s calls for land and agrarian reform and equal rights for women and indigenous people, this leftist group had widespread support from the people, especially those in the poorer mountain areas. Their stated goal was not independence from Mexico but rather autonomy for the people of Chiapas. As you can imagine, the Mexican government didn’t take too kindly to this and fought back and several pitched gun battles were fought.
I had a passing familiarity with the Zapatistas (mainly from listening to the band Rage Against the Machine in the mid-90’s) but I had assumed that the issue had long been resolved. So, when I saw a sign that translated to “You are now entering Zapatista territory. Here the people order and the government obeys.” I didn’t think too much about it. I just figured it was kind of like someone hanging a Manchester United flag outside their house or having an anti-nuclear weapons sticker on their car – an expression of opinion, nothing more. Well, I was incorrect.
While the gun battles have long since ceased (I believe), the movement has continued – albeit as a peaceful political effort. Several places we saw had not only symbols of solidarity with the Zapatistas but outright evidence of their control. The tolls on major highways were collected by men wearing the iconic bandannas of the Zapatista movement while the uniformed toll workers sat idly by reading books or watching TV, content to allow the Zapatistas free reign. On some occasions we even saw federal police just taking in the scene, making no move to interrupt the business taking place just down the road. I’m not sure how or when this type of autonomy started or if it’s official in any way, but it certainly didn’t seem to be the source of any tension.
I’m definitely working with less than complete information here, but I cannot stress enough that we never felt we were in any danger. In every instance the people at the tolls were polite and professional, we saw no evidence of weapons, and most of the times the tolls were actually cheaper than those posted by the government. I don’t bring this up to scare people away from Chiapas. I only bring it up because it is a very real part of the landscape of the area and if you intend to visit Chiapas you should be aware.
Is Chiapas on the way to Kansas City? Not even close. Did we see some amazing things, enjoy beautiful scenery and have a great time? Yep, we sure did. Cliche as it is, most of the time our life these days is about the journey versus the actual destination and taking the ‘long way’ around leads to the best rewards (plus, there is no ‘short way around’ to Chiapas unless you’re coming from Guatemala). Chiapas is one of the most beautiful and interesting and complex places we’ve yet experienced in Mexico and we cannot wait to return for an extended stay to do some more in-depth exploring.