Story and photos by Bob Schulman
Some half-million people live in the balmy city of Tuxtla Gutierrez, and tonight it looks like every one of them has shown up at a downtown square known as Marimba Park. Surrounded by dancers, musicians are beating out hip-shaking salsas, merengues and socas on the wooden slats of their xylophone-like marimbas, backed by blaring trumpets and saxes.
Tourists are welcome to get out there and shake it up, too, even if you're trying to make a Texas two-step work for a Latin three-step. But it's all in fun, and foreigners willing to show their moves are rewarded by applause from the crowd. The party goes on every night, from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. And it's all free, other than what you'll shell out for snacks and drinks from sidewalk vendors and at nearby cafes.
Tourists typically get here by jet from Mexico City or on tour buses from elsewhere in the country. After checking out the music scene in the park – a must-see in the guidebooks – most visitors go back to their hotels, grab a quick Chiapanecan dinner (ranging from hot to blast furnace hot) and hit the sack for a busy sightseeing schedule the next day.
Day 2 starts with a short drive to Sumidero Canyon, where you'll take a two-hour boat ride through a winding river flanked by Grand Canyon-like cliffs. An optional stop at an eco-tourism park lets you add some jungle walking, rappelling and ziplining to the canyon adventure. From there, it's back to Tuxtla Gutierrez for a little shopping – a sort of prelude to the big-time shopping coming up at the next overnight stop, San Cristobal de las Casas.
It's just 45 minutes up the road from Tuxtla Gutierrez, but the 16th century colonial town of San Cristobal might as well be on Mars. For one thing, it's chilly up there. For another, many of the 130,000 “Coletos,” as the locals are known, dress like they did centuries ago when the Spanish conquistadores ruled these parts. What's more, at times the whole town looks like a giant handicrafts show.
One shopping area is a maze of hundreds of side-by-side tents surrounding San Cristobal's main cathedral. Browse around, and you'll find stunningly gorgeous shawls, blouses, placemats, tablecloths, blankets and jewelry, all hand made, and all at bargain prices (and even lower depending on your haggling skills). Also, a few blocks away there's a cobbled, half-mile-long “tourist walkway” lined with more shopping spots along with restaurants, bars, old-time government buildings and charming inns.
Look close, and you'll see two unusual items for sale. One comes from the local Zapatista rebellion of the 1990s, which was led by the masked, AK47-toting Subcomandante Marcos. Besides putting Chiapas on the map – for a time, news coverage of the rebellion showed up almost nightly on TVs around the world – the uprising spawned a cottage industry of Zapatista memorabilia. Vendors sell everything from tee-shirts to dolls and keychains bearing a likeness of the charismatic Subcomandante.
The other rare buy is amber, a fossilized tree resin often made into gorgeous jewelry. Chiapas is one of the world's three main sources of the precious substance along with the Dominican Republic and a few areas around the Baltic Sea in Europe. Price tags depend on a piece of amber's size, coloring and what was trapped inside it millions of years ago. Pieces containing pre-historic bugs sell for thousands of dollars.
Be careful, there's a lot of phony amber floating around. Experts at the city's Amber Museum say you can use simple tests to tell the real thing. Is it light and warm? That's amber. Is it heavy and cold? That's just doctored up glass. Another test: Rub it, and if it smells like incense, it's probably genuine.
From San Cristobal, a smorgasbord of tours runs across the state. To name just a few, some go south to Chiapas' beach resorts along the Pacific. Others go east to colonial cities such as Comitan de Dominguez and then on to the natural wonders of the 820,000-acre Montes Azules Biosphere Reserve. Still others go on to archaeological sites, such as the sprawling Mayan ruins at Yaxchilan and Bonampak at the eastern edge of the state bordering Guatemala.
The state's best-known ruins are at Palenque, a five-hour drive north of San Cristobal, and worth every minute of the trip. Here, tourists are awed by towering pyramids, the tombs of ancient kings and other spectacular monuments, more than 200 in all, in a city once home to 10,000 people.
Temple of the Inscriptions at Palenque.
After a hard day of scampering around the temples, most visitors bed down for the night at hotels in the modern-day Palenque City. In the morning, most take an hour-and-a-half van ride to Villahermosa to catch a jet heading back to Mexico City. The rest get back on their tour buses to continue their adventures in Chiapas.
About the cities' names
Tuxtla Gutierrez: The first word comes from a Mayan expression meaning the place was once full of rabbits, and the second honors Joaquin Miguel Gutierrez, a Chiapanecan hero in the mid-1800s. San Cristobal de las Casas: The name combines the city's patron saint, St. Christopher, with the latter part of the name of Chiapas' first bishop, the beloved Dominican Friar Bartolome de las Casas (1484-1566).
The hotel scene
Tuxtla Gutierrez offers about a half-dozen tourist-class hotels including a few top-rated properties such as the Camino Real. In San Christobal, you'll find lots of hotels catering to tourists; many, such as the Casa Mexicana, have been converted from old-time mansions. Palenque City has eight or so recommended hotels including the Ciudad Real Palenque and a few other modern properties.
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