Shopping bonanzas, soaring pyramids await visitors to Chiapas

By Bob Schulman

Subcomandante Marcos inspired a cottage industry in Chiapas.TUXTLA GUTIERREZ – Whoever named this city in Mexico’s southernmost state of Chiapas must have been a history buff. Tuxtla comes from an ancient Aztec word meaning a place full of rabbits. Gutierrez honors Joaquin Miguel Gutierrez, a Chiapanecan hero in the mid-1800s.

About a half-million people live in this balmy city – locally called just Tuxtla – and in the evening it looks like every one of them has shown up at a downtown square known as Marimba Park. There, surrounded by dancers, musicians beat out sexy 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 take a shot at it are rewarded by applause from the crowd.

Other than what you'll shell out for snacks – try the local conchito (pig) tacos –

and drinks from sidewalk vendors, an evening in the park, whether you’re dancing or just cooling off on its colonial-style benches, won’t cost you a single peso.

Tuxtla, the state capital, is usually the first stop on tours of Chiapas. Visitors typically get here on jets or group tour buses from Mexico City.

Apres-marimbas in the park, most foreigners go back to the city's half-dozen tourist-class 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.                                   

Forever amber -- Chiapas is one of the world's few sources.It's just 45 minutes up the road from Tuxtla, but the 16th century colonial town of San Cristobal de las Casas might as well be on another planet. 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 Spanish conquistadores ruled their lands. What's more, at times the whole town looks like a stage for a giant handicrafts show.

History fans might have been busy at San Cristobal de las Casas, too. The city’s name combines its 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).

One shopping area in San Cristobal is a sprawling maze of side-by-side tents surrounding the town’s main cathedral. Here, tourists ambling along the narrow lanes find themselves in a wonderland of stunningly gorgeous shawls, blouses, placemats, tablecloths, blankets, jewelry and the like, all handmade and at bargain prices (and even lower depending on your haggling skills).

Look close, and you'll see two unusual items for sale. One comes from the Zapatista rebellion begun in Chiapas in 1994, led by the masked, gun-toting Subcomandante Marcos. Besides putting the state on the map – for a while, news coverage of the uprising showed up almost nightly on TVs around the world – the event spawned a sort of cottage industry in these parts: Vendors sell everything from coffee cups, keychains, tee-shirts and baseball caps to cute little stuffed figures clutching AK-47s, all bearing a likeness of the charismatic Marcos.

Temple of the Inscriptions at Palenque.Moseying around San Cristobal you probably wouldn’t expect to find amber (a rare, fossilized tree resin from the age of the dinosaurs), but dozens of shops around here are loaded with it. Be aware, though, that unlike the city’s famed handicraft bargains, its second shopping bonus doesn’t come cheap. Price tags depend on a piece of amber’s size, coloring and what was trapped inside it millions of years ago. Pieces containing 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. Some, to name just a few, go south to Chiapas' beach resorts along the Pacific. Some go east to other colonial cities such as Comitan de Dominguez and then on to the natural wonders of the 820,000-acre Montes Azules Biosphere Reserve.

Loaded with bags full of treasures and trinkets, visitors can stay in 10 or so three-star hotels around San Cristobal. From there, some tourists head south to Chiapas' beach resorts along the Pacific while others go east to more colonial cities, 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 Maya ruins at Yaxchilan, Chinkultic and Bonampak at the eastern edge of the state bordering Guatemala. On its northern edge, about a five-hour drive from San Cristobal, are the better known ruins of Palenque. The grounds are usually packed with tourists scampering around its towering pyramids, tombs of ancient kings and other spectacular monuments, more than 200 in all. The city was once home to 10,000 people.

After spending a night or two at hotels in the modern-day Palenque City, visitors can catch outbound flights from Palenque International Airport. For others, the tour buses await for more adventures in Mexico.

More info: Visit the Mexico Tourism Board at www.visitmexico.com/en.

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