Travel through Zapatista territory (Chiapas, Mexico)

Mexico's flag
North America » Mexico » Chiapas » Yaxchilan
May 30th 2010
Published: June 1st 2010
Edit Blog Post

(Day 787 on the road)The first thing our collectivo (minibus) driver did as we set out from San Cristobal towards Aqua Azul was to cross himself vigorously. We weren't sure if that was because we were about to drive right through Zapatista country, or if he routinely handed over the fate of the minibus to his God, but it wasn't very comforting, no matter how we looked at it. But once we realised that we had a sheer madman for a driver, maybe we should have crossed ourselves as well. Latin America is well known for its high numbers of often fatal bus crashes, and I am really hoping not to be part of any tragic statistic during my travels here.

It is a phenomenon that never fails to amaze me: Here in Mexico, and in so many (poorer) countries really, time is often of absolute no importance - people spend the whole day simply sitting around, watching life go by, or in the case of minibus drivers, waiting around for hours at a time for more customers. But once the bus is full and the journey begins, the same driver who seemed like the most relaxed person on the planet a minute ago turns into an absolute madman, jeopardising his and the life of his passengers through stupidly hazardous driving, speeding through villages or overtaking in corners with no visibility and the like. What, just what is the point???

The only thing that puts an abrupt end to long stretches of speeding here in Mexico are the omnipresent "topes", the speed bumps which we encountered every kilometres, sometimes every hundred metres, even on straight stretches of road far away from any civilisation. So a 100km journey on a good road can easily take three hours or more, as the bus has to come to a virtual complete stop a hundred times or so. So a typical minibus journey here in Mexico is a follows: Driving way to fast and with no regard to safety, slowing down to zero to cross the speed bump, pointlessly accelerating like crazy again for three hundred metres until the next speed bum comes. Simply maddening.

Tino and I had spent a few very relaxed days in cool San Cristobal de las Casas (the town lies at 200 metres, a welcome change from the scorching heat in the lower parts of Mexico), having arrived there by overnight bus from Campeche. San Cristobal was an unbelievably picturesque town, with countless grand churches, a local population still dressed in traditional costumes the way they had for hundreds of years, a good Maya museum (Na Bolom), and a colourful market. It was a pleasure to simply wander around the town and take it all in. Maybe the only downside of it all were the scores of children working the streets, mostly trying to sell handmade clothes. No school for them I guess. Interestingly however, there were no beggars around.

It was just a shame that we couldn't communicate very much with anybody really, as here in Mexico virtually nobody speaks any English whatsoever. Pretty amazing really, considering their big northern neighbour and English-speaking Belize to the south, plus the fact that they do indeed learn English in school. But even young people can in most cases not speak a single word on English. And that is not just something that is happening only here in in Chiapas, but also in the states of Quintana Roo and Yucatan where we had spent the last week or so. Weird.

A day trip to the stunning Sumidero Canyon broke our stay in San Cristobal nicely in half. Surprisingly, taking an organised tour was for once cheaper than doing it on our own. Partly this was due to the tour agencies getting a much better deal from the cartel boat operators on the river (more on this topic later). And partly it was due to the tour operators screwing their own government by re-using the entrance tickets to the National Park over and over again: At the start of the tour the wristbands which showed that you had paid were carefully attached on everyone's wrist, and after the tour they were equally carefully collected to be used again for the next groups.

I decided to destroy my wristband after I had witnessed where this practise has lead to: Parts of the river right in the protected nature reserve were so covered in rubbish floating around that our captain had to carefully circumvent the rubbish carpet, as it was simply too thick to go through. Anyway, not to appear too negative here, the Sumidero Canyon itself was quite spectacular, with the sheer walls of the mountains rising a full 1000 metres up from the riverbed, making us feel appropriately tiny in comparison. I was vaguely reminded of the Three Gorges river journey I have taken two years ago, which sported similar sheer cliffs.

Back in San Cristobal and exploring the areas farther away from the town centre, it was interesting to see that the further we went, the more prominent the massive iron gates on shops and houses became. It was a stark reminder that we were in Zapatista country here in the state of Chiapas: The revolutionary separatists, who are fighting for the rights of the indigenous people, had taken over the city San Cristobal and others briefly on January 1st 1994 with an army of 3.000 soldiers, before the Mexican army had regained control the next day. Today, all seems peaceful here, but one can't help but notice the strong military presence everywhere, with heavily armed soldiers in the tourist centres and numerous roadblocks throughout the state.

The Mexican government however isn't the only one who is operating roadblocks here. On our travels through the state we came across a number of highly organised Zapatista roadblocks - the only difference being that they weren't interested in security but only in hard Mexican pesos. It wasn't clear what exactly they were charging the money for as they didn't add any value whatsoever by stopping all traffic on a public road and charging money, but I guess fighting a revolution doesn't come cheap these days.

After San Cristobal, the great cascades of Aqua Azul (which we renamed Aqua Negro as it had rained all day and the water was muddy brown at best) and the cool waterfall at Misol-ha were our next stop en route to the amazing Maya ruins at Palenque. Palenque is a good distance from anywhere else and not too many tourists come here, and certainly no package tours. On top, most of the ruins are freely accessible, and despite the scorching heat of 35 degrees with no wind or shade we spent a great afternoon in this ancient city, trying to imagine what it must been here during the peak of the city's history, before it was mysteriously abandoned sometime after the year 800.

And then it was time for our final stretch in Mexico: Crossing into Guatemala near Frontera Corozal and visiting yet more Maya ruins at Bonampak and Yaxchilan along the way. There were two ways to cross over into Guatemala and see the ruins: Through an organised package tour, or on our own. It wasn't a decision really, and soon we were off on another collectivo towards Bonampak. And despite what the travel agencies in Palenque or even the Lonely Planet will tell you, it is certainly a lot cheaper to do this trip on you own (by nearly 50% to be precise - the tours are enormously overpriced).

The one thing that drove costs up on this trip (and many others here in Mexico) are the wide-spread collectivas: Local business have in many places built tight cartels, fixing the prices on a ridiculously high level. These monopolies have effectively eliminated all competition and are keeping prices artificially high, much to anybody's annoyance. It is on the one hand interesting to observe (have they not yet learnt that in the end cartels are always the worst option for doing business in the long term?), on the other hand it is simply annoying, as it often impossible to get an even remotely fair price for many services (boats, minibuses etc).

However, it was great to see that with a bit of private bargaining the prices are indeed very flexible, cartel or not. All we needed to bring across was that either we get a fair price or simply walk away altogether, which was indeed what we did a few times. This worked wonder - before not making any money at all from us, prices suddenly dropped dramatically - in Yaxchilan for instance from 350 pesos per person for the boat to the ruins to just 100 pesos. It seems the cartels aren't working very well in keeping their members contend, so everyone is more than happy to make a little money on the side.

Both Bonampak with its well preserved reliefs and Yaxchilan with its setting by the river just across from Guatemala were well worth the effort to get to these remote ruin sites. The screaming howler monkeys at both sites enhanced the wild, lost-world feeling. I had recenlty read the great book The lost city of Z, and in Yaxchilan I tried to imagine what it must have been like to discover this truly lost city as a 19th century explorer.

But I also thoroughly enjoyed our stay in the tiny border village of Frontera Coruzal: Three or four hotels of varying standards, two taquerias ("Las Palma" and "El Talento"), a few basic shops, dusty roads, and super-friendly locals. The highlight was when I approached a family to ask if they were willing to sell me a few mangoes from their huge mango tree. Soon the whole family was busy harvesting mangoes with a large iron stick to reach the ripe fruits high up in the tree. In the end, they categorically refused any of my money for the huge bag of about 20 mangoes. Two litres of milk and a borrowed blender from our hospedaje made for many an amazing shakes in the evening. How better can it get?

The next day, after first visiting Yaxchilan and later bribing our boat captain (who was only too happy to ignore his cartel and take our money into his own pockets) to drop us on the Guatemalan side of the Rio Usumacinta, we left Mexico behind. I have only seen the southernmost part of this great country, and I hope I will be back one day to explore more.

Next stop: Tikal (El Peten, Guatemala).

To view my photos, have a look at And to read the full account of my journey, have a look at the complete book about my trip at Amazon (and most other online book shops).


1st June 2010

These are amazing pictures Ben! Zapatistas are still even a presence in LA! I had a friend who spend New Year's with a Zapatista's group and still recounts it as one of her most memorable experiences!
1st June 2010

You and your mangoes...
...some things will never change! Your travels have definitely spiced up again. Good luck for Guatemala, been watching the news here, I hope you can get about okay. Maybe time for some volunteering???

Tot: 1.299s; Tpl: 0.019s; cc: 46; qc: 184; dbt: 0.0519s; 1; m:saturn w:www (; sld: 1; ; mem: 1.9mb