May 17, 2024
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Oaxaca and Chiapas. Map data ©2024 Google. North is at the top for this map and the others in the current post.

MEXICO’S two southernmost states are Oaxaca and Chiapas, both mountainous and culturally distinctive.

The uplands that make up most of each of these two states are divided from each other by the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, which runs like a valley between them for 192 km from Coatzacoalcos, on the Caribbean, to Juchitán de Zaragoza in eastern Oaxaca.

The Mexican Government plans to develop the Isthmus of Tehuantepec as an alternative to the Panamá Canal. While the Isthmus of Tehuantepec is too wide for a canal, and too  high at its highest point of 224 m (735 feet) as well, loading and unloading containers onto a railway at either end would be quite practical these days.

I planned to explore both of these states, of which Chiapas has the distinction of including the very southernmost point in Mexico, not far from the Guatemalan city Quetzaltenango, which I had visited nearly three weeks before.

And so, after Campeche, I headed for  Pelanque: a town in Chiapas that is famous for another Mayan temple site, also called Palenque, about six kilometres westward from the town.

In Palenque, I stayed at a nice hostel and had breakfast in a hotel restaurant. I caught a colectivo, or minivan, from the ADO station out to the temple complex (the correct minivan should have ‘Ruinas’ in the front window). Alternatively, you can ride out there on cycle trails, as it is so close to town.

The Palenque temples opened at 8 am. I made sure to get there by that time, and to do everything within two hours, as the temperature was to reach 42 degrees Celsius by midday.

The most famous structure in the Palenque complex is the Temple of the Inscriptions. It is called the Temple of the Inscriptions because it contains the second-longest set of Mayan hieroglyphics. But apart from that, the buildings in the Palenque temple complex are not as highly decorated as the ones at Uxmal.

Temple of the Inscriptions

The next structure I took a photo of at Palenque is called ‘The Palace’. It has a tower thought to have been an astronomical observatory, like El Caracol at Chichén Itzá but of a different design.

‘The Palace’, with tower

Here’s another pyramid, the Temple of the Cross, with two tiny figures at the top to give you an idea of its scale.

The symbol of the cross was used in the Mayan religion, one of several coincidental overlaps with Christian symbols; overlaps that made it easier for the Mayans to become Catholics.

Mayan Cross at Palenque. Public domain image, originally published in Susan Hale, The Story of Mexico (1889), via Wikimedia Commons.

Other elements of overlap included the idea of a tormented god or god-like figure who rises from the dead and is renewed, whether we are speaking of Jesus or the indigenous ‘flayed god’, Xipe Totec in Nahuatl, who would be painfully stripped of his skin and then regrow it, like a snake.

Plus, the veneration of blood by the indigenous people, part of their human sacrifice tradition, which also extended to occasional, ritual forms of cannibalism, had its parallel in the blood and body of Christ and the Eucharist, though of course we prefer not to think of it quite so literally.

(I do wonder whether these Christian traditions, Catholic ones in particular, might have arisen, in part, as a way of taming similar customs in ancient Europe and rendering them more symbolic, by suggesting that the gory sacrifice of Jesus was the last one that needed to be made.)

In any case, there is also a lot of modern-day religious syncretism, of mixed indigenous and Catholic rituals, even now.

The jungle at Palenque, which swallowed up the site for centuries, has not been cleared to the same extent as at Uxmal. There were lots of birds and animals tweeting and running around, and it is generally closer to the condition these sites would have been in when first encountered by explorers.

Palenque was most active in the late classic period from 700 to 800 CE: they started to run out of water around 900 CE. One of the temples is called the Temple of the Count, because a European man named Waldeck, who claimed to be a count, lived there.

Here’s an overview of a part of Palenque, with the observatory tower of the Palace clearly in view and a man sitting reflectively. You can see how bush-clad the site is.

I greatly enjoyed it. And it was only 195 pesos to get in, much cheaper than the other ruins I had visited so far (105 pesos for the National Park, and 90 for the archaeological site).

Here is a video I made of Palenque:

Along the way, I read a copy of the Rough Guide to Central America. So much more informative than Lonely Planet, which is not really up-to-date, I think.

I was going to take an ADO bus to San Cristóbal de las Casas, an old Spanish city which is regarded as the ‘cultural capital’ of Chiapas, of which the larger city of Tuxtla Gutiérrez is the actual capital.

But the bus was being held up that day by an indigenous protest over migration and people-smuggling issues. The protest blocked the road and it was going to take 9 hours to get through.

There are lots of protests and demonstrations in Chiapas, which is the stronghold of the Zapatista rebel movement, named after Emiliano Zapata, a man from southern Mexico who is said to have spoken fluent Nahuatl, the indigenous language of the Aztecs, as well as Spanish, and who was one of the architects of the original Mexican revolution of 1910.

Zapata is the hero of John Steinbeck’s book, and a subsequent film, ¡Viva Zapata!,in which Zapata is played by Marlon Brando in brownface, alongside the more authentically Mexican Anthony Quinn, born Manuel Antonio Rodolfo Quinn Oaxaca.

There seems to be something of a feminist theme in ¡Viva Zapata! The modern-day Zapatistas also have a women’s campaign that is interesting in itself.

As in Guatemala, much of the indigenous land in Mexico had been privatised in the nineteenth century, ending up in the hands of a few rich white people.

This grievance was one of the main causes of the revolution of 1910. It overlapped with questions of identity, since not only were the whites at the top of the socioeconomic pyramid, but they were also a minority. Most Mexicans are of mixed ancestry, partly European and partly indigenous, with a small Afro-Mexican community as well.

The Zapatistas attempted to start a further revolution after Mexico joined the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1994. But, after the failure of the nationwide revolution, the Zapatistas settled for de facto control of much of Chiapas. via an agreement with the Mexican government.

Because of this agreement, and subsequent ones, the State of Chiapas was not designated as hazardous for tourists in any terrorist sense at the time of my travel, other than in the usual sense of advice to stay away from outbreaks of civil unrest.

Instead, travel advisories for Mexico and its regions tend to dwell upon the risk of becoming a victim of crime: on the dangers of carjacking, kidnapping, lonesome roads at night, and so on.

So, I wasn’t too worried about the protest roadblock, and whiled away my time by taking a closer trip from Palenque to some beautiful river cascades at a place called Agua Azul (‘blue water’), on the Rio Xanil (Xanil River), which flows toward the Caribbean Sea.

Map showing the town of Palenque, the archaeological site (‘Templo de los Inscripciones’) and the Agua Azul cascades (‘Cascadas agua azul’). Map data ©2024 Google.

Part of the sign at Agua Azul

The wide cascades of the Rio Xanil, at Agua Azul

I filmed the cascades, to which still photos do not do justice:

I also saw a tall, thin waterfall.

There is another Agua Azul about 150 km to the southeast, near the Guatemalan border: you need to be aware of that if looking up Agua Azul on a map. Cascadas Agua Azul, or Rio Xanil, will land you in the right part of the country.

After Agua Azul, I got a colectivo to San Cristóbal de Las Casas.

Palenque to San Cristóba lde Las Casas, via the Agua Azul Cascades. Map data ©2024 Google.

I got to San Cristóbal at 10 o’clock at night. The only drawback of the trip was that I was in a comparatively small and intimate vehicle with local people who did not seem to like me very much, and my phone was flat. It is good to go with other travellers, if you can. I was lucky to make it to my hotel after I was dropped off in the plaza, a few blocks away. It is a good idea to try and arrange getting dropped off door to door if you can.

San Cristóbal has two interconnected town squares in its central area, the hard-paved Plaza de la Paz and the leafier Zócalo de San Cristóbal de Las Casas. Zócalo, which literally means plinth or base, is another word for plaza or town square in Mexico: the base around which everything was built, I suppose.

Catedral de San Cristóbal Mártir, on Plaza de la Paz, San Cristóbal de Las Casas, with the Zócalo de San Cristobal de Las Casas to the right of the Cathedral

Looking in the other direction, past the Catedral de San Cristóbal Mártir on the right, with the Zócalo de San Cristobal de Las Casas to the left

The courtyard of my hotel, Hotel Casa de Mamá, which is very affordable

San Cristóbal is Spanish for St Christopher. The words ‘de Las Casas’ were added to its name in 1848, in honour of the enlightened conquistador-age priest Bartolomé de Las Casas, the first resident Bishop of Chiapas.

De Las Casas reported many abuses of the native Americans in a book called Brevísima relación de la destrucción de las Indias, meaning Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies. It was written in 1542, with a heavy emphasis on the virtual extermination of the indigenous peoples of the Caribbean (who had been the first to feel the edge of the conquistadors’ swords, from 1492) and published openly in 1552.

A later painting of Las Casas in front of an indigenous temple, with an indigenous man who appears to have died by violence and his grieving widow or sister has nothing on the horrible images that appear in Las Casas’s Short Account. The book was very widely reproduced, translated, and reprinted in ways that gave Spain an enduringly bad name, though Las Casas’s reports also galvanised the Spanish government to introduce many reforms, such as a ban on the enslavement of the indigenous peoples.

Fray (‘friar’) Bartolomé de Las Casas, by Félix Parra (1875), Museo Nacional de Arte, Mexico City. Public domain image via Wikimedia Commons.

It is at this point that we have to confront the question of whether the colonisation of the Americas amounted to a genocide, given that the populations of native Americans often crashed to an extraordinary degree. Although it is difficult to say what the population of Mexico was at the time of the Spanish conquest, there is no question that the country’s original inhabitants were greatly reduced in number across the 1500s. According to one scholarly account, from 1995,

For narrative-bound historians, there exists a great library of published Spanish and Nahuatl texts on the demographic misfortunes of conquest and early colonization. For historians who abide quantification, experts point to overall levels of demographic destruction over the sixteenth-century for Central Mexico exceeding 50%, probably ranging beyond 75%, and even topping 90% in some large regions such as the tropical lowlands.

A 2002 Emerging Infections Diseases article called ‘Megadrought and Megadeath in 16th Century Mexico’, by the Mexican scientist Rodolfo Acuña-Soto and three US colleagues, describes a massive crash from a population of around 20 million or so inside the modern-day borders of Mexico, to perhaps as low as one million, as a result of three great epidemics.

The first one was that of smallpox, which mostly attacked the peoples of central Mexico, where the presence of the Spanish and their introduced diseases was the heaviest. And then a disease completely unknown to the Spanish called cocoliztli, which spread more widely and left even fewer survivors among those it attacked.

Downloadable public domain image from Acuña-Soto et al, 2002, via the Centers for Disease Control.

According to a 2018 article in the American journal Science,

The symptoms were unlike anything the doctors of the time had seen. Victims turned yellow from jaundice, and blood ran from their ears and noses. They had hallucinations and agonizing convulsions. They died in days. Aztecs called it the cocoliztli, meaning pestilence in the local Nahuatl language. “The cocoliztli appeared from almost nowhere. Nobody knew what it was,” says Rodolfo Acuña-Soto, a historical epidemiologist at the National Autonomous University of Mexico in Mexico City.

The Spanish had no idea, so they called it the cocoliztli as well.

Even today, nobody knows what exactly was responsible for the epidemic . . .

This is the kind of thing that keeps people up at night at such agencies as America’s Centers for Disease Control (CDC). Is there some animal in the jungle that still harbours the cocoliztli? Might it come back, now that there are nearly 130 million Mexicans, and now that we travel by jet plane rather than horse and cart?

Or was it a European disease after all? One that took a fulminant (worst-case, galloping) form among indigenous people with little immunity, while producing less dramatic symptoms among Europeans? It was noted that while indigenous peoples were struck down by the cocoliztli to the point that some wondered whether they would die out altogether, European colonists were much less affected, while the effects on Africans were in between.

Whatever the scientific details, the wider debate is whether the indigenous people had also been weakened by Spanish ill-treatment and/or by mega-droughts, or whether changes in agricultural practices including the cultivation of European cereal crops might have disrupted the local ecology and brought people into contact with the source of the cocoliztli.

Such were the disasters that attended the indigenous peoples of Mexico in the first 100 years of Spanish colonisation, even if it seems that most of them were unintentional, and even though the Spanish government, thanks to people like Las Casas, did try to rein in the excesses of the original conquistadors to a certain extent.

A rotunda bears a plaque that honours “friar Bartolemé / De Las Casas, defender of the Indians [los Indios] / first bishop / of this diocese / who arrived in Chiapas / made his entry / to this city the / 12 of March of 1545.” The word “Indio” is un-PC in Mexico these days, but of course, it looks like a fairly old rotunda.

So anyway, I was advised that the water in San Cristóbal was polluted because, during the dry season, Coca-Cola and the beer companies get the best water first, and that the locals get quite sick from polluted sources and have to boil the water.

Here is a bit of graffiti that means ‘the corporations rob us of the water’.

Lots of Coca-Cola is consumed in Mexico: it has even been introduced into folk ceremonies.

San Cristóbal is a hill town, at an elevation (downtown) of 2,200 metres or 7,200 feet. Because of the hilly nature of Chiapas, there are ten federally recognised indigenous groups living in the state. This is probably also why the modern-day Zapatista rebels were mostly left alone by the Mexican state after it became clear that they weren’t going to succeed in overthrowing the government, or NAFTA.

I went on a free walking tour, organised by

The Walking Tour Guide in front of a classic street scene.

One of the leading parks, or plazas, is called Plazuela (‘little plaza’) del Cerrillo. A cerrillo is a die for striking coins, so the name probably refers to the city’s role as one of the headquarters of colonial Mexico.

Plazuela del Cerrillo

There was a beautiful church and convent called Santo Domingo, which had a magnificent churrigueresque exterior and an equally magnificent gilded interior. There is also a market in front of this church.

The front door of Santo Domingo

Small shrine inside Santo Domingo

The gilded altarpiece, Santo Domingo

Here is some more of the architecture of the city.

There were also many mural artworks on the sides of buildings. These were shown to us on the tour, which went down backstreets that a visitor would never know about otherwise.

The author in front of one of the artworks

There is also a lot of obesity, yet the traditional foods are healthy. Here is a delicatessen, the Jardín Cerrillo.

Jardín Cerrillo


Here is the Virgin of Guadalupe, the most characteristically Mexican of symbols, if we do not count the eagle, the snake, and the cactus.

I really liked this Aztec-type dance rave poster, which was in English: San Cristóbal gets plenty of tourists.

When I was at the market in front of the Templo de Santo Domingo, I heard that the local drug cartels had had a shootout on the night I arrived.

In the meantime, I heard that drugs are just seen as a profitable line of business by many. A recent book called The Dope: The Real History of the Mexican Drug Trade makes it clear that the profits, for a comparatively poor country next to a comparatively rich country with an almost insatiable appetite for drugs, are just too tempting.

(And not just drugs but also prostitution and human trafficking.)

Why Mexico and the USA don’t legalise drugs, to remove the super-profits of the largest driver of crime and violence in both countries, is beyond me.

To round off, here are some scenes I filmed in San Cristóbal:

In my next post, I will be in Oaxaca.


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