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  Chiapas para Mochileros: Backpacking in Chiapas
by Fernando Ochoa Magana

Local advice from a local "mochilero", Don Fernando, in San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas.

Most of our visitors in Chiapas are Back-Packing or "mochileros" as we call them. 60% of these visitors are from Europe, 35% from USA and Canada, 5% from Latin America and Asia.

Palenque and San Cristobal are the two major towns that are used as the entrance to Chiapas. At the present time, most of Chiapas is a easy and safe journey.
Ruins of Palenque
One of Mexico's best preserved archaeological sites, Palenque
Transportation by bus, "Cristobal Colon", is the most common transportation, but if you want to go to places where the only outsiders that you will see, are a few "mochileros" like you or no one,
then you have to travel by local "camionetas" or "combis" vw-buses, or by boat in the rivers Usumacinta, Jatat� or Lacanton. In these rivers the boats are like buses, in that they have a departure time, but information is very local. Once the boat has enough people, it gets ready to leave. The same for the "camionetas", but you can always make a deal for a small group of 4 to 6 persons for a special trip, "viaje especial" as the locals call them. "Transporte comunitario" meaning traveling on public buses or vans will cost less than "viaje especial".

September and October are not the best time to travel by boat or camionetas, it rains every day or night and transportation is not too reliable. You may not be able to get in or out the day that you want to, so if you can avoid traveling then, do it.

Usually while you wait for the departure and during the trip, your Spanish conversation will be improve, children are always present in the area and it's impossible not to learn some Spanish, Tzotzil, Chol, Tojolobal or Tzeltal. These are the four major ethnic groups in Chiapas. Chiapas is know as "Rich Land, Poor People", this title was given in colonial times by the Spanish and other outsider travelers. It is true, the land is very rich and most of the locals are very poor, but I have found that in most of the locals, their lives are very rich, the idea of "family values" and "community values" are very rich, and it has always been outsiders that call them poor and ignorant. Reality is very different, the values that we have are just different from theirs, but the smiles of the people are more honest and frecuent than in our society. They smile much more than we do in the cities. "Mochileros" are true travelers that understand that smiles can make great conversation, that will leave eternal memories on you, it happened to me, I am sure it will happen to you too.

Where to go? And how to get there?
The selva (jungle), los altos (the high land), la playa, (the beach)?

Selva, from Palenque, where you can visit Bonampak and Yaxchilan. The best way to do it by yourself is by bus. At Bonampak look for the village Lacanja and once you are there, you'll find an air strip, a local school and a health clinic that always look like is closed, this is the central area. Ask the locals for the home of Don Jorge, a Lacandon older person, and members of his family - Kim-Bor, Vicente, Alberto - have camping areas with hammocks to rent. Stay wherever is best for you, all are nice families to stay with.

Once you are there, visit the waterfall of "Rio Cedro" and the Lacanja lake. Always ask for the price of the service before you take someone as a guide. You can also go to Yaxchilan for the day, by bus to Frontera Corozal, then take the collective boat to Yaxchilan. Tickets are sold next to the Escudo Jaguar Hotel. This is the only way you can visit, or by plane, but the cost is much higher.

In this same place, you can take the boat to Guatemala, if your destination is Tikal. The boat leaves every day at 12pm and 2pm. It takes about 45 minutes to Betel, where you take the bus to Flores (about 5 hour drive). Once in Flores it's easy to take the bus to Tikal, there is also a bus every day from Flores to Belmopan, Belize, if your destination is the Caribbean area, or from Flores to Guatemala City.
Bonampak ruins
Bonampak ruins
If you would like to do a "Zapata" tour, and combine natural beauty and it's people, from Palenque take the bus to Roberto Barrios, a Zapatista community where very recently (January of 2001) the Mexican Army was removed as part of the agreements with the EZLN (Zapatistas).
The waterfalls and blue river are a dream to go swimming in and spend all day moving from blue pools to green pools, very few outsiders come to visit this area. Always ask permission of the local authorities to visit the river before you go, they will almost always say "yes", but they want to know who is on their land because of the army conflict.

From Palenque ask for the bus that goes to Chancal�, although you will get off the bus before Chancal�. Ask the bus driver to leave you at the crossroad of Nueva Galilea and Arimetea, Roberto Barrios is on the way. You walk 8 kilometers (4.5 miles) on this road and you may get a ride from a local truck. You can camp next to the church, but remember always ask for permission before you set up your camp. Some people go only for the day, early in the morning and return in the afternoon to Palenque, but I like to stay for one night, and it is on the way to Bonampak and Yaxchilan.

Laguna Miramar is "community ecotourism" at it's best; the best adventure you can have in Chiapas for the true backpackers. The Lonely Planet Handbook of Mexico has a very good description of the lake and how to get there.

You can go from Ocosingo or Comitan by bus, it takes from 5 to 7 hours driving depending on the time of the year that you go. Take the bus that goes to San Quintin, it is the major town in the area, and is the end of the bus route. Once you arrive walk to Ejido Emiliano Zapata, one mile, and ask for the "comisario ejidal" (local authorities). and pay your fee before you make your walk to the lake. It's $3 US dls a day and you can rent a canoe for $10 US dls a day. I recommend renting a canoe, which holds 4 people, so you can explore the shore and the island with the archaeological site of Lacam-Tun.

Laguna Miramar in the Chiapas jungle
Majestic and Mysterious Laguna Miramar

You can also go by boat on the Jatat� river. The way to get there is from Comitan to Lagos de Montebello. Take the "carretera fronterisa" (Guatemala - Mexico border highway) to Maravilla Tenejapa. After you pass the Santo Domingo river, look for the towns of Loma Bonita and Amatitlan. There you can take the boat up the river to San Quintin, it takes about 3 hour and is a great adventure. The boat leaves once it's full. It's a long journey to Laguna Miramar, give yourself a minimum of 4 days and 3 nights to make it worthwhile. It is only camping and you have to do your own cooking.

San Cristobal de las Casas
Most of the tour guides in this area are individuals or companies, but if you want to be guided by the local indigenous, I will recommend a local organization called "Turismo Comunitario" El Rostro Indigena de San Cristobal ( They have made a "Network of Community Tourism" and support community tourism --- no one speaks English and Spanish is their second language. The guide is called "interprete cultural" (cultural interpreter) and has four different daily trips and it's run mostly by women. In San Cristobal you can get information at Tel. 678-0456 (Claudia Castro or Mario Perez - I recommend them because it's a way to suport local indigenous women to make a better income for their family.

The Pacific - beach and lagoons
Visit "Boca del Cielo". Don't be surprised to find great hidden places, with very few locals at the beach, eternal Pacific Ocean sunsets, mangrove lagoons with all the birds you've seen in the Discovery tv programs.

The seafood at the restaurants are fresh, cold beer, tender coconuts and local prices are low. As we say in Mexico "bueno, bonito y barato" or "good, nice, & cheap". The European or American tourist mass market is far away from this area, no golf courses or yacht marinas. The area is mostly inhabited by people of th Istmo of Oaxaca influence more than Maya influence.

How do I get there?
From Tuxla Gutierrez take a bus to Arriaga and Tonal�, then change buses at Tonal� and take a local bus to Puerto Arista, getting off the bus a few miles before Puerto Arista (ask the bus driver to leave you at the crossroad of "Boca del Cielo"). From there take a local "combi" vw bus to Boca del Cielo, then take a boat across the lagoon where you will find many restaurants that have shade areas for camping. It's usually free, as long as you buy food or beverages from them. Most of them have toilets and shower, many have hammocks for rent, and some have storage room for your pack.

While you are at the beach, all restaurants are facing the lagoon, if want to see the ocean, you'll have to walk over the sand dunes. I recommend walking south, so you can be by yourself for miles and miles. If you walk the other way, you will come to the mouth of the lagoon that connects with the sea, very nice but the locals are not very conscious about garbage collection. By the way if you go there, tell the people of the restaurant where you are staying, that you don't like what they are doing to the environment so maybe things can begin changing.

Fernando Ochoa Magana
Fernando is the owner of Laguna Miramar Ecotours. He is a 1997 Conde Nast Eco Tourist Award Winner, and bilingual outfitter from San Cristobal de las Casas. For overnight camping trips or guide services to the Lacandon Rain Forest, contact him at 11-52 (9) 678-0468 (from U.S. or Canada) or by e-mail at

Please see our San Cristobal de las Casas directory (which is under redesign) for some local businesses.

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