We just got back from a family trip to Chiapas, Mexico. Our crew consisted of me, my boyfriend, Bob, my two sons ages 13 and 15 and his two sons ages 19 and 22. It was my kids first real international travel. And probably the most adventurous trip they have experienced. We had all been anticipating the trip for months. I think I enjoy the anticipation and planning almost as much as the trip. Passports were applied for, backpacks were purchased, and lists of items to take were made and edited many times over. We only had 8 days to spend traveling but we were going to make the most of it!
Getting to Chiapas
In order to afford an international trip for 6 people we had to get creative to stay within our budget, especially for airfare. We live only one hour from the U.S./Mexico border, and I was told by some colleagues that flights out of Hermosillo, Sonora, Mexico (approximately a four hour drive from our house) were very affordable. I found a round trip flight from Hermosillo to Tuxla Guttierez, Chiapas for $150 round trip on Volaris airlines. Volaris is a budget airline based in Mexico. The tickets are cheapest if you book right from the Volaris.com, but you can also book through sites like Expedia.
Our journey began with a four hour bus ride on a Tufesa bus to Hermosillo. Tickets were roughly $30 one way, they offer student pricing and round trip discounts so prices vary.
The bus was clean and comfortable. The bus made only one short stop in Nogales, Sonora, Mexico because it was an express. A short cab ride from the bus station in Hermosillo and we were at the airport. We discovered on our way home that it is wise to book a round trip ticket, which we had not. Tickets back to Tucson were sold out until much later in the day upon our arrival to Hermosillo. We ended up hopping on the next bus to Nogales, Sonora, Mexico, which made many stops along the way, but the ticket was really cheap. We took a cab to the border and a shuttle for $12 each back to Tucson from Nogales, Arizona. Too bad we couldn’t fit a train in there somewhere!
The Volaris airplane was huge, packed and really uncomfortable. The bus was way more comfortable! The biggest downside to this very affordable plane ticket was a 5 hour layover in the middle of the night in the Mexico City airport going and coming home. We walked around the seemingly endless Mexico City airport for hours trying to find a comfortable place to rest. It took us awhile to realize that the most comfortable benches were located by the gates (now you know). I actually enjoyed this time with the kids walking around in our slap happy states, being silly trying to make the best of our airport captivity. I believe it is important to enjoy the journey as much as your destination or you miss out on a good part of the fun. I was so proud of my kids as they did not complain at all. They seemed genuinely open to this new experience.
Prior to leaving the U.S. we had priced rental cars, but the lowest price for a minivan was quoted at $1000 per week. We decided this was over our budget. On a whim, we decided to check prices at the airport. Thankfully we did because we were able to rent a minivan for $500 per week from Dollar rent a car! The trip pretty much taught us most things are cheaper once you get to Mexico. We hopped in the van and drove to San Cristobal de las Casas which is about one hour away. A federal police officer stopped us as we were leaving the airport to warn us not to pass other cars as it is “muy peligroso.” Ha!!! As we quickly learned peligroso is the name of the game on Mexican roadways. Hold on it’s going to be a wild ride!
Staying in San Cristobal de las Casas
I reserved a three bedroom house through airbnb before we left home. The house was clean, comfortable and everything we needed. It had an alarm system and high walls around it so I guess they suffer from property crime. Luckily we had secure parking inside the gates of the house to park the van. The house was located outside the city center in an upscale, for Mexico, neighborhood. The streets were dirt but the homes were colorful. Bob and I walked the neighborhood several times. The neighborhood dogs walk happily along appearing uninterested in human attention. Children were dressed in their school uniforms prancing down the street alone or with their mothers in tow. There was a park containing workout machines filled with friendly folks exercising happily and eager to show me how it was done.
So I fell in love with Chiapas!
Exploring San Cristobal de las Casas
We arrived to San Cristobal in the afternoon. Everyone picked their rooms. Tired after our long journey we all fell asleep to a lovely afternoon rainstorm. We woke up refreshed ready to head to the city center for dinner.
The streets of San Cristobal are narrow and cobblestone. There are several streets blocked off for walking only. Restaurants and shops line the streets. Indian women and children carrying blouses, shawls, and other items walk the streets trying to sell their wares. While the women and children are persistent, I did not find any of them outright pushy. I bought a shawl within minutes of hitting the streets to warm me in the cool evening air. The energy of the town was friendly and vibrant. A mixture of backpackers, Mexican tourists and residents.
There are many excellent restaurants in San Cristobal. The first night we ate in a vegetarian restaurant, Casa Plena, serving hot off the comal tortillas and excellent mole.
Another night we ate at a place specializing in caldos (soups), El Caldero. The prices were excellent and the bowls were huge. We found two wine bars, El Cau and La Vina de Bacco, both serving a good selection of wine with each glass coming with a free tapa. Even the kids got a free tapa with their soda! La Vina De Bacco is the happening spot always full of people with music playing inside and outside on the street. El Cau was more low key but had excellent food and music inside. The final night we ate in an Italian restaurant, I completely forget the name, serving wood fired pizza. There was an excellent variety of restaurants in town. Food is very important to us. Traveling with five hungry guys and four beer drinkers means spending a lot of our travel budget on food and drink. However, we were able to feed our family of six, with beer, for under $60 per meal. We couldn’t get hamburgers for that price in the U.S.!
While in San Cristobal, my son, step son and I took a Kundalini yoga class at Shaktipat. Shaktipat has an excellent selection of classes. It is upstairs from a nice little cafe where you can eat, drink coffee and hang out. Our teacher spoke English and was really good. I had never taken a full on Kundalini class so this was quite an experience. The window in the classroom looked out to a blue church up the street. Truly magical. There were several other yoga studios in town. Casa Plena has a studio upstairs. It is a yogi kind of town. I could have stayed here for weeks roaming the streets, eating tapas and drinking wine and taking yoga!
Everywhere in the center of town there was music. Music in bars. Music in restaurants. Music in the streets. Everything from folk to rock to salsa. On our final night Bob and I found a bar with a live salsa band. It was a really good time. On the weekend the streets are full of people. It appears many Mexican families vacation in San Cristobal. It would make an excellent weekend getaway from Mexico City.
I almost forgot the shopping!!!! There are many upscale shops downtown, but go to the markets. We went to the main municipal market. I could spend a week there just looking. The beautiful clothing, bags, jewelry and pom poms. Yes, lots of pom poms. At first I couldn’t figure out why all the pom poms, but I think it is the way they use all the extra yarn from the beautiful embroidery the local people create. Be prepared to negotiate as if you are trying to bring about peace in the Middle East. You don’t get something for nothing around there. Our family came away with multiple items of clothing, bags, amber jewelry (a specialty item in these parts) and my 5 meters of oil cloth.
So everyone thought it was weird I bought the oil cloth, but it was sooooo cheap compared to at home.
The food items were a feast for the senses. Vegtables the color of the rainbow, chickens, sausages and pan dulces. My son found a bug vendor on the street. He munched down on some crickets. Yummy!
We took a trip to Sumidero Canyon from San Cristobal. It is about a forty-five minute drive back toward Tuxla Guttierrez. We found a boat at the docks in Chiapas de Corzo just outside of Tuxla Guttierrez.
The hawkers were out in full force. We were escorted into a parking space on the street and then down to the docks to arrange a boat. It is a hot sweaty trip so bring your sunscreen and a hat. The boat ride is approximately two hours taking you into the canyon. We saw several crocodiles and monkeys swinging in the trees. The boat trip is definitely worth the 200 pesos per person. The canyon walls soar above you as do the pelicans. Yes pelicans. Who knew pelicans came so far inland. And, yes, as referenced in many other descriptions I’ve read, you float by a fairly large amount of garbage. Mainly plastic bottles and containers. When the rains come the garbage in the streets wash into the river. But please don’t let this tarnish your experience. There is beauty and there is garbage. I will remember my trip down this beautiful river viewing amazing wildlife every time I reach for a plastic water bottle, soda or milk container. That shit has to go somewhere. So maybe we just shouldn’t be using it.
Trip to Palenque
There are two ways to drive to Palenque from San Cristobal. The shortest route takes you through two big tourist spots, Agua Azul and Misol-Ha waterfall. We heard that this road is sometimes blocked with Zapatistas? Banditos? demanding money, and tourists have been robbed. However, we decided to give the road a try. The road is beautiful and windy. One half hour into the trip we come to a row of stopped cars, busses and trucks. The road was blocked. Everyone seemed content to wait. Bob walked up the road and saw big trucks blocking the road and men holding big sticks. When they saw Bob they started yelling and calling to him. We waited for a bit, but it seemed the road was going to remain blocked. We drove back to San Cristobal and decided to take the long way to Palenque. This route takes you a bit out of the way back through Tuxla Guttierrez and up through Tabasco state. The road goes through many little towns and lots of pineapple fields. The towns are lined with stands selling pineapples. I’ve never seen so many pineapples!
We arrived in Palenque late in the day due to the long drive. Prior to leaving for Palenque I had researched accommodations. We talked about staying at El Panchan. An enclave of casitas just outside the ruins. The casitas appeared bare bones with mosquito netting and sparse furnishing. I thought, “how great would it be to fall asleep to the sounds of the jungle with the monkeys and birds.” However, as soon as I felt the heat and humidity of the jungle I promptly directed that we find an air conditioned hotel with a pool. I’m no longer 20. Don’t judge. We did find a nice hotel on the main road into town, Plaza Palenque Inn. It had a pool and frigid air. Each room was about $40 per night and included breakfast. We awoke to the sounds of a bird squaking in the trees by the pool. So really, what’s the difference? The bird was really loud.
We were starving so we road into town around 9 p.m. to find food. We found a nice outdoor restaurant in the central area of town. The food was good and the beer was cold. What more could you want. The next day we went back to the same place for lunch and to watch a soccer match. We were surprised to discover the restaurant provides free posole when Mexico plays! Mexico lost to Germany, but we got an excellent meal and more cold beer. The place was so nice I almost forgot how profusely I was sweating.
The ruins were stunning. There is a walk through the jungle on the way to the ruins. We saw monkeys in the trees, waterfalls and many exotic birds. And we sweated out our body weight.
Words cannot do just to the epic beauty of the ruins.
One of the most infamous leaders of the Mayan people was K’Ihnichjannaab Pakal. He came to power at the age of 12. Having two sons who have been this age I find it hard to believe a 12 year old could be a leader of this magnitude. But it does explain the amazing temples as 12 year old boys definitely like to build cool shit thus the popularity of Minecraft.
You should allow at least several hours to walk around the ruins. I was amazed how few tourists were present. It makes the experience so much more enjoyable. Palenque is definitely one of the more out of the way ruins in Mexico which probably keeps away some tourist. I look at this as the main reason to go to Palenque.
We stopped at Misol-Ha waterfall in the afternoon. It is about a 25 minute drive from the ruins. The cool waterfall was very refreshing after the hot day.
I wish we had about one more week in Chiapas. There was so much more we wanted to see. There are numerous lakes, waterfalls and jungle attractions. The country is so beautiful. I can’t wait to return some day.