Chiapas History

Archaeology Introduction
Most people who visit the Chiapas do so by travelling in on bus from Mexico City or Cancun. Some people fly into Merrida when international flights are scheduled there as well. You can also take a flight from Mexico City to Tuxtla.
Travelling by bus, coming from the north you go through Tabasco then you are in the Chiapas. There is usually a military search, and then you go by the immigration checkpoint. Once in the Chiapas the bus will most likely not stop again until you reach Palenque bus station. There may however be another military inspection of your bus depending on what is going on at that specific time.
Once you are in Palenque you are ready to begin your Mayan experience as you have now entered Indian Territory. What you will find is a mixture of cultures and colors, politics and more politics. There is no hiding it. The Chiapas is a hotbed of political activity.
While you walk the streets of Palenque, a tourist with a backpack, you walk with every kind of person imaginable. From cowboys to artists, electricians to blacksmiths. Palenque is a modern culture driven by agriculture and living off of nature. The contradictions are everywhere. Electricity and plastic are not the same commodities here as they are elsewhere. In the Chiapas plastic is a political statement. Electricity, taken for granted in western cultures is looked at differently here. You will not notice this directly, walking the streets of Palenque, but this is where it starts.
The Chiapas has four ruin sites that have become popular. They are also reasonably close to one another and located in the northern part of the state. Getting to the sites is not too difficult and accommodations can be found within close proximity [except Bonampak].


Of all the ruin sites in Chiapas, Palenque is the most popular. It is by far the easiest to get to being located not far from Palenque city. If you stay on the strip you can even walk to the ruin site from your hotel or simply take a collectevo and you can be there in minutes [7 pesos].


Bonampak is a small site with little uncovered. It is popular because there are large wall paintings still intact on the walls of the main building.


Yaxchilan is a beautiful site nestled on the side of the Usamanti River. You have to take a boat to get to the site. The boat ride is around an hour long and you can swim in the river if you wish. There are crocodiles.


Tonina is an impressive site located near Ocosingo. The ruin site is one that is built on the side of a large hill. It is an interesting site to visit, especially in the early morning when the clouds are rolling over the ruins.
There are of course countless other sites in the Chiapas however most if not all of these sites still remain under dense foliage in the jungle. No one really knows what is out there and astonishing surprises occur regularly in the world of Mayan archaeology.

Natural Beauties

To talk about Chiapas is to talk about one of the most biological diverse regions in the world. The lush green fields, forests and jungles, the fresh air, the unique flora and fauna, rare species and much more, make up this beautiful state.
Travelling from one destination to another is even an experience as many roads wind their way around foreboding mountains, canyons and valleys. The Chiapas is rugged territory reminiscent of the Rocky Mountains in some locations and the Amazon Rainforest in others. In a single day you can travel from one biodiverse area to a completely different one.
There are a number of natural wonders that are extremely popular. Almost every tour operator offers the same tours to the same places. All over Chiapas there are however, numerous beautiful places that are hidden in the jungles and only known by local people or other travelers in the know. These travelers are usually Indians from other cities or villages in Mexico who travel around. The tour operators generally refer to people willing to take you to a "sacred" place as pirates, as there are bandits who will rip you off.
To go to any of the hidden places you first have to know about them, or at least know that there is something interesting in an area. Then you have to find somebody who knows exactly how to get to whatever it is you don't know about but sorta know its there. This can be anything from special caves to waterfalls or places where streams cross to monkey trees to jaguar dens. Once you have your guide you need transportation, usually a taxi or local bus. Be prepared to travel in almost anything if you venture off the main highway.
Climbing through the jungle can be both a wonderful experience and an unpleasant one if you are either out of shape or possibly asthmatic. Depending on where you are it can be hot and climbing up a mountain in open terrain and after an hour or so you can get quite exhausted. In some situation small rivers must be crossed.
Many parts of the jungle are so thick that you cannot move without hacking your way through so you rely on streams which acts as jungle roads. These streams are pleasantly refreshing, as they are usually cooler in temperature. Many streams run dry in the dry season but spring to life during and after the rainy season [May - August].
Many streams around Palenque lead to waterfalls which you can stand under and experience the energy of the water. Some of these streams run year round. There are waterfalls right at Palenque ruins as you exit which are great places to take a dip.
In fact almost everywhere you go you can go for a swim. The rivers are fresh, clean and when its really hot they are extremely inviting.
The best thing to do is to read through the various "destinations" that are commonly available to tourists. See where they are located and work them into your itinerary. We offer recommendations based on our travel experiences in and around Chiapas.

Cities and Villages

Many ethnic groups live in Chiapas who keep their traditions, languages and folklore alive. Their economy is based on cultivation - corn, beans, squash, potatoes, vegetables, pears, tomatoes and other plants - and raising animals such as pigs and poultry. In adition, many natives in the Soconusco region work on the coffee plantations.
The ethnic groups now living in the region are the Tzootzils and Tzeltals in the center of the state, an area known as the Chiapas Highlands; the Chujes, Choles and Zoques in the north; Tojolabals in the southeast; the Mames, Cakchiquels and Mochos in the south of the state and also part of Guatemala, and the Lacandons, who live in the eastern rain forest. All these tribes speak languages derived from Maya language tree. All these tribes speak languages derived from Maya except for the Zoqies, whose language is related to that of the Mixes in the state of Oaxaca and of the Popolucas of Veracruz. The largest of these groups is that of the Tzeltals, which ranks eighth in size among the country's indigenous peoples.
Broadly speaking, the natives of Chiapas hold various beliefs that are repeated from group to group. For example the idea that every human being has a spiritual animal double is common to almost all of them. This animal, which shares a person's destiny, may be an eagle, margay or showy bird. Until a few years ago the Choles used the name of a plant or animal as their second surname. Ancestor worship is practiced, and legends are perpetuated about supernatural beings, demons and animal doubles that live in rivers, forests and mountains. The Choles for example take care of certain sacred caves as they believe that they are the homes of the spirits which control rain, wind, storms and other natural phenomena. The Lacandons still practice a rite in honor of the old man Nojoch-yum chac, the god of Rain.
Another characteristic is the religious syncretism of ancient beliefs and Catholicism. The Tzeltals venerate "talking crosses", sculptures associated with pre-Hispanic idols, which according to tradition talk to the faithful. Of all the fiestas organized by the different groups of the state, the Chamula Carnival, also called Kin Tajimultic, is the most famous. This is the most important fiesta of the Totzils and includes cavalcades, ritual dances, a procession of flags and the spectacular fire running. These ceremonial activities serve to reaffirm the group's identity and to revive an ancestral religion based largely on agriculture.
Other groups show syncretism in their beliefs; the Choles worship a Black Christ in the town of Tila. The Tojolabals organize pilgrimages to visit different saints but at the same time venerate the sun, which they regard as a creator and protector deity, as well as the moon, the steerer of life.
The Lacondons still hold to their ancient beliefs and put them into practice regularly. For example, the head of a family line feeds the gods with pozol, a drink made of corn. This rite is accompanied by a chant reasserting the group's respect for its environment, its own history and the continuity of life.
The natives of Chiapas practice both sorcery and traditional medicine, along with their magic and religious activities. They have their ilol, who is the folk healer with knowledge that he uses to heal both bodies and souls. These special people believe that sickness is caused by an imbalance between man and his social or supernatural environment.
The colorful costumes of the ethnic groups in Chiapas are as varied as the countryside that surrounds them. A large number of their mythological figures are woven into their clothes. Tzotzil women wear shifts [huipiles] incorporating sun symbols, geometric butterflies, flowers, cornfields and toads.
The brightly embroidered shifts of Tenejapa in the Tzeltal stand out against the green backdrop of vegetation. The climate of each region also influences dress. The Lacandon, living in the heat and humidity of the rain forest, wear long white tunics, while the Tzeltas in the mountains have to protect themselves from the cold with thick woolen jackets and the Chujes wear capisayos, capes made of palm leaves which are very useful against the rainy climate of the region where they live. Among some groups, such as the Tzotzils, costume is not simply clothing, it is a mark distinguishing group from group. A change of costume signifies a change of personality, culture and home.
Chiapas is also famous for its handcrafts. The Tojolabals make various articles in wood and clay; the Lacandons produce reed flutes, hammocks, nets, leather bags, polished and decorated gourds, clay dolls and necklaces of seeds. The Zoques are masters at weaving baskets and making toys. All groups in general are excellent weavers.
Dances are always a feature of native festivities. The Choles perform dramatic ones symbolizing fights between bulls and jaguars, or between them and the Spanish. In Holy Week, instead of dancing they go on pilgrimages headed by the tatuches or elders. The Zoques have different dances; the "Women's Dance" [Yomo etze], the Corn Dance [Mote xu], and the dance of Malinche or Malintzin, because this woman who helped Cortes in the Conquest was originally from Copainla.

Trip to Chiapas Mexico's Most Mayan State

It's just after 11 a.m. on a Sunday, but business is unexpectedly brisk at the Restaurant Familiar El Vercel del Paladino.
The tour bus has a flat tire, and while driver and guide supervise its repair in the bright Mexican sun, we passengers head for the well shaded restaurant patio, order cervezas all around and discuss what little we know about Mexican politics.
We're exploring the state of Chiapas and have stopped to change the tire in Ocosingo, the first town to be taken by Zapatista forces in 1994. A ceasefire has been in effect for several years now, the struggle for political change and peasant rights being waged with words rather than bullets, so if we should encounter any Zapatistas, we wouldn't recognize them without their masks and AK-47 rifles.
Mexico's southernmost state and one of its poorest, Chiapas sits on the border with Guatemala. Of its 3.4 million inhabitants, about 700,000 are descendants of the Maya and other ethnic minorities. It's a region that cannot be visited in a hurry. Long and sometimes grueling drives are required to negotiate the rugged yet beautiful landscapes between cities. Flat tires are not uncommon.
Even without the uncertainties of an active revolution, Chiapas turns out to be a place of surprises. The first comes shortly after our flight lands at Aeropuerto Teran in Tuxtla-Gutierrez, the bustling state capital. We board our tour bus and head straight for, of all things, a zoo.
Despite Chiapas having the highest concentration of animal species in all North America, many are threatened or in danger of extinction and most live in inaccessible areas, so visitors are unlikely to see them in the wild.
Zoologico Miguel Alvarez del Toro, or ZooMAT, breeds certain species for release (the red macaw and spider monkey, for example) and works to protect Chiapan ecosystems. Considered one of the finest zoos in Latin America, it occupies 25 hectares (62 acres) of the small El Zapotal reserve and contains 800 animals representing 250 species native to Chiapas. Some roam freely, the rest are in environments that resemble their native habitats.
Among the mammals in residence are pumas, ocelots and jaguars. Birds include the majestic zopilote rey, the ocellated turkey and the quetzal, sacred bird of the ancient Maya.

A trip up the river

Eighteen kilometers (11 miles) north of Tuxtla-Gutierrez is Sumidero Canyon. Outside the pretty colonial town of Chiapa de Corzo, site of the first Spanish settlement in the area, visitors can board small passenger launches for a pleasant two-hour, 35-kilometer (22-mile) trip along the Grijalva River between the canyon's 1,000-meter-high (3,300-foot) sandstone walls. A local legend claims that 16th century Chiapans hurled themselves by the hundreds into the gorge rather than submit to Spanish domination.
Sumidero Canyon is one place where wildlife is easily seen. Visitors can spot cormorants, egrets, herons, vultures and other birds feeding at the river's edge, while the boat operator points out the occasional crocodile lurking near shore.
The road between Tuxtla-Gutierrez and San Cristobal de las Casas winds into the Chiapas highlands, where mists drift in and out of pine forests. Brilliant against this background are the blouses worn by Tzotzil women that we pass, embroidered in purple, magenta and teal.
Before reaching San Cristobal, we take a detour into the past. San Juan Chamula, 10 kilometers northwest of San Cristobal, is a town of Tzotzil origin that has changed little with the centuries. Its people continue to live, dress and worship much as their Mayan ancestors did.
The walls inside Chamula's little white church, trimmed like a cake in teal and gold, are lined with brightly painted wooden cabinets. Behind their glass fronts sit statues of pale faced saints, elements of Catholicism introduced by the Spanish. However, hung around each saint's neck is a mirror to reflect the sun god.
A haze hangs above the church floor where hundreds of candles are stuck, leaving barely enough room for worshipers in between. Men carry bottles of posh, a sugarcane liquor used for communicating with the gods. Some women place eggs in front of saints, and a few hold chickens ready for sacrifice.
San Cristobal seems modern by comparison, its colonial buildings mingling with examples of 19th century architecture. The perimeter of the Zocalo, a combination park and outdoor social center, is especially attractive, with the terra cotta-colored Cathedral on one side.
Another church of interest is Santo Domingo, four blocks north. In front of its elaborate baroque facade, Chamulan women conduct a daily crafts market. The adjacent Dominican monastery houses a museum and a shop displaying the region's best hand-woven textiles.
Beyond San Cristobal, pine forests give way to corn fields as we bump along a lengthy stretch of rough road. We actually welcome our unscheduled stop in Ocosingo. We welcome even more the surprise that awaits us an hour later, when we arrive at Agua Azul.
Situated about 4.5 kilometers (3 miles) off the highway, Agua Azul is an area of the Shumulija River where a series of natural turquoise pools and white waterfalls cascade down a jungle-clad hillside. To us, it appears like an oasis in the middle of nowhere, but it's very popular with Mexican families on weekends and holidays. Visitors can swim in the refreshing pools, take a jungle walk upstream, and eat at one of several cafes near the base of the hill.

On to Palenque

Our final stop in Chiapas is Palenque, a classic Mayan ceremonial center (circa 100-900 A.D.). The setting for the archaeological site is dramatic, a grassy mountaintop clearing surrounded by jungle, but it's easily accessed. Major structures include the Temple of the Inscriptions, containing the tomb of seventh century ruler Pacal, and the Palace, a maze of courtyards, corridors and rooms decorated with stucco reliefs.
Another group of buildings on a plateau southeast of the Palace includes the Temple of the Sun, which exhibits the best preserved roofcomb at Palenque. Below a slope north of the Palace is a good example of a ball court.
As we approach the border into the state of Tabasco to catch our flight from Villahermosa, we're reminded that Chiapas is still a crossroad between Mexico and Central America. Armed guards who speak little English stop us at the checkpoint and have a dog sniff our luggage.
We all agree that it might not be wise to visit the region unescorted, whereas our experienced guide and skilled driver have ensured that we had a rewarding trip.

Political and Economic History of Chiapas

Chiapas is the southern-most state of Mexico. It is populated largely by Mayan Amerindians and the incomes are the lowest in Mexico. There are extensive supplies of energy resources in Chiapas, petroleum and hydroelectric power, which are being harvested by state-owned enterprises. The infrastructure in Chiapas is very poor. The vast majority of the households do not have electricity and water. Schools are inadequate and illiteracy is very high. The people of Chiapas are isolated from the outside world.
The poor state of the infrastructure in Chiapas is not due to any special discrimination against Chiapas in the allocation of funds from the central government in Mexico City. Chiapas has gotten its share of appropriations. The Salinas administration gave higher per capita funding to Chiapas than any other state. The problem is that due to corruptions and incompetence of the government officials in Chiapas, who often were appointed by that central government. For example, a large, modern hospital was built in the village of Guadalupe Tepeyac in the jungle of Chiapas near the border with Guatemala. It contained 10 thousand square feet of building space and cost $5.5 million. The problem was the imbalance of the facility compared to the resources and needs of the surrounding area. The village of Guadalupe Tepeyac had only about four houses and no paved road. Equipment and staff were brought in from Mexico City. President Carlos Salinas flew for the dedication of the hospital. After the publicity photographs were taken Salinas flew out. The equipment and staff soon were removed and the hospital was greatly underutilized. The problem was a lack of balance in the investment. Too large of a hospital for the region, too little funds for its proper operation.
In 1995 in the city of San Cristóbal de las Casas an $11 million state-of-the-art theater and opera house was completed. A governor of Chiapas during the 1980s used a good deal of the state funds in having a basketball court built in every community. Later during times of trouble the basketball courts were used as helicopter landing pads, leading many to surmise that was what they were intended for originally.
The airport for the capital city of Chiapas, Tuxtla Gutiérrez, was built at a desolate, fog-plagued location about a half hour drive from the city. It is alleged that the Chiapas governor at that time made a fortune from the construction of the airport and the road running to that airport. That governor was the surgeon of a former president who appointed him governor despite his lack of government experience. The Tuxtla airport was such a scandal that no one dedicated it and it was not named after anyone. No one wanted to be associated with such a scandal. A later governor arranged for a civilian airline to use the military airport near the city. Mexicana could only fly into the Tuxtla airport. Those who flew switched to the smaller airline that utilized the military airport. People considered the governor who arranged for the use of the military airport a great benefactor of the city. Later it was found that he was a major stockholder in the smaller airline.

The Rebellion in Chiapas

The rebellion of Mayans in Chiapas was presented as a native uprising against the inequities of the treatment of Chiapas by the central government. In reality it was more in the nature of a publicity stunt organized by radical activists from the Autonomous Metropolitan University of Mexico in Mexico City. These Marxist-Maoists were part of the National Liberation Forces (NLF), an old time radical left guerrilla group, who were tired of their lack of success in raising a mass movement in the city. In the early 1980's these Maoists moved to Chiapas to find soldiers they could lead. They chose Chiapas because the people being isolated were naive about the prospects for the success of a guerrilla uprising. This was another case of the exploitation of the natives of Chiapas by people from Mexico City. In this case the exploitation of the Mayans by the radical activists from Mexico City involved using them to kill and be killed, an even more heinous exploitation than that of government officials who took the Mayans funds rather than their lives.
The radical activists called their organization the Zapatista National Liberation Front. The name as well as everything else about the organization was chosen for its publicity value. After ten years of presenting themselves as being concerned about the welfare of the Mayan the activists gained the loyalties of various tribal groups in Chiapas. It was then that the activists then decided to exploit the trust they had gained by staging a publicity-stunt rebellion on the day that world attention would be focused on Mexico as a result of the activation of the North American Free Trade Agreement, January 1, 1994.
Under the direction of Rafael Sebastian Guillen Vicente the Mayan militia took control of several cities in Chiapas. While the takeover was generally carried out without bloodshed there were several people killed. As soon as the takeovers were complete the plan was to present a group of Mayans as the leaders of the rebellion but the temptation of the publicity was too great and Guillen Vicente could not resist the spot light. He soon dominated it calling himself Subcommander Marcos. He wore a black ski mask to hide his identity while letting the Mayans be photographed for future identification.
The supposed leadership of the rebellion was called the Clandestine Committee. Andres Oppenheimer, a journalist who interviewed Subcommander Marcos as well as the members of the Clandestine Committee, noted that to get to talk with Marcos he had to go through extensive security procedures and multiple body searches but to talk with members of the Clandestine Committee he had only to walk up to them, even from behind, and tap them on the shoulder.
It is notable that the initial action did not elicit popular uprisings throughout Chiapas. Instead only four towns were taken over and those all were taken over by the troops trained and led by the Mexico City leftists. In the towns of Altimirano and Ocosingo fought off the leftist-led revolutionaries. In the town of Oxchuc the residents stopped the leftist-led revolutionaries from returning.
The nature of the Chiapas guerilla actions as a Mexico City leftist charade is unquestionably revealed in the slogan that it is a fight against neoliberalism. While that might mean something to urban leftists it is completely alien to the situation in Chiapas. This inappropriate slogan is reminiscent of the slogans used by the Shining Path leadership in Peru which referred to elements of the Cultural Revolution in China, something that was completely meaningless in the Peruvian context.
The Mayans of Chiapas, Guatemala, Yucatan and elsewhere have strong, legitimate grievances against their local and national governments. Do local rebellions have anything to offer the oppressed people other than death and privation? No, at best the so-called rebellion creates a terrorist organization whose actions have no military value, only a publicity value. There could be some political value to the publicity if it prompts concession and compromise on the part of the Mexican government, but the Mexico City leftist leaders predictably are not about to take the concessions the national government is willing to offer. That would close down their little revolution. The body count of the Mayans continues to mount as paramilitary units exact revenge upon the Mayans. And the rank and file of the leftists' army will probably never recover their souls after having engaged in atrocities such as killing other Mayans who refused to join them.
(To be continued.)