Endowed with a stunning variety of cultures, landscapes and wildlife, Chiapas, Mexico’s southernmost state, has much to tempt visitors. Deserted Pacific beaches, rugged mountains and ruined cities buried in steamy jungle offer a bewildering choice of settings, and many indigenous traditions survive intact. Administered by the Spanish as part of Guatemala until 1824, when it seceded to join newly independent Mexico, the state is now second only to Oaxaca in Indian population: about 25 percent of its four million people are thought to be indígenas, most of Maya origin, but totalling some fourteen ethnic groups in the state. Their numbers were bolstered in the 1980s, when refugees fled the conflicts in Guatemala.
Travellers usually head straight for the colonial town of San Cristóbal de las Casas, tucked among the mountains in the geographic centre of the state and surrounded by strongholds of Tzotzil and Tzeltal Maya culture, the largest indigenous groups. Ancient customs and religious practices carry on in these mountain villages, melded with the trappings of modern Mexico. As picturesque as life here may sometimes seem, villagers often live at the barest subsistence level, with their lands and livelihoods in precarious balance. These tensions helped fuel the 1994 Zapatista rebellion, and although that conflict is now barely palpable, many of the core issues have yet to be fully resolved.
One continuing legacy of the rebellion is a heavy military presence, keeping an eye on the eastern half of the state, primarily in the Lancandón forest region along the Carretera Fronteriza (Frontier Highway). Many villages here are at least nominally occupied by the Zapatistas. But as the military has fanned out across the country to combat drug cartels and illegal immigration, Chiapas now feels no more militarized than anywhere else. Though you’ll see plenty of signs announcing Zapatista loyalty, visitors are treated with full respect, and you’ll never get an inkling of problems at the state’s main attractions, such the Parque Nacional Lagos de Montebello or the ruins of Yaxchilán or Bonampak.
Steamy and low-lying, the state of Tabasco is less aesthetically attractive than its neighbour state, with a major oil industry to mar the landscape. But the region is the heartland of the Olmecs, Mexico’s earliest developed civilization, and there are rural pockets of the state that see virtually no tourists, only birds and wild animals. Villahermosa, the vibrant, modern capital, has a wealth of parks and museums, the best of which is Parque La Venta, where the original massive Olmec heads are on display. In the extreme southwest, bordered by Veracruz and Chiapas, a section of Tabasco reaches into the Sierra de Chiapas up to 1000m high. Here, in a region almost never visited by outsiders, you can splash in pristine rivers in Tapijulapa and explore the astonishing ruins of Malpasito, a city of the mysterious Zoque culture.Read More