Although they’re very different states – Chiapas is mountainous, and Tabasco is steamy lowlands – we group them together here, because travellers will usually pass through one or both of them en route to the Yucatán. Endowed with a stunning variety of cultures, landscapes and wildlife, Chiapas has much to tempt visitors, but the biggest draw is how many indigenous traditions survive intact, as well as how much pristine wilderness exists. The state of Tabasco, by contrast, is less aesthetically attractive than its neighbour, and its rural areas see almost no tourists. But its capital, Villahermosa, is a transit hub, and archeology buffs know the region as the heartland of the Olmecs, Mexico’s earliest developed civilization.
Chiapas was 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-plus inhabitants are thought to be indígenas, of some fourteen ethnic groups, most of Maya origin. Tuxtla Gutiérrez is the capital, but travellers usually head straight for the colonial town of San Cristóbal de las Casas, tucked among the mountains in the centre of the state and surrounded by strongholds of Tzotzil and Tzeltal Maya culture. Ancient customs and religious practices carry on in these villages, yet 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 troubles helped fuel the 1994 Zapatista rebellion, and although that conflict has long subsided, many of the core issues concerning land use remain unresolved. Now illegal immigration is the bigger issue, and a heavy military presence focuses more on the Guatemalan border and the eastern half of the state.
In Tabasco, Villahermosa is the vibrant, modern capital, with 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.