After cycling over a month all over Oaxaca, we finished our Oaxacan coast stretch in Salina Cruz where we took a bus to Tuxtla Gutiérrez, Chiapas. This saved about five days worth of cycling, giving us a bit more time to explore the state of Chiapas and its abundant, produce, artesanías, rivers, lakes, swimming holes, valleys and countrysides. Chiapas once belonged to Guatemala but was annexed over to Mexico around 1822. This state does feel like a different country from the rest of Mexico in a way, with its deep roots in Mayan culture.
We jumped off our bikes near the main river where we enjoyed looking at the local street art. A man on a bike cycled up to us selling what we know as empenadas but here are called "volovanes." We talked with him about our travels for a few minutes, then loaded up on these delicious buttery pastries of goodness, one sweet guayaba and one savory mushroom for the road.
After strolling through a park, we made our way to the train station, cycling through a massive road block where teachers were protesting new education policies. This protest took place all over Mexico, and in one very unfortunate instance, resulted in police killing almost a dozen protestors in the town of Nochitxlan, a place we cycled in northern Oaxaca.
Road blocks are common in Southern Mexico as a way for locals to speak out against injustice, sometimes with tragic outcomes. This was the first taste of the Zapatista culture that is still very much alive and well here.
Cañon del Sumidero
We visited the impressive Cañon del Sumidero, taking a boat up the Grijalva river which has cut an impressively massive cañon of over a thousand feet in depth. Teaming with crocodiles and monkeys, this protected park is a unique and mysterious world. Almost prehistoric.
Our tour of Sumidero brought us through the lovely colonial city of Chiapa de Corzo with a strong Zapotec presence. We enjoyed the traditional corn & chocolate drink of Pozol as well as the local handcrafts and market.
San Cristóbal de las Casas
Upon arriving in San Cristóbal de las Casas, we settled into a beautiful and central hostel, Casa Gaia, where we met a handful of interesting young travelers from all over the world. The owners Jonathan and Claire are a lovely and welcoming couple.
We spent the next eight days exploring the abundant food and artisan markets. We found organic farmers markets and bakeries with beautiful breads. San Cristóbal's quaint cobble-stone streets, bustling market and strong Mayan identity quickly captured our hearts.
The Maya are a people who take great pride in the cultivation and protection of their land – and it comes through in their beautiful produce, their artwork and their politics.
We fell in love with the market so much that we went back almost every day to people watch, have a mango or two and try new local spices.
One afternoon we got caught in an hour-long downpour without an umbrella. However we had packed some sandwiches so we took cover under an awning and had lunch in the rain. And boy, did it rain! After a dry and hot pedal through Oaxaca, San Cristóbal gave us our first glimpse into what it would be like cycling through Central America in the rainy season.
On the Road Again
As hard as it was to leave San Cristóbal, we were ready to get back on the road! We were less than 100 miles from the border of Guatemala.
We spent the first day climbing out of the city beside heavy traffic on the autopista up and over the low range of mountains. We opted to cut off the highway and took small back roads through the countryside descending toward El Chiflón Falls. Women in traditional dress wielding machetes were seen walking along the road, heading home after a day's work in the fields. A group of youngsters found us intriguing while we took shade beneath a tree, but despite our attempt to make friends, they were too shy to come say hello.
In Amatenango del Valle we stopped at a local tienda for water. The woman behind the counter greeted us warmly. "Is there a good, safe place we could camp for the night around here?" Mehedi asked in Spanish.
She shrugged. "You can camp anywhere you want." We looked out over the green, inviting valley before us. "No one is going to bother you here," she assured.
We headed up the road a bit and found a large flat clearing with grass behind a basketball court. We enjoyed making chai at sunset bundled up in the cool misty mountain air.
The next day's ride was a very enjoyable one. The road turned to smooth compact dirt with almost no cars. We pedaled through quaint little villages passing many clean streams and rivers on what seemed like a never-ending descent. What a dream! We saw more women in traditional dress carrying machetes. Many walks around town were painted with pro-revolutionary campesino empowerment propaganda.
We took a detour when we saw a sign for a swimming hole – these are the kinds of unexpected opportunities that you have to take when you're traveling by bike. And when you're riding in the heat and humidity, nothing sounds better than a fresh water swimming hole!
We made camp that night at the Jaguar Cenote, a beautiful little oasis with a river flowing crystal clear water from the mountainside into a series of dammed up pools on a private property. Entrance cost $3 per person.
We pedaled out of the Jaguar Cenote on dirt roads once again and eventually made our way back to an old paved carretera (MEX 101) with hardly any traffic. We had dropped into the large Central Valley of Chiapas between the central mountains and the Sierra Madres heading towards Guatemala. The ride was quiet, flat and humid through beautiful countryside dotted with ripe mango trees and rivers.
El Chiflón Falls
We arrived at El Chiflón Falls and paid the ranger station to camp by the river in the designated area. We left our bikes and hiked in the lush, jungle landscape for a couple of hours, along a winding paved trail weaving its way to viewpoints of smaller falls and pools. The trail ended with a beautiful view of the 300 meter waterfall.
After enjoying the cool breezes from the falls and the wild, thick jungle surrounding us, we headed back to our bikes and made camp, then fired up the BioLite stove and had a delicious stew.
We headed out after a late start and enjoyed more quiet, paved roads. The heat was intense so we were forced (forced!) to take frequent coconut and mango breaks.
We stopped for the day near Corral de Piedra at a family-run pool/recreational park. They let us camp, swim and shower for a couple dollars. It was a nice, mellow spot. We threw our hammock up, read and made a tasty salad for dinner. We left at dawn the next morning heading toward Lagunas de Montebello.
We had a beautiful morning pedaling with extensive vistas of landscape ahead as we skirted the high side of the valley. We pedaled up through La Trinitaria and back into more hilly country as we set our course for the Lagunas de Montebello, a collection of gorgeous crystalline lakes that sit only a few miles from the border of Guatemala.
Lagunas de Montebello
We couldn't believe the extraordinary colors of these lakes. We decided to spend an extra day there to explore the area.
The next morning we awoke early and packed a small bag, hiked down to one of the lakes and made chai.
We were low on food but thankfully some local Mayan women were offering an array of tortillas, tamales, beans and rice to tourists visiting the lakes during the day. A handful of tortillas and a scoop of beans and we were set.
Local kids hung out around our campsite during the day. Most were too shy to come talk to us, though.
Mayan ruins of Chincultik
After a refreshing and relaxing day off at Lagunas de Montebello, we cycled out of the stunning lakes and before we crossed the border into Guatemala, we took one last detour to the Mayan ruins of Chincultik.
Chincultik - named "step cenote" - was built around a small lake, agua azul, between 600 AD and 1200 AD, though local tribes inhabited the area since before 50 AD. With stone for structures quarried out of the adjacent surrounding limestone cliffs, its ruins are massive.
Weaving our way through a jungly network of paths with overgrown trees and thirsty mosquitos at our backs, we made our way through the ancient city built more than 1,000 years ago. With ballcourts, ceremonial grounds, carved stellae and a pyramid built atop a mountain overlooking the valley below, the ruins of Chincultik took our breath away. The best part was that we were there in May - low season - and we had the entire park to ourselves.
We left the ruins and pedaled the last 10 or 12 miles to Carmen Xhan, the border town where we had our passports stamped for exit.
And just like that, we were at Guatemala's door. Chiapas, you were the cherry on top of nearly four months of cycling through Mexico. What an incredible way to end our time here...