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Mexico: Chiapas offers stunning contrasts

by patgarcia | March 6, 2008 at 10:13 am | 89 views | add comment
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SAN CRISTÓBAL, Mexico – Contrasts are what produce “wow” moments in Chiapas, Mexico’s southernmost state.
It’s Mexican. But it’s really more Mayan. The Spanish were afraid of the jungle and never succeeded in conquering the region.
It’s modern. Five airports, two large cities (Tuxtla Gutiérrez, San Cristóbal), better BlackBerry reception than in parts of Texas. But it’s also ancient.

The Mayans developed a number system based on zero centuries before Arab scholars taught Europeans the same. The ruins of Palenque and Bonampak are some of the best-preserved and most dramatic in this part of the world.
Chiapas has a reputation for guerrilla rebellion, but that was more than a decade ago amid a fight for civil rights. The unrest never was anti-American, and the region is peaceful now.
The land is rich in resources: oil, uranium, fruit, coffee, cattle and fish. One water project on the Grijalva River reportedly supplies nearly a third of Mexico’s electricity. But Chiapas’ people are poor.

Seven tribes of indigenous people dwell here, many identifiable by their distinctive clothing, and some of whom still live in the jungle and subsist on small, primitive, bean-producing farms.
The perception is that travelers rough it, but American-standard accommodations, recognizable food and a dependable cup of coffee in the morning are common.
Faith is a creative blend of Catholicism and pagan worship.
Small wonder that this region of surprises is one of U.S. Ambassador Tony Garza’s favorite Mexican states.
The former Texan, who has been the top U.S. official in Mexico since 2002, likes to hike in the densely wooded jungles, which are full of spectacular waterfalls.
On a recent trip, my husband and I found our own “wows.”
We climbed ancient Mayan monuments, hiked in luscious green jungles where we ogled spider monkeys and a scarlet macaw, admired crocodiles lounging on the river banks and visited some of the best weavers and artisans in the region.
We enjoyed clean, comfortable accommodations everywhere we went, as well as delicious food, plenty of bottled water and warm and welcoming Chiapanecas.
With a good local guide, we learned about King Pakal of the 600-700 A.D. era, the unusual rule of at least three women in this patriarchal society, worship of jaguars, the reign of Sky Bird King Chuan Muan II and much more.
A highlight was experiencing a 17th-century Catholic church in Chamula, one of the communities of indigenous people, this one in the mountains (about 7,000 feet elevation) just a 20-minute drive outside of San Cristóbal.
From the outside, the church looks traditional. Inside, saints predictably line the walls.
But there we watched a shaman taking the “blood pulse” of a parishioner and saw offerings of candles, Coca-Cola, their version of moonshine and chickens.

We relished the market. I’d never seen such an array of dried fish, salted shrimp, caramelized fruit paste, all kinds of beans, corn, tamales, sweet potatoes, potatoes, mango, cabbage and more in an outdoor market. Live chickens for cooking: about $6 each.
Grilled ants were a delicacy. Crispy and salted, they’re sold in small plastic bags and eaten like peanuts. They’re not bad, if you can forget what you’re eating. (My husband went back for seconds.)
That’s just the food at the market.
Don’t get me started on the embroidered blouses, leather belts, jewelry, dolls, baskets, figurines, blankets, shawls, bags and wool capes.
My favorite stops, however, were visiting the ancient worship sites and glimpsing beautiful and exotic animals.
The Temple of the Cross in Palenque is fabulous, better preserved than the more famous Chichén Itzá closer to Cancún, and nearly as magical as Tikal in remote Guatemala.
But don’t miss the more remote Yaxchilán, accessible only by boat (about $5 per person, including the guide), where visitors learn about Bird Jaguar, the last known ruler of this kingdom, still distinguishable in faded murals by his big nose and thick thighs.
Be sure to look up into the trees, too. We saw two pairs of spider monkeys swinging around one morning in Yaxchilán, and we eavesdropped on a distant conversation among howler monkeys.
The flora is equally exotic: Hawaiian ginger, jobo (a member of the cashew family), mango, orange, avocado, almond, hibiscus and mahogany trees.
Ask about the gringo tree, with red bark that peels like a sunburned tourist.
Our final day was reserved for a boat tour of Sumidero Canyon.
Sharing a small power craft with about a half-dozen Israelis and a couple of Mexicans (Americans still account for less than 3 percent of Chiapas tourism), we cruised the Grijalva River through the narrow canyon for two hours. At times, its walls reached three times the height of the Eiffel Tower.
We passed the Cave of Colors, where moss and minerals combine to tint the walls light green and pink. We passed Christmas Tree Falls with its unusual tree formation.
About 28 miles downriver, we came to a private eco-park and then to one of the largest water projects in the nation, which the local government contended supplies nearly one-third of Mexico’s electricity.
On the way back, we paused to watch a couple of crocodiles sunning along the bank. One of them, El Veterano, is about 40 years old and a common sight on the river. He was oblivious to the bright orange butterflies flitting around his nose.

By KEVEN ANN WILLEY / The Dallas Morning News
[email protected]

March 6, 2008 at 10:13 am by patgarcia, 89 views, add comment

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