One of the most criminally overlooked parts of Mexico is the lush, mountainous, jungly region of Chiapas. It boasts some of Mexico’s, if not the world’s, most breathtaking natural beauty. I had my sights set on San Cristobal de las Casas and Chiapas for the longest time. My expectations were high, yet both San Cristobal and Chiapas exceeded every single one of those lofty expectations.
For nature lovers and outdoorsy adventurers, Chiapas might be the best state in Mexico. It is incredibly diverse and much less traveled than Mexico’s more popular tourist destinations. From dense jungles to towering canyons, mystical waterfalls and buried ruins straight out of Indiana Jones, there is much to be explored in Chiapas. Along with La Huasteca Potosina, this region of Mexico is the best for the nature lover who likes to stray off the beaten path. These are just a few of the incredible highlights of this state.
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Sumidero Canyon (Cañon del Sumidero)
The Cañon del Sumidero is undoubtedly one of Chiapas’ most famous destinations. Only an hour away from San Cristobal de las Casas, it is the first destination most people check off when they arrive. A boat ride through the canyon feels like a journey through Jurassic Park. I found it hard to believe that a place like this was in Mexico. It was akin to the fjords of Norway or New Zealand, or the towering limestone karsts that you’ll find all throughout South East Asia. At the cost of about $15 USD for a day trip from San Cristobal, I absolutely recommend this trip to anyone.
El Chiflon Waterfalls (Cascadas El Chiflon)
Honestly, waterfalls have never really been my thing. TLC said not to go chasing waterfalls, and maybe I was the only one who listened. I’m pretty hard to impress when it comes to waterfalls, but the ones of Chiapas, specifically El Chiflon, definitely blew me away. I mean that figuratively and literally. These were some of the most powerful waterfalls I’ve ever visited. I was soaked to the core from just a few seconds of standing on the mirador. It’s easy to spend an entire day here, exploring the various viewpoints and swimming at all of the natural pools leading up to the main attraction.
Montebello Lakes (Lagos de Montebello)
I wasn’t lucky enough to get a sunny day during my visit to Lagos de Montebello, but I could tell just how beautiful it was here. We made the most of our crappy weather day, swimming in the gorgeous waters of the many lakes. Although we didn’t get the usual epic views, the clouds and mist added an aura of mystery. As a photographer, I was having a field day playing around with the moody vibes. My non-photog friends? Not so much, but hey, once I got them their pictures, I think they enjoyed the trip a little more.
The Lagos de Montebello are a bit of a journey from San Cristobal, or a much closer journey if you are using Comitan as your home base. If you can, I’d recommend going on your own. There is a lot to explore here, and a quick day tour simply won’t let you enjoy everything there is to see. We took a tour, and we were only able to visit two miradors, go on a short raft ride, and briefly cross the Guatemalan border by Lake Tziscao. It was cool and convenient if you are short on time, but this region definitely deserves a little bit of time to explore.
If you want to see both El Chiflon Waterfalls and Lagos de Montebello, many tour agencies offer both as a combination day trip.
Arcotete Caves (El Arcotete Parque Ecoturistico)
Not everything requires a long bus ride from San Cristobal de las Casas. A 10 peso colectivo from Barrio de Guadalupe will take you up to El Arcotete Ecotourist Park. It’s about a 30-minute ride and a great way to spend a day without straying too far from San Cristobal. This beautiful eco-park is home to an abundance of amazing scenery and activities. The highlights revolve around the caverns and its beautiful geological formations. For adventurers, there are opportunities for rock climbing, zip lining, hiking, and more. Being so close to San Cristobal and so cheap to get to, it should be on any travelers’ list to visit.
Close to the city of Comitan is Cenote Chukumaltik, a cenote that rivals those that you’ll find in the Yucatan and Quintana Roo. It’s one of the best hidden gems in Chiapas, and you could easily spend an entire day swimming in the crystal clear waters of this large cenote.
Huitepec Natural Reserve
Overlooking the town of San Cristobal de las Casas is the unmistakable Cerro Huitepec. With a short taxi ride, one can visit the mystical cloud forests of Huitepec Ecological Reserve. This extinct volcano is one of the few natural attractions that doesn’t require a long journey outside of San Cristobal. It’s only 40 pesos to taxi to the trailhead from the colonial center.
One could easily spend hours roaming the trails. We hiked to the very top of Huitepec, although I wasn’t entirely sure if there was an actual trail to the top. There were definitely some stretches where the trail disappeared and we probably should have turned back, but our friend with a satellite map kept pushing us in the right direction. I recommend visiting Huitepec with the mindset to explore at a much more relaxed pace. The environment is beautiful, especially as you get higher and higher and the clouds start to blanket the forests. The towering trees, colorful flowers, and moody vibes make it a fantastic, otherworldly way to spend a day outside.
The Ruins of Palenque
I know this is a list of things to do for nature-lovers, and Mayan ruins may not technically fall under the category of nature. However, Palenque is a different breed. Of the many ruins I’ve visited throughout Mexico, few held the mystique that Palenque held. I felt like I was Indiana Jones, exploring abandoned ruins still buried under deep jungle brush. The cool thing about Palenque is that a huge portion of the archaeological complex has yet to be unearthed. According to a local guide, he claimed that up to 98% of the ancient city of Palenque could be underground.
If you are using San Cristobal as your home base, I’d recommend setting aside two days to explore the Palenque area. There is much more to the area than just the ruins, which I’ll cover over the next few suggestions. From San Cristobal, these Mayan ruins are quite a long and arduous journey to get to, which is why I’d recommend staying in Palenque or the nearby jungle village of El Panchan. Ask any historian or local and they’ll tell you without a doubt that Palenque might be the most significant archaeological site in Mexico, making the long journey absolutely worth it.
The most beautiful of Palenque’s nearby waterfalls might be Misol-Ha. This stunning waterfall is about half an hour from the city center. From the main road connecting Palenque to Ocosingo, you can get dropped off and walk a kilometer to get to Misol-Ha. If you’ve got your own car or a taxi, you can get dropped off steps away from these beautiful cascadas. It’s a lone waterfall, but you can easily spend quite a bit of time here admiring the beauty and going for a swim. It’s remote, jungly setting really adds to the mystique. Despite being one of the more popular waterfalls in the area, it is definitely worth the visit.
Agua Azul Waterfalls
As the name suggests, the Agua Azul waterfalls are a gorgeous shade of blue. Located about 40 miles from the archaeological site of Palenque, it is a bit of a journey to get to. However, anyone who has visited them can tell you that it is very much worth it. It’s easy to spend an entire day here swimming and exploring the vast system of waterfalls along the river. It is a bit touristy, with shops lining the long walkway along the river. However, that can be a good thing since you’ll have plenty of lunch options to split up your swim and exploration sessions.
If you’re strapped on time, taking a guided tour of Palenque from San Cristobal might be the way to go. It will include the ruins of Palenque, Agua Azul Waterfalls, and Misol-Ha Waterfalls. It’s a convenient way to knock out a few attractions in one day, if you’re up for the 3 AM wake-up call, that is.
Roberto Barrios Waterfalls
One of the lesser-visited waterfalls in the Palenque area are the stunning Roberto Barrios waterfalls. Its remote location truly makes it one of the best hidden gems in the Chiapas region, and one that’s on my list for when I return to Palenque.
If you’re looking for something even less crowded but still close to Palenque, Welib-Ha Waterfalls might be the spot for you to visit. Once you get the main waterfalls of Palenque out of the way, it’s time to go well off the beaten path. Roberto Barrios and Welib-Ha are two that you definitely need to consider visiting.
Chiapas has no shortage of stunning regions to explore, and sometimes, it is best to explore on horseback. I only did horseback riding around the San Cristobal area, but I have no doubt there are plenty of opportunities to hop on a horse and frolic through the mountains and jungles of Chiapas.
Along the Mexico-Guatemala border is the small lakeside town of Tziscao. It’s a beautiful getaway to the lake, and actually where a few friends and I decided to rent a cabin and spend our New Year’s Eve. Tziscao is a unique place because you can actually hop over the Mexico-Guatemala border without having to do an official border crossing. There are some beautiful waterfalls and a beautiful lake on the border that you can hike around. It’s a quick visit, but if you are in the area, Tziscao is definitely worth the visit.
3 Tzimoleras Waterfalls
Near Comitan is a small village called Tzimol, where you’ll be able to visit their main attraction. The Cascadas de tres Tzimoleras are a beautiful spot for a visit, located in an eco-ranch about 12 kilometers from Tzimol. These waterfalls also close to Cascadas El Chiflon, making both good to visit in a day. If you haven’t noticed, there are a lot of epic waterfalls to visit in the Chiapas region, and there’s no harm in visiting them all.
Grutas de Rancho Nuevo
Just outside of San Cristobal, you’ll find more caves. The eco park of Rancho Nuevo is home to some cool grottos, horseback riding, and hiking trails through the towering forests.
Although I didn’t get a chance to visit Cascada El Aguacero, it definitely is on my list for when I return to San Cristobal. A few of my friends visited these gorgeous waterfalls and had nothing but incredible things to say about it.
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