Exploring the diversity of Chiapas

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On the world’s radar since the 1994 Zapatista uprising, Mexico’s southernmost state of Chiapas is much more than the stomping ground of the iconic pipe-puffing Subcomandante Marcos. Ruled from Guatemala during the Spanish colonial era, Chiapas didn’t become part of Mexico until 1824, and a strong cultural identity persists because the indigenous population -  one of the country’s largest -  still uses about a half dozen Maya languages as well as traditional local dress.

The diversity of Chiapas extends to its geography and environment, a fertile green expanse of bird-rich tropical lowlands laced with hidden waterfalls, chilly high-altitude pine forests and a Pacific coastline nested by lumbering sea turtles. Maya ruins, including some of the best archaeological sites in Mexico, lie scattered across its vast tracts of misty jungle.

Using public transit, which includes speedy vans and comfortable buses, and local tour operators, it’s easy to see many of the state’s highlights in about a week.

Start your exploration in San Cristóbal de Las Casas, a long-time and low-key traveler’s haunt with cobbled streets and postcard-ready colonial architecture bathed by clear mountain light. Budget at least three days to explore the city and its nearby Maya villages.  Survey the baroque façade and gilded interior of the 16th-century Templo de Santo Domingo church, stroll the daily crafts market and browse the intricate textiles sold by women’s weaving co-operatives.

At the Maya Medicine Museum, learn about traditional indigenous remedies and practices, and tour Na Bolom, a museum and research library of Lacandón and Maya culture. Take time to people-watch at a café serving organic and locally grown coffee and go for evening drinks along the pedestrianized Real de Guadalupe. The cool climate, excellent restaurants and a creative bohemian vibe add up to an addictive destination that’s hard to leave.

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In the church of neighboring San Juan Chamula, a haze of incense lingers, finger-length candles drip rivers of wax and Maya worshippers kneel on the floor amid a carpet of pine needles. As part of the spiritual and medical rituals led by healers, devotees at this former Catholic sanctuary chant as if in a trance, perhaps because many are liberally imbibing pox (pronounced 'posh'), a potent grain alcohol. The healers, called curanderos, may rub patients’ bodies with eggs or bones or sacrifice live chickens, and soft drinks are often drunk as a way to expel evil spirits through burping.

Heading northeast, pyramids sprout from lush jungle in the ruins of the once-mighty Maya kingdom of Palenque, which had its heyday from around AD 630 to 740. The magnificent eight-level stone Templo de las Inscripciones harbors the tomb of Pakal, Palenque’s powerful and long-serving ruler, and a replica of his intricate carved (and off-limits) sarcophagus lid can be viewed in the site museum. At El Palacio, what was probably the living quarters for Palenque’s rulers, archaeologists believe that the imposing tower was built so that royalty and priests could watch the sun descend directly into the Templo de las Inscripciones during the winter solstice.

The town of Palenque - especially the funky rainforest-set travelers’ compound of El Panchán ­­- also serves as a good base for other noteworthy archaeological sites and natural attractions. Cool off on a day trip to two dramatic swimming spots - the perfect waterspout fall of Misol-Ha and the frothy cascades and turquoise pools of Agua Azul. And to extend your knowledge of Classic Maya cities, travel southeast along the border with Guatemala. Cruise the Río Usumacinta by motorized launch to the prime riverside real estate ruins at Yaxchilán, where leafcutter ants file across walking paths and the complex reverberates with the throaty roars of howler monkeys, then detour by a Lacandón village to see the renowned frescoes at Bonampak.

With this under your belt, you’ve experienced some of the best of Chiapas, and indeed, of Mexico.