Friday, April 29, 2005

MEXICO, DAY 26: Tuxtla Gutiérrez, capital of Chiapas

After a long and winding drive southeast through multiple sets of mountain ranges, we arrived in Tuxtla Gutiérrez, the capital and commercial center of the final state in our road-trip through Mexico – Chiapas.

Chiapas is all the way in Mexico’s southeast corner, bordering Guatemala. This mountainous region, with its large number of Mayan-descended indigenous tribes and its notorious history of resistance to Mexico’s central government, is culturally much closer to Guatemala than it is to the rest of Mexico, and many of the towns and villages here have a very different ambience than we’d become accustomed to throughout our long drive through about a dozen other Mexican states. In fact, before Chiapas was finally annexed to Mexico, it was part of a different country that also included western Guatemala. (called Los Altos - this country no longer exists.) In the 1990s, Chiapas made world headlines when a federation of indigenous groups calling themselves the Zapatistas, weary of subversion by wealthy plantation-owners and fed up with being marginalized by the Mexican government, started a rebellion that almost led to a minor civil war. Things have been much calmer recently, with no major violence in over 5 years. However the Mexican army troops still have a network of checkpoints throughout the state, while we saw several villages with signs proclaiming themselves “Zapatista” and anti-government.

Chiapas was by far our favorite state in Mexico. The place is absolutely beautiful! The highland areas offer stunning mountain vistas around every turn, as well as beautiful mountain lakes and river trips through breath-taking canyons, while the lowland jungles in the northeast part of the state are like a tropical paradise, with crystal clear waterfalls and swimming holes galore. Chiapas is also an archaeological treasure trove, with the ruins of a multitude of ancient Mayan cities hidden amongst and buried under the vast jungles.

But before we hit the woods, we decided to spend the weekend in town. Our goal on Friday was to reach San Cristóbal de las Casas, since it had been highly recommended to us. However, when we finally reached Tuxtla Gutiérrez after almost 7 hours of driving, we decided to save the rest of the journey to San Cristóbal for the next day.

Our Friday night in Tuxtla was nothing really to write home about. To us it was just a big city with a lot of traffic, and not really reflective of what the rest of the state held in store. As we drove through the outer part of Tuxtla, we passed a string of corporate chains lining the highway, including Sam’s Club, Burger King, KFC, and a few others we were not expecting. Nevertheless, once we got into the downtown area, it was easy to find a variety of cheap hotels, cafes, and veggie-friendly food for Carley. We were especially pleased with Naturalissmo, where we enjoyed an excellent breakfast the next morning.

We were also really impressed with the zoo in Tuxtla, the only zoo in Mexico worth checking out, according to our Lonely Planet book. Almost all Mexican zoos are described as “sad” in this book, but this zoo, set amidst a dense forest, is widely regarded as one of the best in Latin America. The fauna displayed here are all native to Chiapas, and most of the animals (except the crocodiles and bats) seemed to have a very large area in which to roam around, while still visible from the well-designed walkways. Rob was a bit overly fascinated by “the stuff that could kill us”, and Carley had to practically drag him out of the building housing the insects and spiders. (At least we learned that the huge whip spider – “añara látigo” – that we killed in our room at Carlos Einstein’s hostel a week earlier was harmless; nevertheless, if you saw a spider like this (click here) next to your bed, what would you do?) Carley’s favorites were the spider monkeys, swinging through the high treetops above us, and the big cats, which included jaguars and pumas. Unfortunately, we never spotted the howler monkeys on display, though we definitely heard their deep, rumbling barks, both at the zoo and a few days later in the real jungle. We also both enjoyed seeing the broad selection of delightfully colored parrots, macaws, toucans and quetzals, all of which are endangered and hard to see in the wild these days due to over-hunting.

A spider monkey swings through the trees at Mexico's best zoo in Tuxtla

Next it was off to San Cristóbal de las Casas, where we would spend our Saturday night.

On to DAY 27: San Cristóbal De Las Casas, the heart of Chiapas