In the south of Mexico, close to Guatemala, lies Chiapas, a gorgeously wild region with lush jungles and a harsh climate. There are some of the best things to do in Chiapas, Mexico, including unique experiences around ancient traditions and rituals.
Densely populated by indigenous tribes directly descending from the Maya, several ancient languages come together in this authentic and mostly untouched part of Mexico.
Sadly, Chiapas is also Mexico’s poorest region, and the indigenous people aren’t always treated the way they should be. This injustice led them to create a movement called Zapatismo, named after the first leader Emiliano Zapato in the early 20th century, of which there are still active groups today.
Visiting the region is one way to help Chiapas’s economy and its people, and after spending several weeks in and around San Cristóbal de las Casas, (one of the main cities in the state), I can honestly say that it’s one of my favourite regions in Mexico.
Here are the 15 best things to do in Chiapas, Mexico.
1. Get Lost in San Cristóbal De Las Casas
Founded in 1528, San Cristóbal de las Casas is the oldest Spanish town in the state of Chiapas. Nestled within the mountains, the city has kept its charming colonial flair, and features narrow streets and iron window grilles on elegant multi-coloured facades.
Add to that some quaint squares, (sometimes animated, and at other times empty), beautiful churches, and vaulted galleries, and it’s easy to see why this town is one of the best places to visit in Chiapas.
The town has a very cosmopolitan vibe, and you’ll find a mixture of locals, long-term expats, and tourists mingling with Tzotzil Indians coming down from the mountains to sell their products inside the Gran Mercado – San Cristóbal’s gorgeous roofed market.
Try this guided tour with a local historian for more details on how the city arose, and discover more about its cultural background.
Don’t miss going up the stairs to the Templo de Guadalupe for an incredible view of the city, (keep in mind that it can get quite chilly during the winter months because of the altitude).
2. Take a Cooking Class in San Cristóbal De Las Casas
In my opinion, you can’t get to know a country or region without tasting its food. And what better way to understand the food than to make it yourself?
One of the most fun things to do in Chiapas is to book a cooking class like this one, where you’ll specifically learn the techniques to make delicious tortillas, tamales, and moles. Before diving into the cooking, you’ll be taken to San Cristóbal’s market to pick the freshest ingredients possible.
Get your hands dirty in corn flour dough, and experiment with typically Mexican ingredients like cocoa and chilli in thick sauces.
3. Experience The Mysteries of San Juan Chamula
One of the most intriguing places to visit in Chiapas is undoubtedly San Juan Chamula. A small town about 10km northeast of San Cristóbal.
Here, you’ll find a syncretism of modern Christianism and Tzotzil rituals unique to this part of Mexico. You’ll also find churches, but they’re only used as a frame for their religion; a form of very ancient Maya shamanism that includes live chicken and fizzy drinks to exorcise evil spirits.
The Tzotzil are very private. Avoid photographing them in their traditional woollen tunics, especially whilst they’re performing rites inside of the churches. Although photos are definitely frowned upon, the whole experience is so fascinating that there’s no chance of forgetting what you witnessed – even without pictures.
With this particularly well-rated tour, you don’t have to worry about doing anything wrong as the local guide will explain the dos and don’ts in detail. You’ll even get to experience a cleansing ceremony for yourself if you wish.
4. Explore Your Crafty Side
To get to know Chamula’s community even better, unfold your talents for colour patterns and needlework in this embroidery workshop. It includes a traditional lunch at Emma’s home, and the artwork you’ll make is yours to keep as a souvenir.
Spending a few hours in someone else’s home gets them to open up and lets you participate in their way of life. It’s all part of the general travel experience and, therefore, one of the best things to do in Chiapas to better understand the region’s culture.
5. Understand The Zapatista Movement
Diving deeper into the Zapatista movement might not be your typical thing to do in Chiapas, but this particular movement is essential to the indigenous people.
In 1994, the Indian farmers started a rebellion, taking San Cristóbal de Las Casas and demanding more rights for possessions, health, education, work, justice, and recognition of their indigenous identity.
The truth is, indigenous people have always been considered second-rank by the Mexican authorities. The Zapatista movement still fights to change this, although on a more political level nowadays as opposed to armed conflicts.
Visiting a “Zapatista Village” will give you a better understanding of what’s at stake for the indigenous people of Chiapas, and with a guide like Luis who grew up with the movement, any questions you may have will be answered.
6. Take a Boat Trip Through The Cañón Del Sumidero
The Cañón del Sumidero traverses the states of Chiapas and Tabasco. It was formed by the Grijalva, which flows down to the Gulf of Mexico, and even figures on Chiapas’ flag.
A boat or lancha trip on the Grijalva is fun, but only during the dry season as heavy rainfalls bring down all the waste of the surrounding villages during the wet season.
During this 2-hour boat trip inside the canyon, you’ll pass by gorgeous waterfalls, dense jungle emitting strange animal noises, and you may even spot the occasional crocodile – keep your hands inside the boat!
Be sure to prepare your camera for the Árbol de Navidad, or “Christmas Tree Waterfall”, which is arguably one of the world’s most unique waterfalls.
The tour combines the canyon trip with a visit to Chiapa de Corzo; a pretty little town with a fantastic 15th-century fountain called La Pila.
Don’t forget sunscreen and bring plenty of water.
7. Visit Tuxtla Gutiérrez
Whilst you’re in the vicinity, stop by Tuxtla Gutiérrez, to visit the State of Chiapas’s capital city.
It’s not commonly one of the most advertised places to visit in Chiapas, but this modern city still has some areas where the rich history is perceptible.
With Juan Alejandro as your local host, you’ll discover some of the city’s most beautiful corners whilst getting to know the memorable historical events that formed the state, and be made aware of the best restaurants to find authentic Mexican food.
For those with a musical background, Tuxtla Gutiérrez is also known as the “city of the marimba“, with a park and a museum around the instrument.
8. Watch a Unique Nature Show At Sima De Las Cotorras
The Sima de Las Cotorras is one of many sinkholes inside the El Ocote Biosphere Reserve in Chiapas. You can go abseiling, repelling, and ziplining here, but it’s the thousands of Mexican green parakeets flying in and out of it that makes it an extra special Chiapas attraction.
This is a unique thing to do in Chiapas. Try and visit from March to October, when the parakeet show can be witnessed very early in the morning.
Bear in mind that if you want to head there on your own, you’ll have to be at the specific viewpoint of the sinkhole between 5.30am – 6.30am. Find out more here.
9. Spoil Your Taste Buds With Mexico’s Delicious Food
Mexico, and especially the state of Chiapas, is home to some of the most delicious and different looking fruits you’ll likely ever come across. Fruits like the juicy pitaya, (a spiky tuna that grows on cacti), or the jicama that’s usually served as a snack, sprinkled with lime and chilli.
Several of these fruits are used for both sweet and salty dishes, making them incredibly valuable in Mexico’s food scene.
Ever tasted a cactus leaf? The thought of biting into one repelled me initially, given that it’s somewhat slimy, but the taste was surprisingly good and, above all, very refreshing. The leaves are called nopales and are often used in salads, or as a side to fried eggs at breakfast.
Rambutans are particularly popular in Chiapas, and although originally from Asia, you’ll likely find them on little makeshift stalls along the road. If you want to try something that can almost only be found in Chiapas, head to the market and look for the (cracked open) Papausa.
10. Discover Hidden Lakes At The Lagunas De Montebello
Around sixty small lakes await in the Lagunas De Montebello, all with distinctive colours and eco-systems.
The most beautiful ones are the Lagunas de Colores where you’ll find the light blue Laguna Agua Azul, the violet Laguna Agua Tinta, and the emerald green Laguna Esmeralda. They’re located on the left-hand side after the entrance to the park, and it’s a 3km long hike in total to see them all.
At the end of the hike, you’ll find the San José cave which is a sacred place for the indigenous people; it’s still used for flower offerings today.
The lakes are a bit further apart on the right side after the entrance. There’s a 4km hike to reach the Laguna de Montebello at 1485m altitude, and another walk, (about 90 minutes from here), which leads to a beautiful viewpoint called Bosque Azul.
These lagoons are another lovely place to visit in Chiapas and local families enjoy them too, often during weekends for family picnics along the lakes. I recommend visiting when the weather is clear, and preferably in the morning to avoid rainfall.
If you fancy a swim, it’s worth knowing that the Pojoj lake is the only one where swimming is permitted.
11. Climb The Numerous Stairs At The Ruins of Toniná
The archaeological site of Toniná is particularly original, thanks to a colossal pyramid leaning against a hill. The whole city was built vertically and each level features different buildings ranging from dwellings over official buildings, to palaces and temples.
The site is at 1000m altitude and generally quite hot – make sure to hydrate well.
Once at the top of the structure, the 180-degree view of the surrounding mountains is truly spectacular.
Toniná was a prosperous city between the 7th and 10th century but struggled to resist the rule of Palenque’s kings. The latter slowly but surely gained control over the area, and Toniná was ultimately abandoned.
There’s no need to pity them too much though; the people of Toniná were known for being masters in decapitation practices and human sacrifices.
12. Marvel At The Colours Of The Amazing Agua Azul Waterfalls
Another natural gem in Chiapas is the magnificent Cascadas de Agua Azul – a series of bright turquoise waterfalls, each ending in a limestone basin.
The whole area is gorgeous and incredibly refreshing when the temperature is hot. Hike up from the entrance at the bottom of the falls by simply following the river in the opposed direction.
Visit the Cascadas in the morning as the lighting is perfect for pictures, and avoid the hours after a tropical storm as the colour will be more brown than blue.
You can visit on a day trip from Palenque with this day tour.
Remember that this part of Chiapas is in the centre of the EZNL, or Zapatista territory. It doesn’t happen all the time, but there is a chance that armed people could make you stop by blocking the road with a rope, and ask you to pay an additional fee.
You might feel uneasy, but remember that these are the poorest people in Mexico, and they don’t get anything from the official entrance fee you pay down at the falls.
13. Cool Off Underneath a Mesmerizing Waterfall
Stop by the impressive Misol-Ha waterfall on the way to Palenque for a refreshing bathing session.
Pouring 30m towards a basin where you can swim, the falls hide a cave where you can admire fossils entrenched in the rock – bring a bathing suit and a torch!
I recommend going there yourself, as tour guides found at the entrance only stay at the falls for approximately an hour – in my opinion, this isn’t long enough.
The bathing area is delimited with a rope, and although there are lifeguards on the spot, it can still be dangerous as the access is rather difficult. Be sure to be on your guard and watch your step as you enjoy the fairy-tale surroundings.
14. Admire The Fascinating Temples of Palenque (One of The Best Things To Do in Chiapas)
I stayed in a camping spot near Palenque for a few weeks, and woke to the loud howler monkeys bellowing from the trees above every morning. Perhaps not the most charming way to wake up for some, but quite helpful as there’s so much to see in Palenque. An early start is perfect!
Palenque means “surrounded by trees”, and that’s pretty accurate. It’s one of the biggest Maya sites in Mexico and one of my favourite places to visit in Chiapas.
Palenque‘s architecture is quite different from other well-known sites such as Uxmal or Chichén Itzá, and is well preserved. The setting is romantic, and nature still covers most of the ruins.
King Pakal, the most famous ruler who died at nearly 100 years old, was responsible for the city’s bloom during the 7th and 8th centuries, and his son Chan-Bahlum continued the work.
After the latter, the great civilisation of Palenque slowly died under mysterious circumstances, and the city remained unknown until its recent rediscovery in the 20th century.
Highlights include the Templo de Las Inscripciones, on top of a 22m tall pyramid protecting Pakal’s tomb, the Palacio which offers beautiful views to those brave enough to climb the stairs, and the Templo Del Sol, in front of king Pakal.
To truly feel like Indiana Jones, head deeper into the jungle for the hidden Templo de Los Murciélagos (“bat temple”), and for even more nature, try a horseback ride through the National Park of Palenque.
15. Get To Know The Lacandones And Their Treasures
Here are two more places to visit in Chiapas that lie a little further away from the other suggestions; towards the borders of Guatemala.
Bonampak and Yaxchilán were built by the Lacandones, a mysterious Maya tribe that lives in the jungle. There are only about 600 Lacadon people left nowadays, and the risk of losing their language, amongst other things, is very real.
They are easily recognisable thanks to their specific style of white tunics and long hair.
While Bonampak is easily accessible by car or bus, you’ll need a lancha to get to Yaxchilán.
The highlights include the Templo De Las Pinturas in Bonampak, with famous Maya frescoes providing valuable information on their daily life, and the Edificio 33 in Yaxchilán, a beautiful temple with gorgeous views of the river and the surrounding jungle.
FAQs About Chiapas
Here are some answers to commonly asked questions about visiting Chiapas.
Is Chiapas safe?
As with all of Mexico, there are some risks to be aware of when travelling as a tourist. In Chiapas in particular, the Zapatista movement that fights for the rights of indigenous people is still very active, and you’re extremely likely to encounter roadblocks once in a while.
Even though they may look imposing, they only want a bit of money and compared to their general living conditions, it really isn’t that much. Remember to stay calm and friendly, and you shouldn’t have any problems.
Is Chiapas worth visiting?
Chiapas is absolutely worth visiting! It’s full of fascinating archaeological sites, ancient traditions that are still very much alive, and lovely locals.
All the tourist attractions in Chiapas are very authentic and it feels like a piece of raw Mexico not yet spoiled by mass tourism. I would definitely recommend putting Chiapas on your itinerary when visiting Mexico.
How many days do you need in Chiapas?
This depends significantly on how many attractions in Chiapas you want to visit, but I would say that five days is the minimum. The more the merrier.
When is the best time to visit Chiapas?
The best time to visit Chiapas is from November – May, as this is the dry season and it doesn’t get as hot as in other parts of Mexico.
I’ve been to Chiapas during the rainy season too, and whilst there were heavy rainfalls, they usually only lasted about an hour or two before the sky cleared up again. The temperatures are pretty high, but if you don’t mind the heat, the rainy season is good to avoid crowds at popular spots.
Now You Know What To Do in Chiapas
Writing about everything there is to see and do in Chiapas makes me want to book a flight right away and head back.
I can’t wait to spend some more time in this very raw and authentic part of Mexico – I’m sure that there are still so many fascinating sites to discover. The ancient Maya tribes are alive, yet so much of their culture is veiled in mystery.
If Chiapas wasn’t on your Mexico list before, go ahead and add it. You won’t regret it.