Revolutions and Rivers: San Cristobal de las Casas & Sumidero Canyon

In the original plan for the trip, there were 30 countries…but on Saint Patrick’s Day, we were lucky enough to cross the border into our 34th…Mexico.  We were practically alone as we got our passports stamped and wandered out into the dry, rocky landscape of southern Chiapas.  It took us two bus rides and a taxi to reach our hostel, just as evening was coming on in San Cristobal de las Casas.  We ventured out to the main square, where we took out pesos and found a grocery, so that we could cook ourselves some dinner after the 12 hours of bouncing along on mountain roads.  Already we could feel the different spirit of the people here…the revolutionary leanings that made this area the central point of Zapatista uprisings in the past couple decades.  The Zapatista communes themselves are occasionally open to tourists, but tightly controlled.  Even in town, we noticed people who would cover their faces if they saw us taking photographs near the churches and in the markets.  Slogans crying out for justice and naming the victims of the government suppression were scrawled on walls everywhere.

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On our first night in the Abuelito Hostel, I noticed a sign offering cooking lessons…including that most famous of Chiapas dishes, chicken mole!  As our trip has gone along, Sangbyeong had discovered a passion for cooking and for learning new styles and flavors in each country we stopped in.  It was a match made in heaven…we booked Gaby, the cooking instructor, for the following evening and even arranged it that she would take Sangbyeong with her to the market to select all the ingredients, so that he could get the full experience.  While they happily clattered off to buy their chicken, vegetables, and spices, I wandered in the opposite direction, away from the tourist hub of the town.  Along one of the main roads, far beyond the cafes and manicured building fronts, I found the Mayan Medicine Museum.  Although tiny on the outside, there are well put together displays featuring wax figures of shamans, midwives, medicine men and women, and so on in a dimly lit labyrinth of rooms.  A thick visitor packet, translated into English, explains each exhibit in excruciating detail and also provided pages of local medicine uses and lore to peruse.  There was even a video showing a birth with a traditional Mayan midwife.  Behind the museum was an exuberantly unkempt garden of plants used for cures and a little Mayan sauna.

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The following day, we decided to explore further afield in the city, checking out some of the famous churches and getting thoroughly acquainted with the market…and its avocados!  The pinnacle of our day, literally and figuratively, came when we climbed the endless stairs up to the church perched on the highest hill in the center of town…El Cerrito.  From there, we had amazing panoramic views of the city spreading out below us on all sides, covering the valley with its cobbled streets and colorful churches that peter out at the edges, where the trees and brush take over to crawl up the mountainsides.  As we stumbled back to the bottom of the hill and through the alleyways toward home, we were treated to a luscious sunset over the church rooftops as we made our way back to the Zócalo (the central square).  We had procured plenty of veggies (including canola greens, which we had not seen or eaten since our time in Anhui Province, China, exactly one year ago!  But we were so glad to see them and cook them up!), but we still needed to pick up some other ingredients.  At the grocery store, I discovered the selection of Mexican grown wine.  That Baja has vineyards was news to me, but I was happy to learn it, as the wine was very tasty.  As another chilly night set in, we stopped at a café to preview the taste of our Mexican Zinfandel with a couple mugfuls of mulled wine, steeped with local spices.  AMAZING!

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On our third day, we woke early to catch the tour bus headed the hour drive north to the Sumidero Canyon, where we eagerly hopped into a boat.  At the boat launch, the surrounding terrain is almost completely flat, so it comes as a surprise that after about 20 minutes of cruising up the river, huge cliffs spring out of nowhere, some towering as high as one kilometer above the river below.  Just as we were entering the high walls of the canyon, another of the natural attractions caught our eye…a crocodile sunning itself on the shore, mouth ajar.  Floating further into the canyon, the sheer cliffs rose on both sides, and the ones up ahead looked veiled in the late morning haze, creating a layered effect.  All the boats stop mid-river at a particular angle to see the view that is represented on the state seal of Chiapas.  Our boat pulled into a shrine in the Cueva de Colores, named for the pink markings on the walls, before moving deeper along the 42 kilometers of canyon.  My favorite was the “Christmas Tree” formation, formed over millions of years by a trickling waterfall.  As we pulled in beneath it, it was truly stunning to see what a little water, rock, and greenery can accomplish…and I felt very, very tiny.

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At the end of the canyon, we pull up at a dam that harnesses enough power to service all of Chiapas and most of Tabasco.  Entrepreneurs pulled their boats alongside ours to sell welcome refreshments…we bought a small bag of fresh jicama sliced and doused in lime and chilli.  After that, we zoomed back through the canyon at triple the speed we had come through before, wind whipping our hair and cooling us from the hot sun.  We were relieved to get back into our van and drive the short way into the center of Chiapa de Corzo, the cute little town that serves as the main jumping-off point for the canyon.  Here we circled the small market, the ornately painted church and monastery, and the park with its marimba player statue, before finding a shady perch to wait until we headed back to San Cristobal.  On the way out of town, a crowd of protesting locals blocked the tollbooth on the highway, demanding money from our driver!  It was the first of many such protests we were going to see over the next couple days.

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That night we burrowed beneath our three thick blankets for the last time and woke into the misty morning to catch the early morning bus onward to Palenque…although we had to take a three hours detour up through Tabasco via Villahermosa, due to whole villages of protestors camping out on highways and laying down boards with exposed nails to stop vehicles all across central Chiapas.  Oh my!

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