It’s all true. Everything you can love, or hate, about Chiapas; whether it beguiles and compels you, or frustrates and messes with you. These travelogues and accounts are as much about the place as the person who is writing her memoirs.

And now that I’m preparing to go home…presenting final gifts to friends, preparing a farewell party, donating clothing, ribbons, tools and trinkets… I’m also perusing the half-written thoughts and anecdotes that never got published: the Mexican nationalism. The rampant lies and moral corruption. How many locals loitered around with shifty eyes and that suspicious posture that told you they were up to no good. The drunkards passed out on the street. The endemic complacency and tardiness. The reluctance to do anything under deadline. The shocking mass ignorance. The inability to remember simple math operations. The heated conversations which got no where.

But in spite of all of this, the irksome things paled in comparison to the good and the beautiful.

For you see, here in Chiapas, Mexico, my heart felt so full. There was nothing more I wanted, everything made sense, and there was such a strong spiritual connection to the past. The contemplation and the profundity of just being in my place in the universe, and the majesty of living in the temperate mountains with indigenous Mayan locals had an extraordinary appeal.

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…Most of the time, travelers will pass time in the colonial streets of San Cristobal de Las Casas sipping a cardamom hot chocolate with anise, strolling along its churches and tasting its cuisine and touch the local textiles. They’ll pile into a private van and visit the surrounding villages with their camera, snap snap, and buy a souvenir or two, and are pleasantly surprised: it’s as trendy and bohemian hipster as parts of Brooklyn or San Francisco, with posh elegant spas opened next to the indie arthouse theatre.

But living here was different. Sometimes…sometimes… if you wander on the road less traveled, it transported into another universe. One in which you connected with more than ten thousands years of continuous human existence, one in which mysticism and spells were still told, and you wonder what changes the valleys and the plateau has seen.

There are moments when the coppery sunshine flooded into the windows illuminating all the house ferns and the wooden pillars, the Spanish tiles and the hammock felt warm, and sitting on the veranda looking up from your book, you could lose track of time staring at the misty mountains and the mysterious clouds. At all of the sudden all the magnificence of the Old World in the New World stirring in your soul again. And you can smell the pungent aroma of burning pine needles faintly in the atmosphere, rituals inextricably tied with the earth and people of this place. Tortillas sizzling over the comal.

Chiapas is not Mexico. In fact, in the popular imagination of many Mexicans, most find it either a backwards hinterland of dreadful poverty and problems, or a region of romanticized savage revolution and indigenous character foreign to anywhere else in the nation. Thus, unlike the Yucatan Peninsula or tribal Oaxaca, or the beach holiday destinations, most Mexicans to the north (and certainly those who run the country’s politics, economics and social affairs) will often harbor exaggerated fears about the south, asking “…but isn’t it really poor? Isn’t it really dangerous?“, much less venture into terrifying and volatile Central America.

So to the ends of sharing these rich life experiences with my dear readers, (so that you may ignore the local fear who’re often swayed by the gruesome media coverage of daily murders) I’ve written a short list of remarkably beautiful places from Southern Mexico to Nicaragua that have inspired and transformed me in this Mayan territory. I neglect to mention beaches since I haven’t been to too many.

But first, avoid these, for one reason or another they’re really awful:

Guatemala City, Guatemala | Belmopan, Belize | Chamula, Chiapas Mexico | San Pedro Sula, Honduras | La Ceiba, Honduras | San Salvador, El Salvador | Calakmul Ruins, Mexico

Best Flora, Fauna and Spectacular Geographical Nature:

Semuc Champey, Guatemala [limestone caves, bats, mountains] | Volcán Pacaya, Guatemala [active black volcano] | Cobán, Guatemala [waterfalls, turquoise lakes] | Roatan Bay Islands, Honduras [pristine Caribbean beaches, spectacular scuba diving] | Blue Hole, Belize [unparalleled diving] | Lagos de Montebello, Chiapas [radiant blue set of mountain lakes] | Laguna de Apoyo, Nicaragua [lake that has filled in a volcanic crater] | La Mesilla to Huehuetenango, Guatemala [the highway passes through white slab gorges and waterfalls] | Coastal Nicaragua [beautiful tropical plantations]

Top Elegant Colonial Cities:

Granada, Nicaragua (unmatched elegance and antique charm); Campeche, Yucatan Mexico; San Cristobal de Las Casas, Chiapas Mexico; Mérida, Yucatan Mexico; Copán, Honduras (visit the macaw bioreserve); Antigua (very charming but too artificial like Disneyland); Suchitoto, El Salvador (nice little town); La Palma, El Salvador (really brightly colored)

Ancient Mayan Ruins and Villages:

Civilization Ruins: Copán, Honduras; Tikal, Guatemala; Palenque, Mexico; Tulúm, Mexico. Villages: Tenejapa and Zinacantan, Chiapas Mexico.

Sad, Humbling and Harrowing:

El Mozote, El Salvador | León, Nicaragua

Major Plantations:

Cacao – Toledo, Belize | Coffee Fincas – Highlands, Guatemala | Macadamia and Nuts – North Guatemala | Banana and Mangoes – Honduras

San Cristobal was definitely the best value: low prices and comparably high quality.

I think I’ll be back in March 2009.

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Spanish Words of the Day:infarto” heart attack | “trillado” corny, trite, commonplace | “asqueroso” gross, filthy | “señero” solitary, unique, unparalleled | “demandante” plaintiff | “niñera” nanny

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