45 Best Sights in Chiapas and Tabasco, Mexico

Cañón del Sumidero

Fodor's choice

The Cañón del Sumidero, a canyon north of Chiapa de Corzo, came into being about 36 million years ago, carved out by the Río Grijalva, which flows north along the canyon's floor. The fissure, which meanders for some 23 km (14 miles), is perhaps the most interesting landscape in the region.

You can admire the Cañón del Sumidero from above, as there are five lookout points along the highway. But the best way to see it is from one of the dozens of boats that travel to the canyon from the Embarcadero in Chiapa de Corzo (two blocks south of the main square) between 8 and 4 daily. Two-hour rides cost about $15 per person, and for about $30 you can spend the day in the ecopark of the canyon. From the boat you can admire the nearly vertical walls that rise 3,500 feet at their highest point. As you coast along, consider the fate of the Chiapa people who reputedly jumped into the canyon rather than face slavery at the hands of the Spaniards during the 16th century. Tour operators in Tuxtla Gutiérrez, San Cristóbal de las Casas, Palenque, and even as far away as Villahermosa offer excursions here.

Iglesia de San Juan Bautista

Fodor's choice

Life in San Juan Chamula revolves around the Iglesia de San Juan Bautista, a white stucco building whose doorway has a simple yet lovely flower motif. The church is named for Saint John the Baptist, who here is revered even above Jesus Christ. There are no pews inside, because there are no traditional masses. Instead, the floor is strewn with fragrant pine needles, on which the Chamula sit praying silently or chanting while facing colorfully attired statues of saints. Worshippers burn dozens of candles of various colors, chant softly, and may have bones or eggs with them to aid in healing the sick. Each group of worshippers is led by a so-called "traditional doctor" (they don't like being called shamans), whose healing process may involve sacrificing a live chicken and always involves drinking Coca-Cola or other sodas; it is thought that the carbonation will help one to expel bad spirits in the form of a burp, and you'll see rows of soda bottles everywhere.

Before you enter, buy a $2 ticket at the tourist office on the main square. Taking photographs and videos inside the church is absolutely prohibited. Some tourists trying to circumvent this rule have had their film confiscated or even their cameras grabbed. Outside the church, cameras are permitted, but the Chamula resent having their picture taken except from afar. The exception are the children who cluster around the church posing for pictures for money—they expect a $1 tip.

Na Bolom

Fodor's choice

No foreigner had as much of an impact on San Cristóbal as did the European owners of this famous home-turned-library-museum-restaurant-hotel, and now the city's best-known sight. Built as a seminary in 1891, the handsome 22-room house was purchased by Frans and Gertrude (Trudi) Blom in 1950. He was a Danish archaeologist, she a Swiss social activist; together they created the Institute for Ethnological and Ecological Advocacy, which carries on today. It got its name, Na Bolom (House of the Jaguar), from the Lacandón Maya with whom Trudi worked: Blom sounds like the Mayan word for jaguar. Both Frans and Trudi were great friends of the indigenous Lacandón, whose way of life they documented. Their institute is also dedicated to reforestation.

Both Bloms are deceased, but Na Bolom showcases their small collection of religious treasures. Also on display are findings from the Classic Mayan site of Moxviquil (pronounced mosh-vee-keel), on the outskirts of San Cristóbal, and objects from the daily life of the Lacandón. Trudi's bedroom contains her jewelry, collection of indigenous crafts, and wardrobe of embroidered dresses. A research library holds more than 10,000 volumes on Chiapas and the Maya. Tours are conducted daily in English and Spanish at 11:30 and 4:30.

Across from the museum, the Jardín del Jaguar (Jaguar Garden) store sells crafts and souvenirs. Look for the thatch hut, a replica of local Chiapan architecture. It consists of a mass of woven palm fronds tied to branches, with walls and windows of wooden slats, and high ceilings that allow the heat to rise. The shop here sells Lacandón crafts, as well as black-and-white photos taken by Trudi.

Revenue from Na Bolom supports the work of the institute. You can arrange for a meal at Na Bolom even if you don't stay at the hotel (accommodations here are quite basic). In addition, the staff is well connected within San Cristóbal and can arrange tours to artisans' co-ops, villages, and nature reserves that are off the beaten path.

Av. Vicente Guerrero 33, San Cristóbal de las Casas, 29200, Mexico
967-678–1418
Sights Details
Rate Includes: Museum $3.50, tour $4.50

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Palenque

Fodor's choice

Palenque is enormous and you could spend weeks exploring it all. The most stunning (and most visited) sights are around the Palacio and give a good overview, but if you have the stamina, it's worth winding your way up to the Northeastern Group, which is often deserted. Try to get here early when it's cooler as there may still be some clinging mist. Templo de la Calavera. As you enter the site, the first temple on your right is the reconstructed Temple of the Skull. A stucco relief, presumed to be in the shape of a rabbit or deer skull, was found at the entrance to the temple. It now sits at the top of the stairs. Like the rest of the buildings, the Templo de la Calavera is unadorned stone. When it was built, however, it was painted vivid shades of red and blue. Templo de las Inscripciones. At the eastern end of the cluster is this massive temple dedicated to Pakal. The temple's nine tiers correspond to the nine lords of the underworld. Atop this temple and the smaller ones surrounding it are vestiges of roof combs—delicate vertical extensions that are standard features of southern Mayan cities. You can descend the steep, damp flight of stairs to view the king's tomb. One of the first crypts found inside a Mexican pyramid, it contains a stone tube in the shape of a snake through which Pakal's soul was thought to have passed to the netherworld. The intricately carved sarcophagus lid weighs some 5 tons and measures 10 feet by 7 feet. It can be difficult to make out the carvings on the thick slab, but they depict the ruler, prostrate beneath a sacred ceiba tree. There's a reproduction in the site museum. To enter the Templo de las Inscripciones, you must obtain a permit first thing in the morning at the museum. Templo XIII. If you can't secure a permit to enter the Templo de las Inscripciones, you can always visit the unassuming Templo XIII. Attached to the Temple of the Inscriptions, this structure has a royal tomb hidden in its depths, the Tumba de la Reina Roja (Tomb of the Red Queen). The sarcophagus, colored with cinnabar, probably belonged to Pakal's wife or mother. Palacio. The smaller buildings inside the breathtaking Palacio are supported by 30-foot-high pillars. Stuccowork adorns the pillars of the galleries as well as the inner courtyards. Most of the numerous freizes inside depict Pakal and his dynasty. The palace's iconic tower was built on three levels, thought to represent the three levels of the universe as well as the movement of the stars. Río Otulum. To the east of the palace is the tiny Río Otulum, which in ancient times was covered over to form a 9-foot-high vaulted aqueduct. Cross the river and climb up 80 easy steps to arrive at the reconstructed Grupo de los Cruces. It contains the Templo del la Cruz Foliada (Temple of the Foliated Cross), Templo del Sol (Temple of the Sun), and the Templo de la Cruz (Temple of the Cross), the largest of the group. Inside the nearby Templo XIV, there's an underworld scene in stucco relief, finished 260 days after Pakal's death. The most exquisite roof combs are also on these buildings. Templo XIX. This temple has yielded some exciting finds, including a large sculpted stucco panel, a carved stone platform with hundreds of hieroglyphics, and a limestone table (in pieces but now restored) depicting the ruler K'inich Ahkal Mo' Nahb' III. The latter is on display in the site museum. Templo XX. Ground-penetrating radar helped locate a frescoed tomb covered in murals. Both temples are still being excavated and are only sporadically open to the public. To reach the cluster called the Grupo Norte (Northern Group), walk north along the river, passing on your left the Palacio and the unexcavated Ball Court. There are five buildings here in various states of disrepair; the best preserved is the Templo del Conde (Temple of the Court). A short hike northeast of the Grupo Norte lies Grupo C (Group C), an area containing remains of the homes of nobles and a few small temples shrouded in jungle. To maintain the natural setting in which the ruins were found, minimal restoration has been done. Human burials, funeral offerings, and kitchen utensils have been found here as well as in Grupo B (Group B), which lies farther along the path through the jungle. On the way, you'll pass a small waterfall and pool called El Baño de la Reina (The Queen's Bath). By far the most interesting of these seldom-visited ruins is the Grupo de los Murciélagos (Group of the Bats). Dark, twisting corridors beneath the ruins are ready to be explored. Just be aware that you might run into a few of the creatures that gave the buildings their names. A path from the Grupo del los Murciélagos leads over a short extension bridge to the Museum. You can also reach it by car or colectivo, as it's along the same road you took to the entrance. The museum has a remarkable stucco rendering of Mayan deities in elaborate zoomorphic headdresses, which was discovered in front of the Temple of the Foliated Cross. Also noteworthy are the handsome, naturalistic faces of Maya men that once graced the facades. Displays here and in the rest of the site are labeled in English, Spanish, and the Mayan dialect called Chol. There's also a snack bar and a crafts store.

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Parque de la Marimba

Fodor's choice

Tuxtla’s Central Park (more plaza than park) shades in comparison to this one-block expanse a few blocks west of the city, especially as a gathering place. The lush vegetation makes the park a pleasant spot to catch a break from the daytime heat of Tuxtla but it really comes to life in the evenings from 6 to 9 when—per its name—live marimba music can be heard in the park’s gazebo. Grab a spot on one of the green wrought-iron park benches to watch the performance. Plenty of couples get up to dance, a few in chiapaneco folk costume; feel free to join in if the music so moves you. Children play. Vendors sell food and balloons. The spectacle makes for one of those quintessential tropical Mexican evenings, and it's all free.

Parque-Museo La Venta

Fodor's choice

Giant stone heads and other carvings were salvaged from the oil fields at La Venta, on Tabasco's western edge near the state of Veracruz. They're on display in the 20-acre Parque-Museo La Venta, a lush park founded by Carlos Pellicer Cámara in 1958. The views of the misty Lago de las Ilusiones (Lake of Illusions) are stirring, which is probably why young lovers come here to smooch in quiet corners. The 6-foot-tall stone heads, which have bold features and wear what look like helmets, weigh up to 20 tons. The park also contains a zoo displaying animals from Tabasco and neighboring states. The jaguars—including one that is jet-black—always elicit screams from children. Sadly, many of the animals housed here are in danger of extinction.

Blvd. Ruíz Cortines s/n, Villahermosa, 86030, Mexico
993-232–0423
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Rate Includes: $3

Raúl and Alex

Fodor's choice

Raúl and Alex really know their stuff; their tours leave every day at 9:30 am from the cross in front of the cathedral in the zócalo, returning around 2 for $15. You'll visit San Juan Chamula and Zinacantán; the cultural commentary is particularly insightful.

Yaxchilán

Fodor's choice

Excavations at Yaxchilán (ya-shee-lan), on the banks of the Río Usumacinta, have uncovered stunning temples and delicate carvings. Spider monkeys and toucans are, at this point, more prolific than humans, and howler monkeys growl like lions from the towering gum trees and magnificent 100-year-old ceibas.

Yaxchilán, which means "place of green stones," reached its cultural peak during the Late Classic period, from about AD 800 to 1000. It's dominated by two acropolises that contain a palace, temples with finely carved lintels, and great staircases. Several generations ago the Lacandón made pilgrimages to this jungle-clad site to leave "god pots" (incense-filled ceramic bowls) in honor of ancient deities. They were awed by the headless sculpture of Yaxachtun (ya-sha-tun) at the entrance to the temple (called Structure 33) and believed the world would end when its head was replaced on its torso.

Agua Azul

The series of waterfalls and crystalline blue pools at Agua Azul is breathtaking, especially during the dry season (from about November through March), as wet-season waters are often churned up and brown with mud. You can swim in a series of interconnected pools.

If the single cascade at nearby Misol-Há is less grandiose than the series of falls and pools at Agua Azul, it's no less amazing. You can swim in the pool formed by the 100-foot cascade, or explore behind the falls, where a cave leads to a subterranean pool. For safety reasons (the currents are deceptively fast and you may need someone to keep an eye on your belongings if you swim), we recommend visiting on a guided tour.

Arco del Carmen

San Cristóbal's first "skyscraper," this elegant tower was constructed in 1597 in the Mudéjar (Moorish) style that was popular at the time in Spain. Note the graceful way the three-story-high arch is reflected in the smaller windows on the second and third levels. The tower, which once stood alone, is now connected to the Templo del Carmen.

Av. Hidalgo at Calle Hermanos Domínguez, San Cristóbal de las Casas, 29200, Mexico

Bonampak

Bonampak, which means "painted walls" in Mayan, is renowned for its courtly murals of Mayan life. The settlement was built on the banks of the Río Lacanjá in the 7th and 8th centuries and was uncovered in 1946. Explorer Jacques Soustelle called it "a pictorial encyclopedia of a Maya city." In remarkable tones of blue, red, green, and yellow, the scenes in the three rooms of the fascinating Templo de las Pinturas recount such subjects as life at court and the aftermath of battle.

Wear sturdy shoes and bring insect repellent, good sunglasses, and a hat. Note that only four visitors are allowed in each room of the Templo de las Pinturas at a time, and you can't use a flash.

Mexico
916-345–2705-office in Palenque
Sights Details
Rate Includes: $8 includes transportation from park entrance to main structures, Daily 8–5

Cabeza Maya

The dominant landmark is the chalk-white Cabeza Maya, a giant sculpture of the head of a Mayan chieftain just west of downtown. It sits in La Cañada, a quiet neighborhood with many great hotels and restaurants.

Café Museo Café

The smell of freshly brewed coffee may be enough to draw you into this three-room museum, which doubles as a restaurant. The well-executed displays about the local cash crop will be enough to keep you here. Chiapas is the country's biggest producer of coffee, harvesting almost as much as Oaxaca and Veracruz combined. Although indigenous people were exploited for centuries by wealthy landowners, they now produce more than 90% of the region's coffee. The captions are in Spanish, but there are information leaflets in English. When you're finished with the museum, head to the central café for a taste of rich cafe chiapaneco.

Calle María Adelina Flores 10, San Cristóbal de las Casas, 29200, Mexico
967-678–7876
Sights Details
Rate Includes: $1.50, Closed Sun.

Catedral de San Cristóbal Mártir

Dedicated to St. Christopher the Martyr, this cathedral was built in 1528, then demolished, and rebuilt in 1693, with additions during the 18th and 19th centuries. It has become the iconic symbol of the city and is pictured on countless postcards. Note the classic colonial features on the ornate facade: turreted columns, arched windows and doorways, and beneficent-looking statues of saints in niches. The floral embellishments in rust, black, and white accents on the ocher background are unforgettable. Inside, don't miss the painting Nuestra Señora de Dolores (Our Lady of Sorrows) to the left of the altar, beside the gold-plated Retablo de los Tres Reyes (Altarpiece of the Three Kings); the Chapel of Guadalupe in the rear; and the gold-washed pulpit.

San Cristóbal de las Casas, 29200, Mexico

Catedral de San Marcos

The gleaming white St. Mark's Cathedral sits across from the sprawling Parque Central, which is really more plaza than park. The modern structure shows some colonial touches. The tower has 48 bells that ring every hour as mechanical figures resembling the apostles appear halfway up the tower. Inside, you’ll hear services in Tzotzil and Tzeltal, Chiapas’s primary indigenous languages, as well as Spanish. The Vatican approved official mass translations for both languages in 2013, and Catholic churches throughout Chiapas use them. The building is open daily 8–2 and 4:30–8. A sound-and-light show is presented Thursday through Sunday evenings at 8, with brightly colored Chiapas-themed images projected onto the cathedral's white facade.

Av. Central at Calle Central, Tuxtla Gutiérrez, 29000, Mexico
961-612–0939

Comalcalco

The region's abundant cacao trees provided food and a livelihood for a booming Mayan population during the Classic period (100 BC to AD 1000). Comalcalco, which was founded in about the 1st century BC, marks the westernmost reach of the Maya; descendants of its builders, the Chontal, still live in the vicinity. Its name means "place of the clay griddles" (bricks) in Nahuatl, and it is Tabasco's most important Mayan site, unique for its use of fired brick (made of sand, seashells, and clay), as the area's swamplands lacked the stone for building. The bricks were often inscribed and painted with figures of reptiles and birds, geometric figures, and drawings before being covered with stucco.

The major pyramid on the Gran Acrópolis del Este (Great Eastern Acropolis) is adorned with carvings as well as large stucco masks of the sun god, Kinich Ahau. The burial sites here also depart radically from Mayan custom: the dead were placed in cone-shape clay urns, in a fetal position. Some have been left in situ, and others are on display in the site museum along with many of the artifacts that were uncovered here.

Villahermosa, Mexico
993-337–0274
Sights Details
Rate Includes: $3

Cristo de Chiapas

A 62-meter (203-foot) stainless-steel cross with an embedded silhouette of a Christ figure looms over Tuxtla from a hill in the city's southern suburbs. Its rotating illumination of colors is visible from the entire city on clear nights. The structure was modeled after Rio de Janeiro’s Christ the Redeemer statue, but this one is more abstract.
Copoya, Tuxtla Gutiérrez, Mexico

Fuente Mudéjar

Life in this small town on the banks of the Río Grijalva revolves around the Plaza Angel Albino Corzo. In the center is the unusual Fuente Mudéjar, or Moorish Fountain. The structure, built in 1562, once supplied the town with water. Said to be in the shape of the crown of the Spanish monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella, it is a mishmash of Moorish, Gothic, and Renaissance styles.

Hacienda La Luz

Call ahead to arrange a tour of Hacienda la Luz, which is quite close to downtown Comalcalco. It's also known as Hacienda Hayer, because a German doctor named Otto Wolter Hayer bought it in the 1930s and turned it into the most profitable hacienda in the region. On the tour you'll learn everything about the production of cacao, from bean to chocolate. Tours depart at 9 and 11 am and 1 and 3 pm and are in Spanish only.

Iglesia de San Lorenzo

The Iglesia de San Lorenzo, on the main square, at first looks much more traditional than the church in San Juan Chamula, and it is; services are basically Catholic. But look closely and you will notice odd little touches, like ceramic representations of animals sacred to the Maya scattered about.

Iglesia de San Sebastián

On the hill above the Iglesia de San Juan Bautista are the ruins of the Iglesia de San Sebastián. This church was built with stones from the Mayan temple that once stood on the site. Surrounding it is the old cemetery, an especially colorful place on the Day of the Dead, November 1.

Izapa

A lesser-known archaeological site, just 15 minutes from Tapachula, on the road to Talismán, the Izapa ruins are said to provide a link between Olmec and early Maya cultures. Closest to Tapachula are groups A and B, down a marked road off the highway. Group A is in a state of neglect, but Group B has a huge pyramid and some well-preserved stelae. The largest and most impressive ruins are Group F, visible from the highway. They are less than 1 km (½ mile) farther along the road, on the left. This fully restored ceremonial center—complete with pyramids, a ball court, altars, and stelae—enjoyed its heyday around 300 to 200 BC.
Mexico
962-626–4173
Sights Details
Rate Includes: Free

Las Grutas de Rancho Nuevo

Spectacular limestone stalactites and stalagmites are illuminated along a 2,475-foot concrete walkway inside the labyrinthine caves known as Las Grutas de Rancho Nuevo (or Las Grutas de San Cristóbal), which were discovered in 1960. Kids from the area are usually available to guide you for a small fee. You can rent horses ($5 per half hour) for a ride around the surrounding pine forest, and there's a small restaurant and picnic area. Many tour operators offer trips here, and that's the option we strongly recommend. The caves are also a quick taxi ride from town.

Mexico
Sights Details
Rate Includes: $1 per car plus 50¢ per person

Museo Arqueológico del Soconusco

A small museum inside the Palacio Municipal displays 25 stelae and other archaeological artifacts from the nearby ruins of Izapa, as well as photos of excavations sites in the region.
8a. Av. Norte número 24, Mexico
962-626-4173
Sights Details
Rate Includes: $1, Closed Mon.

Museo de Historia de Tabasco

Covered with dazzlingly elaborate cobalt tiles, the building housing the Museo de Historia de Tabasco was originally called the Casa de los Azulejos (House of the Tiles). The mansion would be over the top even without the cherubs reclining along the roof. The museum's collection is a bit sparse, but the individual pieces—an anchor from the days that pirates patrolled the Gulf of Mexico, a carriage from the reign of dictator Porfirio Díaz—help bring the past to life.

Av. Juárez 402, Villahermosa, 86030, Mexico
993-314–2172
Sights Details
Rate Includes: $1.50, Tues.–Sun. 10–8

Museo de la Historia Natural

The compact Museo de la Historia Natural is just outside the entrance to the Parque-Museo La Venta. Of the most interest at this Natural History Museum are the displays of Tabasco's native plants and animals.

Museo de la Laca

About a block south of Plaza Ángel Albino Corzo is a massive church called the Ex-Convento de Santo Domingo de Guzmán. It houses the Museo de la Laca, which has a modest collection of carved and painted jícaras (gourds). The foreign examples are from as close as Guatemala and as far away as Asia.

Calle Mexicanidad de Chiapas 10, Chiapa de Corzo, 29160, Mexico
961-616–0055
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Rate Includes: Free, Closed Mon.

Museo de la Medicina Maya

Few travelers venture here—a shame, because the Museum of Mayan Medicine is fascinating. Displays describe the complex system of medicine employed by the local indigenous cultures. Instead of one healer, they have a team of specialists who are called on for different illnesses. The most interesting display details the role of the midwife, who assists the mother and makes sure the child isn't enveloped by evil spirits. The museum is about 1 km (½ mile) north of the Mercado Municipal. Taxis are plentiful.

Av. Salomon González Blanco 10 (an extension of Av. General Utrilla), San Cristóbal de las Casas, 29230, Mexico
967-678–5438
Sights Details
Rate Includes: $2, Daily 10–5

Museo de Trajes Regionales/Yok Chij

Passing by this unsigned and slightly ramshackle colonial-era house, you'd never guess it was one of the city's best museums. It's also one of the hardest to get into—you need to call a day ahead for an appointment. But the effort is well worth it. Sergio Castro's collection of colorful clothing from the villages surrounding San Cristóbal is unparalleled. He explains how different factors—geography, climate, even the crops grown in a certain area—influenced how locals dressed. In explaining their dress, he is explaining their way of life. Each ribbon hanging from a hat, each stitch on an embroidered blouse has a meaning. Castro has spent a lifetime working with indigenous peoples; he currently runs a clinic to treat burn victims. Many of the ceremonial costumes were given to him as payment for his work in the communities. Castro gives 90-minute tours in English, Spanish, Italian, and French.

Calle Guadalupe Victoria 38, San Cristóbal de las Casas, 29200, Mexico
967-678–4289
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Rate Includes: $2

Museo del Ambar de Chiapas

Centro

Next to the graceful Ex-Convento de la Merced, this museum has exhibits showing how and where amber is mined, as well as its function in Mayan and Aztec societies. You'll see samples of everything from fossils to recently quarried pieces to sculptures and jewelry. Labels are in Spanish only; ask for an English-language summary. The volunteer staff can explain how to distinguish between real amber and fake.

Calle Diego de Mazariegos s/n, San Cristóbal de las Casas, 29240, Mexico
967-678–9716
Sights Details
Rate Includes: $2, Closed Mon.