Natural Mexico

On the Road to Palenque, Chiapas
A chorus line of parrots at Miguel Alvarez del Toro Zoo.

Entrenched in the tropics and a scant 1,725 feet above sea level, Tuxtla Gutiirrez can be very hot. But if you pass through town without stopping, you're missing some of the best that Mexico has to offer ecotourists. The city is world-famous for its Miguel Alvarez del Toro Zoo. For my taste, this zoo is the best of its kind in the hemisphere. Located 15 minutes south of downtown on the El Zapotal hillside, the 343-acre zoo contains only animals from Chiapas, including boar, mountain deer, badger, pheasant, tapir, black jaguar, and pavon (a large turkey used as the symbol of the zoo, it is endemic to Chiapas and in danger of extinction). "Natural" barriers are used instead of cages, and the animals' surroundings mimic their native habitats. Of the zoo's 213 species, 90 percent are in danger of extinction.

The favorite town for travelers in Chiapas is San Cristobal de ls Casas, much smaller (population 90,000) and quieter than Tuxtla Gutiirrez. This colonial gem has cobblestone streets and numerous plazas, churches, and traditional buildings. The town serves as the commercial center for the indigenous villages in the surrounding area.

If you are fortunate to have a bicycle, definitely ride what Eric Ellman, author of Bicycling in Mexico, calls the"highway to heaven." The trip from San Cristobal to Palenque couldn't be more scenic. Don't have a bike? Regular bus service runs between the two towns.

On the road east from San Cristobal to Palenque, travelers will pass through cattle and coffee country. The first major town is Ocosingo, 86 kilometers (53 miles) from San Cristobal and 95 kilometers (59 miles) from Palenque. According to Russell Greenberg, ornithologist and director of the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center, more than 140 species of birds have been found in the shaded, traditionally managed coffee farms of Ocosingo. In stark contrast, research done in other countries shows only five or six species inhabiting full-sun coffee fields.

Between Ocosingo and Palenque, you will find a series of impressive waterfalls. If you're going to pass through this part of the country, spend a day or two.

Agua Azul National Park is located on Highway 199, 45 kilometers (28 miles) south of Palenque and 40 kilometers (25 miles) north of Ocosingo. This national park was designated as such for its indescribable beauty. The falls are formed by the indigo-blue Yax River cascading down a staircase of 500 individual falls. There is a swimming area, and the water is warm. Be cautious: Whirlpools and underwater currents can be fatal.

Agua Clara is a new project, established in the summer of 1996, that seeks to restore former pasture and protect the existing forest. It lies just 8 kilometers (5 miles) from Agua Azul National Park and 58 kilometers (36 miles) west of Palenque. The ranch is right on the Shumulha River and is accessible from the highway to Ocosingo. Guests may rent kayaks and small boats to explore the river or trek 2 kilometers (1.2 miles) through the reserve to a quiet natural pool created by the confluence of the Tulija and Shumulha Rivers. Optional tours include horseback rides to the town of La Junta, where the Shumulha and Tulija Rivers join. You can also hire a guide for bird-watching.

The waterfalls at Misol-Ha are about 20 kilometers (12 miles) from Palenque. They stand at an impressive 40 meters (131 feet) high. This location is less touristy than Agua Azul, but it's definitely not isolated. Watch your step on the slippery trail to the natural pool and falls. From a distance the mist generated from the waterfalls seems to hide the attraction from view, but you'll hear the roar of the falls. Amenities here include a restaurant and lodging.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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