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Chiapas and Tabasco

Region 9: Chiapas and Tabasco

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This region, with its rich jungles of Chiapas and the tropical lowlands of Tabasco, is known for its great biological diversity. Tabasco has exploited its considerable oil and mineral deposits to create wealth, while Chiapas has remained isolated and undeveloped. Here, mountains and thick jungles harbor isolated ethnic groups steeped in land conflicts. Chiapas is one of the poorest states in the country, in spite of its magnificent natural and cultural heritage.

As a tourist attraction, Tabasco has inspired little interest but archaeologists and anthropologists have fallen under its spell. Chiapas has long been a magnet for foreign visitors who are stirred by the beauty of its geography and the mystery of its peoples.

Tourists tend to head for the exotic jungle ruins of Palenque, the enchanting colonial town of San Cristóbal de las Casas, and nearby Indian villages such as San Juan Chamula. Chiapas’s protected parklands have lured eco-tourists, an industry that has begun to flourish in the past few years.

This region stands apart from the rest of Mexico because of its distinctly preserved indigenous culture. Chiapas was the heartland of the pre-Columbian Maya. Today, with a large part of the population remaining indigenous, diverse Indian languages are more commonly spoken than Spanish.

Chiapas and Tabasco – Safety

Exploitation and poverty, combined with distinct cultural and social differences between Chiapas and the rest of Mexico, have created desperation and political unrest. This became a cohesive force pushing for change with the Zapatista uprising in 1994. Although in the past the U.S. Consulate has warned tourists traveling to Chiapas of local revolutionary groups that could have been hostile to them, tourists were never targeted by the Zapatistas, who were very careful to nurture international support. Insurgent activity was aimed at the Mexican government, limited to rural sections, and did not affect Chiapas state, away from Tuxtla Gutiérrez, Palenque, and San Cristóbal de las Casas.

Problems were caused by tourists trying to become involved in the Zapatista-Government conflict, however, and a number of tourists participating illegally in political work were deported in 1998. Foreign visitors to Mexico should be aware that it is not only unwise (because of potential escalation into violence) to take part in political demonstrations here, but also illegal. Chiapas is the most militarized state in Mexico. Tourists should not be surprised by the presence of army trucks and of soldiers bearing weapons, and also should take note that they must not take photographs of military activity, installations, or personnel.

Although the Zapatista movement has progressed from armed insurgence to peaceful diplomacy, scattered skirmishes have occurred between the Mexican government and indigenous groups. The U.S. Consulate warns travelers to exert caution in the mountain highlands north of San Cristóbal de las Casas, the municipality of Ocosingo, and the southeastern jungle portion of the state that lies east of Comitan. Certain remote villages may be unsafe and visitors hoping to hike or kayak deep in the countryside should check with the state and local tourism departments.

The rich, but also wild and inaccessible terrain of Chiapas makes hiking only suitable for groups with professional guides, preparation, and appropriate equipment. The scope of this preparation is far too in depth to be covered in the pages of this book. You’ll need to buy a book that provides advice for hiking safety. Be sure to read our section on mosquito safety.

Safety Tips For Travelers
Particularly in this area, we advise the following:

  • Keep a respectful distance from indigenous people in their villages and especially in churches.
  • Be sure to remove hats or baseball caps in churches.
  • Do not take photographs of people without permission as this can cause severe offense.
  • When walking around Indian villages, keep your camera out of sight. If you take a photograph inside a church or even wander about with your camera exposed, you can expect a violent verbal attack and may have it taken away from you and broken.
  • Women should dress respectfully when entering churches. Do not enter churches with exposed arms or low-cut tops. A long skirt or trousers are preferable to shorts or a mini skirt.
  • Do not approach children, as many locals worry about Westerners kidnapping their children.
  • Be aware that walking between Indian villages may be dangerous if robbers are in the area.

Weather Conditions

In October 2005, Hurricane Wilma caused considerable damage to the Chiapas area. If you intend to travel to these areas, you should seek information from local tour operators and hotels on the current condition of local facilities. Certain remote areas of Chiapas—not the tourist zones we mention—are affected almost annually by heavy rains, floods, and mudslides. If you plan on seeing these areas, avoid the months at the end of the rainy season (August to November) and check weather conditions before setting off. Be prepared to change plans if a tropical depression seems likely to bring heavy rains. Once mudslides close off roads, you can expect to be stranded for a long time, which most tourists find alarming. This also means you will have little or no access to medical care.

Apart from the above cautions, the major hazards in this region are tremendous heat and humidity and winding, mountainous roads. With the exception of San Cristóbal, the inescapable heat (Villahermosa can be stifling) is very unpleasant for many tourists who might consider limiting their days here to avoid becoming exhausted and irritable.

Drivers in this region must take extra precautions, proceeding slowly and carefully, and setting off early in the day. If the roads are dangerous when dry, they can be catastrophic during the rainy season (June to November), when we would advise travelers to avoid driving here altogether.

Tourists going to parks or natural areas need to be prepared for insect stings and bites. There are venomous snakes in this region and it is not wise to go exploring without a trained guide familiar with emergency procedures and nearby clinics in the unlikely scenario of snakebite.

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