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Explore Mexico: Chiapas

The terrain of Chiapas ranges from the Pacific coastal plain, backed by the peaks of the Sierra Madre de Chiapas, through the mainly agricultural Central Depression, irrigated by the Río Grijalva, rising again to the highlands, Los Altos de Chiapas . Beyond the highlands the land falls away again: in the north to the Gulf coast plain of Tabasco, while to the east a series of great rivers, separated by the jungle-covered ridges of the Lacandón rainforest, flow into the Río Usumacinta, which forms the border with Guatemala. The climate, too, can vary enormously. In one theoretical day you could be basking on the beach at Puerto Arista in the morning, and spending a chilly night by a fireside in the old colonial capital of San Cristóbal de las Casas . Generally the lowlands can be almost unbearably hot and humid, with heavy afternoon rainfall in summer, making a dip in the sea or river (or pool) a daily necessity. Days in the highlands can also be hot, and you'll need to carry water if you're hiking, but by evening you may need a sweater.

For its size Chiapas has the greatest biological diversity in North America. A visit to the zoo in the state capital of Tuxtla Gutiérrez, which houses only animals native to the state, will whet your appetite for the region's natural wonders. In the huge Montes Azules Biosphere Reserve, reached from Palenque, a section of the largest remaining rainforest in North America has been preserved. This is also the home of the Lacandón Maya, who retreated into the forest when the Spanish arrived, and shunned contact until fifty years ago. There's cloudforest in the south, protected in the El Triunfo Biosphere Reserve and, far easier to visit, the beautiful lakes and hills of the Lagos de Montebello National Park .

The Classic-period Maya site of Palenque, on the northern edge of the highlands, is one of Mexico's finest ancient sites and has been the focus of much recent restoration work. The limestone hills in this area are pierced by crystal-clear rivers, creating exquisite waterfalls - most spectacularly at Agua Azul . Palenque is also the best starting point for a trip down the Usumacinta valley, to visit the remote ruins of Bonampak and Yaxchilán and you can stay nearby in the Lacandón village of Lacanjá . The newly paved Frontier Highway pushes on south beyond these sites, through the growing town of Benemérito, where you can get a boat to Guatemala, or visit Ixcán, on the Río Lacantún, where some new tourist accommodation (sponsored by the state government to encourage economic development) enables you to visit the southern edge of the Monte Azules Reserve. The highway is now served by buses day and night, enabling you to travel on to the Lagos de Montebello and back to San Cristóbal; passing frequent army checkpoints along the route.

Travelling around Chiapas is not difficult: the main cities are connected by a network of good, all-weather roads and the Pan-American Highway passes from west to east through some of the most spectacular scenery in the state. In the south the coastal highway offers a speedy route from Arriaga, near the Oaxaca border, to Tapachula, almost on the frontier with Guatemala. In the out-of-the-way places, particularly in the jungle, travel is by dirt roads, which, though generally well maintained, can cause problems in the rainy season. These more remote places are also fairly well served by public transport, though it's more likely to be combis and trucks taking people and produce to and from markets, than the comfortable buses of the main roads.

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