Chiapa May Be Remnant of Ancient Olmec Time

Smith is former TV critic of The Times.

We had come down from the mountain city of San Cristobal de las Casas on its 7,500-foot plateau near the Guatemala border.

Here the Indians, descendants of the ancient Zapotecs, walk the streets barelegged and barefoot in their red cotton ponchos and broad-brimmed straw hats adorned with tassels and ribbons, and the women sell beautifully woven woolens in the church square.

We were heading for the seacoast resorts, notably Puerto Escondido, to bake out some of the mountain chill. The Pan American Highway through the forested mountains of Chiapas, the southernmost state in Mexico, twists and turns like the pathway of a drunken snake writhing through the pine woods.

About 50 miles west of San Cristobal it plunges thousands of feet into the lush, tropical valley of the Grijalava River and this ancient town.

It is said that Chiapa de Corzo may be the oldest city in southern Mexico, an outpost of the fabled Olmec civilization that sculpted those vast brooding heads along the Gulf Coast, that this was a trading post linking the Zapotecs and the Maya, and that there is evidence that even the Incas of Peru came here to trade.

Today it is a city of little consequence, a place the tourists speed through on their way to San Cristobal. In the zocalo , however, is a 16th-Century fountain worth stopping to see, built in the shape of the crown of the King of Spain.

Vast and Sluggish

And there is the river, the vast, sluggish Grijalava. Once a roaring cataract cutting through the Tehuantepec Isthmus to the Gulf, the river was tamed by the building of the great dam at Chicoasen, one of the world's largest (completed in 1981). Now the river is an ever-widening, slow-moving watery mass feeding the banana plantations, orange groves and farmlands of the valley.

Where the Grijalava washes against the concrete banks of the city, a dozen or so boats with outboard motors are docked, and for a small price (1,500 pesos a head, about $1.50), a boat and boatman can be hired to take you 20 kilometers (15 miles) down the river through the fabled canyon of the Sumidero. It's the best possible reason to stop in Chiapa and one of the most fascinating experiences in all of southern Mexico.

When the Grijalava was a stormy cataract, it cut a narrow pathway through the mountains that is now a canyon with walls that soar 6,000 feet above the water in an almost vertical expanse of white stone.

So steep are the walls of the canyon that little grows on them except ivy that climbs the stark stone and an occasional stunted tree. This is jaguar country, but it's doubtful that even those sure-footed cats can make their way down into the Sumidero.

It is a haven for birds. White herons stand one-legged on outcrops of rock or flock by the hundreds to a scraggly tree clinging to the river bank. When the outboard motor startles them, they fly off in a vast snowy profusion like a fractured cloud.

Blue herons dive for fish in the river's depths and a squadron of cormorants, like jet fighters, zoom in perfect formation along the river only a few feet above the water.

A Twisting Path

The canyon follows as twisting a path as the highways above, and each turn offers new and curious vistas. At one point, for instance, the entire sluggish river is choked with lavender water lilies and the boatmen follow a zigzag path through the thick foliage, occasionally halting to lift their motors out to rev the propeller free of the tenacious roots and leaves.

Now and then you find a cavern high in the walls of the canyon and you wonder if a refugee, say, could make his way into one of them to hide. And you see a mirador (lookout), a windowed building at the top of the canyon where visitors driving out from Tuxtla Gutierrez, capital of Chiapas, can look down into the depths of the Sumidero.

But even despite the outboard motor of your boat, there is a cathedral-like solemnity in the canyon, a wondrous sense of peace, of remoteness, of escape. It is the sense of being one with nature, I suppose, where, in the poet's phrases, a man can breathe his soul back into him. As a pause in a journey, it is invaluable.

There were 38 of us in a chartered bus out of the artists' colony of San Miguel de Allende (in the state of Guanajuato, 800 miles north), mostly old Mexico hands and longtime residents of the country, yet none had ever ventured down into the Sumidero or even heard of the river ride.

Exploring the primitive state of Chiapas is an adventure, using San Cristobal as a base. There are several small, inexpensive hotels (notably, Posada Diego de Mazariegos, a block off the zocalo ). Bring your woolens; it gets cold and there's little heat. There are excellent restaurants, including the Unicorn, featuring paella and prime rib.

Nearby are the Indian villages of San Juan Chamula and Zinacantan. The latter on a Sunday is an astonishing place where the Indians in their red ponchos come from miles around to worship in the vast church, kneeling on the floor with an offering--a Coca-Cola, a bowl of grain--while the elders in a separate building conduct a slow, trance-like dance, shuffling to the music of ancient instruments.

A Proud People

Don't take their picture; they don't like it and will smash a camera pointed at them. These are Tzeltals, a proud people who speak a Mayan dialect and cling ferociously to their ancient ways.

At Chumala, members of the Tzotzils gather on a Sunday, but they are more sophisticated, more adapted to the ways of the tourists, and their women bargain with you, selling their woolens in the plaza.

More than 200,000 Indians, rather evenly divided between Tzeltals and Tzotzils, live in the mountains around San Cristobal, walking the city streets as comfortably as their village paths.

One branch of their Zapotec ancestors defied the Spanish armies sent to conquer them, and made a historic stand against the Spanish guns on the lip of the Sumidero above the Grijalava. When it was obvious that the Spanish strength was too much for them, they turned, the warriors, the women and the children, and flung themselves off the towering cliffs in a legendary genocide, choosing death rather than slavery.

(Driving the Pan American Highway from Oaxaca to San Cristobal can be torturous; there are flights from the city of Oaxaca to Tuxtla Gutierrez where one can rent a car or hire a car and driver or catch a bus to Chiapa de Corzo and San Cristobal.)

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