Vanlife diaries #57: San Cristobal, El Chiflón & Cenote Chukumaltik, Chiapas Mexico
Although punctuated by another visit to the emergency room, this week also featured some major highlights, both in terms of culture and natural beauty— San Cris may just be our favourite town in Mexico and El Chiflón takes the cake for most spectacular waterfalls!
San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas
Fresh on the heels of Chiapa de Corzo, we visited another of Chiapas’ Pueblo Mágicos, or “Magic Towns”— the special government designation awarded to towns with significant cultural and historical significance.
These towns are always among Mexico’s best and most beautiful, and I wouldn’t use anything less than “magical” to describe San Cris, as it’s affectionately known.
We’d heard the town was popular among expats, backpackers, and nomadic hippies, but we still didn’t expect the wild melting pot of international cuisine (San Cris now holds a prominent position in Mexico’s foodie scene) or the cobbled lanes set against the backdrop of lush mountains or the undeniably festive atmosphere that pervades the town’s main walkways.
I was immediately reminded of Cusco, one of my favourite cities in the world— there is something equally enchanting about San Cristobal, which also feels nearly Andean in culture, atmosphere, and appearance.
We soon proclaimed San Cris the best town we’d visited in all of Mexico (a claim I stand behind even now that we’ve passed 6 months in the country), but not before I enjoyed a second visit to the emergency room for yet another bout of suspected E. Coli.
At the private hospital in Mexico City, I had been whisked immediately into a wheelchair and into a private room, which was comparable to any Australian or US hospital room. In the public hospital, I lay on the floor of the waiting room and vomited for several hours before finally being admitted. Multiple patients came to see the doctor while I was hooked up to an IV in the corner and someone wailed in unrestrained agony down the hallway.
Amazingly, the doctor spoke as much English as the private hospital (very limited, but better than nothing) and he was totally competent, but we were still amazed when the nurse drew blood without any gloves and handed the uncapped vials to Dan to hold.
In the end, my entire stay at the public hospital was free, which absolutely amazed both me and Dan— given that I’d paid a whopping $1300USD at the private hospital in Mexico City. And then we crawled off to an Airbnb so I could recover in relative peace.
Once I was able to eat again, we headed back into San Cris, camped at our favourite spot right alongside a quiet section of the river, and devoured all the international food we could get our mits on.
I’ll never tire of eating Mexican food, but the variety of cuisine in San Cris is still a major draw and we had some of the best meals EVER right here in the middle of Chiapas. Among our favourites were authentic Indian food at Cardamomo, spicy Thai curry at Bancook, the Neapolitan-style pizza from Pizzería Rivabella, amazing Lebanese from Malaak, and Italian from Satori. We continue to talk about it longingly!
El Chiflón, Chiapas
By the time the weekend rolled around, I was finally feeling like myself again and ready to continue the adventure through Chiapas. First up, we drove 2.5hrs south from San Cris to reach El Chiflón.
I’d incorrectly presumed El Chiflón to be a single waterfall, but in reality, the El Chiflón Ecotourism park protects a large section of river overflowing in cascadas— 5 of these are large enough to be named, but countless other waterfalls punctuate the river, which is an impossible shade of turquoise. It’s one of the most magical places in Chiapas and I was suitably blown away when we arrived in the evening!
After paying entry and a modest camping fee ($8USD in total for 2 people), we explored the shore of the river (and in my case, managed a quick dip) before the park closed for the evening. Even in low lighting, the colour of the water was simply mesmerising and I couldn’t wait to take more photos in sunshine.
First thing the following morning (8.30am is indeed “first thing” for me), I rolled out of bed and headed back into El Chiflón to explore before the masses arrived.
Visiting any popular attraction in Mexico on Sunday of Semana Santa (Holy Week) is akin to visiting Cancun during Spring Break, and my mission today was simply to see the falls before they became too crowded. Thankfully, Mexicans don’t go anywhere early and I had what felt like the entire park to myself until nearly 11am.
After entering the ecotourism park a short distance up from our waterfront campsite, a dirt path follows the river for about 20min to reach the first named falls, Cascada El Suspiro (The Sigh), right near the cabañas and tent camping area.
On this walk, the river becomes gradually deeper and more striking in colour, collecting into massive aquamarine pools that beg to be swam in. Of course I obliged, taking double or triple the walking time to get anywhere because of all the swimming stops— but can you blame me?
Once at the first falls, it’s only a short distance to reach the second, Cascada Ala de Ángel (Angel Wing Falls), equally spectacular in colour and power.
Despite being the tail end of the dry season here in Chiapas, the waterfalls appear to be at full capacity, spewing thousands of litres of turquoise water into full pools below, the area totally unaffected by lack of rain.
Indeed, this is one of the best times to visit El Chiflón, as the rainy season collects dirt and debris in the falls, turning their characteristic blue water into a murky brown. Through sheer luck on our part, we couldn’t have timed it better!
Continuing upwards, the third and most famous waterfall at El Chiflón finally comes into view: Cascada Velo de Novia or Bridal Veil Falls (which must be one of the most popular waterfall names worldwide).
There are actually two ecotourism parks at El Chiflón, one on each side of the river, but I specifically chose this side for the ability to get closer to Cascada Velo de Novia. Just walking up the first viewing platform is like taking a shower, the wind-whipped mist rushing off the falls as they thunder into the river with immense power.
This is the most iconic part of El Chiflón, the photo that every tour company uses to advertise their day trip from San Cris, and satisfied at having seen the falls at their best, I ventured back down the river in search of more photo opportunities.
What I didn’t know at the time, but thankfully what I soon learned after a short glance at the map, was that Velo de Novio isn’t the final waterfall accessible on this side of El Chiflón. Once Dan finally woke up and joined me in the park, we walked together back up to Velo de Novia and spotted the easily-missed trail hidden between zip line operators.
This trail seemed to be something of a secret— I’d estimate fewer than 10% of the people clustered at Velo de Novia actually continued to the upper falls, either because they never spotted it (I can confirm it’s very easy to miss!) or because they were put off by the relatively steep grade.
Either way, we found incredible solitude right after leaving Velo de Novia, which by this time (12pm) was becoming incredibly crowded.
The first stop along this trail was another viewpoint of the third waterfall, Mirador Carrizal (which apparently translates to Reedbed Viewpoint).
Sweating in the growing afternoon heat as we trekked farther upwards, we soon came to the aptly named Cascada Arcoíris (Rainbow Falls) and finally Cascada Quinceañera (named for the traditional celebration in Mexican culture of a girl’s 15th birthday).
Both of these upper waterfalls were absolutely spectacular and a rare opportunity to escape the not insignificant crowds amassing along the river and the lower viewpoints! And to think I almost missed them…
After soaking in the scenery and taking several hundred pictures of the waterfalls, we finally began our journey back down the river in search of a swimming hole for the afternoon— thankfully, there are dozens of beautiful options and we easily found a quiet section of the river to relax in the shade and jump in the water.
I question whether any of Chiapas’ other waterfalls will live up to the incredible beauty of El Chiflón, but we’ll spend the next 2 weeks finding out!
Cenote Chukumaltik, Chiapas
Our final stop of week was just a short drive from El Chiflón to Cenote Chukumaltik, near the small pueblo Comitán.
For the uninitiated, cenotes are essentially ancient sinkholes filled with beautifully clear water— they abound in Yucatán and Quintana Roo, the southern peninsula that juts into the Gulf of Mexico, but a few can be found outside of these states, including Chukumaltik right here in Chiapas.
We arrived in time to enjoy a refreshing dip before returning to our van for dinner (camped right at the entrance to the cenote), but couldn’t really appreciate its beauty properly until the following morning, when the light shone directly through the impossibly clear water to reveal impressive depth and baffling geology below.
On the recommendation of other travellers, we brought our snorkels and found endless entertainment in circling the perimeter of the sinkhole, easily spotting the trees and various features 10-15m beneath the surface.
At its centre, the sinkhole is more than 60m deep, and the dramatic drop-off visible with our masks and snorkels was admittedly intimidating.
Although it doesn’t really compare to the wild beauty of the Yucatán Peninsula cenotes, it was fascinating to us, as we won’t have time to visit the peninsula on our current 6-month visa (who would have thought we’d run out of time in Mexico with half a year on the table!). *exciting note that I went back a few months later to do a 2-month road trip through Campeche, Quintana Roo, and Yucatán; posts coming soon!
Where we stayed this week
- Camping on the river just outside of Parque Encuentro in San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas (free; 3-4 Apr)
- Hotel Na’Lum in San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas (450p; 5 Apr)
- Airbnb in San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas (2250p; 6-8 Apr)
- Camping on the river just outside of just outside of Parque Encuentro, Chiapas (free; 9 Apr)
- Camping on the river at El Chiflón, Chiapas (70p; 10 Apr)
- Camping at Cenote Chukumaltik near Comitán, Chiapas (200p including entry to the swimming hole; 11 Apr)