Vanlife diaries #58: Lagos de Montebello, Las Nubes, Las Guacamayas & Yaxchilán, Chiapas Mexico
By our third week in Chiapas, we’d made it down to the Guatemalan border (and even managed a few day-trips across), but rather than continuing south through Central America as we’d once intended, we instead drove a wide loop around the perimeter of Chiapas. Often within spitting distance of her international borders, we spent this week searching for untouched corners of the wild Mexican jungle. And, sweet baby cheeses, did we find it.
Lagunas de Montebello National Park, Chiapas
From Cenote Chukumaltik in Comitán, we drove 1.5hrs south all the way to the Guatemalan border to explore one of the most striking national parks in Chiapas, Lagunas de Montebello.
The park protects 59 individual lakes, about a dozen of which we had plans to see over the next several days!
We parked up on the sunny shores of Lago Tziscao (which would be our base for the next 4 days) and then set out immediately on the short walk to Lago Internacional, a small lake that straddles the border between Mexico and Guatemala.
From here, it’s actually possible to walk into Guatemala— a bustling market sits within this “border free zone”, which permits movement between countries without a passport or passing through customs.
We were delighted by the novelty of walking to Guatemala and visited 3 times while camping on Lago Tziscao, popping across to grab dinner or sample the various cardamom liquors and candies (apparently Guatemala is the world’s primary producer of cardamom, which is adorably called cardamomo in Spanish).
Our hiking plans were foiled by an untimely trail closure, so instead we spent the next day in the back of a mototaxi, being carted around the national park to various viewpoints for the sweet price of 300p ($15) and without the hassle of manoeuvring our van into tight parking spaces.
We first visited Cinco Lagos, a series of 5 interconnected lakes visible from an elevated mirador and also partially from either side of the road as we drove through the park. From above, you can really appreciate how clear the water is along the almost Mediterranean coastline!
Next, we zipped over to Lago Pojoj, a large blue lake with a quaint island at its centre. We contemplated hiring a little boat to make the trip out to the island, but eventually settled on taking photos from the mirador and along the stunning lakeshore instead.
Lago Montebello, despite being the park’s namesake, was the least enchanting of all the lakes, so we moved on quickly to the Lagos de Colores, five lakes just outside the main entrance to the park: Esmeralda, Ensueños, Encantada, Bosque Azul, and Agua Tinta.
Swimming isn’t permitted in some of these lakes because the water is clean enough to drink! Several pipes at the far end of the lake confirmed that this is a major water source for communities in the area— with all the clean, clear water we’ve seen in Chiapas, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that this state supplied many others with all their water.
The following day, as we returned from yet another trip to Guatemala, our vanlife friends Brooks and Jocelyn arrived to Lago Tziscao and set up camp just in front of us.
Also from Seattle and also travelling in their Promaster van, we’d met them several weeks prior in Puerto Escondido and had made plans to meet up here in Chiapas as we turned north— both couples had originally set out to drive to Patagonia, but a surprise pregnancy had turned them around just 2 weeks ago (while we were turning around for different reasons).
When you spend 24/7 with the same person living in a van (and go weeks without any English-speaking people to talk to), it’s incredibly exciting to be among friends and we enjoyed the company immensely! Overall, our days in Montebello were a wonderful, sunny recharge for us before venturing into the jungle.
Las Nubes, Chiapas
Saying goodbye to our friends in Lagunas de Montebello as they headed north and we continued south through Chiapas, our next stop was Las Nubes— the clouds, in Spanish.
The waterfalls here can’t really compare to El Chiflón— the water is a similarly beautiful shade of milky blue, but the cascades themselves are much smaller and less dramatic.
The river is also incredibly powerful, so there aren’t many places to get in and swim, which feels like absolute torture in the jungle heat. Even the mornings are dripping in humidity, so it was a massive tease being this close to the water with no calm swimming holes in sight.
What Las Nubes does have going for it is the lush jungle setting and immersive hiking trail winding along the riverside, up to a high viewpoint in the trees, and back down through an intriguing labyrinth of rocky passageways, dense vines, and exotic flowers.
It’s wild, more rugged, less about the viewpoints than about the experience of just being out in nature.
Las Nubes is exactly the kind of wild waterfall and surging river you’d expect to find in the untamed jungle— but this was just the beginning.
Las Guacamayas, Chiapas
On a whim, we decided to deviate from our planned route along the far border of the state and instead cut north into the middle of the jungle to visit Las Guacamayas.
The area is named for the Scarlet Macaws that can be found in uniquely high concentration along the riverfront, but we’d also heard that monkey sightings were common and that was more than enough to warrant a slight change in our schedule.
When we saw a little coatí (Mexican raccoon) run across the road, we took that as a good sign and pressed on with mounting excitement.
Sure enough, when we arrived to Las Guacamayas in the late afternoon, it took less than a minute for Dan to spot a little spider monkey swinging overhead in tree and only a few more for him to point out a mother and baby monkey nibbling leaves across the way.
From here, the sightings became too many to count, but I’d estimate we saw a total of 15 spider monkeys and as many howler monkeys within the next 14hrs.
After setting up camp along the river, we headed out on a walk to explore the little town and the Las Guacamayas Ecotourism Park, which is a small corner of the massive Biosphere Reserve established to protect native jungle flora and fauna.
We saw so many wild spider monkeys swinging around in the trees that I felt foolish for the 100 photos I’d taken of our first monkey, thinking it was a rare sighting.
Not long after, I stopped directly below a group of howler monkeys (distinct with their hunched back and all-black fur) who were too distracted to join in on the absolute ruckus their family was making nearby.
Echoing along the river and throughout town was one of the most terrifying noises I’ve ever heard, like an exorcism taking place in the high branches of some uncomfortably close tree.
I don’t know that I would have guessed it was monkeys making this sound had I not had the context, but alongside the deafening trill of cicadas and squawking of the guacamayas, this would become the soundtrack to our lives for the next week in Chiapas. (For the full howler experience, watch this short video I made!)
If the animals weren’t enough to keep me occupied, the plant life, and specifically the flowers, here surely would’ve been.
I’ve never seen such an incredible array of wildflowers, each more striking and colourful than the last, and every vine wrapped around the centuries-old trunk of an enormous tree seemed totally enchanting.
The jungle was unexpected— literally bursting with life and such a contrast to the forests or deserts or mountains we usually find ourselves in.
We awoke uncharacteristically early the following morning for another long walk into the jungle, quickly spotting spider monkeys eating fruit from a large tree and a pair of guacamayas overhead.
Following the sound of the howler monkeys’ soul-shaking wail, we journeyed deeper into the jungle and soon found ourselves directly below a tree of no fewer than 15 monkeys engaged in a cacophony of howls.
For nearly 30min, we just stood there and watched the monkeys close-up. We saw their mouths pucker as they leaned forward to howl, watched baby monkeys scrambling up their furry backs, and saw deft hands propel them up and down the branches of the tree.
It was one of the most special wildlife moments we’ve had in Mexico, a rare glimpse into the howler monkeys of the Chiapas jungle. And it was exactly why we’d come to Las Guacamayas in the first place— the wild javelina we saw on our way out was just a bonus (you may recall that’s our van mascot!).
Driving several hours from Las Guacamayas through remote roads, we finally reached Frontera Corozal, a tiny town right on the border that acts as the primary access point to the Yaxchilán ruins.
In an effort to avoid burnout, I try and keep ruins on the trip to a reasonable number, but this was one I insisted on seeing, convinced the setting alone would be worthwhile. There was also great appeal to the difficulty of access, hoping it would keep the site immune to tourist crowds (which it very much does).
From Frontera Corozal, which is already incredibly wild and off-the-beaten-path, we hired a boat to take us 1hr up the Usumacinta River, which divides Mexico and Guatemala, and eventually deliver us to the base of the ruins.
We were two of only a small handful of people at the site, given 2hrs to hike around and explore before the boat would bring us back, and we were immediately struck by the ancient world we’d landed in.
Settled circa 350CE and at the height of its power from 600-800CE, Yaxchilán was once a massive urban centre with nearly 100 distinct building and a dominant power in this region, largely thanks to its protected position right on the river’s curve that limited land access to the south side.
Feeling like Indiana Jones, we scrambled up stone steps and root-laden paths to see the impressive ruins excavated in the middle of this seemingly impenetrable swathe of trees and vines. The name Yaxchilán means ‘green stones’ in a local Mayan dialect, which seems apt for a city that almost appears to grow right out of the jungle itself.
Monkeys howled in the distance and others munched on purple flowers by the fistful, each completing the fantasy of being deep within the jungle, exploring something few eyes have seen.
The heat was stifling, but it seemed almost requisite that we be dripping in sweat as we stepped into the stone chamber of temple and peered up at perfectly preserved Mayan etchings in the stone.
It is and likely will remain the most impressive ruins we’ve seen in Mexico, as much for the architecture and history as for the experience of being “lost” in the jungle so many miles from civilisation.
Las Golondrinas, Chiapas
Our final stop of the week was to Cascada Las Golondrinas, named for the hundreds of swallows who live in a cave just behind the largest waterfall and arrive nightly around sunset. Their tweeting is almost deafening!
We hopped in the water right when we arrived in the evening, impressed by the neat little network of paths that provide access to 3 waterfalls and several sizeable swimming holes.
We didn’t get up at sunrise to watch the Golondrinas fly out of their cave, which is apparently quite impressive, but we did go for a long swim once the sun was up.
The weather here in Chiapas is such that any time of the morning or night is suitable for swimming and I eagerly took advantage of every cool minute I could spend under a waterfall or splashing around in the pools before we had to hop back in our sweaty van and continue onwards to Palenque.
Where we stayed this week
- Camping at Cabañas Paraíso on Lago Tziscao in the Lagos de Montebello National Park, Chiapas (200p for 3 nights; 12-14 Apr)
- Camping at Centro Ecoturístico Las Nubes, Chiapas (200p including entry to the waterfalls; 15 Apr)
- Camping at Biohidroselva near Las Guacamayas, Chiapas (100p; 16 Apr)
- Camping at Cascada Las Golondrinas, Chiapas (150p including entry; 17 Apr)