Vanlife diaries #59: Agua Azul, Roberto Barrios & Palenque, Chiapas to Villahermosa, Tabasco Mexico
Our final week in Chiapas was spent chasing countless waterfalls and generally attempting to avoid the sweltering jungle heat of Palenque and surrounds, before heading somewhat spontaneously through the neighbouring state of Tabasco. Alongside Oaxaca and Baja, Chiapas has turned out to be one of our absolute favourites, a natural paradise chocked full of hidden gems and spectacular scenery, and even Tabasco proved an unexpectedly delightful addition to the week’s adventure.
Agua Azul, Chiapas
We began the week with a visit to Agua Azul, the most famous (and certainly the most touristy) of Chiapas’ many waterfalls.
Despite knowing this, we were still surprised to arrive at 6pm on Monday to about 50 market stalls and twice as many people— usually, we would have sites all to ourselves at this point in the afternoon!
We didn’t spot another gringo in the mix, but several buses full of Mexicans occupied the parking lot and a surprising number of local families were set up along the perimeter of the falls, enjoying the final week of their 3-week school holidays. I’ll take crowds of locals over crowds of tourists any day!
Agua Azul itself was worth much of the hype. It’s an absolutely enormous river of turquoise blue water that falls in countless cascades across several kilometres.
The view is perhaps best appreciated from above, but the paved path that winds alongside the water provides dozens of worthwhile viewpoints onto the frothy falls and the inviting blue water that collects in perfect pools beneath each section.
We enjoyed our usual routine of an afternoon swim on arrival (it’s plenty hot enough at 6 and even 7pm to hop in the water), then walking through the dwindling market activity and remarking constantly on how large both the falls and the tourist site are.
And, also in keeping with our routine, I slipped out of the van at 8.30am the following morning to take photos before the masses arrived. That was markedly harder to accomplish here, where about 15 tents full of local families had camped just beside our van, but the waterfall is large enough that I hardly noticed.
Agua Clara, Chiapas
From Agua Azul, we made a quick stop at Agua Clara, where a suspension bridge spans an incredibly wide, flat section of turquoise river. It was some of the most mesmerising natural scenery we’d seen in Chiapas, and yet, we were the only ones there!
Our next stop was at Misol-Ha, a distinctly different waterfall than those we’d just come from— dropping 40m over the mouth of a cave, which also conceals a second, smaller cascada inside! (Sadly, it was not possible to photograph in the dark, so you’ll have to explore it for yourself.)
The swimming conditions weren’t quite as inviting, but we thoroughly enjoyed walking into the cave as bats swirled around milky stalactites and a little waterfall spewed out of the back. Misol-Ha is a quick stop, but it definitely wins points for originality!
Cascada Roberto Barrios, Chiapas
Continuing back to the main road and reversing slightly along the route we’d driven previously, we wrapped up the afternoon at Cascadas Roberto Barrios, which is home to 5 incredibly beautiful waterfalls.
This spot had been recommended as a less touristy alternative to Agua Azul, but the secret appears to have been let out. I will be relieved when this holiday period ends and we can finally return to empty waterfalls!
What Roberto Barrios certainly does deliver on: fun. Unlike many of the other popular waterfalls in Chiapas, which only permit swimming in select areas and rarely below the falls themselves, you can swim anywhere within Roberto Barrios’ countless pools and pozos.
Better yet, you can climb absolutely all over the falls themselves, slide down the rock, or jump into the water from any number of perches!
By far, this is the most active experience we’ve had at a waterfall since El Aguacero.
Rough dirt trails lead down along either side of the water to the base of the fifth waterfall, an incredible network of paths that lead to secluded picnic spots or safe jumping spots or new vantage points.
The opportunities to explore are truly endless— my lasting impression of Roberto Barrios will be of an adult playground.
By the time we did arrive to Palenque, the town that is home to the most-visited tourist site in Chiapas and among Mexico’s most renowned ruins, it was insufferably hot— as bad as the jungle heat we’d had at Las Guacamayas, but without the riverside breeze and instead with pavement that just radiated heat.
We spent a very unpleasant night camped on the street (especially when our van battery short-circuited and left us with no fan for several hours), which convinced us to cram our planned Palenque activities into the shortest amount of time possible so we can leave this toaster oven.
Venturing into Palenque National Park, we explored the Motiepá Trail to discover “forgotten” ruins lost to the vines and roots of the jungle— only 2% of the Mayan ruins around Palenque have actually been excavated, so there exists a great deal of history and mystery to the area surrounding this spectacular 3rd-century city in the jungle.
Of all the ruins we’ve visited, Palenque rates among the top 2 for its wild setting and overall mystique (Yaxchilán has gotta be number 1!)
Palenque was inhabited from roughly 200-800CE, with the city-state at the height of its power around the 7th century. With countless other Mayan sites vying for control of this region around the Late-Classic Period, conflict was frequent between the city of Palenque and Calakmul (in modern-day Campeche) and Tikal (in modern-day Guatemala); it would be Toniná (also in Chiapas) which ultimately defeated the city in the early 700s.
Palenque is incredibly striking, a real work of art and a staggering snapshot of Mayan civilisation. Howler monkeys sound in the distance and cheeky spider monkeys swing in the branches overhead. It’s a real jungle out here and you can almost imagine the wild conditions of life.
What a shame it’s too hot to function at this time of year. We lasted just 1hr walking around the immensity of the Palenque Archeological Site before we simply couldn’t manage another moment in the dripping jungle heat.
Aluxes Animal Sanctuary, Chiapas
To escape the heat (not quite as much as we would have liked, but still better than the ruins), we spent the remainder of the afternoon at Aluxes Animal Sanctuary, a local non-profit organisation dedicated to the rehabilitation and reintroduction native species.
Perhaps their most successful program has been the breeding and release of 80 scarlet macaws into the jungles around Palenque— the birds had been extinct in this area for 70 years, but thanks to the conservation efforts of Aluxes, there is now a stable population in this part of Chiapas.
Many of the animals currently housed at Aluxes are awaiting treatment and eventual release back into the wild. Some lost their mothers at a young age and need to be nursed into adolescence, others have been injured themselves and require some kind of medical care.
Although release is the ultimate goal, when circumstances don’t allow— such as animals that were illegally kept as pets (and therefore don’t have proper instinct to survive in the wild, like Lola the jaguar) or exotic animals who were bought illegally (such as a group of African tortoises)— those animals will remain at Aluxes.
I was very impressed by the conditions at Aluxes, especially the “islands” used to create a natural habitat of tall trees and deep jungle foliage surrounded by a pond— monkeys are able to swing away all day without the confines of a cage, yet are still protected from wild animals by gaps in the tree line.
It seemed a pretty nice place to be an animal.
Walking along the paths here was as good as many of the jungle hikes we’ve done, and with noteworthy trees and plants labeled alongside a variety of facts, we learned more about the jungle here than most of our previous exploring combined.
Finally leaving Chiapas to start the long journey back north (over the next 6 weeks— though, spoiler, we wouldn’t make it that long due to conflict), we crossed first through Tabasco and spent an unplanned 2 days in a hotel while I battled with yet another brutal bout of bronchitis amidst equally uncomfortable 40C heat.
Once on antibiotics and determined to see at least a little of Tabasco, we headed up to the capital city of Villahermosa, where I was most excited to explore Parque La Venta.
Part city park, part outdoor zoo, part archaeological museum (it’s named for the La Venta archaeological site in western Tabasco), Parque La Venta totally blew me away. Tabasco is still very much within the jungle, and the towering, centuries-old trees teemed with colourful plantlife and intriguing flowers.
Dozens of wild coatí, adorable red Mexican ‘raccoons’, nibbled at the berries and seeds that fell from the trees and scurried about the park, distracting me for quite some time as I crouched to take photos and videos of their sweet little faces.
Parque La Venta features a winding series of paths that, following COVID, have been converted to a more convenient one-way route, ensuring you see everything within the grounds if you keep walking forward.
First, the path leads by the outdoor zoo, and although I didn’t stop long to see the animals (having just visited the animal sanctuary in Palenque a few days ago), I was impressed by the open-air enclosures and what appeared to be very pleasant conditions.
I often struggle to see animals in captivity, but the number of families and small children clustered around the jaguar as he prowled through his limited territory or snapping photos of the monkeys swinging above is sure to have positive implications for the future of animal conservation— the best way to get people to care about the planet is to show them what’s at stake, and in this case it’s all of these incredible jungle animals, many of whom are threatened by food scarcity and loss of habitat related to development, deforestation, and climate change.
After winding through much of the zoo, the path leads onwards to the archeological museum, which is what I was most excited to see.
True to its name, Parque La Venta houses an impressive collection of original Olmec sculptures and statues salvaged from the La Venta archaeological site in northern Tabasco. The most famous among these are 3 gigantic stone heads.
These stone heads are typical of the Olmecs, the earliest known Mesoamerican civilisation that thrived from 1600-400BCE in the tropical Gulf-lands that now form modern-day Tabasco and Veracruz. Dozens of these ‘colossal heads’ have been found at various archaeological sites throughout the region and have survived in such impeccable condition throughout the centuries thanks to the hard basalt and andesite rock from which they were chiseled.
The largest head at Parque La Venta weighs a staggering 24 tons (22 metric tonnes), leaving archaeologists to wonder speculate how ancient people transported the head to various locations around the original La Venta site.
Although I’d come primarily to see these famed stone heads, I was equally impressed by the other stone carvings displayed around the park, all against the backdrop of towering jungle trees and deep emerald vines.
It was the perfect sanctuary from the stifling heat of Villahermosa, but eventually I made my way back to Dan and the van, stopped in for excellent fish tacos at Marea Brava, and then zipped onwards to our next destination: Veracruz.
Where we stayed this week
Although we spent Sunday of this week in Coatzacoalcos, it will be included in next week’s post in an effort to keep all of Veracruz together.
- Camping at Agua Azul, Chiapas (free; 18 Apr)
- Street parking in downtown Palenque, Chiapas (free; 19 Apr)
- Camping at Misol-Ha, Chiapas (100p; 20 Apr)
- Hotel Claudia in Macuspana, Tabasco (1100p for 2 nights; 21-22 Apr)