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Mexico Guru

Water World
by Jane Onstott

If you look at a map of Chiapas, you'll notice that north and east of Tuxtla Gutiérrez, the state capital, there is a vast area with few cities marked but lots of squiggly blue lines. What on paper looks empty is in fact a magical area laced with major rivers. Tropical forests provide homes to spider monkeys and coatamundis (here called tejones), skunks, all sorts of birds, and the lynx-like tigrillo. One of the easiest and most entertaining ways to explore this watery wunderland is by boat.

It's about an hour (85 km) from Tuxtla to Puente Chiapas, the main bridge crossing the massive Presa Nezahualcoyotl, a dam built in the 1960s. Fed on the west by the Grijalva River, tongue-twisting Nezahualcoyotl Dam is named for the philosopher--king of Texcoco, uneasy ally of the Aztec nation of Tenochtitlán. When the dam was completed in 1960, the most important Zoque town in the area, Quechula, was flooded. You can see the town's colonial-era church poking up out of the dam when the water is low.

To the southwest, near the Veracruz state border, the dam is fed by the La Venta River. The Maya and their predecessors, the Olmecs, relied on these and smaller rivers for transportation, and they are still used by rural people today. The economy in this area is based on agriculture and livestock. People also fish (catfish and tilapia are commonly found) or work as day laborers.

A Pit Stop Between Tuxtla and Palenque

On a trip in November 2008, my boyfriend Mike and I traveled by car from Tuxtla to spend a night at Rancho del Lago del Rey Nezahualcoyotl ("Rancho del Lago" for short). Perched above the dam, this newish retreat (see box for details) offers a tranquil environment, home-cooked meals, and boat tours for fishing, bird-watching, or just enjoying the magnificent scenery. After settling in at our cabin, we walked a short distance downhill and along a dirt road to the boat launch.

The sun was shining as our taciturn captain maneuvered the skiff along La Venta River, its banks lined with magnificent mahogany trees, lacy palms, white cedar, and the kapok trees sacred to the Maya. After heading up the wide green river for half an hour, we slowed to explore Cueva de Agua Blanca ("White Water Cave"), ducking under dramatic rock formations hanging near the water's surface, and later passed through Cueva del Aguila ("Eagle's Cave") to Cañón La Venta. The afternoon sun highlighted the canyon's vertical limestone walls. Some pieces of rock, having sheared off and fallen, created mini islands as well as artistic arrangements of huge square blocks along the shore.

Soon after the clear green waters of La Venta River met the darker and aptly named Río Negro, we stopped for a picnic lunch of sandwiches, fruit, and soft drinks. After sacking out for a snooze on the sandy riverbank, we headed back to the lodge. That evening we entertained ourselves playing games at the ranch's combination living--dining room, and later chatted with our host, Pedro Cruz Salazar, over a hearty dinner ($$$) with a number of different courses.

Mike and I spent just one afternoon and evening at Rancho del Lago, but there's plenty to keep you busy for a longer stay. Walk or ride bikes or horses (available for hire) along the dirt road that skirts the lake; float in the new, no-chemical swimming pool (due to be finished by September 2009). You can also rent a rowboat, go fishing, swim in the river, play in a waterfall, or take a trip to Malpasito, a little-visited archaeological site within the tropical forest.

Day Tripping If you prefer a day trip to an overnight stay, Parador Turístico Puente Chiapas (42 km from Tuxtla, at the Chiapas Bridge) also offers boat rides and excursions into La Venta Canyon and El Ocote Biosphere Reserve. Small, homely, family-run restaurants ($$) overlooking the southern shore of the Nezahuatcoyotl Dam sell comida campestre (country food): chicken soup, grilled fish, garlic or breaded shrimp. This ecotourism project is supposed to have guides and rent equipment for camping, rappelling, caving, however these may not always be available. At the very least you can count on something to eat and drink, a boat ride, and walking trails.

Posada del Lago del Rey Nezahuatcoyotl ($$, Km 136.6 Carretera de Cuota km 136.6, Raudales, Tecpatán, near Puente Chiapas, tel. in San Cristóbal de las Casas: 967/678-2550 or 2557) has camping sites as well as 10 cozy cabins. Including tax and breakfast, a double room midweek costs in the neighborhood of US$50 and the price goes up about 30 percent Thursday through Sunday nights. Each room has a platform bed under mosquito netting, cement floor, a hammock, small table, couple of chairs, screened windows. Toilets and showers are communal, located near the dining room. Breakfast is served outside under the trees. Boat trips cost about US$40 per person (4 pax minimum), including picnic. For more info see Rancho del Lago's website, www.ranchochiapas.com.

How to Get There

A new highway has cut driving time from Mexico City to Tuxtla Gutiérrez from 16 hours to 9 or 10. Parador Turístico Puente Chiapas and Rancho Lago del Rey are approximately 85 km (53 mi) from Tuxtla Gutiérrez, Chiapas and 155 km (96 mi) from Villahermosa, Tabasco. Transportation for up to six people is available from Rancho del Lago at reasonable prices.