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Charming Chiapa de Corzo

Less than half an hour east of Tuxtla Gutiérrez, Chiapa de Corzo is compact and historical. Easy to reach from Tuxtla by car or bus, this pleasant town has good shopping opportunities and the chance to experience chiapaneco hospitality outside the state capital. Located on the banks of the Grijalva River, it offers excellent access to this magnificent waterway on inexpensive boat trips. If you are lucky enough to visit in January, Chiapa de Corzo celebrates its favorite Catholic saints in an exceptionally lively and unique way.

The main square boasts La Pila, a large, open, brick structure enclosing an octagonal fountain. Aside from its unusual 16th-century fountain, the most interesting feature of this huge plaza is a stunning pochote tree of great age in one corner. Surrounding the plaza are shops selling laca (lacquerware, for which the town is known) as well as carved wood objects, embroidered tablecloths, and other handcrafts. Santo Domingo monastery has been restored and has rotating art and cultural exhibits. It's worth a visit, as is the Lacquerware Museum.

Before the Spanish invasion, the Chiapaneco tribe (for which both the state and this town are named) dominated the region, having only recently wrested control of valuable salt mines and cacao fields from long-established tribes. The Chiapanecos allied themselves with the Spanish to subdue their native rivals. However the Chiapanecos were not rewarded but instead promptly enslaved by the Spanish. Many of this proud and uncompromising people (men, women, and children) jumped to their deaths into Sumidero Canyon rather than submit to the conquerors. At some points 1,000 meters deep, Cañón del Sumidero served this grisly destiny well.

The Big Tourism Draw

Today this magnificent canyon is the main reason people visit Chiapa de Corzo. Motorboats leave on the half-hour for tours of the sheer-walled canyon, etched millions of years ago by the Grijalva River. Red and tan walls rise above the wide, green-tinted river, which was tamed by the construction of the Chicoasen Dam in 1981. Above the roar of the boat engines, your driver/guide will point out egrets, hawks, kingfishers, iguanas, and crocodiles.

Within the canyon, the Xcaret Group has created Parque Sumidero, with hiking, kayaking, mountain biking, and a zipline. Admission is a bit pricey if you make this a pit stop, but you can spend the whole day and enjoy the swimming pool and restaurant, as well as the above-mentioned activities at additional cost. Most travelers still choose the standard boat trip, which lasts about two hours.

The Big Party

If you're lucky enough to be in Chiapas in January, don't miss the fabulous festivities of La Fiesta Grande de Chiapa de Corzo. Most of the parades and dancing occurs between January 15 and 23, when the town honors its most important saints: Our Lord of Esquipulas (Nuestro Señor de Esquipulas, January 15); Saint Anthony the Great (in Spanish, San Antonio Abad, January 17); and the town's patron saint, San Sebastián Mártir (Saint Sebastian, January 20).

Figuring into the festivities is the legend of a wealthy woman, doña María de Angulo, who fed hungry local people during a time of great hardship. The lively celebration kicks off January 8 when the chuntayes (AKA chuntáes) imitate the actions of this colonial-era woman. Accompanied by musicians, they parade through town wearing women's clothes, make-up, and wigs. With baskets of flags and flowers on their heads, los chuntayes dance the son de Bayashando.

The biggest day of the festival, however, is the 15th, when ---masked male dancers wearing ribbons and striped serapes---parade and dance accompanied by musicians on guitar, flute, and drum. Las Chiapanecas (real women this time) participate dressed in colorful costumes and lots of bangles and jewelry. The night of the 21st, locals flock to the river to watch the Batalla Naval, a mock naval battle and fireworks display. This tradition is more than 400 years old, dating to 1599.

Typical dishes served at this time of year are baked pig with rice and the meat dish pepita con tasajo, a stew made with ground pumpkin seeds. Perhaps these ingredients appropriately represent the blending of pre-Colombian, European, and pagan elements that make this charming festival unique.

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