Exploring Chiapas: Three Reasons to Visit Southern Mexico

LUSH JUNGLES, EXPANSIVE RIVERS AND ANCIENT RUINS BECKONED US INLAND. WITH AGAPE SAFE IN HER SLIP WE HEADED FOR THE MOUNTAINS OF CHIAPAS, MEXICO.

Chiapas is a unique place full of diversity. This southern most region of Mexico has pine-forested highlands, perennial rainforests, rugged mountains and colonial cities all lying side by side.

The legacy of Spanish rule and the remnants of ancient Maya civilization collide, a true paradise for adventure lovers looking to venture off the beaten track.

Our friend and talented photographer, Elise Sterck, flew down to join us on our inland adventure. We rented the cheapest car we could find and hit the road. The top three things to see in the state of Chiapas include waterfalls, ruins and the countryside, and we intended to taste and see what we could in the few days we had on land! Here’s a to-do list for your trip to Chiapas:

FIRST STOP: WATERFALLS!

Chiapas’s most visited waterfalls are El Chiflon, Agua Azul, Las Nubes, Misol-Ha, El Chorreadero and Aguacero. You can’t go wrong venturing out to see any of these beauties!

Most locations also allow camping and the best time of year to visit is the spring when the water is a stunning chalky blue color. During rainy season the falls are still beautiful but the water turns a murky brown.

Camping at Aguacero

 

A magical canyon full of butterflies during the day and fireflies at night.

SECOND STOP: RUINS!

The most notable ruins in Chiapas are Palenque, Yaxchilan, Tonina, Bonampak and Tenam Puente. Some are more popular than others, and the best way we’ve found to beat the crowds is to go early when the parks first open or stay late until after the tour buses leave.

Exploring Tenam Puente

We had the place to ourselves!

THIRD STOP: SAN CRISTOBAL!

San Cristobal is a colonial city set in a highland valley, surrounded by pine trees and indigenous villages. The cobblestone streets are lined with cool cafes, funky hostels and traditional artisan markets. There is lots to do in and around this charming city, from visiting the museums, to browsing the markets, and seeing the colorful churches. It’s definitely a spot not to be missed.

San Cristobal is known for it’s amber mines and the jewelry made there is beautiful.

As always, it’s important to be prepared for adventuring through a foreign country. Here are our 5 tips for packing/traveling in Chiapas:

1. BRING A GOOD WATER FILTER OR UV WATER PURIFIER.

Chiapas is known for it’s poor water quality and it’s safest to drink only bottled water or water you have filtered.

2. PACK FOR DIFFERENT CLIMATES.

3. IF YOU ARE GOING DURING RAINY SEASON MAKE SURE TO BRING A GOOD RAIN JACKET.

It normally doesn’t rain all day but you can expect some rain almost everyday for a short period in either early morning or in the evening. (Another reason to bring water-friendly gear!)

4. PATIENCE.

Practicing patience is key here. Everything takes longer and seems to lack in efficiency. Plan to set aside extra time for trips.

5. SAFETY.

We’ve spent six months living in Mexico and have yet to feel unsafe. Everyone we have met has been unbelievably kind and generous, but every country in the world has it’s bad apples and it’s best to put away your camera when you are not using it, do not wear flashy jewelry or clothes and steer away from sketchy streets. Trust your instincts!

Photos by Elise Sterck.

How to Leave a Boat For Six Months – Decommissioning Agape in Chiapas

In case you didn’t know already, boats take a lot of work and require not only blood, sweat and tears but also a huge amount of time. After our first season cruising in Mexico, Agape was ready for some love!

Decommissioning a boat is doing a lot of little things, hoping to prevent a lot of “what if’s” from happening. Everything from bugs and leaks, to theft and hurricanes, there is a lot to prepare for and preventive maintenance to do.

We started off with a long list, beginning with systems that wouldn’t be used until next season.

Mr. Perkins got a whole day of love, where I changed the oil and oil and fuel filters, flushed and refilled the coolant, fresh water flushed the cooling system, flushed and refilled the automatic transmission fluid, and treated and polished the fuel. Then I finished up his spa day with a good wipe down with a degreaser and a light spray of WD-40 making sure that he was nice and clean and ready to fire up when we got back. Also, if there are any leaks we will be able to find them when we get back since the engine was clean when we left it. Ok, who am I kidding? It’s a Perkins it will always leak oil haha.

We also changed the oil/filters and cleaned/WD-40’d the Honda generator and our outboard.

Outside there was lots of work to do. The sails needed to come down and were inspected, cleaned, dried and folded to be stored down below. All the lines were washed, dried and stored below as well. The halyards we pulled up to the top of the mast and wrapped and stored in the shade and protection of the sail cover. I also sewed shade covers to shade our decks to help keep the boat cool, since the teak could get over 150 degrees!

  • We removed all the blocks that we could to clean and oil them.
  • Cleaned the dingy and BBQ to store below.
  • Washed and waxed the boat.
  • Cleaned the anchor chain and locker.
  • Went over the teak deck and replaced missing plugs.
  • And Rachel’s favorite…. polished all the stainless!!!!!

Inside it was all about smell, mold and bug prevention!!! We started by flushing our holding tank, then washing the bilge and setting out roach traps (purely preventative).

  • We pickled the water maker.
  • Turned off and cleaned the refrigerator and freezer.
  • Closed sea cocks.
  • Sorted all the food, made a list of the provisions we had on board for next season and gave away open items. 
  • We sorted, vacuumed and cleaned out almost every locker.
  • Oiled all the interior wood and floors.
  • Cleaned all the fans, the stove, microwave, countertops and headliner.
  • Closed the fuel lines.
  • Emptied and cleaned the water tanks.
  • Turned off the propane tanks.
  • Made sure the bilge pump was working.
  • Disconnected from shore power, since we’d leave nothing running and we had enough solar to keep the batteries topped up.
  • Arranged bottom cleaning, marina payments and a caretaker for while we were gone.
  • And finally we left a note with our contact info and a few little requests for our friends that would be checking on Agape over the next few months for us.

It’s ended up being a lot of little jobs crammed into a few days of hard work, but when we left Agape was looking better than 99% of the time we were cruising her. Everything had been wiped down, accounted for, cleaned and organized. We looked at it like our spring cleaning, it helped us to identify anything we needed to get or replace while we were back in the states and it also gave us peace of mind as we said goodbye to her for the next few months. When we come back we hope that she will be just as clean and beautiful as when we left her!

Tehuantepecers, Trash and Pirates?

Marina Chiapas, lies within Puerto Madero, Mexico’s southern most port, but to get there you’ll have to brave the dreaded Tehantepecers.

Tehuantepecers, or Tehuano winds, are strong mountain-gap winds traveling through Chivela
Pass and are most common between October and February. The winds originate in eastern Mexico and the Bay of Campeche as a northerly wind, accelerated southward by cold air, which crosses the isthmus and blows through the gap between the Mexican and Guatemalan mountains. These winds can reach up to gale and hurricane force. They can even be observed on satellite images, as they create fetch which grows into swell, which can sometimes be observed as far as 1,000 miles
away. These winds often come in cycles, blowing for a few days and then calming down to almost nothing, only to start right back up again.

There are two ways to cross.
The first way is to motor like heck, straight across the 210 mile bay and hope that you don’t get hit by the Tehuantepecers and stuck battling the high winds and huge waves that can build with them.

The second is to keep one foot on the shore, staying 1/4 to 1 mile offshore, making it a 260 mile trip. But, if it does start to blow you’ll have less fetch and a shorter distance of heavy winds to battle, as the further offshore you get the wider the band of wind gets.

Motoring into our first night crossing the Gulf of Tehuantepec.

We chose the direct route. Leaving Huatulco on the 14th at about 2:30pm, just as one system was dying out. We hoped that this break in weather would give us the 72 hours we needed to safely cross the bay and enter into the marina before the next system started to blow.

We had a pretty uncomfortable start, as the chop had not completely died down from the last big blow, but after a couple of hours we were out of the washing machine like waters and the two knot counter current. The sea eventually laid flat and we enjoyed a long and hot motor across the bay. Of the 40 or so hours it took us to cross, we only sailed for two. We got lucky, having no wind and flat seas is about as good as it gets in the bay. Other boats we’ve met had very challenging crossings, breaking gear and ripping sails while batting the gale force winds and strong currents.

A massive mahi mahi we almost landed on the second day of our passage.
Seconds before getting him on board the mahi snapped our gaff in half and shook the hook. It was one of the most disheartening moments we’ve ever had aboard Agape.

We did have one exciting moment though. As Rachel was finishing up a podcast on piracy, we noticed three pangas way off in the distance. At over 50 miles offshore we rarely see pangas, as this is normally the maximum or their range. Suddenly one panga turned and headed straight for us at a racing speed. Rachel nervously asked what I though we should do, to which I replied, “I’m not sure what they want, but you should go put some clothes on before they get here.” I also asked her to grab the flare gun as well, just in case things got weird.

As the men approached, we waved and smiled, they smiled back as well and asked if we had water and food to spare. For these men, their livelihood comes from fishing and the longer they can stay out the more fish they can catch and money they can make for their families. It’s a hard life on the sea, in a small boat with no sun or wind protection. Often 2-3 men will spend days offshore in these small boats. We were happy to give them water, food and some cold beer. They were so thankful that they gave us a small shark they had caught as a thank you. We told them we had plenty of food on board but they insisted we kept it. We waved goodbye and I went to work filleting dinner.

At one point we motored through a three mile wide band of micro plastics and trash. It was heart breaking so see and not be able to do anything about it.

On the afternoon of the 16th we arrived in Marina Chiapas just in time as the raining season began threatening us with daily thunder and lightning storms passing so close they shook the boat. This would be Agape’s new home for the next 6 months while we travelled inland throughout southern Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras, sailed the Caribbean on a sister ship, and visited family and friends in Hawaii and the western United States.

Shortly after arriving in the marina Customs, Immigration and Navy officers, as well as their drug sniffing dog came to inspect Agape.

Huatulco and Road Tripping to Puerto Escondido

In 1984 the Mexican tourism agency Fonatur, began to develop the area of Huatulco and its nine surrounding bays as a tourist area, in hopes of it becoming the next Cancun. During the early development the existing population was moved to Santa Maria Huatulco, freeing up 21,000 hectares of land for the government to develop. It also set up protected areas, or “green zones”, that would make for an ecologically friendlier development and help to preserve the beautiful but fragile aquatic ecosystems surrounding the bays.

The Bays of Huatulco and the numerous small coves stretching along 26 kilometers of jagged coastline, includes 36 white sandy beaches. The most centrally located bay is Bahía de Santa Cruz, which is just south of the town of La Crucecita. It is also the center of commercial and tourist activities, with a large pier where cruise ships dock, as well as the small Marina Chahue, just to the south.

We anchored in Bahia Oragano with S/V Ardea and after 2,500 nautical miles of searching we finally found warm, clear-ish water!!!

The best visibility we’ve had since leaving California. One day….

We anchored in about 20 feet of water and watched our big Rocna hit the bottom! I was so excited to jump in and play that I totally forgot how tired I was after our overnight passage. We spent the day swimming and snorkeling the rocky point.

We even broke out our scuba gear, and for the first time since coming into Mexico we used it for something other than cleaning the bottom of the boat! Although I did end up also using it for that as well.

We would have loved to stay here longer, but after getting an updated weather forecast found that a hurricane was forming off of Guatemala and El Salvador, and the early prediction models showed it making land fall just north of Huatulco. If it formed, it would be the earliest recorded hurricane on record and would be Rachel’s and I’s first. We decided to not take any chances, and after only two days in the beautiful water we pulled anchor and headed into the nearby marina that offered limited protection. 24 hours later it was down graded to a tropical depression and after pushing its way through the Tehuantepec ended up being a low pressure system. But, better safe than sorry.

At this marina, as it is with many others we have stayed at, it’s about the same price for the discounted weekly rate as it is for three or four regular priced nights, and since we thought we’d be riding out a possible hurricane we had paid for a week up front. With Agape safe on the dock, we decided to stretch our legs and spend Rachel’s birthday doing a mini road trip up the coast to Puerto Escondido.

We rented a small car and took three days to explore the coastline to the north. Puerto Escondido is one of the largest surf destinations in Mexico and the waves can be monsters! When we arrived there was definitely surf, but they weren’t the waves that would make the cover of a magazine. We found a nice hotel just off the beach called Hotel Santa Fe and enjoyed a great dinner overlooking the water with champagne for Rachel’s Birthday.

Birthdays and holidays in general are hard for us as we travel. We really treasure our friends and families, and when it comes to these special days we wish we could spend them with the people we love most. I know this rings especially true for Rachel as she tends to get a little more home sick than I do. This is one thing that many people tend to overlook when dreaming about cruising.

Walking the board walk on legendary surf beach Zicatela.

Bahia San Agustin
Bahia San Agustin

This entire stretch of coastline is amazing, with so many beautiful and protected bays, white sand beaches and palapa restaurants. You could spend months here exploring and playing in the water and still not see it all.

Upon returning to the marina we had a choice to make, return to the beautiful bays to the north or continue our voyage south. With rainy/hurricane season in full swing we decided it would be wise to make the dash across the Tehuantepec as soon as we got a good weather window.

Bahia San Agustin
The beautiful Puerto Angel
Pier jumps in Puerto Angel

We waited out one more system and when it looked like we’d have a few days of calm conditions, we said our goodbyes to our friends on Ardea, Grace, and Halcyon and began what we hoped would be an easy passage across the dreaded Tehuantepec.