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Welcoming the New Year in Chiapas, Mexico

Posted: Thursday, Jan 17th, 2013

A boat trip along Sumidero Canyon, in the state of Chiapas, Mexico, offers dramatic views of towering cliffs, abundant birdlife and crocodile studded shorelines. (Photos by Tarmo Hannula/Register-Pajaronian).
Editor’s note: This is the first installment of a three-part series on Mexico written by staff photographer Tarmo Hannula.

CHIAPA de CORZO, MEXICO — My wife, Sarah, and I started the New Year in Chiapas, Mexico. Being in another country for such holidays can offer a fresh take on a common theme. In Santa Cruz, people blow off hordes of fireworks and, in downtown, people take part in the Do It Yourself/First Night parade with all kinds of costumes, live music and such. Mexico had a lot of other surprises in store.

We flew Aeromexico at night out of San Francisco to Mexico City (4 hours) and then caught a short one-hour flight to Tuxtla Gutierrez in Chiapas, the most southerly state in Mexico. Thanks to Sarah’s research, we were able to dodge the gauntlet of aggressive cabbies and catch a state-run cab and zoom off to Chiapa de Corzo, a sleepy riverside town, initially settled by the Olmec culture in 1200 BCE, about 30 minutes away.

What still amazes me is how a few hours on a jet can toss you into another world in so many ways. Our cabby passed over the double-yellow line more than a dozen times while texting and surfing the Internet on his handheld phone on curves and hills. We tailgated nearly every motorist and rarely stayed within the speed limit before reaching Hotel La Ceiba without a scratch.

La Ceiba is a gorgeous Spanish-style place with lush gardens and giant shady leaves hanging overhead, graceful archways and an inviting pool; it was in the 90s.

We flopped out for a few hours since we had flown through the night and regained our footing. The $50 a night room offered plenty of comfort and the hotel folks were helpful and warm. Our first stroll gave us a sample of the beautiful plaza whose centerpiece is the massive La Pila Fountain built in Moorish style in 1562. The plaza was crowded with merchants peddling textiles, straw hats, fruits and vegetables, arts and crafts. Beautiful embroidered blouses, dresses and shirts were hung about.

A few blocks on, down a cobblestone street, we came to the Grijalva River flanked by restaurants clattering with live marimba bands and mostly Mexican and European tourists enjoying the wealth of Mexican cuisine, fresh fruits and icy drinks.

That spot on the river is the gateway to the Sumidero Canyon, a breathtaking gorge along the Grijalva that makes the cliffs of Big Sur look like the neighborhood park.

The following morning we bought tickets aboard a large powerboat and joined the phalanx of tour boats of all sizes heading into the canyon. The two-hour tour offered the two-dozen of us tourists close-up views of great blue herons, egrets, vultures, various shorebirds, grackles, a great kiskadee and about a dozen huge crocodiles sunning themselves on the rocky shore. Of course, we had been warned not to dip our hands into the water. To our surprise we spotted dozens of locals cooling off in the water at various rugged beaches along the tour. Sumidero Canyon was impressive, its majestic granite walls towering over us as kettles of vultures silently wafted high above.

In the evening, which was still warm and pleasant, we wandered into town and stumbled on a large gathering of townspeople perched in folding chairs in the middle of a neighborhood street. They all faced an impressive manger display — one of hundreds situated in people’s front yards, living rooms and businesses around town. We were warmly invited to take a seat, handed candles and bags of goodies and food. Then everyone stood up and a parade began with a large mariachi band leading the way and a banda band bringing up the rear. At the center of it all were people dressed as figures in the Bible, complete with angels and, of course, gobs of impressive fireworks. We marched through town carrying our glowing candles and enjoying the beautiful music the bands offered. Their singing was absolutely mesmerizing. The parade passed through the plaza and convened a few blocks toward the river at the late 1500s Santo Domingo Church where more ceremonies and music unspooled into the night.

The next morning we ate at our hotel restaurant. I’m a huge fan of huevos rancheros, or ranch style eggs, so I had them nearly every breakfast on our journey. The dish is almost always two eggs, sunny side up, stationed atop two fried corn tortillas swimming in a thin, somewhat spicy red sauce. There’s usually a small serving of refried beans on the side and a stack of hot tortillas served in a basket on the side. By the way, El Frijolito Restaurant, 11 Alexander St. in Watsonville, serves huevos rancheros all day and I think they’re superb.

Since it was New Year’s, some form of celebration was taking place each evening in the main plaza. We’ve always enjoyed plaza life in Mexico, which is largely different from what we’re used to in the states. In the evening plazas commonly light up with activity with something to do or watch for all ages. In this case, there was live music every night alongside jugglers, clowns goofing around, merchants selling all kinds of colorful clothing and other goods, the hot chocolate stand, the popcorn booth, candies, beverages, nuts, balloons and loads of toys and games for kids. This kind of circus atmosphere, or festival, is commonplace in so many plazas throughout Mexico.

In the second part of this series we move on to San Cristobal de las Casas, one of Mexico’s most beautiful colonial cities nestled high in the mountains.

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