The scenic Sumidero Canyon has long been a top destination for nature lovers visiting Chiapas. Yet few are aware of the unique ruins nearby – one of Mexico’s only publicly accessible Zoque sites. In the following guide, we’ll be going over everything you need to know about visiting the Sumidero Canyon along with the overlooked Chiapa de Corzo Archaeological Site.
You can learn more about reaching the modern town of Chiapa de Corzo from nearby San Cristóbal de las Casas at the end of the article, along with tips on where to stay.
Chiapa de Corzo
As with neighboring San Cristóbal, Chiapa de Corzo is one of Mexico’s many Pueblo Mágicos, or ‘Magic Towns,’ a label used by the government to promote small towns known for their history, landmarks or local culture.
While Chiapa de Corzo is indeed a charming little town, its center contains relatively little to see, though there are a few landmarks worth seeking out.
Upon getting dropped off near the town’s main square, you’ll notice Chiapa de Corzo’s most prominent landmark, La Pila Fountain.
Constructed in the Moorish style in 1562, the unique brick monument consists of no less than eight arches. And as the name suggests, it features a fountain inside.
Another popular landmark is the 17th-century San Sebastian church. The entrance gate was wide open during my visit and I noticed renovations taking place. But a security guard saw me and told me the site was closed. Hopefully the restorations will be over soon.
As mentioned, the real gem of the town is the Chiapa de Corzo Archaeological Site. The small and somewhat distant ruins may not be for everyone, however.
The Chiapa de Corzo Archaeological Site
The Chiapa de Corzo Archaeological Site is about 25 minutes on foot from the town center, though you could also consider hailing a cab.
The site is free for all visitors and is open daily from 8:00-17:00. All in all, a visit should just take around 30-40 minutes of your time. But is it worth going out of your way for?
Before my visit, other than the fact that it exists, I could hardly find any up-to-date information about it. And so I made the long walk there with little idea of what to expect.
First settled as many as 3400 years ago, the site was originally established as a small settlement by the Zoque people. But it quickly grew as the Zoques began to gain control of important trade routes in southern Mexico. And they’d remain there up until 650 AD.
But who were the Zoques? They’re believed to have been direct descendants of the Olmecs, the Mesoamerican ‘mother civilization.’ And they’ve long been present in the states of Chiapas and Tabasco as well as Oaxaca’s Pacific coast.
Like the Mayans, the Zoques never actually disappeared, and many modern inhabitants in these regions still identify as Zoque today.
We’re still not entirely sure, but it may have been the Zoques who spread many aspects of Olmec culture to the nearby Mayans from very early on.
Later, after the Zoques abandoned this site, a group known as the Chiapanecas established their capital nearby. Nowadays, what remains of both the original Zoque and Chiapaneca settlements are largely still buried deep beneath the modern town.
The Chiapa de Corzo Archaeological Site’s main structure is known as the ‘Platform of the Tombs,’ or simply Structure 1. As the name suggests, archaeologists have discovered numerous tombs within.
Other tombs discovered in the area, meanwhile, reveal a lot about the Zoques’ relation to the Olmecs. Findings include stone axeheads in the Olmec style along with carvings of an Olmec deity.
Also like the Olmecs, the Zoques used the red powder cinnabar in their burials, a practice that would also be adopted by the Mayans.
After walking around the flat platform at the top, you can explore some the structure’s narrow passageways down below. Clearly, this was once quite an elaborate building with various rooms and chambers on all sides.
Confusingly, the Chiapa de Corzo Archaeological Site is touted as having the oldest pyramid tomb in all of Mesoamerica, dating back to 700 BC. But this structure doesn’t seem to be it.
So where is the pyramid? It’s not entirely clear, but a large signboard near the entrance about the tomb findings there mentions that ‘you can’t see it yet.’
Information about Chiapa de Corzo is scarce even now, while the latest articles and photos about the pyramid tomb date back to 2010. Hopefully, the pyramid will be open to the public someday soon, putting the Chiapa de Corzo Archaeological Site on the map as must-visit ruins.
But how about as it stands now? Is it worth going out of your way for? If you’re a fan of ancient ruins in general, I’d say yes, as it’s a rare glimpse into an obscure yet significant pre-Hispanic civilization.
On the other hand, if you’re not especially crazy about ruins and want to see the Sumidero Canyon from both within and above, you might be better off skipping the Chiapa de Corzo Archaeological Site until more is revealed.
The Sumidero Canyon
As soon as you arrive in Chiapa de Corzo (if not on the ride over), you’ll be approached by touts trying to get you on one of their boat tours of the canyon.
But if you want to check out the town and ruins first, return to the center and then head in the direction of the main pier. Someone will approach you before long.
At the time of writing, the tours typically cost $275 MXN. While there are a few different companies to choose from, I went with the Lanchas Rojas company (or rather, they chose me!).
The boat tours to the Sumidero Canyon do not depart on a set schedule, but only after all the tickets for the next boat have been sold. Expect for the tout to tell you that the boat is about to depart at any moment, though this may or may not be true.
Despite the tout I met acting as if I had to reach the pier urgently, I was still the first person to buy a ticket for the next boat!
Not all that surprised, I passed the next 45 minutes or so at one of the pier restaurants as I waited for more passengers to come. And once enough did, we were off.
The boats can fit roughly twenty passengers, and it’s important to know that there’s no shade of any sort. With the ride potentially lasting as long as 2.5 hours roundtrip, bringing sunblock and a hat are a must.
For those visiting as a day trio from San Cristóbal de las Casas, one of the chilliest towns in this part of Mexico, understand that Chiapa de Corzo is at a much lower elevation and therefore much hotter.
With that in mind, you should also come prepared with ample water. There will be a chance to buy cold drinks midway through the ride, though for a much higher price.
Another thing to be aware of is that the boat’s seats are packed tightly together and you’ll hardly have any leg room – even if you’re not particularly tall.
In my case, I happened to be sitting behind a long-haired woman whose hair blew right in my face for the entire journey! Needless to say, I’ve had more comfortable boat rides than this.
But the boat aside, what is the Sumidero Canyon all about?
The Sumidero Canyon was formed several million years ago as a result of erosion from the Grijalva River, which still runs through it. At 13 km long, its stone walls can reach up to as high as 1,000 m at some points.
And as we’ll cover shortly, the area is teeming with wildlife.
During the journey, the guide will point out various landmarks in Spanish. Among them is the Cueva de Colores, or the ‘Cave of Colors,’ which contains a shrine to the Virgin Mary.
While a ladder can take visitors to the top, we were only able to see it from a distance.
One of the canyon’s most remarkable natural anomalies is El Árbol de Navidad, or the ‘Christmas Tree.’ As seen from afar, the unique rock formations do indeed resemble one.
Though dry during my visit, during the rainy season a waterfall normally flows over it. Supposedly, the unique shape was caused by countless years of water erosion.
Eventually, your boat will arrive at the Chicoasén Dam, the furthest point from Chiapa de Corzo on this tour. It’s here that another boat selling cold drinks like water, cola or beer will approach. After a brief wait, it’s time to return the same way you came.
While we passed the same landmarks on the way back, we spotted a few new things that we hadn’t seen the first time around – crocodiles!
The Sumidero Canyon is home to a large population of American crocodiles, which, as the name suggests, can be found all over the Americas. These crocodiles are now endangered, as in the past they were commonly hunted for their skin.
Fortunately, the practice is now banned, and the crocs can be admired by visitors from a comfortable distance.
The Canyon Viewpoint
Another way to experience the Sumideo Canyon is to see it from above. There are several different viewpoints along a highway just outside of Tuxtla Gutiérrez, the Chiapas state capital. But a vehicle is needed to see them.
Before my visit, I wasn’t aware that it was possible to see the viewpoint without your own car, so it’s not something I’d anticipated. But upon returning to the pier, a man was there offering tours for just a few hundred pesos.
It was already late afternoon by this point, and he told me the excursion would last a couple of more hours. After such a long day, I decided to save the viewpoint for a future visit instead.
My visit to the canyon happened to be during the dry season, when the colors appeared rather dull and brown. Should I return to the area someday, I’d make sure to visit during the more colorful rainy season.
While often hyped up as one of the top day trips from San Cristóbal de las Casas, is visiting the Sumidero Canyon a must-do for those short on time?
From my own experience, I found the excursion to be a bit of a letdown. Part of it simply had to do with timing. Having visited during the dry season, the canyon simply wasn’t as pretty as I thought it would be.
Also somewhat fresh in my mind was my ride on the Komani Lake Ferry in Albania less than a year prior. All in all, that was a much more scenic journey and with plenty of room to move around the boat.
As mentioned above, the cramped conditions on the Sumidero Canyon boats can make it difficult to relax and take in the scenery at points, though this also depends on who’s sitting nearby you.
While I would still say the Sumidero Canyon is worth a visit, the El Chiflon Waterfall and the Montebello Lakes, both further south in Chiapas, are a lot more impressive.
While these can be visited as a long day tour from San Cristóbal, those with more time to spare should stay in the town of Comitán and visit them independently instead.
Getting to Chiapa de Corzo and the Sumideo Canyon from San Cristóbal is not very difficult, though it does require a transfer.
First, nearby San Cristóbal’s bus station, find a colectivo stand with buses headed for Tuxtla Gutiérrez, the state capital.
Be sure to let the driver know you want to get off in the town of Santa Fe (you can also mention you’re headed to Chiapa de Corzo and he’ll know where to leave you). Once you’re in the area, you should see a large pedestrian bridge over the big highway.
Pay the driver and get out of the vehicle and then walk to the other side. It won’t be long before a colectivo for Chiapa de Corzo passes by.
To get back, return to Chiapa de Corzo’s main square and hop in a colectivo, getting off near the same pedestrian bridge. On the side of the road you’ll notice a ticket office, where you can purchase a ticket in advance and wait inside until the bus for San Cristóbal arrives.
As a town of only 180,000 people, San Cristóbal is not especially large, and most of the accommodations are located somewhere in the town center. This allows you to reach most of the main landmarks on foot.
I stayed at an Airbnb about a 10-minute walk south of the bus station. This made it easy to take a day trip to the Sumidero Canyon/Chiapa de Corzo Archaeological Site, while I could get to the town center in around twenty minutes on foot.
While not many tourists stay in this southern area, I found it to be a safe and convenient neighborhood which maintains an authentic local atmosphere.
Generally speaking, though, staying anywhere in the historical center should be fine, and you’ll find accommodation for a wide variety of budgets.
Personally, however, I would avoid staying right by the main market, which is known to be unsafe at times.
The nearest airport to San Cristóbal is located in the state capital of Tuxtla Gutierrez, about an hour drive away. You should be able to find direct domestic flights from all around the country.
For those coming by bus, direct night buses connect the city with Oaxaca to the west (around 12 hours). You can also come from Palenque, which also requires a night bus that takes around 11 hours.
Despite being in the same state, the reason the bus from Palenque takes so long is because all coach buses now use a longer route via Villahermosa, Tabasco.
This is due to regular blockades and occasional armed robberies on the road between San Cristóbal and Ocosingo, the town about halfway to Palenque.
If you’re willing to take the risk for a shorter journey, you can get to/from Palenque via two colectivos with a transfer in Ocosingo. I’ve met people who’ve done this without any problems, but you never know.
In any case, Villahermosa, Tabasco is well worth a couple of days in order to see the Olmec heads at Parque Museo La Venta along with the Mayan ruins of Comalcalco.
You can also easily get to San Cristóbal from Comitán, which is further south in Chiapas and nearby the El Chiflon Waterfall and the Montebello Lakes.
You may also be able to reach San Cristóbal direct from Guatemala, but it’s best to ask for details on the ground.