Visiting The Stunning Montebello Lakes & Chinkultic Ruins

Last Updated on: 13th October 2023, 03:20 pm

The deep blue Montebello Lakes aren’t what most people expect when they picture Mexico, but the stunning National Park is becoming an increasingly popular destination for those visiting Chiapas. In the following guide, we’ll be covering how to visit Montebello Lakes National Park independently from Comitán together with the nearby Chinkultic ruins.

Most people visit the lakes as part of a long, grueling day tour from San Cristóbal de las Casas, which also includes a stop at El Chiflón waterfalls. But if you’re basing yourself in Comitán, the lakes can be easily and cheaply visited independently as a day trip.

Montebello Lakes National Park consists of 59 lakes in total, though you can realistically see just six or seven in a single day. And that’s still quite a lot! With so much to see, no two people’s visits are going to be exactly the same.

My original plan was to hike something called the Cinco Lagos Trail, while I’d planned to visit the Chinkultic ruins on a separate day. But with the trail being closed and there being an abundance of public transport throughout the park, I had plenty of time to explore the ruins after my time at the lakes.

For details on exactly how to reach the Montebello Lakes from Comitán, be sure to check the very end of the article.

Taking a Tour

While the article below details exploring the Montebello Lakes independently, you have the option of booking a tour in advance, while it’s also possible to arrange something once you’re in the area.

As your colectivo from Comitán approaches the lakes, you will likely encounter some guides offering passengers a day tour. In my case, I was quoted $500 MXN.

While most tours largely cover the route I was able to do independently, they also often include a stop at Lake Tziscao as well as the International Lake, shared by both Mexico and Guatemala. The tours, however, leave out the Chinkultic ruins. Here is a helpful article on what you can expect if you decide to hire a private driver.

Exploring Montebello Lakes

Entry to the Montebello Lakes National Park costs just $30 MXN, and you’ll encounter ticket booths / checkpoints along the different roads leading to the various lakes. 

Approaching the first lake (whichever it may be), you’ll purchase a ticket which you’ll need to hold onto. Then, as you approach the other lakes, simply show your ticket at the booth and the staff will punch a hole in it.

Lake Pojoj and The Cinco Lagos Trail

My original plan for the day was to go on a hike which would take me up to picturesque viewpoints of several different lakes. Known as the Cinco Lagos (Five Lakes) Trail, the short hike is supposed to take about an hour one way. And you can find the entrance right by a lake called Pojoj.

Purchasing my ticket for the park at the Pojoj Lake entrance, I confirmed the location of the trail entrance with the staff member. But despite the lack of any signage, he told me the trail was closed for maintenance. 

Just to be sure, he called one of his colleagues to confirm, and sure enough, the trail was closed.

Montebello Lakes

Not quite sure what to do with this sudden change of plans, I decided to go and check out the beautiful blue Lake Pojoj. The lake’s star attraction is its small island in the middle, which is home to an orchid garden.

To get there, you can rent a raft for around $500 MXN. But with several other lakes I wanted to see and not quite sure yet how I was going to get to them, I decided to move on.

Montebello Lakes
Montebello Lakes

The Views of the Five Lakes

Since I couldn’t see the views of the Five Lakes from the hiking trail, I decided to see them from the viewpoints along the road on the opposite side instead. 

I became aware of these other viewpoints when the colectivo driver from Comitán initially suggested I get off there instead of Lake Pojoj, not realizing that I intended to do a hike (but more on that below).

Back at the main highway, it was around 30 minutes on foot to the first viewpoint. As one would guess, this is an uphill climb, but the slope is relatively gentle and it wasn’t too tiring. 

Montebello Lakes
Montebello Lakes
Lake Caracol

The first lake was Lake Caracol. As pretty as the lake is, the view is partially obscured by trees. The best was yet to come.

Next came Laguna la Cañada, or the ‘Canyon Lake,’ arguably the most stunning vantage point of the National Park.

From here, you can get an unobstructed view of the mesmerizing blue lake, filled with numerous peninsulas and mountains in the background. If you come to the Montebello Lakes for any single reason, come for this view.

While considerably smaller, it reminded me of the blue hues I’d seen on the other side of the world at Lake Van.

Other lakes nearby include Lago Agua Tinta (The Lake of Tinted Water), Laguna Esmeralda and Laguna Encantada. 

If you happen to be traveling by car, you’ll find numerous parking areas situated by the most scenic viewpoints. You’ll also find some food stalls as well.

Montebello Lakes
Montebello Lakes

Based on Google Maps, further north still were even more lakes. But it wasn’t clear if those viewpoints were accessible from the road. And even if they were, it would be a long walk to get there. 

And so I decided to return to the main highway, my plan being to walk to Lake Montebello, after which the entire park was named.

Montebello Lakes
Montebello Lakes

Lake Montebello

Checking the app, I saw that it would be a long 50-minute walk. While not ideal, I didn’t have much else planned with the hiking trail being closed, and I’d been intending on visiting the Chinkultic ruins on a separate day.

As luck would have it, immediately upon reaching the highway, a colectivo driver saw me and slowed down. Not having any prior knowledge of the transport situation in the area, I hadn’t factored colectivos into my plans. But just several minutes later, I was already at my destination.

Montebello Lakes

Given the name, one would expect Montebello Lake to be the flagship lake of the park. But in reality, while it is one of the largest, it’s just not as pretty as the others.

The reason it’s so popular is its accessibility, while there are plenty of activities one can do here over the course of a day.

Not only is it one of the National Park’s only swimmable lakes, but you can also rent a kayak. I opted to simply take a little walk along a trail encircling it. But given its massive size, I had to turn around before I got too far.

Montebello Lakes
Montebello Lakes
Montebello Lakes

Another popular activity, meanwhile, is horseback riding. I met a man near the entrance who was incessant about getting me to come on a horseback tour for a few hundred pesos, with the journey taking us to cenotes and secret caves.

As tempting as it sounded, it was around this time that I realized I could probably squeeze in the Chinkultic ruins if I was lucky enough to catch another colectivo. And so I returned to the highway to give it a shot.

The Chinkultic Ruins

Sure enough, it wasn’t long before another colectivo passed by and dropped me off near the ruins. It was then a long 30-minute walk from the highway. But if you’re a fan of both ruins and scenery, the trip is well worth it.

Hundreds of years ago, the Montebello Lakes region was inhabited by the ancient Mayans. And one of the largest of these cities was Chinkultic, situated to the west of the large lakes. 

At the time of my trip in 2022, Chinkultic happened to be the only site near Comitán that was open to the public, and entrance was free. (Another significant site, Tenam Puente, is already back open at the time of writing.)  

Visiting Chinkultic Ruins

Once considered a gateway to the Lacandon Jungle which lies further east, Chinkultic was inhabited from around 100 BC to 700 AD. But it was later reoccupied and largely used as a necropolis until 1100.

While quite eroded today, Chinkultic’s inhabitants carved a multitude of stelae over the years, many of which are on display throughout the site. 

All in all, Chinkultic is not very big and it shouldn’t take much more than an hour to explore. While none of its structures are terribly unique or impressive, the site should not be missed for its stunning natural setting.

Visiting Chinkultic Ruins
Visiting Chinkultic Ruins

One of the first major structures you’ll encounter is the Ball Court. Just about every ancient city in Mesoamerica featured a Ball Court, where the highly ritualistic and symbolic ball game would be carried out between two opposing teams.

Chinkultic Ball Court Disk

One of the most important and best-preserved archaeological findings from Chinkultic is a disc that depicts a ball player. Dated to 531, it’s now on display at the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City

While we’re still not entirely sure of the rules for these ball games, these disks were likely used as markers for various parts of the court.

Visiting Chinkultic Ruins

Walking around the court’s exterior, you’ll find more stelae, many of which are protected within their own shelters. While hard to make out, they largely depict the city’s former kings.

Visiting Chinkultic Ruins
Visiting Chinkultic Ruins
The Acropolis in the Distance

Moving past the Ball Court, you’ll encounter a pathway taking you to the next section of the site. And on the way there, you can catch a glimpse of the impressive Acropolis between the trees in the distance.

Visiting Chinkultic Ruins

The next main section of Chinkultic is the Sunken Plaza, or Plaza Hundida. Not just unique to the Maya, sunken plazas like these can be found at various other ruins throughout Mesoamerica.

They were likely places where important ceremonies took place. But another yet unproven theory suggests that they may have been deliberately filled with water during the rainy season. The water may have then acted as a mirror of the night sky to observe the stars. But we’re still not really sure.

Visiting Chinkultic Ruins

Moving on, it’s time to walk along another pathway toward the Acropolis. The path then turns into a set of stairs, gradually taking you up to the top Chinkultic’s highest point.

Visiting Chinkultic Ruins

If there’s any single reason to come to Chinkultic, it’s for the views. From the top of the Acropolis, you can see Agua Azul, a natural cenote. Known as Chinkultic in Mayan, it was after this body of water that the site took its name.

Visiting Chinkultic Ruins

During excavations in 1969 numerous artifacts were discovered inside, likely placed there as offerings, as the Mayans viewed cenotes as links to the underworld.

Further in the distance, meanwhile, you can spot additional lakes and mountains. Even after visiting the Montebello Lakes, the scenery at Chinkultic still manages to impress.

Visiting Chinkultic Ruins

At the top of the Acropolis stands a pyramid temple known as Structure 1. While not currently climbable, you can still enjoy more amazing views by turning around.

There are surely many more structures buried beneath the greenery. And as you make your way back past the Sunken Plaza and toward the exit, you’ll pass some large piles of stone that have yet to be cleared out.

Visiting Chinkultic Ruins
Visiting Chinkultic Ruins

Making the long walk back to the highway, I waited for the return bus to Comitán. As I waited, a kind local offered to give me a lift to the nearest town. I thanked him and declined, preferring a direct trip. Sure enough, several minutes later, the return bus appeared, and I was soon on my way to Comitán.

Additional Info

For those staying in Comitán, you can reach Montebello Lakes National Park directly with a single colectivo ride. The company that runs them is simply called Transportes Montebello, and you can find their station on Avenida 2a Poniente Sur, in between Calles 2a and 3a Poniente Sur (the avenidas are north-south while the calles are west-east).

The ride costs around $60 MXN and lasts about an hour.

Note that some buses head all the way east to the town of Tziscao, while other routes terminate in the town of San Antonio.

In my case, I wanted to start my day at Lake Pojoj, but the colectivo I was on was destined for San Antonio, accessed by a road to the west of Pojoj. The driver didn’t mention anything at the time I got on and told him my destination, but there was quite a bit of confusion later on.

Once I realized the colectivo was not going past Lake Pojoj, I was fine getting out at the intersection and walking, as the lake was just about fifteen minutes on foot from there. And so I told the driver to let me out.

But he wouldn’t listen and kept on driving. He told me he would drop me off at the viewpoints along the north-south road, after which he would return to pick me up 40 minutes later after dropping everyone off in San Antonio. And then, he told me, he could take me to Lake Pojoj.

I explained to him (in my admittedly subpar Spanish) that my whole plan was to go on a hike from Lake Pojoj that would take me past viewpoints of the same lakes on the other side, and I didn’t want to wait there for 40 minutes.

Finally, he reluctantly agreed to follow my original request, turning the vehicle around to drop me off at the intersection, from which I walked to Lake Pojoj.

I understand he was just trying to be helpful, but by not following my original request, he made the whole situation a lot more complicated than it needed to be.

As mentioned above, the trail was closed anyway, and I did indeed end up walking up to those same viewpoints along the road. But no one knew this at the time.

Also as mentioned above, it should be easy to wait along Highway 307, taking you to destinations further west and ultimately back to Comitán at the end of the day.

Unfortunately, some (but not all) of these drivers like to add on an extra 10 pesos or so to the price if they see you’re a foreigner.

Most people will be reaching Comitán from San Cristóbal de las Casas. As I travel with a decent amount of luggage, I prefer to take coach buses when I can. But when attempting to buy a ticket at the OCC/ADO station, they told me that the bus to Comitán originates all the way in Cancún. As such, the staff warned me, it tended to be late by an hour or more each time.

And so I decided to go outside and check out the colectivo options. There seem to be a couple of different companies running buses to Comitán. Luckily, it was no problem to travel with all of my luggage. Colectivos in Mexico often lack trunks, but they placed everyone’s luggage in the front after all the passengers had boarded.

It wasn’t the most comfortable ride, but most importantly, I got there safely with all my belongings intact. The journey lasted just a couple of hours.

If you’re visiting El Chiflón Waterfalls as a day trip from San Cristóbal, I would recommend a colectivo over the coach bus, as they depart much more frequently.

For those traveling to Chiapas from Oaxaca, note that there is a direct bus between Oaxaca city and Comitán (which will also pass through San Cristóbal). Depending on your itinerary, it may be more efficient to start your Chiapas travels in Comitán before later taking a bus north to San Cristóbal.

As mentioned above, Comitán’s nicest section is the central park area and the few blocks surrounding it. If you’re looking to soak up the atmosphere of the place for a few days, that’s the area you want to stay. Top-rated hotels here include Hotel Jardín de Tereza and Hotel Lunada.

But keep in mind that the town center is about 20 minutes on foot from Highway 190, where many of the bus and colectivo stations are.

As I was mainly using Comitán as a base for travel but also wanted to explore the town center, I decided to look for somewhere halfway in between the highway and central square.

What I found was Hotel Lirice Colonial, which was a simple and affordable place for a decent price. With all taxes included, I only ended up paying $190 MXN a night (about $10 USD).

For that price, I got my own private room with a private bathroom, while the Wifi worked better than expected.

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