When Traveler contributor Eugenia González got married in Chiapas, Mexico, she planned more than a destination wedding. She designed the adventure of a lifetime.
One does not, when attending a wedding, expect to ride a motorboat at cheek-stinging speed down a river that slices through towering limestone canyons. Yet for Condé Nast Traveler contributing editor Eugenia González, it was the very prospect of sharing such experiences that led her to gather friends and family last November in Chiapas, the southernmost state of Mexico, to celebrate her nuptials with architect Martin Henn. “I wanted the wedding to be a kind of extension of my ideal vacation,” González explained one morning in San Cristóbal de las Casas, the nearly 500-year-old town that serves as the region’s cultural capital. Guests were streaming in that day—some from New York, where González lived during her years as a publicist for Bergdorf Goodman and vice president of Michael Bastian, while others made the trek from as far away as Paris, Zurich, and Berlin, where she and Henn live now. Plenty more arrived from the north of Mexico, where González was raised, and she was clearly thrilled to be bringing such a disparate mix to a remote pocket of her native country. “Chiapas is really the heart and soul of Mexico, but even most of the Mexicans I know have never been here,” said González, who has been enamored with the region since visiting with her family as a child. In the five days leading up to the ceremony, she arranged side trips for her guests. “I figured this may be the only time in my life when I get to invite everyone I love to go on a proper adventure in a part of the country that too few people know about.”
San Cristóbal, where the wedding would take place, served as a kind of base camp for the group, as it does for most visitors to the region. Located in a temperate valley in the state’s central highlands, it’s a lively town that feels suspended in another century. The streets, paved in hexagonal cobblestones, are flanked with brightly painted colonial buildings, their stucco facades chipping and bleached by the sun. During the day, women in skirts and shawls of kaleidoscopic embroidery line up for services outside the town’s numerous churches, many dating back to the 1500s, and plazas fill with open-air markets showcasing the nation’s storied craftsmanship: hammocks of soft cotton, wool blankets, hand-carved wooded spoons, intricate textiles. Come nightfall, families and couples meet in the central square, as formerly quiet streets give way to bars where music blasts into the early-morning hours.
After a day spent wandering the town, one guest, Cinda Mcclelland, who works for Tory Burch, remarked, “This might be the most accidentally trendy place I’ve ever seen.” What surprised her and many of González and Henn’s other friends was that so much of what urbanites have come to fetishize in fashion, food, and design—the pursuit of the one-of-a-kind, the authentic and unglobalized—exists in San Cristóbal as a deeply ingrained way of life. Hidden above a vegetarian restaurant called Casa del Pan, for instance, is a shop where Mayans crush local herbs into beauty products and holistic oils. Slow-roasted coffee and organic chocolatesare sold out of dozens of thimble-size storefronts, and at restaurants like El Tacoleto you can choose from a menu of small-batch mezcals to wash down smoked marlin tacos.
What you won’t encounter, in both San Cristóbal and the region as a whole, is hordes of Americans. Unlike the beaches of the Yucatán and Baja peninsulas, or the neoclassical town of San Miguel de Allende in the nation’s center, Chiapas does not feel as if it’s been clumsily set-directed to reinforce an idea of “Mexico” palatable to tourists. This is partly due to the daunting logistical ballet required simply to get there: a flight to Mexico City, another to the capital of Tuxtla Gutiérrez, followed by an hour and a half in a taxi along a curving highway. And then there is Chiapas’s reputation as the stronghold of the Zapatistas, the separatist guerrillas who in the nineties staged a number of uprisings there in hopes of triggering a nationwide revolution. Although the movement has long been reduced to a nonviolent simmer, many travelers remain intimidated by the images of black-masked rebels that became synonymous with the area. Life in Chiapas does not revolve around foreigners, which allows a visitor to step into an existence wholly unlike his own.
La Piramide del Sol, one of Palenque’s smaller pyramids.
AGUA AZUL, PALENQUE, BONAMPAK, AND YAXCHILÁN
As dawn broke over the mountains that surround San Cristóbal, a motley crew that included German architects, fashion entrepreneurs, a Paris-based film editor, and a New York–based banker boarded a caravan of small buses and set off, climbing switchbacks into foggy hills. Cypress forests gave way to palms and banana trees sprouted from the iron-rich soil responsible for the amber found in much of the region’s jewelry. Some four hours later, everyone disembarked at Agua Azul, a series of waterfalls that, in the sun, radiated a bright, hallucinatory blue through the verdant jungle. While some guests waded into the waters for a dip, others downed the gargantuan micheladas being poured at one of the rustic vending stands that line the falls. The group then proceeded to Palenque, a quaint town known for its Mayan ruins. There, they settled in for an epic meal at Bajlum, a “prehistoric fusion” restaurant that tells the story of the ancient Mayans’ inventive food from the pre-Hispanic era, including wild turkey and boar and even a sprinkling of roasted ants. Some seated at the communal tables required a little liquid courage before partaking in the latter, so out came the tamarind margaritas.
Chiapas is home to one of Mexico’s highest densities of indigenous populations, with dozens of languages still spoken by descendants of the Mayans, who flourished here in the seventh century. So the next day, after spending the night at the modest Hotel Villa Mercedes, the group explored some of the stunning ruins that remain from this era. First up was Bonampak, where limestone steps lead to the top of a pyramid holding frescoes from the eighth century, followed by Yaxchilán, which is located deep in the Lacandon Jungle and is reached via a river that snakes along the border with Guatemala. Unexpected highlight: a pit stop on the Guatemalan side of the Usumacinta River for a few ice-cold Gallo beers.
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The region’s most spectacular ruins are just outside Palenque, where limestone temples, including one housing a tomb of a Mayan queen, poke through the jungle canopy. The centerpiece of the site is a sprawling palace where rainwater streams through a still-functioning aqueduct—a marvel of engineering that wowed Henn and his architect colleagues from Germany. To break up the long drive back to San Cristóbal, the group stopped at the Misol-Ha waterfall, which drops nearly 115 feet into a pool surrounded by lush vegetation. The rains had been intense that week. But some, emboldened by the tequila being passed around on the buses, made their way down a rocky path skirting the back of the falls, where the wind whipped the water around with the ferocity of a fire hose. “Okay, so this is officially the craziest wedding ever!” shouted Ajiri Aki, co-author of Where’s Karl, the satirical Where’s Waldo–esque book about Karl Lagerfeld, as she emerged from the roaring waters, soaked from head to toe.
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