How to drive from Palenque to San Cristobal via Ocosingo – why is this road considered dangerous – history of the Zapatista – two roads from Palenque to San Cristobal – our experience – road blockages – safety tips.
During the whole road trip through Mexico, Guatemala and Belize (nearly 3000 km long) only one place gave us serious creeps. However, with our itinerary there was no chance to avoid it – the road from Palenque to San Cristóbal de las Casas.
Everyone knows that education is the most powerful weapon, so I have extensively researched the topic and read numerous reports, ranging from not-too-bad to flat-out horrible. The tourists complained about armed robberies, masked bandits, who damaged their car and forced them to sleep in it in the middle of nowhere, before they could fix their tires. There was even a report of a murder of two bicycle riders!
Honestly speaking, all these news didn’t give me any piece of mind, but rather the opposite, to the point when I almost wished we had never attempted the trip. This was the only time I was scared, sitting in our little jungle resort room in Palenque and getting ready for the next day.
A Bit of History at First:
Chiapas, being one of the most gorgeous states of Mexico, is also considered the poorest, which, of course, became the perfect ground for a socialist movement (remember Russia, right?).
Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional (Zapatista Army of National Liberation, or EZLN) was founded on November 17, 1983, and took the name of Emiliano Zapata, an agrarian reformer and commander of the Liberation Army of the South during the Mexican Revolution. Made up of mostly rural people with nothing to lose (for example the infant mortality rate was skyrocketing at the time), by 1994 the group has been in a declared war against the Mexican State, and against military, paramilitary and corporate incursions into Chiapas.
Those guys are pretty serious, there is no doubt about that.
Weighing Our Options
So, we need to get from Palenque to San Cristóbal de las Casas. We don’t care about political dispositions. We just want to get to point A to point B safely. There are two roads. One goes straight through the mountains and one of the towns, Ocosingo. The road is not that great, but the views are incredible and it only takes 4.5 hours. The latest posts on TripAdvisor talked about at least 3 road blocks, and numerous instances of kids and women putting a rope across the road and not letting you go until you buy something.
The other road goes all the way around, through Villahermosa and Tuxtla Gutierrez. It is a bigger highway, used by ADO buses,but the danger of blocks is high there as well and it takes 8 or 9 hours to get to San Cristóbal. At that point there was no question that we were going to take the long, but safer road. Until some rumors started that the bridge in Tuxtla Gutierrez was blocked for 8 hours the other day and people got totally stuck there and had to turn back. After losing the whole day, many ended up having to take the short road anyway. That was absolutely unacceptable for us.
Long story short, we finally made our decision: we are going to take the short road through Ocosingo, but we are going to do it as early as we could.
Leaving Palenque Early
As pretty much everywhere in Mexico, it is dangerous to drive at night. Not only because of robberies, but there are massive holes in the surface and a lot of unmarked speed bumps. If it is too dark, you risk to really damage your car) we left at 5:30 in the morning. Luckily, the first hour till sunrise, coming out of Palenque, the road was pretty good and smooth. When the road started going bad and bumpy, it was already getting light.
I personally haven’t seen it, but they say, there is a sign on the road, saying “you are entering Zapatista territory, where people rule and the government obeys.” Well, we hoped to sneak through this territory, while everyone was still asleep!
People wake up early in villages, and shortly after sunrise there were already people on the streets! We had dark baseball caps on and tried not to look anyone in the eyes. It was really interesting though – women wore national dresses as everyday clothes. The views reminded me of Blue Ridge Mountains in North Carolina and the clouds, hanging deep in the valleys far under us felt totally surreal – it was like we were flying on top of them!
Driving Through Ocosingo
We approached Ocosingo around 8 am and saw groups of people gathering on sides of the roads. Nothing bad so far. One of the recent reports said that the first blockage stopped people till 5 pm and then let everyone pass. Those poor people had to drive at night the rest of the way! That was another thing we wanted to avoid, and luckily it looked like we drove right past that point before they could organize and arrange the block.
We got stopped at the main blockade though, closer to the exit from Ocosingo. Suddenly, there was a little bit of a traffic jam. Then we saw a large group of people and a big banner, nailed to wooden posts. No masks, just a bunch of older men and young kids with backpacks, like they were hanging out there instead of school. When we got closer, we saw several guys, moving boards full of nails across the road. Two guys approached us and we opened our window a bit, just enough to hear what they were saying. One of them smiled and rather politely asked for 100 peso for passing. We already had some 100 peso bills in the glove box just for this purpose, so we handed them the money and they gave us a piece of paper.
It was interesting to read it later. All that Soviet Union Terminology that I remember all too well – los explotadores y opresors… la clase burguesa… el imperialismo norteamericano…
Woof!! Honestly, I expected a lot scarier situation and this was actually pretty decent. And then, I felt something I didn’t think I would – I was sorry for this people… They try to do something that they believe will help them and save themselves and their land. But in fact, it makes government and people turn away from them even more. Can’t they realize that if they changed their ways, it would help the whole region? Has it been going for so long that they forgot how to live any other way? I don’t know… It is not our battle. So we just drive on.
The Rest of the Way
About 30-40 minutes later we were passing through some other village, and I saw people gathering with some cardboard signs. When they noticed our car, they started running around, the guy with a sign rushed to an older man as if he wanted to ask him something. Luckily, before they figured things out, we were past them. I think we just dodged another blockade, the third one described by TripAdvisor forums.
After that, the road became a bit better again. No ropes across the road yet– once again, the early time of the crossing paid off and we didn’t have any issues all the rest of the way.
Arriving to San Cristobal de las Casas
San Cristóbal de las Casas met us with cool mountain air, awesome low prices and beautiful colonial architecture. Not for a second we regretted that we came here, even after being exposed to the dangers of the road.
Our stay in San Cristobal was no less than fantastic and there was even one more surprise: we ran into a full-blown celebration of the Mexican Independence Day!
The List of Precautions You Can Take to Minimize the Danger
Don’t let it scare you. If you do not have a car, the best way is to take an ADO bus. But if you do have a car, you can minimize the danger of the road from Palenque to San Cristóbal through Ocosingo. Here are some precautions you can take:
- Do your best not to drive in the evening or at night. The worst cases of armed robberies happened after dark.
- Do not look rich. Forget all your jewelry, or flashy clothes. Dress modestly.
- Look friendly. Try to think of these people with compassion and respect. Empathy goes a long way.
- Have enough bills in your glove box. Don’t flash your wallet.
- Do not argue – just pay what they ask. 100 peso is only about US$5. It is not worth it to have your tires pierced or your window broken by angry rebels instead.
- If you’d like to visit Agua Azul and Mizol Há from Palenque, do it on a different day, not when you are crossing. On the day you are doing the crossing, just drive and do not stop along the way.
- Before you go, read the latest reports. One of them is right here on TripAdvisor and includes my post as well, on Page 15.
- And last but not least: do not let this hold you from visiting one of the most gorgeous parts of Mexico – colonial San Cristóbal and its surroundings. It includes the blue lakes of Montebello and the absolutely majestic Sumidero Canyon. It’s truly worth it!
If you would like to know more about Zapatista, watch this very interesting Documentary People Without Faces on YouTube:
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