The main ingredient for a successful road-trip is obviously a reliable car. If you have a 4-wheel drive all the better, but it is not a necessity. We had a normal city car and we managed to do everything we wanted. Since a few people have got in contact to say they are also planning a road-trip to Chiapas, I thought it would be helpful to share my top tips for road-tripping in this magical state.
Always Carry a Spare
The roads around Chiapas definitely vary in quality. Some are wonderfully paved and made driving a breeze. Others, however, are pot holed and badly kept and host to a million speed bumps, many of which are almost impossible to see until you are flying over it. The worst roads often had the most fantastic places at the end and were definitely worth the trip. However, we managed to get a puncture in one tyre and to damage another enough to have to replace it. Therefore, before you set off make sure you have a spare tyre and a jack in the boot (trunk) especially if you are planning to drive at night.
Top up with Petrol (Gas) When you Can
One of the worst things to put a dampener on road trip can be running out of petrol in the middle of nowhere and this is a very possible reality in some parts of Chiapas that are more off the beaten track. Therefore, you should top up when you can even if you feel like you have a fair bit. It is also worth checking, and double checking, with locals whether there is a petrol station on your route if you are running low or going a long distance. Saying all of this, many little towns sell petrol at the side of the road by the gallon. Look for smalls bottles of pinky/ orange liquid!
When topping up also it is also worth asking the attendant to check your tyre pressure (this can help detect a slow puncture) and your car’s fluid levels. There is a lot of mountain driving, involving the brakes, which may take its toll on the break fluid.
Be Prepared for Tolls
Road tolls can add a large cost to your journey and can feel like quite a sting if you are not prepared for them. We managed to avoid toll roads through the majority of Chiapas (bar a few local communities charging a nominal fee to use their roads). There were a couple of toll roads, however, that were definitely worth the extra cost, (Tuxtla Gutierrez to Puerto Arrista, San Cristobal to Tuxtla Gutierrez). It is often worth checking with locals whether they recommend the toll-free route and if you are determined to avoid tolls you may want to drive some of the routes during the day, as the roads can be rather bad and often very solitary.
This great website can help you calculate the cost of your trip, (both toll costs and petrol) and can help you plan a route that doesn’t involve any toll costs.
Always Carry Your Identification
There are a few parts of Chiapas that follow the Guatemalan border, and with borders come check points. We travelled through about 15 check points during our trip. I have to admit that soldiers carrying large guns make me nervous, but they were always polite and friendly. We passed through all without a problem and never having to pay. At one checkpoint, we were asked to put our luggage through an x-ray machine, but this is obviously not a problem unless you are carrying anything illegal. We were asked for identification a couple of times so it is very important that you carry it with you on the trip. You may also be tempted to cross over to Guatemala, we definitely were and that’s another great reason to have your identification to hand!
Expect a Low Average Mileage
We pretty much always overestimated our mileage, imagining we would get to places in far less time than we actually did. Our most spectacular disparity was a trip that we thought could take between 3-4 hours that ended up taking 8! Much of that is to do with the roads, avoiding pot holes and maneuvering speed bumps can slow you down a lot. You also have to account for food stops, toilet stops, photo stops, stopping to chat to people stops etc. We, rather nerdily, worked out that our average over the whole trip was about 40 kilometers an hour and we think that that is a good average to work from. However, around the Lagos de Montebello we were averaging about 25 kilometers per hour. It was far too beautiful to rush!
Take Toys/ Food/ Clothes to Hand Out
There are some parts of the road, specifically on routes to tourists sites (for example Agua Azul and Misol Ha) where local children make ropes that they pull tight as cars pass to force the car to stop so they can sell local produce. The children often ask for money and some pointed at things in our car that they wanted, like a little ball we had in the front. If you don’t want to give the children money, then it is worthwhile stocking up on some toys, food etc to give out. We had a car stocked with clothes that we no longer wanted and that friends had donated, so we gave these out along the way too.
Keep an Eye out for Passing Waterfalls
Particularly in the area around the Lagos de Montebello, the most incredible lakes and waterfalls can go unnoticed behind trees and shrubbery and are often only signposted with a hand written cardboard sign, so the passenger should definitely be on the look out. Don’t worry though, the main lakes are impossible to miss and there are local guides if you want to take a tour. They are truly breath-taking. We stopped at the look out point and ate freshly made quesadillas. It definitely ranks up there in the nicest place I have ever eaten a quesadilla!
Having a car really gave us a freedom to explore and I would highly recommend it. We drove many roads at night and had no problems, although it isn’t for everyone. In hindsight, we might have chosen to arrive at certain places in daylight as we took a few unlit dirt tracks guided only by the moon, but it was all part of the joy of the adventure!
Always stock up on water and have a bit of food in the car to keep you going when there are no places to stop to eat and make sure you have a good supply of music or you could end up purchasing a CD with 20 versions of Gangman Style, that might send you crazy!
Susannah Rigg is a freelance writer and Mexico specialist. Her work has been featured in Condé Nast Traveler, CNN Travel, BBC Travel, The Independent UK, Afar and The New Worlder among others. Check out her portfolio here. Contact Susannah by email, info [at] mexicoretold [dot] com and join her on Facebook and Twitter and Instagram.