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Enjoy the festivals and traditions, join the community for music and dance, visit historic sites and one of the most important zoological gardens in Latin America -- you can do all this and more on a visit to the city of Tuxtla Gutierrez in the Mexican state of Chiapas. In January, I was fortunate to live for a week with a family in the city. They shared with me their culture, traditions, and some great restaurants.

Chiapas is located in Southern Mexico and is bordered on the south by Guatemala. The state has some of the most extraordinary biodiversity in the world, from jungles to lush farm fields, tall mountains, and rainforests. Chiapas is also known for its many cultural groups who delight in keeping their traditions alive.

Here are eight fantastic experiences to have in Tuxtla Gutierrez.

The chuntaes at Fiesta Grande de Enero.
Jo-Anne Bowen

1. Fiesta Grande De Enero, Chiapa De Corzo

Approximately 15 miles from Tuxtla, the town of Chiapa de Corzo holds a folk and religious festival each January that honors the town’s three patron saints and the legend of Dona Maria. The Fiesta Grande de Enero is considered one of Mexico’s most important cultural traditions. It has been held for centuries and features everything from religious ceremonies to music festivals, food festivals, dancing, costumes, fireworks, and parades. The celebrations continue for three weeks.

Sipping our cold Coronas in the pleasant January weather, we waited in excitement for the parade. We had reserved front-row seats for the final parade commemorating the legend of Dona Maria de Angulo. Dona Maria was a wealthy Spanish woman who came to the area several centuries ago to find a cure for her son. At that time, the Chiapa area was celebrated for the healing waters of its natural hot springs. Dona Maria brought her ailing son to Chiapa, bathed him in the pools for nine days, and he was cured. Soon after, the town suffered a severe drought that led to crop loss and famine. Dona Maria returned to Chiapa and distributed food and money to the residents.

Soon, drums echoed through the streets, and we caught glimpses of beautifully dressed participants. Residents dressed in traditional costumes led the parade. Families marched with their young children, some as young as one and two. This is a way of passing down tradition -- it’s no wonder that UNESCO honors the celebration as a part of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

We chuckled as we caught sight of the chuntaes. Legend has it that the chuntaes were Dona Maria’s maids, who distributed food and money during the famine. Today, the local men dress up as the chuntaes. With their heavy eye makeup, bright red lipstick, and loads of jewelry, they were a sight to behold! The atmosphere sparkled with fun and frivolity, colorful embroidery, and long skirts. The chuntaes offered onlookers shots of tequila, candy, and vegetables. We tasted all three!

The parachicos at Fiesta Grande De Enero.
Jo-Anne Bowen

Next came the parachicos, representing the local people who dressed up and danced to entertain Dona Maria’s son. Their costumes consisted of wooden masks with European features, snug-fitting hats made of natural fibers, and Mexican-style serapes. They kept the beat of the music with hand rattles known as chinchines.

The final float in the parade carried the young woman representing Dona Maria de Angulo. She threw candy and coins to the onlookers -- ever the benefactor. Young children scrambled to collect all the treats they could.

Experiencing the parade helped me to understand the legend and the importance placed upon it by the locals.

Copoya's Christ in Tuxtla, Mexico.
Jo-Anne Bowen

2. Copoya’s Christ, Tuxtla

My hosts were incredibly proud of Copoya’s Christ (Cristo Glorioso de Chiapas), which signifies the importance of religion in their culture. Standing 203 feet tall, it is a cross with the profile of Jesus at its center.

Copoya’s Christ is the world’s largest statue of Christ and dwarfs Brazil’s Christ the Redeemer, which is 124 feet. Designed by Jaime Lapapi Lopes, the contemporary multimetal sculpture features an inner surface outlined in gold to represent Christ the Light. Construction began in 2007, and the site opened in 2011. Displays in the rotunda depict the construction process and describe future plans. Be sure to climb to the top of the statue for outstanding views of the countryside.

Santo Domingo's Church in San Cristobal de las Casas.
Jo-Anne Bowen

3. Santo Domingo’s Church, San Cristobal De Las Casas

The sight of hundreds of candles burning, floors lined with pine branches, and families praying together inside Santo Domingo’s Church in San Cristobal de las Casas was simply mesmerizing. It was a sight I will never forget! Families gathered around the candles with their offerings, including bottles of Coca-Cola. One family had an offering of a live chicken. The pine branches on the floor were so thick that I had to watch my step. Pine branches symbolize happiness and are used in ceremonies of all kinds in churches, at graveyards, and in homes.

Outside, in the church square, the locals sold handicrafts, textiles, and food. We enjoyed wandering, tasting, and buying.

San Cristobal de las Casas is approximately 40 miles from Tuxtla. The walk from the parking lot to the church is quite a distance and on uneven ground. Taxis are readily available to take you down to the church. It is important to note that no photography is allowed inside the church.

Museo Jtatik Sameul in San Cristobal de las Casas.
Jo-Anne Bowen

4. Museo Jtatik Sameul, San Cristobal De Las Casas

After visiting Santo Domingo’s Church, we stopped at the private museum called Museo Jtatik Samuel. Its purpose is to preserve the memory of Samuel Ruiz, former bishop of the Diocese of San Cristobal de las Casas and a noted human rights activist. A brilliant man who spoke four languages, he translated the Bible into local dialects. He also tirelessly labored for justice for the indigenous people. “Sad point of the story,” our docent told us. “Five hundred years later, [things are] basically still the same!”

Locals dancing at Marimba Park in Tuxtla, Mexico.
Jo-Anne Bowen

5. Marimba Park, Tuxtla

Early one evening, we visited Marimba Park, a lovely park in the center of the city where hundreds of locals gather daily to dance and listen to marimba music. A circular dance floor surrounded the gazebo, and the orchestra played from 6 to 8 p.m. One can enjoy dancing or simply listen to the music. The locals were amicable and welcoming. At the end of the concert, we purchased some great souvenirs from the peddlers on the floor.

Miguel Alvarez del Toro Zoo in Tuxtla, Mexico.
Jo-Anne Bowen

6. Miguel Alvarez Del Toro Zoo, Tuxtla

Recognized as one of the most important zoos in Latin America, the Miguel Alvarez del Toro Zoo is named for the Mexican biologist Miguel Alvarez del Toro. People come from around the world to conduct research here because the habitat is similar to that of the Amazon Rainforest.

One unique aspect of the zoo is that it is only home to species that are native to the area. We followed the yellow footprints on the pathway to discover all that the zoo has to offer. One highlight was the black jaguar. We watched as a chameleon basked in the sun just outside the jaguar’s enclosure, tormenting him to no end! The jaguar has been the Chiapas state symbol for centuries.

The zoo also has a media room, library, and cafeteria. Plan to spend 4 to 5 hours here.

Traditional dancing at Las Pichanchas Restaurant in Tuxtla.
Jo-Anne Bowen

7. Traditional Dancing At Las Pichanchas Restaurant, Tuxtla

Locals regard the folklore show at Las Pichanchas Restaurant as one of the best examples of traditional dancing. Upon entering, we enjoyed music by a marimba band. Often a loud voice calling “Pumpo!” resonated throughout the building. Pumpo is a cocktail made of pineapple, mineral water, vodka, and crushed ice. Waiters rang the chimes and called out “Pumpo!” whenever another order was on its way to the guests.

At 8 p.m., the folklore show began, an energetic, hour-long presentation of traditional dancing and many beautiful costumes. We recognize the parachicos from the Dona Maria legend.

La Casa de la Marimba in Chiapa de Corzo, Mexico.
Jo-Anne Bowen

8. La Casa De La Marimba, Chiapa De Corzo

Sounds of marimba filled the air as we entered La Casa de la Marimba. In this lovely two-tiered setting overlooking the river, we learned about the history and evolution of the marimba, the musical instrument synonymous with Chiapas.

The marimba is similar to the piano in that it has keys. Different sounds are produced depending upon the combinations of wood and materials, amplifying the notes. The decoration is essential -- various workshops have signature decorations.

Information about the history and evolution of the marimba was interspersed with musical performances. Guests were invited onstage to begin to learn to play the instrument. Dancing to the music was also encouraged, and the band played familiar tunes, especially Beatles tunes and other hits from the ’60s.

These eight activities will provide you with a new understanding and appreciation of this part of Mexico’s culture and traditions, including history and architecture, folklore, wildlife, and music. Plan a visit soon. You will be glad you did.

What To Know Before You Go

Major airlines fly to Mexico City. From there, you can fly Interjet to Tuxtla Gutierrez.

The weather in January is a pleasant 72 to 95 degrees. Bring sunscreen and a hat.

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