The narrow mountain road carved a slithering path through impenetrable jungle that threatened to devour it. Even the view through the tour bus windshield provided no relief; the asphalt ribbon stretched into the distance until it too was swallowed by the green swath. With every curve my old malady, motion sickness, was kicking up, threatening to make me hurl. I put my head down and closed my eyes, attempting to block out the incessant greenness rushing past my peripheral vision. Breathing deeply, I concentrated on not throwing up. Mercifully, the bus suddenly slowed. I looked up just in time to glimpse a crudely hand-lettered sign at the edge of a clearing where a few ramshackle buildings had staked a claim. “You are in Zapatista territory,” it announced.
A memory bubble lurched up. Back in the mid-90’s I had considered loading up my truck and traveling through Mexico but had decided against it because of the armed conflict between the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional, EZLN) and the Mexican government. On January 1, 1994 an estimated 3,000 Zapatista insurgents, based in the southernmost State of Chiapas and comprised mostly of indigenous peoples of Mayan ancestry, took up arms in response to Mexico’s signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which they believed would further widen the gap between rich and poor people. They seized a number of towns and cities and freed prisoners from the jail in San Cristobal de las Casas, demanding governmental autonomy and more control over and remuneration from the vast stores of natural resources extracted from the State.
A bloody battle between the Zapatistas and government troops raged for 12 days before a ceasefire was brokered. As quickly as they had emerged, the Zapatistas melted back into into the jungle, choosing to eschew future violence in favor of disseminating their message via newspapers and the Internet. Although there were occasional skirmishes following the ceasefire, for the most part the fighting ended and the government pursued a policy of negotiation, to the point that they did not intervene when ELZN declared the establishment of 32 autonomous municipalities in Chiapas in 2001.
Now, 16 years later, I was finally making the pilgrimage I had put on hold due to the Zapatista rebellion. The further south I traveled the more I heard about Chiapas. Time and again during my four-month trip Mexicans I had met along the way extolled its beauty, insisting, “You must go!” Their passion was understandable. From the astonishing Mayan temples of Palenque to the mist-wreathed, jungle-smothered mountaintops, Chiapas is simply stunning.
Since the cessation of hostilities, cultural tourism has gradually returned to Chiapas. Drawn by budget accommodations and authentic indigenous culture, backpackers descended upon San Cristobal de las Casas and began extolling its beauty. Today, attracting tourism has the full support of Zapatista leaders, who seem to have exchanged their black masks for tour buses. Yet despite the Zapatistas’ apparent desire to fling their doors open to the world, there are still challenges associated with travel in this part of Mexico. Occasional strikes force road closures and since there are few good roads in Chiapas, the strikes result in long delays and canceled itineraries. I was lucky; the roads had been blocked just a day earlier but on the day I opted to take a tour to nearby waterfalls the strike had dissolved.
However, our route necessitated traveling through ejido lands, commune-like arrangements where the land is owned jointly by all residents. Since each ejido is self-governed, it is not uncommon for each community to attempt to extract a fee from vehicles passing through. While not a problem on the main highway, driving on less-traveled roads meant running a gauntlet of pennant-clad ropes held up by women on opposite sides of the road. My tour bus driver ignored the makeshift barriers, barreling down on them at top speed. With each encounter I grew more fascinated by this elaborate game of chicken, which always ended with the women dropping the rope at the last possible nanosecond to avoid having it torn from their hands. It seemed almost a choreographed dance: the driver intent on maintaining speed, the women resolute in their attempt to stop traffic yet resigned to failure, the multi-colored pennants fluttering down to the pavement in slow motion in front of our grille.
Since the news in Mexico these days is dominated by the drug cartel wars, some believe the tourism drive is an attempt to keep the Zapatista struggle from being forgotten; with the eyes of the world on Chiapas, it is less likely that the government will send in forces from the 80 army bases located in the State. But whether the motivation is political or economically driven, the real beneficiaries are tourists, who once again have access to this unspoiled, undiscovered part of the world.
Photo credit for Zapatista sign: Gaelx