On December 27th, the Seven Seas Mariner called upon Mexico’s newest cruise destination, Puerto Chiapas. I originally wrote about the port’s opening in my blog last year; but this was the first time I actually visited so I wanted to share my observations.
The Mexican government spent a lot of money dredging and enlarging the original local port; there is a new breakwater, a huge thatched palapa hut terminal and a brand new pier that can accommodate the largest ships in the industry. Though everything looks good on paper – in my opinion - the port as a destination is not quite ready to handle the demands of thousands of cruise passengers.
From what I can tell the main draw for the port of Chiapas is the chance to visit some of the most beautiful archaeological sites in the Maya world including Palenque. To do so however requires a full day. Unfortunately, our call was relatively short thus making it impossible to go anywhere too far from the ship. Given the choice of a coffee plantation, bird watching or the ruins of Izapa, I chose Izapa. Because of how out of the way the site is, I had never been there. I knew Izapa was small – a pre-classic site – with unusual stelae or carved markers. Now just 45 minutes away from the port it seemed foolish not to go.
Upon our arrival we were greeted by musicians and dancers; flags waved and confetti showered down upon the disembarking guests as they walked the distance of the pier to assemble for their tours. The sun was directly overhead and it was blazing hot. There was no shade until the groups headed for the buses via the terminal. The “terminal” is constructed to look like a traditional palapa hut only in gargantuan scale; along the perimeter were a few vendors selling handicrafts; in the center folkloric dancers were getting ready to perform. We boarded a new air conditioned coach that had a clean restroom, good public address system and functional air conditioning – everything a visitor wants. Traveling out of town I could see that this region of the coast even during a major holiday week was not a Mecca for national tourists not to mention foreigners.
We drove north about 30 minutes through an industrial area to the town of Tapachula; during the drive our guide said nothing. Other than introducing herself, she said nothing. She explained that “real guides” would be at our stops. Unfortunately, at all our stops the real guides were no better than the gal on the bus. Our tour visited the Casa de Cultura and Museum. To those interested in his wire sculpture, a young artist talked about his work; the rest of my group wandered through the small building wondering why they were brought there. Next door the museum had three rooms with pre-classic stelae and a few pieces of pottery; the signage was in Spanish and the person in the museum was grossly inaccurate in some of his explanations. I had hoped to see the stelae known as, “Tree of Life”; I asked where it was. I was told we would see it in the archaeological park. Unfortunately, upon our arrival to the very small complex of ruins, I discovered what we were seeing was but one of many groupings and the “Tree of Life” was in another area an hour away!
Like my fellow guests I was disappointed that greater effort had not been made to develop the infrastructure of the destination before it was opened. I can appreciate that tourists are new to Tapachula and signage in the museum has not been translated into English but trained guides could have compensated for that. My experience on our bus was not unique; it seemed the guides in general did not know their stuff and were not prepared. None of the tours were any good; no birds were spotted on the bird watching tour; there was nothing to see or learn at the coffee plantation tour. Upon returning to the terminal, shoppers desperate for a souvenir found very little. That is not to say that there is little to see or do in Puerto Chiapas, I think they are just not ready.
Personally, I did enjoy Tapachula. This rural community had all the charm of a Mexican town not yet tainted by tourism. There were no t-shirt shops or jewelry stores – yet. I did not see any gringos other than those I recognized off the ship. For the holiday season the buildings surrounding the tree filled plaza were decorated with red and green tinseled streamers. Vendors were hanging colorful new piñatas on the hooks before the entrances of their shops. In the plaza people listened to a mariachi band as they watched their children play with their new Christmas toys. I peered inside several outdoor cafes whose braziers were stoked-up with spits of grilled meat waiting for the home made tortillas. I thought to myself that this is the kind of place I would like to come back to on my own; find a little hotel and just enjoy the innocence of what used to Mexico. It’s sad to say that in the meantime, until the infrastructure is better developed I think most of the cruise ship visitors to Tapachula and Puerto Chiapas will remain disappointed.