We were on the fence about it after Misol-Ha, which was an incredible sight this time of year, but our German driver (and others) said it's different enough and worth the trip. So on Wednesday of our first full week of Spanish classes we decided it would be good to get out of the city and drive down to this site.
Fortunately the drive was dramatically better than the one to Palenque. We may top the Palenque drive in Guatemala or Nicarauga, but we're in no hurry to do so. This one had a few topes out of town and some curves but we were able to be at the speed limit probably 90% of the time, versus Palenque's 5%.
|Teopisca, a small town on the highway down to El Chiflón, with a very well manicured zocalo, or central park
The car is another story though. This was the third car we rented in México, and they've progressively gotten more expensive (to us, although not much) and cheaper (in car quality). Out of Cancún was great, power everything, air, lots of room, USB power, etc. Out of Merída was fine, manual windows and locks and a hatchback but we only needed it for one day and a fine VW. Out out San Cristóbal, we had a Nissan Tsuru, which as I'm researching now (we didn't know this when we rented) is about the cheapest and worst car that exists in México.
The CarThe car rental salesman said we had a 2014 Tsuru, although they haven't updated the design in 30+ years. It looks like maybe the first company car I ever remember my dad having, although shittier. It was a manual, which isn't a problem in general but this transmission sucked. It didn't have power steering... I don't know if I've ever driven a car without power steering, and Melissa can attest that it really, really sucks. 90° turns in the city were agony. Fortunately on the highway you don't need to do a lot of turns that hard.
|Nissan Tsuru, from Carbuzz
Unsurprisingly, no power windows, locks, trunk, etc., but that doesn't matter as much. On the uphill out of the city we were worried that it might top out at 60 kph (about 40 mph) but it was better in lower gears on hills and we were fine hitting speed limits.
As I'm writing this and searching for a bit about the car, I've very quickly found articles saying how terrible it is, how unsafe it is compared to modern cars, and how it just won't die as popular cheap car and taxi cab here. Thus forms an important lesson learned for us, and tip to other travelers:
Tip: Do not rent a Nissan Tsuru. Check the car model and don't dip into this tier of cheap rentals.Fortunately Melissa is a great driver and we got through the trip perfectly fine. The oddest thing is that I could hear the gas sloshing around when we came to a sharp stop or hit a tope. I've never actually heard that sound in a car before although I'm sure the gas moves in all cars. Disconcerting.
The FallsWe allotted about 3 hours to get the falls (Google said 2:20 but best not to trust it too much here) and made good time, arriving around 11. The park itself is one of the better ones we've been to in a couple of ways: it was not white, first world touristy. We were the only non-Mexicans that we saw there all day: one family lived in the States but was first generation from México. A nice bonus for these demographics is that it was not very commercial or predatory: no kids offering to "watch our car" while we enjoyed the falls, no paying twice, once for the government and one for the attraction, and the cost was only $30 pesos (less than $2 USD) and free parking. The downside is that there wasn't much in the way of food there, mostly chips, fries and drinks, but that worked out fine for us.
|The stiller water is brown, not so fun for swimming this time of year
|The first falls, Supiso, or the Sigh waterfall. Neat but alone is nothing too special, smaller than some we saw at Agua Azul.
Starting out, we tried on our improving but quite limited Spanish to figure out how wet we would get (lesson from Misol-Ha), how far we'd be walking, if we'd be swimming and if we should count on revisiting the car between phases. We learned that the entire hike is about 2km, so more than I'd want to do in board shorts (women have it easier in that regard), the water isn't clear and good for swimming this time of year (what a surprise), we'd get misty-wet (half true) and we figured that we would plan for that and not really count on returning to the car to change clothes or reload our bag. All of these details are important; you don't want to assume you won't get very wet, hike with electronics unprotected and end up a mile from your car when the best wet attraction appears.
|The third falls, Velo de Novia (Bridal Veil falls). Really nice shaded (and slightly flooded) clearing at the base
The grounds were nicely maintained - at the very beginning we walked by the cabañas where you can stay overnight on the premises. The first part of the hike is kind of a muddy river, with a decently nice fall appearing a couple hundred of meters in. There are five individual falls at El Chiflón in a series, so we started ascending on slightly more difficult trails and went off to see each fall in turn. The first two were slight detours from the path; I liked the clearing at the second one in particular. Since you're at ground level for these and haven't done much work yet, we didn't spend too long at these.
The third one is directly on the trail and is probably where a lot of people end their exploration. It's massive, there are amazing lookout points there, and in the wet season you get to choose the level of wetness you'd prefer by the lookouts you visit. The point on the trail keeps you almost completely dry, the second lookout goes from a heavy mist to straight hard rain, and the third will get you soaked almost as bad as Misol-Ha. I went to all three on our return from the peak, Melissa kept the bag dry at the trail lookout.
|Our first peek at falls 4 and 5, from after fall 3. The railings we saw are highlighted when hovering
On the way up we'd seen the zip lines (tirolesas) that you can pay extra to do and people zipping down. There is 600 meter tirolesa that is not very steep, and at the dry lookout for the third waterfall is the start of the 400 meter tirolesa that is steeper and presumably faster. We skipped them on the way up in favor of shortening trip back down.
After the third fall it gets tricky. It's not that the trail isn't well maintained, it's just really hard, steep and slippery. Lots of semi-polished limestone rocks embedded in concrete, so we had to step carefully on the concrete to keep our step. It was also not a lot of stairs, but more slanted walkways, which I don't quite understand as it felt much more difficult to keep your footing on those.
|A stranger ziplines down the steep tirolesa
The fourth fall was probably the best. Massive, soaking, great views and a difficult climb (for us). There's a nice large clearing with some tree cover (so it's not wet) that has great views of this fall. Further out from there was an extremely muddy and wet path jutting over the landscape and river a bit for better pictures. I went out there in my sandals (should have just done that one barefoot) to get some videos with the GoPro in its waterproof enclosure. The most incredible thing about it is that the mist is so thick, and the sun that day was so strong, that I had a tiny personal rainbow surrounding me that only I could see for that entire walk out to the end.
|The approach to the wet part of the fourth falls, Arcoiris or Rainbow Falls
|The mirador or lookout point for the Arcoiris. This area got wet
|The mists from Aroiris, and pervasive rainbows on a sunny day
We spent some time at this one to break before the final climb to the fifth fall, and talked a bit to the first generation family from Mississippi. They had an adorable four year old girl with them who spoke excellent English and loved to talk about her family and her exciting trip to Mexico.
After a bit of rest we geared up for the final, steep climb to the top. I have to note at this point, that at the beginning of the hike, maybe between falls #1 and #2, Melissa spotted a tiny railing really, incredibly far up the mountainside. She said "Is that a railing? I can't believe people go up that far in the dry season, that's nuts!". I said jokingly, "Too bad, we're headed up to that point," figuring it was closed off like the caves at Misol-Ha.
|A rare selfie at the peak, the tamer mirador for the Quinceañera falls. Less wet and messy up here but the hike was an effort.
|Looking back on where we came from. I think where the road in the middle meets the forest is where the park entrance is, so we walked at least half of the way from that. You can almost see the next range of mountains in the far distance.
Well, the climb to the fifth fall was the hardest yet, slippery, dangerous (absolutely no injuries and only 1 real fall beween us!), and you can tell that even though it's hard work getting up there it's going to be worse coming down. We met a few people on the way up who told us to keep going, it's not much further. Sure enough, after a good bit of upward hiking, we ended up at the final fall. This one is much shorter and wider, like a big triangle, and while it's not the most impressive fall there, it definitely has the best views back down onto the valley where we started. I'm not sure if this valley has a name, but it's unlike what we've seen in the Chiapan highlands so far. We've driven a lot and seen lots of beautiful, small valleys with the next mountains over fairly close and clear. This valley was massive, with the next range barely, or possibly not at all, visible in the distance. I'm pretty sure that the road we could just barely see coming out of the jungle from this view is where we drove in and bought our tickets to the park. It's nuts to be up there and know that you've hiked most of that distance, and see just how much that vertical hiking has added up. Definitely worth it.
I've had a hard time finding the elevation gain you do on this hike, one web page indicated that it's a kilometer up, and since some of these falls are a couple hundred meters alone, I'm going with that. We hiked over a vertical kilometer (me in sandals) and we're both proud to have done it.
The top fall summitted, we headed down to the ziplines at fall #3. Now, I knew going into this excursion that the weight limit for the ziplines is 100kg (220 lbs) and I wasn't under that when I last weighed a few weeks ago. Not the kind thing that is going to stop us so we figured we'd see what the deal is when we got there. Tuirns out the weight limit now is 95 kg, over 10 pounds less than expected, and they don't really make exceptions at the steeper zipline. Melissa kindly told the operator that I was around 100kg, but he made me weigh in when he saw me and I tipped the scales at just under 105kg. In my defense, this was immediately after I checked out the wettest lookout point, so I was quite literally 105kg soaking wet. I dried off a bit and took of my shirt and got down to 101, but that's still more than 10 pounds over and I can only take some many clothes off.
|A (GoPro) shot from the quite wet mirador looking at the extremely wet mirador of Arcoiris
So after much persuading, Melissa agreed to do this zipline that she had already paid for and meet me down at its landing. I have to assume it was great, all I know is that she must have hit the break hard because she came in pretty slowly.
Fortunately, the second, longer and less steep zipline was a bit more flexible, and when I said I weighed 101kg he let me buy a ticket and suit up for this one without a weigh in. Some people say that ziplining is an ok but kind of silly touristy thing to do, but I had never done it in my life and I'm currently a tourist, so I'm happy that I was able to do this one. Not very scary at all, and while when I set out it looked like I'd only see the tops of trees, you do go over an opening and body of water that I tried to get some GoPro video of. Working the wooden hand brake at the end is kind of fun too.
Those two ziplines total 1000 meters in length, so they accounted for roughly half the descent by distance (not time!), so after wrapping that up we got out of the park, found our car exactly as we left it, and headed back. Now I hadn't had a torta in a while (lots of abuela cooking and they're just not so common here), but the area around the falls park didn't have much food at all. Fortunately for me, Melissa had the brilliant idea to step in Comitan, the city closest to the falls, where she saw a Burger King sign, so that I could finally try the Dorito Whopper that they have here. Brilliant.
The Burger King was in a slightly loco mall, apparently most of Comitan goes to try international fast food on the weekends? Unlike the fast food places in Jamaica, the Méxican places have extended menus with lots of local variations, so we got the Dorito burger and some Burger King Jalapeño Poppers, along with some normal food for lunch. I have to say, the Dorito Whopper actually kind of exceeded my expectations. For whatever reason I simply can't pass up these pop culture food mash up things (pop tart pop-up in New York, KFC's double down years ago...) but never expect them to taste any better than the sum of their parts if that. (Melissa start the eye roll now). The Dorito Whopper was actually slightly better than the sum of its parts, and the extra crunch element the chips brought was great. Would definitely recommend.
That and a cookies and cream nieve (ice cream bar) got us uneventfully back to San Cristóbal, where we promptly rested for 36 hours after the hike, sun, and quad-killing, painfully careful descents from El Chiflón.
If You Go
- Wet season and dry season are quite different. We saw almost no one swimming in the wet season, and the water is not clear or blue at all, although for the white water falls that doesn't matter much, only for the pools.
- Cabañas looked great, there's not much else to do there but they seemed like a good spot to stay, and possibly base out of to visit Lagos Montebello and other attractions nearby. Comitan is probably better though, less out of the way and a bigger city with amenities.
- If you want to see everything in the wet season, you will get wet. Don't bring unprotected electronics or other articles.
- As of July 2017, the weight limit for the zip lines is 95kg, and they are strict on the steeper one.
- Flip flops are doable if you're quite comfortable with them, waterproof shoes or strap on sandals are better. It's slippery and muddy in places.
- Many blogs suggested to visit this on your own instead of in a tour with Lagos Montebello, so that you have time to explore it all. We agree. The roads down there aren't bad, but we were advised to go through Comitan (10 minutes slower) rather than take the lesser road straight there, which we did and worked out well for us.
- Food there is light, fries, plantanos, chips, beer, water, juices, sodas. Closer to the park entrance there were restaurants but they didn't look too compelling.
- This is not big on the gringo backpacker and tourist circuit, so it's mostly Mexicans and you won't here or be able to use much English.
- We took about 3 hours to go all the way up and down, and we did not rush at all. It can be done in less but I wouldn't recommend planning only 2 hours.
- There are grills and little covered huts in the lower parts by the river, which looked great for a picnic lunch. They weren't crowded, and I doubt it would be hard to claim one and cook, although some of them are probably a little wet on the ground in the wet season.
- Don't rent a Nissan Tsuru.