By John Noble
From the archives (July 1999)
Chiapas, Mexico — Beautiful, pristine Laguna Miramar, 100 kilometers south-east of Ocosingo, is the largest lake in the Lacandon jungle. It is becoming known — and accessible — to the outside world thanks to a successful community ecotourism project by the village whose territory borders its western shore, Ejido Emiliano Zapata.
Surrounded by rainforest-covered hills from which echo continuously the roars of howler monkeys, the 16 square-kilometer lake has a beautiful temperature all year and is virtually unpolluted — one of the last expanses of water in Mexico, even the world, of which that can be said. The lake is within the Montes Azules biosphere reserve and the four ejidos whose lands surround it have agreed, among other things, to use no motor boats on the lake and to keep a 1-kilometer band around it free of settlement, farming and extractive activities.
A visit to Laguna Miramar is an unforgettable close encounter with nature. The experience of ejido life in Emiliano Zapata — a poor but well ordered, alcohol-free, mixed community of Chol and Tzotzil indigenous settlers — is fascinating too. It is forbidden to bring alcohol or drugs into the community.
You can visit Miramar in an organized group or on your own. In either case it’s advisable to make contact in advance with Señor Fernando Ochoa.
Fernando, who speaks excellent English, takes groups to the lake and will provide other visitors with information and advice on how to get there, who to contact on arrival, and so on. Ideally you should avoid coming between June and October, when most of the year’s 2000mm of rain falls, and roads and paths turn to mud. When you reach Emiliano Zapata, ask for the Presidente de la Laguna (the villager in charge of lake matters) and/or the Comisariado (equivalent to the mayor). Through these officials you will need to arrange details of your visit and pay your fees — US$10 a day for a guide to the lake or to show you around it (or for animal or bird-spotting), US$5 for a porter to carry baggage to or from the lake, US$10 a day for use of a canoe (cayuco), and US$3 per person for a night’s stay. If you have been in touch with Fernando Ochoa, he will probably have told you the names of the people currently occupying the posts. The village, founded in 1968 by settlers from northern Chiapas, is a spread-out place of huts, grass, trees and a few concrete communal buildings, on a gentle slope running down to the Rio Perlas, which is the whole village’s exquisitely beautiful bathing place.
The 7-kilometer walk from village to lake, through milpas and forest, takes 1-1/2 hours. Guides will point out trees like the caoba (mahogany) and what they call the matapalo (wood-killer), which uses other trees for support as it grows and ends up strangling them. Around the lake you hear the incessant growls of howler monkeys (saraguatos) and may see these and spider monkeys (monos arañas). Other wildlife includes macaws, toucans and jaguars. You may hear jaguars at night. Butterflies are prolific. Locals fish for perch (mojarra) in the lake, and will assure you that its few crocodiles are not dangerous.
It takes about 45 minutes to canoe across to Isla Lacan-Tun, a 6000 sq m island completely covered in overgrown, and largely unexcavated, pre-Hispanic remains from the Chol-Lacantun people, who were not conquered by the Spanish until the 1580s. The island was the site of their last stand.
Getting There & Away
To reach Emiliano Zapata you must first get to the neighboring ejido, San Quintin, which has an airstrip and a large military base (San Quintin supports the PRI; Emiliano Zapata is sympathetic to the Zapatistas). From the bus stop in San Quintin, walk five minutes along the airstrip and turn down a dirt road to the right opposite a complex of military buildings. From here it’s a 15 or 20-minute walk to the middle of Ejido Emiliano Zapata.
This article was an excerpt from the John Noble’s chapter on Chiapas, of the author’s popular Mexico Handbook, published by Lonely Planet.