Chiapas, Mexico is full of natural wonders. From the deep Sumidero Canyon to the Lacandon Jungle, it’s not a challenge to see nature at its best. What might come as a surprise, however, is that you don’t have to travel far outside the busy city of San Cristobal de las Casas to see incredible things.
A short 20-minute taxi ride can transport you to a beautiful limestone archway situated within a coniferous forest. For those brave enough, walkways wind around the caves under the top of the arch, high above the ground. Picnic tables, horseback riding, and even camping are all offered. The Arcotete Ecotourism Park is a great way to explore nature without venturing too far from the city.
How to Get to El Arcotete Park
If you’ve read some of our posts, you’ve probably figured out we’re pretty frugal. Sometimes that works out fine. Other times it bites us in the butt (see our post about where to stay in Puerto Escondido if you want to relish in our pain). Well, being cheap this time just wasn’t worth it. Especially once we knew the price.
Rather than pay for a ride out to Arcotete – which we later discovered is only $10 pesos ($0.50 USD) per per person in a shared taxi leaving from the large produce market near the Church of Santo Domingo – we listened to some of the blog posts we read. They said the cheapest cabs are at least $50 pesos and still drop you off far away from the entrance or double that to arrive at the park gates. Rather than that, they said, you should walk! It’s only an hour and it’s nice! So we packed up some snacks, water, our camera gear, and ventured out.
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We passed by the Church of Guadalupe and kept going east. The posts were somewhat right; it was an easy path to follow. Straight for about 40 minutes, the right at the sign, and another 20 minutes down a dirt road. But what they left out is that the road was a fast-moving highway with no sidewalk. And the dirt road was full of cars flying by, spewing up dust which stuck to our sweaty brow.
After an hour of keeping an eye out for cars and holding our breath as each passed, we arrived at El Arcotete Ecotourism Park, sat down on a bench, and swished out our mouths with water. We had made it. But the walk was not worth it. A private taxi was $80 pesos back to town, but the $10 pesos for the colectivo was completely worth every penny. And both drop you off right at the entrance.
Arcotete Entrance Area – Picnic, Restaurant, and Snack Bar
We paid the $10 peso per person entrance fee and checked out the first main area. One restaurant is next to the road, along with a small snack shop selling ice cream, chips, sodas, water, and beer.
But if you’re looking to eat here, it’s best to pack a picnic. Across from the snack shop is a large, grassy meadow with a slight downhill slope. Large pine trees provide perfect shade to the picnic tables and grilling areas situated underneath. It’s the perfect place to spend an afternoon enjoying the peace outside the city.
From the meadow area, you can go one of two ways. To the right is the main entrance to the base of the archway and to the left is how to access the cave system and zip lines. Both are worth checking out.
Star-Crossed Lovers: The Legend of Francoise D’Arcecete
In typical Mexican telenovela style, this area was named after a tragic love story. The tale is that a French man, Jean Francoise D’Arcecete, fell in love with a local woman, Maria de Jesus. This archway was their secret meeting spot where they swore eternal love to each other.
But their union was met with conflict. A local man, De Tovilla, had planned to marry Maria and challenged D’Arcecete to a duel. D’Arcecete killed De Tovilla in the duel and was sent to prison for the murder. Years later, upon his release from prison, he went to search for his love where he found out she had died of a broken heart. This defeated his purpose for living, so he ventured to this area, special to them both, and stabbed himself in the heart with his sword in a suicide of love. Romantic, huh?
Well, setting aside the story, this place is beautiful. Head down to the right at first to get a great view of the archway from below. The short pathway leads down to the river (Rio Fogotico) which is about 20 feet (6 m) wide, flowing directly through the archway. The water isn’t crystal clear or turquoise like at the El Chiflon waterfalls, but it’s still beautiful.
The archway is magnificent. Its limestone walls stretch from side to side with a large crevice between. The forest around it stops at the stone surface of the arch where practically no vegetation is found. The black and white facade is packed with hanging stalactites and nothing else.
You can also go on top of the archway from this side. Make the short hike up to the exact spot which Francoise took his last breath.
Second Half of the Arcotete Park
Make your way back to the entrance area and keep going around to the left of the snack shop. You’ll encounter the bathrooms, parking area, and horse stable. Then a very sketchy bridge leading to the best spot in the park. Even though the bridge seems to be on the verge of collapse, swaying side to side and bending boards your feet, most people make it across safely. Probably worth paying attention to the signs which say no playing and only 5 people pass at a time.
Once you cross the bridge, you can go left down to the water to find a boat which simply ferries you across the small river to another meadow area. Or straight ahead from the bridge is where you can find a zip line course, which looked decent. It runs across the entrance to the archway on the other side and has some lines in the forest along the way.
To the right of the bridge is our favorite part of the area. We all know cave diving, but how about cave climbing?! There is another entrance to the grutas (caves), with an additional $15 pesos per person fee. But just like the colectivo, it’s a price worth paying to visit Arcotete Ecotourism Park and do a little hiking near San Cristobal.
Explore the Caves Above
The steep, rocky path leads up the backside of the archway. Climbing up along the ceiling, the wooden handrails keep you from slipping and falling to the ground below. The first lookout point is nice – a view back against your own tracks – but it’s not the last nor the most spectacular.
As you climb, the height becomes more intimidating. The air gets warmer and more humid. Stalactites droop from the ceiling above, connecting to the ground under your feet, creating a very unusual walkway at the top of this arch. You have to climb through a few smaller keyholes (I had to take off my backpack to fit through). And the footing can be downright slippery and dangerous. Thankfully the guardrails are quite sturdy.
There are incredible lookout points built about every 20 feet or so. After continuing up, you’ll eventually be under the highest point at around 100 feet (30 m) off of the ground below. There, you can view the frontside of the archway from a great vantage point.
They’ve also pointed out a bunch of rock formations that resemble figures: Spider-Man hanging from the ceiling, a mermaid, alien heads, and more. A quirky little aspect to this fun park.
Once done exploring, head back to the main entrance area to hop back in your car, grab one of the waiting taxis, or wait at the colectivo area just up the driveway a little bit. The grutas close around 5 pm and the last colectivos may leave around the same time.
Arcotete Ecotourism Park is easy to get to. Hop in a taxi, a colectivo, or drive 20 minutes east of San Cristobal. Cheap entrance fees get you access to a nice park, beautiful archway, and thrilling cave experience. Grab your hiking shoes and head out for an afternoon of picnics and adventure!
Would you be willing to climb up into the highest parts of the archway? Or does the view from the zip line cruising by sound better? Let us know in the comments below!