In 1994 Mexico stood on the brink of revolution. The corrupt and ineffective Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI) had been in government for 65 years and had just signed the North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) which was correctly predicted to destroy local industries and increase the wealth gap between rich and poor.
On January 1, the day NAFTA came into power, the hitherto unknown Zapatista Army of National Liberation (Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional, EZLN) came down out of the mountains of Chiapas and briefly took control of Ocosingo, Las Margaritas, Huixtán, Oxchuc, Rancho Nuevo, Altamirano, and Chanal as well as freeing prisoners from gaol in San Cristóbal de las Casas.
They were quickly suppressed by the military and retreated to the surrounding mountains but they had shaken the establishment and aroused a sense of hope for many on the left. For a while, it felt like meaningful change was possible in Mexico. The group was largely made up of indigenous people articulately arguing for land rights through its charismatic spokes person Subcomandante Marcos.
The ELZN or Zapatistas, take their name from Emiliano Zapata, the agrarian reformer and commander of the Liberation Army of the South during the revolution.
In a sense their emergence was the start of what would go on to be called the Global Justice Movement - a 'movement of movements'. Key protests were held in Seattle which temporarily shut down the 1999 WTO Ministerial, the original 'S11' in Melbourne when the World Economic Forum met at Crown Casino and the 27th G8 meeting Genoa where a particularly brutal response from police ended in the death of one protester and the hospitalisation of hundreds of others.
The World Bank, the IMF and the newly formed World Trade Organisation were set-up or re-purposed with hard line laissez faire economic models and were ripping the fabric of society out from underneath working people globally, destroying industries and livelihoods in their wake.
The response from the left was this 'movement of movements' which brought together a wide range of disparate groups in one a rare moment of leftist unity to fight for a more democratic and inclusive world.
This all formed the backdrop of my political awakening. As a young punk rocker with plenty of angst to to burn, I started reading and getting involved in various activist activities with a sense that a better world was possible and change was happening.
It was about this time that I became aware of the EZLN, particularly after they marched from Chiapas to Mexico City to demand land rights in 2001. I even bought Subcomandante Marco's book and badly memorised a few of its more poetic passages.
Which is the long and drawn out way of me saying, I've been meaning to get to Chiapas for some time. Our first of two stops was the beautiful San Cristóbal de las Casas, a key town in terms of support of the EZLN cause. A group of Zapatista supporters are camped out in the Zocola (main square) protesting for land rights, free education and the release of a number of political prisoners.
High up in the mountains, it was much cooler than Oaxaca and had a broody feel as the clouds roll in over the mountain every afternoon. Like Oaxaca though, it's indigenous population has a strong presence and the whole region has a more powerful sense of regional identity. These people are the descendants of the Mayans.
There are lots of pushy older indigenous women selling shawls and ponchos and it's a hot spot for white hippies with far too many gringos wearing said ponchos with sandles for my liking. There's also a large Guatemalan population. Given it's proximity to the border, lots of Guatemalan migrants pass through.
We spent most of our week there just meandering around visiting a variety of eclectic museums. There's an impressive textile museum (in the mandatory re-purposed monastery) showcasing the skill and local diversity of the fabrics in the broader region. Then there was the Amber museum which took great pains to explain that the premise of the film Jurassic Park was a load of bull shit. And finally the 'insect museum' which contained a room full of terrarium's housing live tarantulas that has had my skin crawling ever since.
From San Cristobal we made our way down to Palenque, in the jungle near the northern border of Chiapas. For the first time since we got on the Copper Canyon railway we were below 1500m above sea level. The normal road from San Cristobal to Palenque was closed so our 5 hour bus ride became a 9 hour one but through some stunning scenery as we wove our way down through the mountains into the jungle.
Palenque itself is quite uninteresting but 6 km out of town are some amazing Mayan ruins that poke out from the jungle like a scene from an Indiana Jones movie. Just to add to the effect, as we walked up to them a black rodent the size of a particularly stocky cat shot past in front of us. At the same time you could hear the Howler Monkeys in the jungle around you and it was obvious from where they got their name.
So we scrambled over the ruins for a few hours which was great - exploring the tombs and the surround metropolis with monarch butterflies all around and the occasional iguana.
When we stopped for a late lunch of traditional Mayan food on our way back to our hotel a flock of Scarlet Macaw's flew in for the evening. It was a pretty special place.
In a funny way, it felt like we were on holiday again for the first time in a while. I know, I can hear your groan from here. But being in shorts in the jungle, just taking our time in the peace and quiet was just really relaxing and a pleasant change from the noisy chaos that is the rest of the country.
We're down on the Yucatan Peninsular now where we'll be for our remaining four weeks in Mexico. But more of that later.