500 Year Old Spanish Mission Ruins in Chiapas at Exconvento Copanahuastla

The Mexican state of Chiapas has some of the oldest Spanish missions of New Spain. The remains of the mission convent at Copanahuastla is one of these. Located in a seasonally swampy lowlands not too far from the Pacific coast these ruins made a fun day trip.

Dominican priests first came to the Maya Tzeltal community of Copanahuastla, also spelled Copnaguastla, in 1545 to begin the work of  evangelizing the large local Maya community. They established one of the most influential convents in Chiapas at the time. For the first 12 years the convent was housed in simple wood and adobe buildings. In 1557 they began construction of a proper mission church and convent out of brick, stone and plaster.

Spanish mission ruins in Chiapas Mexico

The sign at the entrance of Exconvento Copanahuastla says to not molest the animals. Apparently the grounds are used for grazing cattle at times.

Just seven years after it was constructed, the church building was struck by lightening and the roof burned. The building was reconstructed and in use until 1629. Though the first Dominican missionaries had commented on the mild climate at the mission, disease was a problem and after a wave of sickness struck the area the mission was abandoned.

Mission in Mexico

The building looks as much like a castle or fortress as it does a church.

The mission convent church interior. The local townspeople have placed a cross where the alter once stood.

The main surviving church building is impressive and resembles a medieval fortress. This is the 5th oldest Spanish Mission church in Chiapas. It is unique in that it hasn’t been remodeled over the years like the others so it is a rare example of original 16th century Spanish mission convent church design.

The Exconvento Copanahuastla is in the little town of Candelaria. The turn off is not far down the highway from the popular waterfalls outside of Comitan called Cascades El Chiflon. There are no real services in the town other than small tiendas and not much to see other than the old church ruins. The people we encountered there were all quite friendly and we had the Convent all to ourselves.

A tree grows around the remains of the old priests quarters.

At one time there were more outbuildings around the church. The area is scattered with quite a few interestingly carved stones that must have been architectural details used in the church and the now long gone buildings around the site.

Interesting carved stones were scattered around the site.

The stairs up to the old bell tower are in the center of this photo.

Bats on the ceiling of the bell tower of Copanahuastla.

 

At the back corner of the building is the steps up the old bell tower. It appeared that at one time this was blocked off by a discarded steel door nearby. Seeing no signs of warning or to keep out we climbed up the 500 year old abandoned stairwell. There were slits in the walls of the tight circular staircase and we could see quite a few bats on the ceilings. At the top of the old tower the stairs open up to the top of the walls of the old mission church. This was not a safe or wise place to be, but we enjoyed the breeze and the incredible view from the top.

View from the top of the convent walls at Copanahuastla. If we had adult supervision, we may not have done this.

View down into thwe old sanctuary at Exconvento Copanahuastla.

We found this place worth a day trip all by itself. From Comitan it’s only little more than an hour away. Combined with a trip to the waterfalls at El Chiflon this makes a great all day adventure.


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