Chiapas, Mexico's southernmost state, may be one of its best-kept secrets. Packed into just over 28,000 square miles (an area not much larger than West Virginia) are technicolor rainforests and Mayan ruins, active volcanoes and canyons with 3,000-foot faces of sheer limestone, and deserted beaches of fine gray sand and sparkling clear water, where fishermen set up each morning to sell the day's catch. Locals have summed up this bounty nicely in a T-shirt slogan I see: chiapas: el estado más mexicano (Chiapas: The Most Mexican State).

The only thing you won't find are crowds. Over several days spent exploring Chiapas' stunning terrain – rappelling into sinkholes, swimming in waterfalls, wandering ancient temples, kayaking with crocodiles – I rarely encounter more than a few people at a time. It's the anti-Cancún.

This relative tranquillity may be due to the fact that Chiapas is known as a hotbed of revolutionary uprising, the seat of the Zapatista indigenous-rights movement launched in 1994 to protest Mexico's signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement. (About one-third of Chiapas' population is descended from early civilizations; many still live in autonomous villages and speak native languages.) While the armed conflict ended after just 12 days, and the movement has since been largely nonviolent, Chiapas' lingering reputation as a haven for militants can scare off less seasoned travelers. But Chiapas is actually one of the safest regions of Mexico – and among the most authentic.

San Cristóbal de las Casas, a colonial town an hour east of the main airport, is the heart of the state. Uncommonly seductive with its cobblestone streets and 17th-century churches, it's where modern Mexico meets the country's rich history. A vibrant mix of villagers, tourists, and international expats wanders the centuries-old public market and browses chic boutiques.

Margaret Bridgforth came here from South Carolina 20 years ago and runs the elegant La Bamba Guesthouse. "I like the layers and diversity and kookiness and color here," she says. "It's as far away from a gated community as you can get."

San Cristóbal is the perfect site from which to explore the state, ideally during the dry season from November to April. Almost any attraction, from beaches to forests to canyons, is less than a four-hour drive away. Buses to nearby "base towns" make exploration even easier. Comitán, two hours southeast, is en route to the Lagunas de Montebello National Park, a popular area for boating and horseback riding. Ocosingo, two hours northeast, is an ideal launchpad for trips to the region's deepest jungles, to spot endangered species like scarlet macaws. Even better than taking the colectivos, or public vans, is to hire an independent guide who'll allow for spontaneous stops and diversions.

This is exactly what happens on my first day of travel, when I depart in the morning with my 25-year-old guide, Daniel Ovando Valencia. I had been told that the drive from San Cristóbal to the ruins of Palenque, near Chiapas' northeast border, is spectacular. Our plan is to head in that direction, perhaps stopping halfway for a swim in Agua Azul, a series of terraced waterfalls.

Within 20 minutes, our plan goes out the window. Just outside the town of Cruzton, we come upon several roadside shacks with signs reading se vende trago (roughly, "drink for sale"). For a buck, the vendors fill any cup you present (in our case, Fresca bottles) with pox, the local moonshine made from wheat and unrefined sugar. At over 120 proof, it comes on strong, but it's sweet and surprisingly smooth, with an aftertaste of baked bread.

A little farther up the road, a tiny hand-drawn sign tacked to a tree catches my eye: gruta del mamut – Mammoth Cave. This network of underground passageways once harbored native people who considered caves the sacred lifeblood of the Earth; after the Spanish arrived, they would burrow deep into its sweaty nooks to practice their illegal religion. As Daniel and I make our way through slippery tunnels of stalagmites and stalactites, they suddenly open to a football-field-size underground amphitheater. I start to wonder what's really in that pox.

As we continue along the winding road toward Ocosingo, mind-bending vistas unfold. We sail through a pine forest entwined with palm trees and scarlet bougainvillea. There's a towering waterfall to our left, a deep gorge to the right. That night, I stay in a spartan, family-run hotel on Ocosingo's central plaza, where dinner includes slabs of the town's famous queso de bola, a rich, tangy cow's milk cheese. In the morning, I take a colectivo down a bumpy dirt road to the ruins of Toniná, a surreal 9th-century relic. Its enormous, central pyramid once housed architects, astronomers, artists, and priests. Much of the structure is built according to formulas that correspond to the sacred Mayan calendar, including its 260 main steps, each representing a particular day. Surveying the Ocosingo Valley from what was once one of the tallest structures in the Mayan world, I'm the only person in sight.

Soon enough, I'm eager to return to the comforts of San Cristóbal. At the restaurant Tierra y Cielo, which seeks to elevate traditional cocina chiapaneca to fine dining, I dig into a crisp hearts of palm salad and a smoky, nutty beef tartare, prepared with local simojovel chilies.

The next day, even the drive to the airport from San Cristóbal is breathtaking. There is a newish toll road, but take the libre, which descends 5,000 feet through villages where farmers tend corn on impossibly steep hillsides, and the bird's-eye views range from the dizzying Sumidero Canyon to cows dozing in front of a purple church. I see a coyote in the distance; then, as if on cue, a roadrunner skitters past. It's a fitting farewell to a place where nature's most cartoonish and fantastical sights are on everyday display.

See also: Mayan Ruins, Chiapas-Style