DAY 5: PALENQUE
The bus journey from Tulum to Palenque took 11 hours. We had passed at least three army checkpoints, having had the inside of the bus inspected meticulously by gunned men with dogs and torches. It was just after 5am when our bus stopped again. I had assumed it was another such stop and prepared to look innocent. Just in case.
Wrong; the stop was not an army checkpoint. The vague letters outside informed me that we had reached the bus station of Palenque. Palenque, that? The place I had planned spending two nights in welcomed me with little else than a tiny bus station fronted up by an ugly stone wall and barely lit by a dim lantern. What a great choice indeed.
I tried to convince myself that the town surely looked better in daylight and got off the bus. The 20 peso price tag for the taxi to Hotel Ciudad Real meant that everything was rather central here. Or perhaps that the taxis in Palenque were just cheaper than up on the Caribbean coast.
The clocks were not showing even 6am, it was dark outside and I prayed that the hotel would please be so kind and check me in anyway.
It was my lucky day. The clerk at the reception did not move an eyebrow as he handed me the key. I effectively got a night for free!
After one hour of sleep, I returned to central Palenque (which really was not farther than a 15-minute walk from the hotel) and joined a group of people heading to the ruins of Palenque. The 7th century ruins are Palenque’s utmost point of interest. Consult any guide book, and it will scream out loud for you NOT to stay in the town itself. Just do the ruins. Like the rest of the gringos do.
I instantly preferred the Palenque site to the overrated Chichen Itza. The jungle setting matched well with the absence of large tourist groups. In fact, there were barely a dozen visitors at Palenque that morning, and the number of souvenir vendors was negligible on the scale of the site. To add to it all, unlike in Chichen Itza, the Palenque ruins could be touched and even climbed upon.
Templo de las Inscripciones, Palenque ruins
Part of the jungle
El Palacio, Palenque ruins
The bridge across the Otulum River, Palenque
Otulum River, Palenque
Intensely green Palenque
My next stop was the Misol-Ha waterfall. Over 35 meters high, the “Sweeping Water” plunged into a natural pool in the middle of the jungle. A small footpath ran along the wet steps to an open cave behind the waterfall, further continuing onto an elevated viewing platform. By the time I had reached it, I had already stripped off everything I legally could and looked like I had had a good shower. The water was so plentiful it was literally hanging in the air.
Behind the scenes at Misol-Ha
The only way is up
Misol-Ha, the white (life)line
Hiding in the trees
Misol-Ha in full glory
We continued along the San Cristobal road to Agua Azul, the most famous water cascade in Mexico’s state of Chiapas, about 50 km from Palenque. Agua Azul is made up of a long series of glittering waterfalls stretching for over 1 km. As multiple posters informed us along the way, it is located in the Zapatista active area. Endless food and souvenir stalls were lining the left bank of the streaming water, and the proceeds of the sales reportedly went to the Zapatista communities.
The way of life around the Azul River was simple. Hens and chicks were strolling lazily around, not the least bit scared of the local kids. A girl around 5 years old left her playing group and ran to me. She stretched out her hand; “un peso” said her begging lips. She was asking for about 5-pence worth. I handed out a 1-peso coin, intuitively expecting if not gratitude, then at least some expression of joy.
But neither came. Without looking at me, the girl closed her palm on the coin, clutched it tight to her body, and ran after her playmates into the jungle. Perhaps she expected me to give her more; or no-one really taught her to thank others.
Several crosses were lining up the shores of the seemingly innocent stream; Agua Azul is known for rather treacherous swimming. The heat of the day was close to unbearable though, so I took a risk and jumped in for a quick dip. Deep turquoise waters were true bliss; only once did I get caught in a strong current, but was promptly fished out of the nearest river curve by a local boy.
On the way back to the minibus, I picked up a fresh coconut. Massive and green, it looked different from what we in Europe get sold in supermarkets. I did some reading later and found out that the two were the same coconut at different ripening stages. The coconut covered with a brown outer husk is the only one ignorant people like myself recognise as such. The green version I was holding in my hands, however, was a so-called tender coconut, used primarily for the coconut water it contains. It was the most delicious drink I had ever had, officially.
“Hey-ho, hey-ho…” The road to Agua Azul
Not everybody came happy that day
Agua Azul’s waters was full of minerals
There was nothing out there, predictably
Still waters run deep
Our driver Junipero loudly complained as we conquered the curvy road back to Palenque. “Demasiado agua”, he kept saying, “There is too much water in Chiapas!” And, seeing my obviously limited Spanish, pointed expressively outside.
The situation there would not fall short of making one worried. Every few minutes brought a new sight of lavishly uprooted trees. Multiple semi-landslides were slowly turning into real danger. My arrival to Mexico had been preceded by torrential rain, both in Chiapas and the neighbouring state of Oaxaca. Two resulting large-scale mudslides buried several houses and took away lives. Full waterfalls were certainly beautiful, but the side effects of profuse rain were anything but amusing.
It was getting dark by the time we returned to Palenque. Exhausted after a night of crossing army checkpoints and a full day of excursions, I went straight to bed. A new adventure was awaiting me in the wee hours of the morning!
DAY 6: YAXCHILAN AND BONAMPAK
At 6am the following morning, only the occasional monkeys were making themselves heard out of the jungle surrounding my hotel. It was pitch-dark. Fearless, I walked towards the highway and waited for the tour minibus.
Thankfully, it came quickly. The driver introduced himself as Hector Humberto Ivarra Castellano (in that order), insisting upfront that every component of his name was vital and that the whole lot had to be pronounced together. The other passengers in the car were visibly amused by my hopeless attempts to reproduce a name so respectably complicated.
That day’s tour included two Mayan sites – Yaxchilan and Bonampak, both near the Guatemalan border and about a 3-hour drive out of Palenque.
For breakfast, we stopped in a place called “Yax Lum” about an hour’s drive east. Thick mist was covering the surroundings, its chill leaking through to the skin. Once again I was reminded of how humid Chiapas was. I was hoping the notorious morning haze would clear away promptly with the sun.
And it did. By the time we had reached Frontera Corozal (the boat transfer point for Yaxchilan) at 9am, the blue skies were already braving their way out of the clouds.
The Yaxchilan complex sits in the middle of the jungle along Mexico’s border with Guatemala. The area is well acclaimed for its jungle biodiversity, second only to the Amazon forest. Despite wide-scale threats of deforestation brought about by the locals freeing up land for cultivation, conscious efforts are being made to protect the region from any sort of urban development, including paved roads. Possibly the most mysterious of the Mayan sites, Yaxchilan can therefore only be reached by boat. The ride along the Usumacinta River takes about 40 minutes.
What makes the speedboat ride especially remarkable is Usumacinta’s international role. Indeed, the 1,000 km long river serves as a border between Mexico and Guatemala. It was at times difficult to believe that the identical jungle occupying either side of the water belonged to two different countries.
In Frontera Corozal
On our our to Yaxchilan along the Usumacinta River
The Yaxchilan site greeted us with myriads of mosquitoes. It was their territory. They landed on my fingertips. They zoomed aggressively between my legs. They attacked my skin through the clothes and the hair. Some nearly flew into my eyes. What a bunch of hungry animals they were. I cursed; my repellent was as useless as a deodorant stick.
Past a few meters of the entrance, I saw a sharp right turn, climbing towards (as the sign indicated) to Pequeña Acropolis. Both my guide book and my best human reference for Mexico had advised me to take that route, but I chose to keep it for later – and instead continued to the main plaza of the site.
Jungle-shrouded Yaxchilan deserved every bit of praise it had been given. The immediate presence of the wild could be felt everywhere. Howler monkeys were making a concert up in the woods. The mosquitoes were having one massive feast on the fresh visitors. Ants were attacking our feet. Even intuitively tame species seemed to have gone all undomesticated; a local guide warned us not to be surprised should we see a “schizophrenic donkey” galloping nearby.
A near human voice suddenly called out of the woods in an eerie cacophony of sounds. Silent, we looked at each other, frozen question reflected in our eyes. “Told you”, the guide said. “The donkey. Be careful out there”.
Having explored the main part of the site, I deepened into the woods (avoiding the area besieged by the unfriendly donkey) and followed the signs for Edificios (“buildings”) 42, 44 and 51. When I reached the elevated area housing all three, I was glad to be reunited with the sight of the open skies. The jungle down there was so deep and the trees so tall and leafy that not even a patch of the sky could be seen.
Maya? Which Maya?
The hidden Yaxchilan
After Yaxchilan, we headed to the second Mayan sight of the day, Bonampak. Physically rather close to Yaxchilan (30 km), Bonampak took a while to reach because of the mentioned absence of roads. We took the speedboat back to Frontera Corozal and drove for another half an hour.
Bonampak kept only a fraction of its territory open to the visitors and was not as impressive as Yaxchilan. What the site is however really famous for are the mural paintings, some of which have preserved the reminiscence of their original colour and are considered the finest examples of classic Mayan art. All are contained in the three rooms of the so-called Temple of the Murals, a long narrow building atop a pyramid base.
The murals of Bonampak
The murals of Bonampak
The murals of Bonampak
And Bonampak’s (less famous) exterior
It was finally the time to hit the road back to Palenque. I spent most of the journey conversing with two wonderful people I met on the tour, Giorgos and Maria from Barcelona.
I often feel that acquaintances one makes on the road are divided into two categories. The first ones are those you can barely wait to get rid of, from the first minute. They are a bit of a bore. All they ever talk about is their travels: where they’ve been, where they’re going next, where they’ve stayed, who they’ve met, blah-blah. The same things you’ve discussed one million times before with your friends and dozens of other such nuisance fellow travellers as early as ten minutes ago. Oh, and their travels never tend to cross the sacred borders of the classic “gringo trail”. Somehow this category tends to be the majority.
The other category are the people you would like to get to know regardless of the travel aspect. Barely minutes after the first introduction, you feel you have known them forever. Your latest itineraries aside, you would still be able to have a perfectly rounded conversation and part as new friends. Such people are a pleasure to meet. Many thanks to Maria and Giorgos!
The 13-hour road trip had made the highlight of my Mexican adventure at the time. I could not pinpoint what made it so special: the great company, the boat ride, the jungle setting or the wonderful food. Or perhaps the Lacandon Maya kids descending upon us at Bonampak at a single mention of caramel sweets?
Most likely it was the combination of all. I wholeheartedly recommend a day trip to Yaxchilan and Bonampak to all those visiting Mexico and particularly Chiapas. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.
DAY 7: TRANSFER TO SAN CRISTOBAL DE LAS CASAS
I finally had a chance to look around Palenque for about an hour the next morning. It was a lovely provincial town with pleasant atmosphere and friendly locals unspoilt for tourist attention. No wonder at all; most visitors flock thoughtlessly to Chiapas’s unrivalled tourist Mecca, San Cristobal de las Casas, and explore the sights around Palenque from there – thereby avoiding the namesake modern town.
After a perfect breakfast at “Las Tinajas”, recommended to me by Hector Humberto Ivarra Castellano (hope I got it all right), I could argue with every tourist guide slamming off Palenque. Trust me, it is a lovely town waiting to welcome those rare and often ungrateful visitors. Give it a try.
Now that’s what I call a “boutique”
And that’s what I call a “gym”!
One of Palenque’s central streets
I asked if I could take a photo, and the vendor laughed: “Cinco pesos!”
Getting retro in Palenque
At 9am, I took the bus to my next stopover point, San Cristobal de las Casas. The journey over a relatively short 275 km distance takes six hours, largely because of the multiple curves, poor condition and the altitude of the road.
The rather uneventful journey featured more of the dated, “easy” movies shown on several TV screens typically installed in every self-respecting first class bus in Mexico. Subtitles were visibly unheard of in that part of the world. Each line was mercilessly dubbed in a Spanish-speaking voice; even some featured songs had been translated.
Green hill after another, the landscape in that part of Chiapas looked quite monotonous – until at last those much advertised red-tiled whitewashed houses appeared on the right side of the road. A shield hanging over the highway informed us that we had arrived in San Cristobal de las Casas. Referred to as simply San Cristobal, the city impressively occupies the altitude of 2,100 meters above sea level and is populated by around 140,000 people.