Palenque, Roberto Barrios Falls, and Alien Rumors in Chiapas, Mexico

Palenque, Mexico

The road from San Cristóbal de Las Casas to the Palenque ruins is a tortuously winding, pot-holed affair that left me nauseous and then relieved once we arrived at our first stop along the road — a Mexican breakfast buffet that came complete with tortilla chips and chicken enchiladas (which, sadly, I have been lacking as part of my breakfasts these past 31 years). Along the way to Palenque, my tour stopped at two waterfalls: Agua Azul (the name means “blue water” in Spanish but, that day, the water was bizarrely a murky brown due to a mysterious project going on upstream) and Misol-Ha (featuring a bat-filled cave behind the waterfall that I ventured into for a cool ten pesos — or roughly 50 American cents). Including these two stops, it took us nearly eight hours to reach Palenque, a major city of the Ancient Maya which, along with much of the Mayan civilization, strangely disappeared in the 10th century A.D. (My favorite theory: The Mayans were descendants of aliens and simply returned to their home planet. The more plausible theory: Draught due to deforestation caused them to abandon their cities and scatter in the search of a more hospitable environment).

Only 4% of the Palenque ruins have been excavated but that small area is quite impressive. The main excavated ruins area is relatively compact and organized into three major groups (Templo de las Inscripciones and El Palacio Grupo, Grupo de las Cruces, and Grupo Norte). You can easily see all of the major buildings in less than two hours, including the time needed to climb up the buildings still open for public scampering. Upon entering the park, you are almost immediately greeted by the iconic Templo de las Inscripciones, a Mayan pyramid that rises nearly 90 feet over eight tiers above the green, manicured grass and, under which, the most powerful king in Palenque’s history (Pakal), is buried. The royal palace sits adjacent to the Templo de las Inscripciones and provides a number of different ancient rooms, passages, and, restored for your viewing pleasure, toilets to explore. Mind-blowingly enough, there are also a number of preserved carvings depicting scenes from Palenque circa the 7th and 8th centuries that are decidedly trippy in nature — many have hypothesized that these scenes are likely inspired by the psychedelic mushrooms that grow in and around Palenque (after observing these carvings myself, I found this logic pretty airtight — see pictures below). Beyond the palace, is the Gropo de las Cruces, three temples that back into the jungle and are the work of the Pakal’s son, Kan B’alam II, whose street name was a much more intimidating Jaguar Serpent II. Each of these are scalable, provide beautiful vistas of the ruins below and valley beyond, and are replete with the requisite mind-bending carvings. The final group is the Gropo Norte, which seem to be the red-headed stepchild of Palenque as most tours ignore these beautiful buildings in favor of the slightly more impressive Palacio and Cruces Grupos. And I can see why — after only two hours exploring the other two sets of ruins, I already had a well-developed sense of Mayan ruin snobbery, as evidenced by the “mehh, I’ve seen better” I muttered under my breath as I walked by.

I had arrived in Palenque via an insanely itineraried one-day tour that left San Cristóbal at 4:30 am and would return at approximately 10 pm. However, in a moment of sanity, I decided to stay the night near the Palenque ruins instead of taking a six-hour bus back to San Cristóbal. I found a spot to stay just outside the ruins in El Panchan. My accommodations were in a place ironically named “The Jungle Palace,” which is basically just a set of shabby cabanas in the jungle. However, the price of 120 pesos/night/cabana (~$6 American) was hard to beat and Don Mucho’s Restaurant nearby promised live music and cheap beer, so I took the bait and spent the next two nights there.

The next day, after the first night in my “palatial” cabana, I ventured to Roberto Barrios Falls, a set of ten different blue waterfalls and crystal clear pools, a 35-minute drive from Palenque. I went via a guided trip to this spot that is decidedly off the main tourist route and found myself in a group composed primarily of Mexicans, an interesting change from Guatemala where I didn’t meet a single local tourist (a per capita GDP of 3x in Mexico certainly explains much of this disparity). Our guide was refreshingly unencumbered by trifling worries like customer safety and liability as he nonchalantly walked us up, over, and through a number of the slippery falls to show us underwater caves, rocks to slide down on top of empty 2-liter soda bottles, and harrowing jumps. (When the “landing pools” were a bit on the shallow side, he told us you were were fine as long as you “made like a bomba” when you hit the water. Thus, several times I tucked my feet upon impact to “make like a bomba” and avoid a debilitating injury.) My favorite co-touree was a short, smiley Mexican lady in her 40’s who did every single jump, cave, and slide while speaking a rapid-fire Mexican Spanish to which I could only reply “Si, si, si!” After one particularly unintelligible request from her, I found myself traipsing across a waterfall to join her for a photo in the middle of one of the pools. The man who took the photo from the bank looked over to me after I returned to dry land and, in what little English he knew, laughingly remarked to me, “This lady…crazy!”

I ended my last night in the Palenque area at Don Mucho’s, which, as promised, offered live music and cheap beers. I was joined by two Irish I had met in my hostel at San Cristóbal; this brother and sister were traveling through Latin America together for several months together with their other brother and his girlfriend. We chatted at length about recent Irish history and politics as they are from Belfast, the capital of Northern Ireland, which is still part of the UK. (Fun fact I learned: The impetus for the Irish independence movement and civil war was the result of England reneging on their promise to grant Ireland self-rule for their support during World War I — which is still a sore subject for the Irish.) And, of course, the conversation did at one point turn to Donald J. Trump, the specter that follows every traveling American around. They asked me the simple, justified question of “Why?” which I hear from almost all other international travelers, who are universally flabbergasted at the onslaught of disturbing news and tweets generated by this man who, to them, represents the epitome of close-mindedness and hate. However, I have learned to steer clear of this rabbit-hole and, after assuring them that I was asking the same question myself, moved on to more hopeful topics…like 2020.


San Cristóbal de Las Casas: Cocodrilos, Controversial Catholics, and a Clandestine Army

San Cristóbal de Las Casas, Mexico

I have finally ventured beyond my Latin American home-away-from home — Guatemala — and into the southernmost Mexican state of Chiapas, a region that was actually once a part of Guatemala. My first destination: San Cristóbal de Las Casas, the cultural capital of Chiapas and center of the Zapatista movement, a left-wing political and military group standing up for indigenous rights. This group is still technically at war with the Mexican government, but fortunately for me (and other visitors), after an armed resistance in the 1990’s, the Zapatistas have moved from violent to peaceful tactics that are focused on civil resistance, enhanced cooperation with other global left-wing movements, and the development of a vast array of hipster-friendly coffees shops in San Cristóbal.

I arrived in San Cristóbal this past Thursday evening after a ten hour journey from Lake Atitlán, and, exhausted after the trip, laid low that night. I spent most of Friday, my first full day in the city, taking a free walking tour of the town in order to get a better feel for this artsy hub of Mexican counter-culture. A youthful, lanky Mexican named JP led the relaxed, five-hour amble through the town’s two main “walking streets” (i.e. closed to auto traffic), Real de Guadalupe and 20th de Noviembre. JP, despite having only lived in San Cristóbal for six months, provided the other two tourers (Laura, an Aussie, and Eva, an Irishwomen) and I a wealth of information on the city’s history, culture, art, and top dining and nightlife spots. JP, who would joke several times about how people come to San Cristóbal for vacation then end up never leaving (which would be repeated by several others “locals” I would meet around town), would solidify the quality of his recommendations by proving himself as a man about town — I would bump into him three times over the next few days at different separate spots he had recommended. My favorite recommendation of his was La Abuelita, a local Mexican eatery near Guadalupe Church where I would improbably eat my favorite rendition of three separate Mexican staples: refried beans, chicken enchiladas, and a chile relleno. (For all those doubters out there, Mexican food is, in fact, better in Mexico.) My second favorite tip of JP’s was his observation that the festival of the Virgin Guadalupe was in full swing in San Cristobal, as later the next night, I would find myself stuck in the throngs of a parade marching the streets of the city, chanting “¡Viva la Virgen!” Having learned the legend of Guadalupe from JP, I was able to enthusiastically join the locals in this chant, which, without context, is certifiably creepy.

After spending the majority of my second day in Zapatista coffeeshops, contemplating whether or not the Zapatista Army may have the need for a 31-year-old white male with an intimate knowledge of online programmatic advertising, I sprang back into action the next day with a boat tour of Sumidero Canyon, about an hour drive from San Cristóbal. At a sprightly 35 million years old, this canyon is a contemporary of the Grand Canyon of the United States and a point of pride for Chiapas, as a particular view of its expanse is represented on their state seal (which also curiously includes what looks like a lion tickling a palm tree). My boat for the tour was stocked full of two dozen gringos who would all nod in collective false comprehension when our Spanish language-only guide gave a bit of information on the impressive number of canyon features and wildlife we passed on our way through the canyon. The showstoppers were the crocodiles (one swimming, one sunbathing — both visibly annoyed at the gawking tourists), the spider monkeys (we were close enough to these playful branch-swingers that if one missed a jump from one tree to another, it would have fallen into our boat cruising along the riverbank), and a canyon-side waterfall shaped like a Christmas tree (which is cool…I think?). At each of these highlights, my boat neighbor (Cam, a recent university graduate from Quebec) and I would snap photos then turn to each other and comment at the relative absurdity of this exercise, “Welp, ya really can’t capture that, can ya?” After several hours in this canyon with walls that reach up to 1,000 meters (~3,300 feet) above the water at its highest points, we returned to the boat dock to finish the tour exploring the nearby pueblo of Chiapa de Corzo.

Today, my fourth and final day here in San Cristobal was highlighted by a horseback ride up to the indigenous community of San Juan Chamula, which is best known for its main church — Iglesia de San Juan — that combines Catholicism with traditional Mayan pagan worship. Although I did not witness it in my walk through the church (it was relatively quiet when I was inside), the pagan rituals include chicken sacrifices and drinking Coca-Cola or “pox” (a local liquor) in order to induce burps that release evil spirits. (I will be sure to reference this ritual the next time anyone looks at me in disgust after a shameless belch.) Unsurprisingly, this rebel church is only loosely connected to the official Catholic church given its drift aways from Catholic rituals — the only contact it has with Catholicism is a priest that visits once a month for baptisms and the icons of Catholic saints that line the perimeter of the church. Aside from the church, there is not much else to see in Chumula other than some innovative fashion so after about an hour, my fellow horsemen and horsewomen jumped back on our steeds to gallop back to the environs of San Cristóbal.

Despite greatly enjoying my time in San Cristóbal, I have politely turned down the Zapatista’s invitation to join their movement (although I did let them know that I would reach back out this time next year if my job hunt back in the homeland is not going well). So tomorrow, I am off to Palenque, the site of a major Mayan ruin that, sadly, was not used as a filming site for any Star Wars movies. And then, it is back to Guatemala City for my return flight to the United States on December 12th, just over three months since I departed on this random adventure.