Long detour to Palenque

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November 17th 2018
Published: November 18th 2018
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St Cristóbal to Palenque

We know it’s the weekend - the Mexicans were up till gone 1am shouting down the corridors, laughing loudly and banging doors. Our hotel owner, Suzanne, is shrugging her shoulders in annoyance - it’s always the same, she tells me. We have a strict ‘no alcohol on the premises’ policy but they ignore it...all they want is the local Oxxo for booze and a big TV screen for their soap operas! I don’t know why they don’t just stay at home, she exclaims! Anyway, suffice to say, she prefers European guests. :-)

We say our goodbyes to Suzanna and Petra, the cleaning lady and general live in help who seems to have adopted us. She looks at least 100 but Suzanna has told me that she is 53 and has worked for their family for over 25 years. She is part of the family. Reception itself is like a family home with all of their precious possessions in glass cases like a mini museum. In the centre is an indoor garden with pot plants.

We hail a taxi who asks only the local price for a ride to the bus station - that’s a first. At the traffic lights we have little boys performing cartwheels across the road in an attempt to entertain us and, in turn, collect money. They have no joy with any of the taxi drivers in the queue.

We arrive at the bus station an hour early - better early than late! We could do with some breakfast but this is a small bus station with only a chocolate, crisps and drinks stand. I venture outside whilst Ian minds the bags. Two little boys appear to be selling bakery of some kind. I look in their baskets - they have ‘custard horns’, ie flakey pastry horns filled with custard. They are all wrapped up so probably just as good as buying from a bakery where the goods are sometimes covered, sometimes not! With a little help from a Mexican, who is having his shoes polished nearby, I establish that the price is 15 pesos for a bag with two pastries inside. I give the boys my cash. I also give them a tin of sweet corn that we still have hanging around and a handful of toiletries and instant coffee sachets as a ‘little present for their mother’. The guy at the shoe shine translates. The boys go away smilingly sharing the goods between them - there’s a good chance they don’t even have a mother. I am heartened to see them selling things rather than stealing from the Oxxo store - this was happening in plain view last night and the staff were just turning a blind eye. This is definitely a very poor region and it’s obvious why foreign tourists are targeted as fair game.

We board our bus, which will take 9 hours minimum due to the long detour we must make to avoid the blockaded road. There is only one tourist spot in St Cristóbal that we had intended to visit and decided against - the tour to the Indian villages. Even Suzanna, who was selling the tours, advised against it! So I will describe it instead.

There are many Indian villages surrounding San Cristóbal de Cassis. The indigenous people (so we are told) live very simple lives, following traditions handed down through the generations. The local church is a focal point on one such tour. It is a Catholic Church but the local people use it mainly for pagan rites. The floor is scattered with pine needles and there are no chairs...people sit cross legged on the floor. There are small candles to create atmosphere, not to mention a huge fire hazard!

Local people visit the church when they are unwell to seek advice from the elder. They describe their symptoms and the elder will either send them to visit the clinic or hand them a bottle of coke. The sick person drinks the coke and burps loudly. This means that the evil spirit inside them has been released and they are cured. So...fine if you only have indigestion, but not so fine if you have a serious heart condition?

Following the ceremony the locals give the elder a live chicken. The elder rings it’s neck in front of the congregation and chucks it on the BBQ.

To enter the village, one must pay a bribe. To enter the church one must pay a bribe. Photos and videos are strictly forbidden (though might be possible if you ask first and hand them a bribe). If you even attempt to take a photo without permission then you will be beaten up by a group of thugs and probably have your camera smashed. The village has its own police force (ie group of thugs). You will be continually hassled by children selling tourist tat - if you do not buy from them, guess what...you are likely to be beaten up by a group of thugs! Suzanna does not actually tell us all this but other tourists do! What Suzanna does tell us is that it’s the same indigenous people at this village that come into town here to sell their goods - just that, apart from the grizzly church experience, there is nothing new to see there! So it’s a tourist trap centred around blatant extortion then?

The women from the tribes wear traditional dress which comprises long black fluffy woolen skirts and brightly coloured blouses and shawls. Reference the skirts...it is considered that the fluffier the better. So young girls will strut around competing for the fluffiest skirt in order to attract the best prospective husband. The women also do their hair, apply henna tattoos and paint their nails. We have seen these ladies all around the town so it’s nothing new. We haven’t seen the men in traditional dress though. Suzanna tells us that they only do this in high season (spring break) to attract tourists to the village. The rest of the year the men are all wearing western dress. And I bet they will all have smart phones too...I seriously don’t think we missed much!

Our bus sets off only 5 minutes late, but even so I will be amazed if the journey only takes 9 hours as that’s what google estimates for a car journey...the bus always takes longer. We are heading back to Tuxtla on the same mountain toll road that is now pretty familiar to us - thankfully there is no sign of riot police or protesters at the toll booth today so we sail straight through.

We leave the good road for a potholed cut-through, joining the mountain road after about 20 minutes. As we zig zag along the mountain road we realise why this could have been dangerous in the dark - it’s like a country lane but it’s now being used by large buses. The risk is either falling over the edge or running into another vehicle on the hairpin bends. Obviously this was not the road designed for these buses but the problems in Ocosingo have forced the bus company to detour here.

We have left the mountains but are still on a dire dirt road. Our driver wants his lunch so we have stopped in Chontalpa. It’s a shame we didn’t realise as we could have had tacos here but as we have no idea how long the bus is stopping we don’t dare place an order.

Finally we reach a good toll road for the next stage of this somewhat dreary journey. It’s quite hard reading or even listening to music as they have the communal TV on so loud that it’s impossible to drown it out. I can’t think why they bother as all the Mexicans are asleep anyway! The two women in front of us have their seats reclined so far back that it feels like they are lying on top of us.

We enjoy a pretty sunset and are very soon after we are plunged into darkness for the last hour or so of the journey. And...just as the end is in sight...we reach the worst road ever. It looks like it’s not finished and we appear to be literally driving on hard core. The other side of the road has some kind of rough surfacing but it doesn’t look much better - imagine a beach with big ripple marks, but instead of soft sand it’s baked mud! We finally rejoin a tarmac road and have arrived in Palenque, very tired after out 9+ hour trip. A short taxi ride takes us to our hotel.

We walk down to the main plaza which is a hive of activity and colour. The square is filled with people and there is loud guitar music and ladies in colourful dresses dancing with their Mexican partners on a raised platform. It’s a nice end to our day.


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