Ruins of Mexico

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North America » Mexico » Chiapas » Palenque
October 7th 2012
Published: October 16th 2012
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Sunday 30/09/12 – We woke up really early in preparation for a long day of riding, packed up all our gear and tried to start the bikes. My bike started fine, but Kenz’s just kept clicking at us rather than starting. Unfortunately all the bike shops, mechanics and most other stores are shut on Sundays so we just had to unpack the bike, sit down and work it out for ourselves. The clicking noise was coming from either the starter motor or the relay, meaning the most likely problems were a flat battery, bad wiring/earth/terminals, jammed starter motor or a dodgy starter relay which are a common problem on the KLRs. I have been too unorganised to buy a multimeter so we just had to trial and error until we found a solution. We eventually worked out it wasn’t the starter relay (by removing mine from my bike and using it on Kenz’s), and after extensively checking wiring we also discarded that problem. After removing my battery and using it on Kenz’s bike it started easily, meaning it was just a (really) flat battery that wasn’t responding to jumper cables. After getting a local who was eager to help to ring up his various mechanic friends, we were still out of luck as they were all at parties or at church. I guess we are spending another day in Oaxaca, which is not a bad thing.

With nothing better to do we removed all my panniers and rode two-up out to the small city of Mitla. It was an interesting experience which I don’t think the bike enjoyed much at all. The suspensions on the KLRs aren’t really made for two people, especially on the kind of roads found in Mexico. The city of Mitla is riddled with ruins of pre-columbian Mexican civilisation with 5 main areas still preserved. Whilst not as impressive as Monte Alban, it was still amazing to walk amongst the ruins. It was the main religious centre for the Zapotec and Mixtec people. The dwellings from this area are far more ornate (but far less grand) with intricate patterns carved on their buildings and walls. These ruins are impressive as there are a number of tombs underneath the constructions. One in particular was accessed by a long underground shaft (I almost had to crawl on all fours!) which ended in a large chamber with a central column and three small rooms with intricate stonework and carvings. The stone base where the body (assumedly of a very important person) was laid to rest is still present. The name of Mitla means the ‘place of the dead’ or ‘the underworld’ in the native tongue, and signifies it as the most important religious site in Oaxaca during this period. When the Spanish arrived they decided to dismantle most of the city and build a large Catholic cathedral using the stones of the old temples. The cathedral of San Pablo was built using the materials from the dismantled temples and still sits on top of the ruins today. It’s a real shame that the Spanish conquistadors carried out such practices, but I guess it was a necessary step in signifying a new social and religious order amongst the newly ruled people. Today the ruins and church are surrounded by a living cactus fence which we sat under to eat our lunch.

With huge black clouds rolling in from the mountains, we realised there was a storm a brewin’ and headed for home. We were in such a hurry to make it back that we rode through the main pedestrian plaza weaving in and out of unconcerned locals; even the local cops hardly glanced at us! We made it back and huddled in our hotel as an incredible amount of rain fell. It reminded me of the monsoonal rains that hits in the Philippines. We ran to a small shop across the road to buy chips and snickers bars for dinner and a HUGE thunderclap made everyone in the store jump – it was so big even the locals squealed!

Monday 1/10/12 – We got up early to hit the stores early in search of a battery. We walked two blocks to the nearest motorcycle mechanic (which had Kawasaki painted on his wall) and he wasn’t open. We returned and prepared my bike for the 2 km journey through the city to the Kawasaki dealer when Kenz realised that my back tyre was flat due to an obvious puncture. After wobblies were thrown, dummies were spat, fingers were pointed, clenched fists waved at the sky and other pointless but necessary actions taken, we decided to pump it up (with a portable 9V pump I bought in Denver) and head to the Kawasaki dealer to ask them to either fix the bike or take me out the back and shoot me. Our little Spanish dictionary made its first appearance of the trip today as we grappled with the language in an effort to ask about a new battery (correct dimensions, filling and charging it), changing the rear innertube, patching the old one and buying a multimeter. For just 100 pesos (about US$7.50) I rode the bike in and they removed the wheel, replaced the tube with a spare I already had, patched the old tube, and gave a few things on the bike a quick clean and lube.

So we bought a battery, asked them to charge it overnight and left happy again. We stopped on the way home at an auto store to buy a multimeter but we had no idea what they called them here. We spent a good 10 minutes using English, Spanglish (as they call it here) and making fools of ourselves with hand waving and acting trying to tell them what we wanted. They thought it was pretty funny. After thinking we wanted jumper leads, a new battery, some plain cable, new battery terminals, a hydrometer and numerous other unwanted items they eventually bought out a multimeter. With a huge sigh of relief I pointed and asked ¿Como se dice? (How do you call this?), and he replied “multimeter”… DOH!

We spent the rest of the day waiting for 9am tomorrow.

Tuesday 2/10/2012 – Finally 9 am today rolled around and found us sitting by our lonesome outside the closed Oaxaca Kawasaki dealer. At 9.30 a mechanic or back-room staff member turned up and managed to hunt down our fully charged battery for us. Whilst there I also brought some new gloves as my fingers had started poking through the end of my others. We hurriedly installed the new battery into Kenz’s bike with a minimum of fuss but with a considerable amount of battery acid spilt on my pants. With a feeling of nervousness and trepidation, Kenz turned the key and the bike immediately came to life, only to die again a few minutes later. After this happened again we figured it must have been the fuel system and quickly found the problem: a split in the fuel line. Luckily I bought a foot of spare fuel line and replaced the split section, Kenz is now happy as she is a believer that bad things come in threes, so that lot of three must be over. In no time we were on the road bidding Oaxaca adieu and heading towards the coast.

It was a fairly uneventful ride however Kenz did spot what she thought was a lizard on the road until it raised one of its giant furry legs apparently searching for a ride-by high-five and she realised it was a tarantula that was bigger than her hand! As we headed closer to the coast, the humidity again began to rise. We eventually reached the city of Juchitan all hot and bothered and were happy to crash in the first hotel we came to. We have previously stayed in a few dodgy and suspect ‘hotels’, however this hotel didn’t make any effort to hide what it really was. It was renting beds per hour with its ‘matrimonial’ suite costing 200 pesos ($15) per 3 hours. The beds in the room that we spent the night in were actually cement slabs on bricks with a thin slab of foam on top (It is with a great effort that I have avoided any obvious jokes about why the beds were made of concrete).

As we wanted to spend as little time in the hotel as possible, we decided to head out for dinner. Much to our later shame, we decided to go to the Burger King that was only a block away. It’s the first time we have eaten American take-away since California and it will be the last for a while. I had a feeling of guilt that there was so much great Mexican food and restaurants nearby that I wasn’t supporting whilst scoffing down a totally underwhelming meal at Burger King. It was everything I expected and less. We tiredly made our way back to our hotel and spent the most boring night that room has seen in a long time.

Wednesday 3/10/12 – After a blessedly quiet night in the hotel, we headed towards the state of Chiapas which is a mountainous state packed with jungle that shares its eastern border with Guatemala. Riding out of Juchitan was frightening! In the distance we could see thousands of wind turbines that seemed to be spinning alarmingly fast. By the time we reached the first turbine, the wind was howling across the road so hard the bikes were zigzagging across not only our lane, but sometimes into the lane of traffic coming the other way. The wind turbines were spinning fairly uniformly for as far as we could see into the distance, so we knew we were in for a long morning. When riding in humid conditions, I tend to unzip my bike jacket and shirt to cool down, it also makes me look a biker version of Barry Gibb which makes me feel cool, or hip, or boss, or gas… The only negative I can see is that my ample chest hair sometimes acts like a sieve for suicidal bugs that leave small random pieces of their bodies clinging to my bushel as a tribute to their mortality. On this morning however a giant wasp/bee/asshole-stingy-bug collided stinger-first with my neck at about 90km/hour. In the two minutes it took me to stop punching myself in the neck and pull over, I already had a puffy welt the size of a 5 cent piece, and an apple size rash on my neck. Kenz pulled the demasculinatingly small stinger out of my neck and rubbed some hydrocortisone cream on it which made it disappear within 10 minutes. Despite disappearing it still itched and hurt all afternoon – I didn’t get a lollipop either.

During our ride in the wind (and through the swarms of killer bees!) there were many ‘Oh crap!’ moments until we eventually made it across the coastal plains and up to the mountains. Unfortunately the road in the mountains was about what we were expecting: plenty of potholes, puddles, stretches of mud, and sinkholes where half the road had slipped down the mountain. These sorts of conditions, however, seemed like a blissful dream compared to the 15km of gravel we travelled to finish the day off on a bush track that wound up into the hills surrounding the small town of Ocozocoautla (the way that name is pronounced is the same noise that your jaw and teeth make for 15km on the worst gravel and mud road you can imagine). After almost dropping the bike and then almost side-swiping a sweet old lady who was standing on the edge of the mud road, we arrived at the Sima de las cotorras (the abyss of the parrots). The abyss is actually a karst sinkhole in the middle of the jungle with a diameter of 160m, and a depth of 140m. Its walls are sheer cliffs from top to bottom (a feature of karst sinkholes), with many trees at the bottom which are home to thousands of green parakeets. Every morning and evening the parakeets leave and return to the sinkhole en masse. As the hole is so deep with a limited amount of space for flying, the parakeets have adopted a spiral-like flying behaviour where large flocks spiral around and around until their gradual progress allows them to clear the top of the abyss. We were lucky enough to arrive in time to catch a few groups as they returned home, however they flew by and dove down into the depths of the hole so quickly that all we could really see were green blurs flying past accompanied by ear-splitting screeches.

Thursday 4/10/12 – After our Spanish deficient chat last night with an English deficient local, we were told that the parrots wake up and leave at 6 am, meaning that we got up at 5.45 am. We tumbled, stumbled and tripped our way to the nearby abyss half asleep and in the dark like a Three Stooge’s routine (our third stooge was a local stray dog that took a shine to us last night). After an excitement sapping hour of sitting in the dirt and in the dark with horrible thoughts of tarantulas and other night creepy crawlies climbing on us, nothing happened. The only interesting occurrence was a vulture that flew over and landed in a tree about 5m from us. About 15 minutes later we heard a single parakeet squawk, and within 30 seconds thousands of parakeets were replying. The noise was incredible, if you have ever heard a parrot squawk – imagine a few thousand going apeshit in a natural amphitheatre that amplifies and reverberates sound! The parakeets then started flying in short bursts around the walls of the hole as the sun rose over the horizon – I think they were likely warming their flight muscles up for the considerable flight out of the hole. After another 15 minutes, groups of about 30 individuals started spiralling around and out into the jungle – it was a pretty spectacular sight and well worth the hour and a half spent in the dark with nothing but a stray dog and a vulture for company.

We left the parakeets and the 15km of ass-pounding road behind us and headed for even higher mountains. We began to hit a number of small traditional villages as we made our way east. We reached an elevation over 2000m and were confronted by incredible thick and dense cloud – the kind that allows about 5m visibility. I think Mexicans have fog-piercing eyes as none of them even bothered to put on their headlights for the hour/40km of thick cloud that we rode through. Even the women in the villages at this high altitude were wearing the traditional dress with just sandals or sometimes even barefoot! We passed many women walking on the side of the road carrying huge bundles of wood on their backs via a strap of cloth around their foreheads (and most also with a baby slung to their chests!) Other women or young boys were herding goats or cattle along the road. We didn’t see many men, the ones we did see were riding horses and decked-out in full cowboy gear. We also did see a man with a cow-drawn-cart, it was a nice change from the usual donkey carts we see. We went by a village where there were about 2000 women in the market all wearing almost exactly the same traditional clothes, even the colour of the wraps were the same. I also saw some young school girls wearing the same outfits walking back from school.

We headed to the town of San Cristobal which was full of activity. It struck me as being one of those ‘hip’ destinations for hippie wash-ups and young travellers. It wasn’t long before we began to see the young twenty something white girls with their tanktops and pantaloons, and their boyfriends in tow with the mid-thigh pale pastel shorts, Raybans and those dorky strap sandals that travellers love to wear. This town wasn’t really our scene so we decided to grab some lunch and move on. We eventually sat down on the street outside a bakery and ate lunch whilst watching pig-skins dry across the street. Lunch was some bakery treats including one filled with custard which seemed like a good idea at the time, but later had me shitting by the litre. I can see the attraction of this town, everywhere I looked was cliché scenes that looked like they were pulled straight from a lonely planet cover – it was pretty surreal. We moved on to the city of Ocosingo where we found a small little family run hotel and restaurant only a block from the central square.

Friday 5/10/12 – We left town early and headed to the nearby ruins of Tonina. When leaving town I wasn’t really concentrating and rode through a shallow patch of wet road with a cleverly disguised speed hump at the end. I hit the back brakes too hard and popped the back wheel out, luckily I realised in time and managed to keep the bike upright. I did get a little air over the speed hump though.

The ruins of Tonina were amazing. We got there right as it opened meaning that it was only us and one other couple exploring the ruins. One of the ruins was a temple where you could walk inside. It was set out with many twists and turns meaning that after a few corners you had no idea where you were. It’s lucky our phones had torches on them otherwise we could still be lost and trying to find our way out! The ruined city is structured on the edge of a hill with continuous steps running from the base of the hill, past all the temples and dwellings, and finishing at a large hill top pyramid. The edges of the staircase were overgrown with jungle, and we even had a cute little snake (with a massive head!) slither along one of the steps with us.

After climbing the stairs all the way to the top of the pyramid we decided to ride to the city of Palenque where we intended to spend 3 or 4 nights. The ride was pretty tough as the rains of this wet season had caused quite a few parts of the rode to slide away or fall down the edge of the mountains. We would often come around a corner to find half of the road missing with no warning. We arrived in town and spent at least an hour searching for a hotel. We have found its worth taking the time to find a good hotel when you’re staying for multiple nights. After walking 7 city blocks and enquiring at 9 different hotels, we found one with everything we needed at a reasonable price.

Saturday 6/10/12 – At 6 am we got picked up by a dude in a van who was taking us on a tour out to the ruins of Yaxchilan and Bonampak. We blinked the sleep out of our eyes and watched the sunrise over the jungle whilst driving east towards the border with Guatemala. We arrived at the Usumacinta River (which is the Mexico/Guatemala border) about 3 hours later, and jumped on a small boat whose sides barely cleared the water. It was a 45 minute boat ride along the currently flooding river which was infested with 4m crocodiles and catfish longer than my arm according to the man at the outboard.

We arrived at the ruins of Yaxchilan which were spellbinding. As access to the ruins is so difficult there are not many visitors and the jungle is in various states of reclaiming the ruins. The thick vegetation and vines were growing in amongst some of the ruins which really made us feel like we were stumbling across a lost civilisation. I kept thinking I was Indiana Jones whilst exploring dark hallways full of bats, or standing on top of ruins and temples with howler monkeys screaming from the trees around me. It was a totally wild place, we saw howler and spider monkeys, another snake, bats everywhere, and a strange animal that looked like a giant ferret crossed with a boar. Kenz also stood on an ant nest whilst she was watching the monkeys in the trees; one of her legs was covered in red ants from the knee down. They waited until they were all in position before they commenced their holy Jihad on her leg. Apparently the boat driver also saw a Jaguar amongst the ruins 2 days ago – I would have loved to see that!

On the boat trip back I had a chance to chat with the boat driver who spoke a little bit of English. He is Mayan and the only member of his family who speaks English. The village where he lives is so remote that his parents don’t even speak Spanish – just the traditional Mayan regional language. He mentioned that his parents live in the jungle; about 3 hours walk from the road! He also went on to tell me that his great grandparents practiced the traditional Mayan religion. We got into a discussion about how many people from the region felt neglected and even betrayed by the Mexican government in the 1990s who amongst other things wouldn’t allow the teaching of traditional culture and language in schools. The locals formed pockets of resistance to the government (called Zapatistas). The government eventually sent in the military and massacred many people, unfortunately there is still unrest between the two forces in the region. I did notice many posters of Che Guevara and signs regarding revolutionaries and freedom fighters up in the windows of houses and businesses in the villages.

We ate a lunch of soup, chicken and tortillas before heading out to Bonampak. These ruins were a little underwhelming after the wildness of Yaxchilan; however there were three rooms that still were covered in intricate paintings dating back to 790 AD. They depict important events from that time such as kings, feasts, battles, and the capture and sacrifice of prisoners of war. I asked our guide why the paintings all had their eyes covered and he told us it was to protect the people. I’m not sure if he meant protecting the people in the paintings from prying eyes and photos, or the visitors from bad omens.

On the bus ride back to Palenque the rains started and didn’t let up until after we had gone to bed. The roar of the rain hitting the hotel roof kept us awake for a long time.

Sunday 7/10/2012 – Today we went out the ruins of the original Mayan city of Palenque. This large city was occupied between the years 226 and 1123, and is structured around a massive palace. This palace is a massive two storey building and includes a 3 storey lookout tower that still stands erect from the centre of the palace. There were many other ruins to explore, most of which sit atop a few hundred giant steps which meant our legs were burning by the end of the day. Whilst it is a very impressive place, it is also one of the most visited ruins in Mexico which was evident by the incredible number of tourists we had to rub elbows with. There were also many vendors and curios for sale around the ruins which was understandable but distracting. An interesting fact about Palenque is that less than 10% of the total city has been explored, and most of the city is still covered by jungle!

We had dinner in the modern day Palenque and then walked to the town plaza where we listened to a band performing in the main gazebo. They were playing the sort of music that makes you want to dance and there were many locals grooving on stage, it almost always a party atmosphere in the plaza where whole families come to have fun. These guys were playing some cool music using just a guitar, drums and xylophone – somehow they managed to still make it sound Mexican. Unfortunately the rain spoiled the party again.

Additional photos below
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16th October 2012

The saga continues
Great tales of your travels. Maybe a career in travel stories! I look forward to the book! Snowing here today.
17th October 2012

SOOOOOOOOOO jealous at all the ruins you are seeing. They look amazing. I love that kind of stuff. Great photos. Cheers.

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