Today we were travelling southwest from Merida to Palenque
We woke early, as we had an eight hour bus trip ahead, and we needed to leave for the bus station at 8am. We headed down to the hotel breakfast area around 7am and had coffee, watermelon, toast and pastries. We checked out of Hotel Reforma at 8am, jumped into a taxi and headed to Merida’s bus station. We checked in our bags, boarded the luxury bus (i.e. recliner seats, leg room and toilets) at 8:30am and settled in for the long day of travel ahead.
We were leaving the Yucatan Peninsula and heading into the region of Chiapas. We drove along the Gulf of Mexico for a while, and then headed back inland. The landscape was predominantly rural forest, with numerous burn-offs coming right up to the highway’s edge. Our driver was a bit mad – a lot mad actually. He was listening to a selection of 80’s music (e.g. Bee Gees, Van Halen, Boney M) and drumming madly on the steering wheel, but he would suddenly start smashing the dashboard when a car was going too slow in front of him. Every now and then he
would open an envelope (always the same envelope), pull out a couple of pieces of paper, read them while swerving all over the road, fold them up neatly, put them back in the envelope and then throw the envelope violently back onto the dashboard. I think I was most concerned when he changed movies on the DVD player, because he needed to lean back and look at the screen above his head while adjusting the volume, all the while without watching the road in front of him. At one stage Ren lent over and whispered ‘Don’t watch him, it just makes it worse’, but I couldn’t help myself. It didn’t help that he kept talking to himself incessantly, and he had to take his hand off the wheel to wave to every truck we passed (and over the eight hour period, we passed a lot of trucks).
We were getting close to Palenque when we suddenly pulled off the highway into an inspection station near the Guatemalan border. We all had to get off the bus, get our packs from the luggage compartment, go into a stark white building and put our packs and hand luggage through a scanner
– and all the while with a very visible army and police presence watching our every move. We then had to run the ‘push the button’ gauntlet – green meant you were free to go; red meant you were searched. From an entire bus of locals and tourists, only two people were searched, and it wasn’t us. Two young backpackers had to empty their bags, and after being thoroughly searched they were left to re-pack from scratch while the entire bus waited. I felt sorry for them, and I wondered why we all had to undergo a search of this nature when we had already passed through customs to get into the country.
After eight and a half hours on the bus, we arrived in Palenque at 5pm. We walked from the bus station to Hotel Xibalba, checked in and headed out to Las Tinajas for dinner at 6pm. We had been warned that portion sizes at this particular restaurant were enormous, and that appetisers may be a better option than main courses. We didn’t listen and ordered the pollo estilo tinajas
(chicken stew) and sopes mixtos
(thick tortillas with pinched up sides topped with chorizo and mushrooms). Ren
tried a michelada
(beer, tomato juice and tabasco sauce) and I had a beer. When the two dishes arrived they were gigantic, and we struggled to get through them. However, the food was fantastic, and the family atmosphere of the local restaurant was very welcoming.
Palenque is a tiny town in what felt like the middle of nowhere. It had taken us all day to get to this place, and I loved the feeling of isolation it exuded. We were staying in a very green, leafy part of town, and we were looking forward to exploring the rest of the place the following afternoon (after our visit to the famous Palenque Ruins). After dinner we walked back to the hotel and sat up on the rooftop for a while, taking in the quiet ambience of this gritty little town. We retired to our room at 9pm, worked on our travel notes for an hour and finally succumbed to sleep at 10:30pm.
I didn’t set my alarm properly, so we slept through to 6:30am. After sorting a few plumbing issues in the bathroom, we headed out to Kinich Kan Balum (just across the road from our hotel) for breakfast
around 7am, and enjoyed tea, coffee, fresh fruit, toast and a ham and cheese omelette. We dropped our laundry at the tiniest of laundries just along from our hotel before jumping into a minibus and heading to the Palenque Ruins at 8:30am.
Set in dense jungle about seven kilometres from the township of Palenque, the ruins are scattered throughout the hills of the Palenque National Park, with only a small area of excavated temples and buildings available to the public. While it may seem superficial to draw comparisons, the ruins at Palenque offered a very different experience to those at Chichen Itza. For a start, there was far less emphasis on tourist churn and turnover – we could wander in peace without the bustle of crowds, which is understandable given the distance you have to travel to get to Palenque. Secondly, the surrounds were tranquil and calm, with the lush green forest canopy protecting us from the intense sun. Chichen Itza (through no fault of its own) had no such protection, so the rare trees offering shade were seemingly more popular than the ruins themselves. Thirdly, the vendors selling Maya trinkets and souvenirs did not hustle (which is no
big deal really, but very noticeable when it doesn’t happen).
We were awestruck and camera happy in front of the Tomb of the Red Queen, Pakal’s Tomb and the Temple of the Inscriptions, and our sense of amazement and wonder continued as we explored the main palace with its many courtyards, corridors and rooms. We noticed parallels to ancient Roman architecture and daily life throughout the ruins, especially the use of aqueducts and dedicated areas for political discussion. We then climbed the Temple of the Sun, Temple of the Cross and Temple of the Foliated Cross, all of which gave excellent vantage points to survey the ruins below.
After exploring the excavated Palenque ruins for about an hour and a half, we ventured into the surrounding jungle to explore some of the unexcavated buildings. On the way I picked up a necklace with a stone replica of my Maya calendar (HAAB year) symbol. I’m not entirely sure how accurately the calendar comparison chart was interpreted by the young vendor who sold me the necklace, as the Maya HAAB year calendar differs slightly to the Gregorian calendar, but I didn’t really mind – it was close enough.
jungle walk was fantastic. We got off the beaten track in lush surrounds, with warnings about venomous vipers and spikey trees. We didn’t come across any snakes, and we avoided grabbing the spikey trees. We walked along dry river beds, crossed small streams and climbed Maya pyramids covered in foliage and earth. We arrived at a Maya bathing pool that was filled naturally by spring water and drained by an impressive aqueduct system. We clambered down into the aqueduct and scrambled through it for about 20 metres, much to the amusement (or fright) of the seven resident bats.
After about an hour and a half in the jungle, we walked back to the entrance of the ruins, arriving around 12:30pm. We retraced our steps through the ruins and then made our way out of the hills, clambering down stone steps to the site museum. When we arrived at 1pm, we’d been walking for four hours. It was time to eat! After a quick visit to the museum, we jumped into the minibus and headed back to the township of Palenque, dropping into Burger Express for lunch on the way.
I was a bit taken aback when we drove
into Burger Express – from the outside it looked like a Hungry Jack’s or McDonald’s. However, we were pleasantly surprised when we got inside and sat down. After being served a complimentary bean and ham soup, we ordered tacos de fajitas de pollo con queso
(chicken, beans and cheese tacos) to share. The soup was hearty and the tacos were great. I had a beer and Ren had a agua de horchata
(milky drink of rice, nuts and cinnamon).
We finished lunch, jumped into the minibus and headed back to Palenque, arriving at Hotel Xibalba at 3pm. We showered, cleaned our shoes from the jungle walk and worked on our travel notes. We picked up our laundry around 4:30pm and then wandered the streets in the late afternoon. We tried to capture the township of Palenque in images, and I particular wanted to photograph the Glorieta de la Cabeza (the town’s main roundabout with a large statue of a Maya chieftain’s head) which I had seen near the bus station on the day we arrived.
After picking up some snacks from a local bakery for our long journey to San Cristobal the following day, we dropped into a
tiny family-run restaurant (La Huasteca) for drinks – I had a melon smoothie, while Ren had a cactus, pineapple and apple juice. After walking in the heat of the afternoon sun, the drinks were incredibly refreshing.
We walked back to the hotel, organised our packs for an early start the next day and then wandered through a few areas in Palenque that we had not already covered. We headed out to Cafe de Yara for dinner at 7:30pm. We shared a torta Mexicana
(ham, manchego cheese, beans, tomato and avocado) and a tostadas de pollo
(fried tortilla with chicken and sprinkled cheese). The food was reasonable and the service was hilarious. The waiter was so meticulously efficient that he stood close by – always in vision – smiling and watching as we ate. When he judged we had finished (regardless of whether we had or not), he would grab our plates and disappear into the kitchen. He re-organised our cutlery at least three times during the meal, and he would swiftly swoop upon and remove any serviette that we used. Ren had barely lifted the towel to get some tortillas from a cane basket on the table, when he
dashed in beside her and carefully placed the towel back over the tortillas. However, he was not annoying in the least, and he even brought us a small table to place our cameras on (so as not to clutter his meticulously set table).
We headed back to the hotel around 8:30pm. While Ren uploaded our Tulum blog, I had a few drinks on the hotel rooftop while listening to a live band (pan pipes and bass guitar) in the restaurant over the road. With a long bus trip to San Cristobal de las Casas the next day (and an early start), we had a relatively early night.
We really enjoyed our time in Palenque. There was a calm ambiance within the ruins that was very appealing. The forest walk through the unexcavated ruins was fantastic, and wandering around the Palenque township was a relaxing way to spend a hot afternoon in another country. However, to be honest, the township itself was rough around the edges and quite seedy in places. It was the first time in Mexico we had experienced explicit public drunkenness among the locals, and it started so early in the day. The poverty in the
outer streets of the town was very apparent, and there were a few shops we went into that simply did not have paper currency (i.e. 20, 50, 100 or 500 peso notes). They only had 10, 5, 2 and 1 peso coins. The divide between the middle and lower class in Palenque was difficult to witness. SHE SAID...
We had an early start in Merida. We were leaving Yucatan State and travelling into the southernmost state of Chiapas. We left our hotel in Merida at 8am and caught taxis to the bus station. We then hopped onto another very comfortable second class ADO bus, which was air conditioned and equipped with a bathroom, which was just as well, as it was a ten hour trip to Palenque
We had four stops to stretch our legs and use the local banos
(toilets). However, our comfort was somewhat hampered by the young couple in front of us who fully reclined their seats as soon as they got on. At each of the stops, vendors came into the bus selling all manner of snacks – sweets, sandwiches and packets of chips, but we had already stocked up on fried
plantain chips and some very odd flavoured cheese chips.
We crossed from the coastal lowlands into the heart of the lowland Lacandon jungle in a matter of hours. The scenery at the start of the trip was endless scrub, with a few small farms and the occasional tiny village. At one point I looked up and was surprised to see that we were driving along the sea. We were driving from Yucatan to Chiapas through Campeche which is bordered by the Gulf of Mexico. A few hours later we were driving through large cleared farmland with cattle.
Our bus was searched at a state border crossing and we had to get off, scan our luggage and press the ‘random search’ button. The light only turned red for one couple on the bus and they were so thoroughly searched that our bus was delayed – much to the annoyance of our already agitated bus driver! Because of Zapatista activity, and being so close to the border with Guatemala, the Mexican government was being vigilant about weapons. Not sure that an ADO bus would be anyone’s choice of weapon transportation, but I suppose you never know.
We passed endless
little farms and little villages with numerous small general stores, almost in every house frontage; then we climbed into the hot jungle.
We arrived an hour earlier at 5pm than we had anticipated – what a bonus! We were at the foothills of the eastern Chiapas mountain range. The Lacandon jungle stretches over a large area and used to be a highly biodiverse area, but a dramatic increase in population size and increased logging, strip-mining and farming activities in the last 100 years has caused severe deforestation. It’s estimated that only ten percent of the original Lacandon rainforest in Mexico still remains. That’s incredibly sad.
It was a short walk to Hotel Xibalba, a rambling sort of hotel with very comfortable rooms and a bathroom that was triple the size of the bathroom in Merida. Seeing as we’d skipped lunch, we all opted for an early dinner at Los Tinajas. We shared the pollo estilo tinajas
(chicken stew) and two sopes mixtos
(thick tortillas with pinched up sides) topped with chorizo, mushrooms and cheese. The sopes were outstanding, but they were enormous. The servings were much too large for us – each sope was double the size of
normal sops we’d had. I tried a michelada
(beer, tomato juice and tabasco sauce) for the first time, and while it wasn’t a bad way to drink beer, I don’t think it would be high on my ‘must order again’ list.
We’d noticed a huge army and police presence all over town, and while we were having dinner we realised that the streets were patrolled almost every ten minutes. We walked back to the hotel and sat on the dark hotel rooftop with Nadine, Crystal, Logan and Brendan… it was a surprise to know that we had a mutual friend with Nadine from Thailand – it’s a small world. We chatted until we started getting eaten alive by mosquitos, so we made a hasty retreat to our rooms.
The next morning was an earlyish start, as we had to have breakfast and put some laundry in before being picked up at 8:30am to visit the Palenque ruins. My breakfast of omelette at Hotel Kinich Kan Balun was delicious, and Andrew enjoyed his continental breakfast.
We were only 10km from the Archaeological Park, but even though we arrived 45 minutes after the gates opened, we had to share
the space with a school group and another group of very loud and happy people with matching neon green and hot pink t-shirts. We were the only non-locals for most of the day at the ruins. I really shouldn’t whinge about the other groups, because compared to Tulum and Chichen Itza, the place was practically empty. I loved the Palenque ruins.
Palenque (200AD – 800AD) may be the lesser known ruin than Chichen Itza, but I really liked this site. Even though the entrance to the site was overwhelming with vendors and parking attendants yelling at buses etc., there was a real sense of tranquility once we entered the grounds.
We met our local guide Francisco who showed us a topography map of the whole site and the restored areas we would be covering. The Palenque ruins are situated on a hilltop in an area of hot jungle and home to more than hundred Maya ruins. There are many ruins still un-excavated and hidden in the surrounding forest of cedar, mahogany and sapodilla trees. The temples that have been excavated are superb relics of Maya culture and the pyramids rise up above the wild forest that has consumed
the majority of the ruins. I found the architecture and bas-relief carvings quite beautiful. I love seeing ruins in their natural state, and I really don’t like over-restoration, especially when the restoration is based on guess work. I much prefer to see things as they were. This may sound sacrilegious to some, but I found these ruins to be more inspiring than Chichen Itza. The much smaller crowds also helped a great deal.
The central temple complex is the Temple of Inscriptions Group, which stunningly sit in a row as you walk into the site. The main temple – the Temple of Inscriptions was also the Mausoleum of King Pakal, with the Temple of the Red Queen right next door to it. The Temple of the Skull sits at the end, less restored but still quite majestic. Then there was the maze that was El Palacio (The Palace) with its iconic tower. We climbed the stone steps to the top of the palace, from which we had a good view of the Temple of Inscriptions. King Pakal was thought to have been the driving force behind this city, which was then taken over by his son. The palace complex
demonstrated how advanced the building and engineering skills had been at the time.
Francisco was a good guide, but he was very intense in his explanations. When he mentioned that a piece of art with King Pakal had been interpreted variously as his ascent to heaven, or him driving a space ship… we all laughed, but he looked confused. They say that humour is the last bastion of successful cross-cultural interaction… and when I light heartedly asked if there were any theories that aliens built the complex, I was met with a forced laugh and a look of something akin to pity. 😊
On a hill behind us was the Temples of the Crosses Group which all faced into a courtyard. The Temple of the Cross, Temple of the Sun and Temple of the Foliated Cross were a set of quite elegant temples built on platforms. They were elaborately carved and had interior chambers that depicted rituals and allegiances to Maya gods. We climbed the giant stone steps of the Temple of the Cross and had the most gorgeous view of the rambling ruins and surrounding forest.
There were a few hawkers in a designated area between
the Temple of Inscriptions and the Temples of the Crosses Group, but they weren’t in our faces, and for the most part only approached us if we walked up to the stalls and had a look. Andrew asked Francisco about our Maya astrological signs, and according to a reference sheet that Francisco had, Andrew’s sign was Moan, the master of the universe. There were a few children selling stone pendants of the Maya signs, and Francisco called them over. They got really shy and giggly when I asked to take their photo.
After exploring the main excavated temples, we engaged Francisco for a few more hours to take us on a jungle walk. We exited the manicured lawns near the temple of the skulls and crossed over a ‘no pasar’ (No Entry) rope and entered the jungle. We went on the jungle walk to see the predominately pre-Pakal buildings which were still buried beneath the jungle growth. I suddenly realised that essentially any hill I saw was actually jungle growth over a temple! It was pretty fascinating to see how these temples looked pre-restoration. We climbed a small hill and Francisco casually mentioned that we were climbing a pyramid.
We could see small windows and other collapsed structures as we walked around.
The canopy in the jungle made walking quite pleasant. The thick growth of vines and tall trees with buttressed roots made the walk very interesting. However, Andrew’s ill timed (or well timed) question about venomous snakes (which was answered in the affirmative) made us slightly on edge about any movement in the undergrowth. As glad as we were about not seeing any vipers, sadly, we didn’t see any animals apart from a startled agouti and a couple of wild turkeys.
We also walked to a newly discovered Maya bathing pool that was fed by a spring and drained into an aqueduct. The aqueduct had been built to divert water from a river through the city, and it still ran as it had been built to. Their engineering skills were so advanced. We thought Francisco was joking when he asked if we wanted to walk through the 20 or so metres of aqueduct, given the opening was only just wide enough to crawl into... but in we all went. We only had three torches between the nine of us, so had to ration and space out
the lights. The first bit was OK, but then it got darker, narrower and the water got deeper. Andrew’s head was nearly touching the top of the aqueduct. At one point we startled a small group of bats huddled together, and one flew at us, which isn’t a great situation in a confined space, but thankfully it didn’t fly directly at any of our faces. Despite the poor frightened little bat, walking through the aqueduct was a big highlight for me.
Another highlight of the jungle walk was when Andrew, who was walking in front of me, hid behind a large tree and meant to jump out at me, but jumped out at a very startled Logan instead. It was hilarious, but Logan promised revenge so it’s going to be interesting to see how that pans out. 😊
We left the jungle, said goodbye to Francisco and re-entered the ruins to walk through them one more time. It was close to 1pm and the day had heated up considerably, but the ruins were still relatively empty. We took a few more photos and walked past a few more plazas and numbered (but unnamed) temples on the way to
the Palenque museum.
Since Chichen Itza, I’d been trying to practice a silly panorama with Andrew, where I run around him a few times and try to appear multiple times in the panorama. While walking back through the Palenque ruins, we attempted to do it with the whole group… it sort of worked, but we need to keep practicing. 😊
The museum was air conditioned which was welcome after all the hot walking. The main piece in the museum was a copy of the lid of the sarcophagus of King Tikal, which was much larger than I thought it would be. It’s interesting that after visiting three other Maya ruins, I’m starting to recognise symbols and see a pattern in their designs. In terms of my favourite ruins rating – Palenque is now in front, followed closely by Guatemala’s Tikal, and then Mexico’s Chichen Itza and Tulum.
On the way back to the hotel our driver recommended a spot that we could stop for lunch, and given we were starving, we agreed. We regretted our decision when he pulled up outside a place that looked like a truck stop called Burger Express. Thankfully the food was excellent.
Beer and agua de horchata
(milky drink of rice, nuts and cinnamon) worked a treat to cool us down, and our ham and bean soup and shared plate of tacos de fajitas de pollo con queso
(chicken, beans and cheese tacos) was fantastic.
We returned to the hotel in desperate need of a shower and a little lie down (well, I lay down while Andrew went to pick up our laundry). After the sun had lost its sting, we walked around the town and explored the more suburban areas away from the very green and clean hotel area, and the main street that leads to the plaza and the church. There was very noticeable poverty here, but also a lot of community activity and lively streets. It was a Saturday, and when we visited the church there was some sort of group activity going on in the shade of the trees. There also seemed to be club soccer and Girl Guide uniforms all over town.
For dinner we checked out a restaurant from the Lonely Planet Guide called Cafe de Yara. There were only two tables of people in the whole place and the waiter was clearly anxious
to please. He was the most attentive waiter we’ve ever had. No sooner had I taken my last bite of something than the plate would be whisked away from under me. It got to a point that I tried to sit at an angle so he couldn’t see my plate to buy us some time to enjoy the food. We shared a torta Mexicana
(ham, manchego cheese, beans, tomato and avocado) and a tostadas de pollo
(fried tortilla with chicken and sprinkled cheese) – they were both from the entre menu and we could hardly finish them.
As we sat at dinner, we were again made aware of how many police and army patrols there were around town. I mentioned the searching of our bus on the journey into Palenque and the increased security in the area. There were a few safety concerns because of increased activity by the Zapatista Movement in the region, so some changes to our itinerary were necessary. The Zapatistas (or people claiming to be Zapatistas) have started targeting tourists in order to draw attention to their cause. As a result, some transport to and from Palenque was rerouted, which meant longer travel times of
up to eight or nine hours instead of a four hour trip.
Here’s some background on the Zapatistas – the Zapatista National Liberation Army is based in Chiapas. They initially formed to protest economic policies (as part of Mexico’s integration into the North American Free Trade Agreement with the US and Canada) in 1993/94 that they believed negatively impacted Mexico’s indigenous population. At the heart of the issue was a land reform bill that sought to privatise the country’s ejidos
(communal farms). The Zapatistas argued that the free-trade agreement and land reform would lead to further impoverishment of the indigenous Mexicans. The group has now established itself as an influential political movement that advocates for Mexico’s disenfranchised indigenous communities.
The safety of the roads were constantly under review, and there didn’t seem to be any safety issues within the city of Palenque itself (apart from the frequent security patrols) or at the nearby Palenque archaeological site we’d visited.
We walked back to the hotel, stopping on the way to stock up on more snacks for our travel day ahead. I had enjoyed the Palenque ruins and being in a very different region in Mexico than we had
experienced in Quintana Roo or Yucatan.
Next we travel southwest to San Cristobal de las Casas in Chiapas, Mexico.
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