Palenque and the French Connection

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North America » Mexico » Chiapas » Palenque
March 9th 2017
Published: March 10th 2017
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This trip evolved in an unusual way, mainly because trying to find transportation between cities without airports, or that weren’t connected directly by airports, was problematic. One place that everyone says you need to visit, if you want to see the best Maya cities, is Palenque. Palenque does have an airport, but it only has flights twice a week, and mostly to Mexico City. That’s not too much of a problem if you happen to be coming or going on one of those days, and if the transfer in Mexico City is short or not exorbitant. I had neither of those options.

As you all saw yesterday, I took a transport van/minibus from Flores, Guatemala, to Palenque, Mexico. All 7.5 hours of it. Today was another of those long-travel days, but not for the same reason.

When I bought my tour for Palenque yesterday at my hotel, I had primarily wanted to see the ruins of Palenque, which are nearby. I saw that it included a couple more stops, but I wasn’t thrilled about what else they included, so I didn’t really pay attention. That was a mistake. It turns out that the other two places involved water – the Misol-Ha waterfall and the Agua Azul area. Since I didn’t bring swimming trunks for this trip, I was unprepared for any kind of water activity. Nevertheless, I did enjoy our last stop immensely.

My day began very quickly – I hadn’t really expected the tour bus to be on time, much less a couple of minutes early, but that’s what happened. I went to the hotel restaurant for breakfast at about 7:35, and my tour was scheduled to begin at 8. So when the tour driver showed up in the lobby, I was actually awaiting the bill to come for my food. But it wasn’t too bad, since there was only one other person on the minibus waiting. And after going by to pick up people at another hotel who never showed up, it was just us two. The driver didn’t speak English, so that was fun. As it happens, what I paid for was not what I expected, although it was sort of what I was hoping for. I only paid about $27 for the whole day, and I guess that was worth it all. It included the price of admission to Palenque, but no guide. It seems there are guides who anxiously await the arrival of schleps like me and then offer their services. I had a guy who was a bit too eager for my liking pester me for about 10 minutes. The original price was 1000 pesos (about $50), but when I told him I didn’t have that much money (which was true), he kept lowering the price. He got it down to 400 pesos (about $20), but he wasn’t getting the message: I wasn’t interested in a guide, no matter what the price; I wasn’t haggling.

And you really don’t need a guide if you’re going to do the Main Plaza area. There is a footpath that does basically a circular route around the area. There are also signs posted in front of each building with information. And if you’re like me, you’ve probably done some research before arriving. Why would I need a guide, then?

One of the first buildings you come to is actually a trio of buildings, and the tomb of the “famous” ruler Pakal is in the central one. I say “famous” because you’ve probably never heard of him unless you’re a local or are into Maya things. You can’t see him, obviously, but they have an entry into that building that everyone uses to see an open tomb.

After that trio of buildings, there’s the palace in the center of the plaza area. This is probably the most photographed place (though not the most famous) in Palenque. There are so many rooms to explore, most of which have no roof. But you can walk up the steps on all sides and look into the rooms, windows, etc. There’s a tower at the center, which is pretty dang cool; it was probably used for astronomical purposes. There are also a pair of rooms that descend to the ground, both of which are loaded with inscriptions – pictures and hieroglyphs. I was pretty excited about these. They’re all in such good shape, too. In fact, it’s called the Temple of the Inscriptions.

If you continue along the path around this building, there’s a detour to the right that is absolutely necessary; but you’ll miss it if you don’t exit on the right side. It goes up to the most famous building at Palenque – the Temple of the Sun. It’s the one on all the brochures, and for good reason. It’s pretty phenomenal, both inside and out. The interior includes an amazing picture with inscriptions at the altar, and it is not to be missed. Across from this temple, there is the Temple of the Foliated Cross, up a set of steps that are pretty treacherous. But at the top of those steps are great views of the Temple of the Sun with the palace and Temple of the Inscriptions down below. And there’s a cool mural inside that temple, too. Finally, this area has one more building that is probably the tallest one at the sight – another temple that will give you a good photo op with the Temple of the Sun down below. So I asked some French tourists to do the honors, and I think they did a good job. There’s another mural at the top of this temple, along with hieroglyphs.

Since I had no official guide, I had been occasionally approaching groups of French and German tourists to listen to what their guides were saying. I only ran into one English group, and it was just a couple of people, so that would’ve been awkward. My Spanish isn’t all that great, but every now and then I could catch some important info. Definitely didn’t need a guide.

The other side of the main plaza area includes the ball court (without stone hoops) and two temples. The final temple that you can climb is call El Conde (The Count) because some count apparently spent a few nights there when he came to visit in the early 1800s. Maybe someday I can get them to name a Maya temple after me if I spend a few nights there. I did catch a pair of iguanas on the absolute final temple that you can crawl up. It’s only a few steps, and it’s truly in ruins.

Our bus driver had said to meet back at the museum at 12:30, and then at 12:00, so I hedged my bets and decided to be there at noon. He had dropped us off a little after 8:30, so I got 3 hours in at the site. The museum, however, is over a kilometer down a winding road from the place where he dropped us off (where you enter the park and are accosted by professional guides). So that was a fun trek.

I didn’t go into the museum, because I got there around 11:50 and didn’t want to miss the bus. I ran into my Chinese friend from the bus earlier that morning, but we didn’t really have much to say to each other. Around 12:10, I was beckoned to by a new bus driver. And this time there were more people. We were in a different vehicle (less spacious) and, after we picked up a quartet of people at the top of the hill, the bus was full. And cramped.

This made the next hour, which it took to get to Misol-Ha, very uncomfortable. I was expecting we would do lunch at some point, but I guess that’s what I get for not reading the fine print. When we got to Misol-Ha, it turns out that we had to pay an extra 70 pesos to see the waterfall. That’s really all that’s there. And it was okay, but not worth paying extra for. I paid it because I didn’t know any better. You make the trek down to the wooden steps, where some people are getting in the natural pool at the bottom. And there’s only one path from there – both entrance and exit. So you have to dodge people from all sides. And then when you get to the end of the path, you can pay an extra 10 pesos to go into a cave. No thanks.

Basically, Misol-Ha was not that exciting. If you find a tour that advertises it as a highlight, I suggest finding another tour. I did find a convenience store at the top of the parking lot that drinks and snacks, so I got a little, because it was almost 2PM.

Our next stop, which I had no idea about, was called Agua Azul. Our van arrangement had changed at the waterfall stop, so while I had my same seat, I had a new person next to me. I didn’t really know who he was, but I’m pretty sure I had seen him that morning at Palenque (obviously he had been there, but it was kinda busy with people). It took about an hour to get to the Agua Azul site, and when we were about 10 minutes away, I asked him if he knew where we were going. He told me, and we exchanged a few more words before we pulled in. At least this time we didn’t have to pay anything extra to enjoy the waters.

I hadn’t really planned on hanging out with anyone for this portion of the trip (mainly because I didn’t know we were doing it, and frankly I was still a bit pissed about the waterfall part of the trip), but for some reason, we both hung around the bus while the other people were getting off. Our ever-unhelpful driver said we had 2.5 hours to enjoy the waters, the falls, whatever, and to meet back at 5:30. That was a surprise to me, since the tour had said I would be back at the hotel by 6. (Spoiler: we didn’t get back until almost 7) Anyway, once we had all the information, people set off in different directions, but most headed along the path that our driver had indicated to take us to the falls. My new companion and I walked a little ways before starting a conversation again.

His name is Gautier, and he’s traveling through Latin America for most of the first half of 2017. I thought I had heard him speaking French earlier on the van, so I offered a question in French, and we basically conversed only in French for the rest of the afternoon. How appropriate, to speak only in French for the afternoon in Mexico. He was an amiable fellow, and we got to know each other as the afternoon progressed. Since I had not really prepared for swimming, I was basically open to doing whatever he wanted, going wherever he felt like going. And it made the afternoon much more pleasant to have a new friend.

Agua Azul itself is breathtaking. The waters are indeed very blue, but we couldn’t find any information about why they are so blue. They’ve developed a path that goes from one end of the “river” to the other, with several spots marked for swimming. Not everywhere is safe, which is why they are marked at certain spots. There are local booths set up for most of the first half of the trail, which runs between the booths and the river. People are selling mostly food and drinks, but there are also local crafts, and we even stopped at a place claiming to sell meteorites and other stones. If only there had been some sort of corroboration that these were true meteorites! Lots of families come here, and I wonder how many of them keep an eye on their kids. Some kids take part in the family business, asking you to buy things, or bringing things out to show to you as you pass by. But then we came to this watering hole about half way down the trail with a Tarzan vine and a lot of unattended children. Some were swinging from the vine, others were just watching, and some were doing their own thing. Several of them were totally naked, but I guess that’s how I would’ve had to do the swimming if I had chosen to go in, since I had no swimming suit. One persistent little boy kept asking for us to throw in pesos – I’m guessing he would keep them if he found them at the bottom. I imagine it would be easy to find them, since the waters were so clear. Gautier and I watched and laughed, but we gave no pesos.

We kept walking for probably ¾ of the trail, where you don’t find too many people. But you also don’t find much more interesting stuff, like a nice view to enjoy. So we walked back, past the watering hole and probably to about a third of the original starting point. There was a place marked for swimming, and there was only one lady with a nice tropical drink, enjoying her own pool. So we walked up the riverbank a little way to find our own private pool. Gautier stripped down to his swimming suit (he had brought one) while I took off my socks and shoes and waded in. Not him. It was cold, but after adjusting to the temperature, he plunged in. The water wasn’t deep at all, and in fact there were enough large rocks just underneath the surface for me to join him out at the point where our pool took the plunge down the hill to meet up with the rest of the falls. We enjoyed our peace and quiet for a little while before journeying further down.

The lower area had more people, obviously – it was closer to the parking and it had the most stunning views to enjoy. So we found a spot to leave our bags and clothes. Gautier, once again, jumped right in. I wish I had known that we were doing this activity – I certainly would’ve packed appropriately. But as it was, the water was shallow in most places, so I was able to wade out to the edge of our area and ascend the rocks that were poking out above the water. I almost fell in at one of the waterfalls, but Gautier was nice enough to reach out his hand at just the right moment! Otherwise, my return trip might have been miserable. We got one of the “lifeguards” to take our picture in front of the best view of the falls, and it wouldn’t matter if we were the ugliest people on earth. It would be a beautiful photo because of the falls. Like Palenque, Agua Azul has no bad angles.

We climbed around these rocks for a few minutes before trying to make our way all the way up and around to the other side, but our “lifeguard” called out for us to come back. Alas. So Gautier jumped in while I had to walk across the rocks. It was deeper here than elsewhere. But it was a good time. We got our stuff together, since our meeting time was approaching. After a small snack that each of us had brought with us, we stopped at an empanada stand. They were 5 for 20 pesos, which is pretty good. So we got five, and Gautier was kind enough to pay for them. I got a cheese and a potato empanada, and he got the same along with chicken. They were quite hot, so we couldn’t eat them right away. I did manage to finish mine before getting back in the van, though.

Most of the van ride home was quiet. I think most of us were very tired. I was. We stopped after about 30 minutes and let off a few people who were going to a different city for the night. The remaining 45 minutes or so were pretty peaceful as the sun set and darkness descended. Gautier and I talked on and off, about careers, religion, politics – you know, the easy stuff. It was good to make a new friend, and I was sad when we had to part ways. He was staying in Palenque another night, and I had already bought my bus ticket to Villahermosa for the evening. Otherwise, I think we definitely would’ve had a good night on the town. I just hope my French was good enough – I think I might have uttered a grand total of 50 words in English from the time we got off the bus at Agua Azul until the time it dropped us off in Palenque.

The rest of my evening was a whirlwind. I walked back to my hotel, showered and changed, packed up the remaining items, checked out of the hotel, and walked to the bus station, which was only one block away. The bus ride was pretty nondescript – typical Mexican roads with the occasional rough patches, and on the radio, the bus driver played only those Mexican stations that you get in the USA when you’re in the middle of nowhere and nothing else comes through. So I passed in and out of consciousness for the 2 hours until I got to Villahermosa. And then a short taxi ride later, I was at the Hilton (classy), ready to finally sleep.

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