We have recently returned from the Mayan ruins of Palenque. Carolyn and I enjoy travelling independently. Many people we met during this last trip were on whirlwind group tours, all pre-booked tours on a schedule to be maintained. Not our style, though there are many good reasons to travel within a package. Traveling independently allows us flexibility with respect to direction (dare I say space?) and time. It also comes with its own challenges, not all of which yield positive results. Adventure explores the unknown and does not guarantee success as one might otherwise define success. We had a wonderful and successful trip, in the broad sense of the term, and I will love to share the ups and downs.
I have arranged photo galleries with expanded selections by site location. In many cases I arranged photos of signage explaining archaeological structures preceding the illustrations of those structures, for the interested viewer’s review. Gallery links are provided within the text of the appropriate sections of this travelblog.
Day 1 – Landing at Villahermosa Mexico
January 8, 2020. We fly out of LAX on Interjet Airlines. Not quite up to Aeromexico standards, (no in-flight movies or USB outlets), but the best apparent option to access Palenque via Villahermosa, which is in the state of Tabasco. Somehow thought we were making a return trip to the Yucatan to continue our Mayan explorations. The truth is Palenque is jungle country in the state of Chiapas, much to the south. No easy or reliable flights into Palenque, despite it having an international airport. Villahermosa is an easy choice with what looks like a rather direct route on a major highway to our destination of Palenque.
The queue at LAX is alarming. It is a good idea to arrive two hours before your flight. I have seen shorter lines at Disneyland and there are only three desks open to process boarding passes. Most of the line looks like Mexican nationals who are packed to the rafters with luggage. Mules for Walmart? Apparently Interjet does not charge for luggage coming into Mexico, which is a pleasant surprise for us and helps explain the extraordinary amount of cargo others appear to be transporting.
A four-hour layover in Mexico City allows us plenty of time to figure out our connections and grab a bite to eat. I am very impressed with my Expedia app which kept me up to date with announcements throughout the day as to what gate I needed to be at when, and that I had landed at any one of my destinations.
Having arrived in Villahermosa, we score our rental car and face the challenge as to how to find our hotel (Sleep Inn … a member of the Comfort Suite family). It is not clear to me how to navigate the Expedia app to get to Google Maps. (I have since ironed out this wad in my boxers.) Garmin does not have the name of the hotel in its database. The number provided by Google has nothing to do with the hotel. I am able to find what appears to be a street address through my app that Garmin groks (understands). What ends up being a challenge is that Garmin is almost as confused about where we are as we are. Long story short, we find our Comfort Inn in the middle of nowhere which appears to be falling down around us on dirty dangerous streets being frequented by garbage trucks and policia.
Well, here we are and happy to be here. Glad to have gotten a sandwich in Mexico City as there is nothing in the neighborhood to provide repast and we have arrived beyond the hours of room service. All’s well that ends well and we end the day well by hitting the pillows. Manana promises to be exciting.
Day 2 – On to Palenque Mexico
Our hotel does provide an excellent breakfast buffet. Among the many small pleasures of Mexico are fried bananas in place of potatoes. We take a walk after breakfast to walk off breakfast and watch the dirty dangerous streets come alive with vendors of schlock and stuff and we make our way to a square that hosts a church. I am a sucker for churches. A little shopping scores me a belt (forgotten item) and a hat to keep my noggin happy in the days to come.
Back at the hotel we pack up and head off. First destination: La Venta Archaeological Park and Zoo. Google maps is leaving Garmin in the dust. What did we do before apps? A marvelous island amid a bedraggled ciudad. (Villahermosa is an interesting and authentic Mexican city … a mix of dirt and disparity among a vibrant economy which includes a lot of US stores and businesses. This city is being built in stages much as the Mayan cities evolved. etc).
The zoological portion of the park is fantastic, and we enjoy monkeys, ducks, turtles, crocodiles, yellow and black jaguars, boas and pythons, and aviaries full of macaws, toucans, peacocks, more ducks, etc. Beyond the zoo is an unexpected display of Olmec artifacts rescued from devastation in La Venta during oil exploration. The Olmec predated the Mayan and eventually gave rise to the Mayan culture, to the best of my understanding.
Next door to the Park is one of the best natural history museums I have ever seen, even if I could not understand a single word written on the interpretive panels.
And now we are off to Palenque. An easy two-hour drive east where we find our resort (the Chan-Kah Resort Village) within easy reach of the ruins we have come to see. No cenotes in Chiapas, but the pools at the resort makes up for that. Well beyond our expectations. Quiet secluded cabana, great restaurant. I would give this facility five stars and highly recommendations to our friends and fellow travelers.
Day 3 – Palenque Archaeological Zone
This is our first full day in the town of Palenque and the Palenque ruins. We will come to find there are many entrance fees at many of the attractions we wish to enjoy.
Our first stop is at the gate to the Palenque National Park. Happily, costs are never high, but travelers should be cautioned to not expect to ever be able to use a credit card or exchange money for entrance fees at parks, preserves, museums or other points of interest. Coin of the realm only.
Onward down the road we go. Next thing we know we are in a small queue of vehicles who are being invited to utilize a Guide service. We are told we definitely want to use their service, as they are much cheaper than the guides at the main entrance of the Archaeological Zone, and if we hire this first guide (who speaks very good English) he will take us into the “new” entrance which will afford us an exploration of many archaeological sub-zones and ruins not offered by the main park guides, and we will have an opportunity to explore the jungle and extended ruins on the far side of the Archaeological Zone that are not normally available to the general public. (Only 2% of the city of Palenque have been exhumed). The price is relatively high compared to other guide services we have used in the Yucatan, but we are assured we can pay in part pesos and in part dollars. Yes, the kid I am talking to will guide us.
Deciding to go for it, we are directed to a parking area nearby. A few youngsters are there wanting a parking fee, but I brush them off as opportunistic hustlers and that seems to work. Turns out our guide has passed us off to another guide, but it looks like it will work, so OK. These guides are displaying credentials that they are certified, permitted, and legitimate guides.
Next thing I know we are off to the nearby museum to purchase our entrance tickets to the Archaeological Zone. Two entrance fees and a guide fee. Our guide does us very well and I am quite happy we chose the option. The service lasts a bit over two hours and we do gain a lot of insight we would have otherwise missed.
Curiously he talked very little about the actual ruins while we were in the central part of the Zone, but I could see there was plenty of signage and knew we could review the background information of the temples and palace at our leisure independently.
Having gotten a lay of the land, we spend the remainder of the day walking around, reviewing signage, and merrily clicking away for posterity. …. Among various sites in the Zone, we do visit the temple where the Red Queen (mother of the ruler Pakal) was interred along with two of her maidens. A museum visit at end of day (happy to see our entrance fee actually allowed for a visit to the museum without further costs) allowed us to see her actual jade death mask as well as many tomb artifacts. Also of interest is a copy of the sarcophagus of Pakal. The original remains in the Temple of Inscriptions, off limits to visitors and ostensibly too big and heavy to consider removing from the temple. Pakal’s remains were discovered in the early 1950’s and exhumed for study and display in Mexico City.
Having been too busy for lunch in the course of the day, we stop in at a likely looking restaurant near the park entrance. Upon finishing our snack and getting back to our car, that front left tire looks rather low. I think I either have a slow leak, or I should have given those kids at the lot a few pesos. Finding a Pemex in town, we give the tire a quick shot of air and I will determine if it has a leak or not over the course of the next day. Back at our resort we are treated to the cacophony of howler monkeys over cocktails as well as the visual delight of fireflies. The restaurant is another five-star affair.
I notice there is no salt on tables unless you ask for it. This apparently goes for all the restaurants we will visit. In Mexico, salt is generally an unneeded extra seasoning.
Day 4 – A day of so-called ‘rest’ down the road
Sunday: We take a day off from the tourist drill. The forecast is for rain anyway. Very likely the Zone will be full of tourists since it is a Sunday. We decide to explore the mountain jungle roads toward San Christobal in search of purported waterfalls.
Will this excursion be safe during the day? The road between San Christobal and Palenque is well known for being dangerous, particularly at night. There are thieves and victims have been murdered. We are advised things are better under the new president, but we should travel during the day when there is more traffic.
The road winds through a jungle under a cloak of mist and gives us an experience of a truly tropical environment. This is quite a change from our haunt in the Mojave Desert of California, which is one of the joys of traveling.
Our first stop is at Misol Ha Falls. Once again, we enjoy multiple entrance fees along a three mile stretch of road off the “highway.” The first fee goes to the ejido we are driving through so that they can maintain the road. The second fee goes to a second ejido who “maintains” the infrastructure for visitors to the falls.
I am delighted for the fact that we have a rather grey day so that I can do some long exposure photography of the falls. (I have forgotten my neutral density filters back home.) Of course, just as I get the tripod set up, the sun breaks through. As Ansel Adams said, a good photo is all about standing in the right spot. He did not say how long you might have to stand there. Happily, in time the sun cooperated by going away again, and there were plenty of opportunities for shots that did work, with or without sun.
Now we are off to Aqua Azul, which is a short stint down the road. Short stint? We eventually gave up on Aqua Azul. Despite appearances on the map, and Km signs, the road is very slow and arduous, and it takes an interminable amount of time to go half the distance.
A big issue along these “grade-D” roads are topes. A tope is a speed bump that is arbitrarily and randomly placed according to a variety of needs. They may be to slow you down at the approach to a village. Or they might serve to slow you down next to someone’s palapa or tortilla stand. Seldom will they be well marked and rarely standardized in their amplitude. Leave it to be said they can make a long day twice as long, and never allow a driver to relax and enjoy a casual outing.
At one point there are little girls barricading the road with a rope to sell us dates and fruitas. They do not want to take no for an answer, and thankfully our car is small enough and streamlined sufficiently to cause the rope to glide over the hood, then windshield and roof, and we continue on our way to the next tope.
Along the way I am amazed at the extent that the jungle has been cleared to plant corn. There are no combines here, nor would they be able to help in the harvest of thousands of acres of corn that have been hand planted across the hills. Corn is certainly a staple in this country, and likely allowed the Mayan population to thrive to a point where they depleted their resources. Studies have also suggested by a corn-based diet led to certain dietary deficiencies that induced mental illness which may have contributed to the wars and sacrifices that further compromised the integrity of the culture.
Although we have chewed up a lot of time pursuing the falls of Aqua Azul that we must forsake for sanity’s sake, a gathering of egrets makes the trip worthwhile. In Alaska I am thrilled at finding hundreds of eagles in the trees. Here in the jungle we have egrets. I pull over to make a few shots, and delight that every time a car drives by, they all spook and fly around en mass before resuming their perches. Having stopped on the side of the road to make some shots, I have since come to understand it is better to not stop and get out of the car. Several months ago, a husband and wife who are entomologists in San Christobal were murdered while they were stopped to study some bugs. Live and learn.
Another note about driving in this area. Avoid being the first car stopped at a red light. As soon as the light turns green, the guy behind you will honk till you move. It is much better to be the second car in line so that you can experience the satisfaction shared by so many Mexicans from laying on the horn. Living and learning and keep smiling.
We are back to the hotel in time to make a quick trip up toward the Zone to explore some of the jungle trails we had touched upon the day before and take the time to do some water photography. As I make my way up a stream Carolyn points out there are some sweethearts up ahead of me holding hands. Upon close inspection I correct her that they are passing a joint. While we speak different languages, enough communication passes, and the gent happily hams it up for one of my shots. Back at the hotel we are able to catch some Sunday football action during playoffs through my NFL app.
Day 5 – Back to Palenque ruins
Back to ruins to find the quiet corners and subtle stories for the camera. We use the main entrance to the Zone today. An attendant at the lot directs us to a space for our car and offers to wash it and keep a good eye on it for us. We do not need a wash, but we are happy to give him some extra pesos in the hopes that we will find a full measure of air in all our tires.
The Zone is relatively quiet with a few visitors walking the grounds, and I am able to make a few shots of interesting perspectives of temple stairs without the intrusion of tourists. We delve into a few quiet corners of temples covered by jungle to take advantage of the lack of contrast during the mist shrouded morning. I am particularly interested in the composition of lines and textures as jungle and masonry strive for new equilibrium. A fair amount of my effort this day will be invested in capturing the subtle detail rather than the derivative shots of temple ruins.
Some of the day is spent sitting in various parts of the Palace for extended periods. These contemplative interludes allow us to listen to a variety of guides share their spiels with guests. Curiously, while some information is similar, some information is different from guide to guide, but with each observation we gain another aspect of insight into the possible history of a culture that has been absent in the area for many centuries. Some guides are certified as evidenced by the credential they wear, similar to our guide. Many have no credential, and I am curious as to what degree regulations are required or enforced. We are very impressed with the variety of languages the guides are required to master. One guide appeared to be addressing his guests in four different languages.
Time for lunch. Back at the main parking lot we are pleased to find we have a full measure of air in all tires. Down the road a brief distance to a restaurant and hotel called the Maya Bell. I highly recommend this as a convenient, efficient, economic and delicious break in the day. We resume our adventures parking in the museum lot and resuming our exploration at the first entrance that we used the previous day. There are some unexplored corners with quiet ruins and jungle streams that I want to take advantage of with my camera. Having reviewed some maps at the Museum, the ruins are broken up into several small zones. One such zone is Zone C, which appears closed off by a rope and a “No Pasar” sign. It is a very nice-looking trail, and no one around, so we hop the rope and wander quietly along to discover a residential complex that is quite overgrown and may have been closed due to a number of trees fallen over some of the structural ruins. Regardless, it was apparently a busily visited spot at an earlier time (given the quality of the trail and rest stops and signage) and it feels special to be able to view the area by ourselves, on the Q.T.
Back down the main trail, tripod in hand, we walk by a security guard who is happily watching some cartoon on his mobile phone. Coming to a small suspension bridge, I am ready to make the artistic shots of this jungle stream that I have mentally earmarked the previous day. Being the paparazzi that I am, I step over another rope and make for center stream. As I speak little Spanish I am not sure what the sign in the middle of the stream says, but I assume it means no bathing or swimming. I plan on doing neither.
While setting up the tripod to make the long exposure I want, I think I hear a whistle blowing. Turns out I did hear a whistle blowing. Having made my shot, there is now another security guard on the bridge, and he is not smiling. His English is about as good as my Spanish, but I get the message, and it appears my “Lo siento” is not going to quite cut it. The other security guard from up the hill (cartoon and mobile phone) appears and he appears to be the boss. It is explained (through Carolyn who speaks the language with reasonable skill) that tripods are not allowed without a special fee, and it will cost us $5275 pesos, or roughly $245. How were we supposed to know this? (Admittedly I had heard vague rumors to that effect). We are told there is a big sign posted right at the entrance. Well, it ain’t in English, and it is not at all plainly visible, being the very uppermost sign on a post of numerous signs and admonishments of one sort and the next. Okay okay, we will go to the station and pay with our credit card. Oh, they don’t take credit cards. Well then, how about we ain’t got that kind of money on us, either in pesos or dollars. Well guess what? … apparently, we can make the guard an offer and settle the incident on the spot. Alrighty then …. $30 USD (I bet we could have gotten away with $20) and we are on our way. It strikes me as curious how so many rules are easily broken, some selectively enforced, and everything subject to reasonable negotiation.
All part of the adventure. If you would like to support the artist in recouping his fine, feel welcome to enjoy a copy of this classic in your own home through a purchase. (If I sell enough, I could write the whole trip off!)
On a miscellaneous note, I am very happy to be spending several days in the town of Palenque. We have heard of people coming to ‘enjoy’ three days of rain. It appears we have hit pay dirt with respect to our schedule, though periodic cloudbursts are not unusual during our stay. Spending several days gives us a better guarantee of finding holes in the weather that will allow us to take advantage of any number of options. Each day is a blessing of one sort and another, but the sunny days are certainly the jewels of the treasure chest.
Day 6 – Down El Camino Verde to the ruins of Bonampak
Two days of exploring the ruins of Palenque have pretty well filled my coffers with photos. An option we have discovered during our stay is a long trip south down Hwy 307, into the tropical preserve of Selva Lacandona and to the ruins of Bonampak.
Checking locally, we get mixed reviews as to the advisability of making the trip. It will be 2.5 hours of driving each way on a Class D road. The condition of the road is basically good with a few cautions. We are definitely advised to travel during the day, and NOT at night. We go for it, and I am soon enthralled with some of the prettiest country I have experienced in Mexico.
The villages are tidy and well kept, and do not display the casual and dismissive squalor that is ubiquitously displayed in so many rural villages. Mountains to our east lay along the border of Guatemala and frame a countryside of ranches and farmland. The road is not without its share of random topes, precluding any casual relaxation along an arbor framed camino. Our destination is the Selva Lacandora Preserve and the ruins of Bonampak. We know little of each other than the fact they are there, and we have never been. This is sufficient cause for a foray.
Pleased to make the turnoff for Bonampak, we soon realize we are once again the deep pockets to feed multiple fees. The preserve, and ruins, are apparently a stronghold of the surviving Mayan people, who are now the stewards of the Preserve and take a rather proprietary position toward their treasure. There is a roadblock ahead, and we are told that we must park at this point, where we will pay an entrance fee into the preserve and they will drive us into the archaeological zone, where we will pay another entrance fee. No problem.
There are all of two other visitors to the Zone, and they do not stay much beyond our arrival. We have the place to ourselves. A great plaza bordered by several excavated ruins hosts the largest stele (engraved tablet) I have ever seen. The greatest surprise (for which Bonampak is famous, but as yet we are clueless about this fact) is the Temple of the Murals wherein three vaulted chambers contain original frescoes depicting life and events of the time. This alone was well worth the drive. In addition to being among the best-preserved Maya murals, the Bonampak murals are noteworthy for debunking early assumptions that the Maya were a peaceful culture of mystics, as the murals clearly depict war and human sacrifice.
We are sufficiently done with our explorations after two hours and head back to meet our driver who will return us to our car. Along the way, we are happy to support a few lady hawkers and buy some carved items as souvenirs. When we get back to the car, our driver informs us the ride was not included in the price of entrance as we had thought, and he demands an exorbitant (for the location) fee. We felt rather hustled, but made a negotiation, and tried to impress upon him that if he wants more tourism, his people should make the arrangements a bit more clear. At the end of the day I am happy to conclude that he needs the money more than we do, hustle notwithstanding.
For future travelers, I would quite recommend contracting a local tour operator out of Palenque to take you on a guided commercial tour (you do not have to worry about wrecking your undercarriage on topes) while you can relax and enjoy the view. All the fees are paid for with no more surprises, and time is made to visit another ruin (Yaxchilan) that is only accessible by boat a bit further down the road (which we did not see).
Day 7 – Camalcalco ruins
This will be our last full day in Mexico. Checking out of our resort and bidding Palenque a fond adieu, we head back for Villahermosa in the state of Tobasco, and our last exploration. North of Villahermosa are the ruins of Comalcalco. This archaeological site is noteworthy for two reasons. First, it is the westernmost known Maya settlement. Second, and due to a dearth of locally available limestone, the city’s buildings were made from fired-clay bricks held together with mortar made from oyster shells. The use of bricks at Comalcalco was unique among Maya sites, and many of them are decorated with iconography and/or glyphs.
The ruins are an island located in the middle of an urban and suburban sprawl, and we are going on faith of signage as we travel through residential neighborhoods. Like Bonampak, this is a relatively obscure and less visited site. A long broad path under the shelter of elder trees leads us to a large plaza and several excavated temples and the Acropolis. We head to the Acropolis high on a hill overlooking the plaza, where a local guardian invites us along and acts as an interpretive guide. He explains the mixed use of the Acropolis as both a residential area and palace for the upper class as well as local temples. He points out many bricks that contain glyphs, as well as relic garden pools that we would not have assumed adorned the residences unless they had been pointed out as such. We are happy to reward his service with a propina, which I imagine is how he makes his livelihood.
Wandering through the grounds we come to the main temple at the end of the plaza, and I am happy to see it is closed for archaeological excavation. This means we do not have to climb yet another temple. Work is underway on the excavation. Laborers are working hard and sweating under a blazing sun and humid conditions clearing a balustrade bordering the steps climbing the temple. There is a supervising archaeologist who is curiously wearing a wool shirt, vest and felt hat. He is not doing anything more than holding a camera and supervising the removal of dirt and debris.
Some distance away a crew is assembling a shade structure under the shade of the trees. We ask a nearby student (presumably a student as he is sitting under a shade tree working on a laptop) why the shelter crew isn’t building a shade structure for the laborers. He admits they are all asking that very same question. This has been a day well spent with yet another unanticipated bonus.
Finding our way back to Villahermosa, we spend our final night back at the Sleep Inn. On a final note, we spend a leisurely morning exploring the streets for a pharmacia were we find some necessary Lomotil (the local version of Imodium). So close to making it to the gate, I have decided to never travel to Mexico again without it. All part of the adventure!
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