Kim Tours starts our day with a big breakfast.
Cattle are hustled down the road.
Boats waiting to take tourists to the ruins upriver.
We all piled into our boat for an hour's journey
We spot Yaxchilán through
Hiking up to the
The "Little Acropolis."
Entering "The Labyinth."
Light at last…!
We emerge in front of "The Labyrinth."
Green moss clings to everything.
Note the boxy hieroglyphs carved
in the lintel above the doorway.
Structure 33. When built by Bird Jaguar (who reigned
752-772 AD), this made quite a sight from the river.
King Bird Jaguar IV plays ball amid symbolism and hieroglyphs about his rise to power.
King Bird Jaguar IV's mother,
We're faster than that croc, aren't we?
Van ride for our leg into the Lacadón Forest.
Bonampak's main plaza.
Three doorways lead into three rooms of
matchless Mayan murals.
Room 1: Pomp and circumstance surround the presentation
of King Chan Muan II's infant heir.
The detail -- nearly 1200 years later
-- was astonishing.
Celebrating with trumpets.
Room 2: Prisoners are tortured by pulling out their fingernails.
Room 3: Noblewomen pierce their tongues in ritual blood-letting.
Lintel above Room 1's doorway: Chan
Muan holds a captive by the hair.
She got a kick out of taking a
photo of Mark.
Yaxchilán & Bonampak, Mexico
March, 2012 - There are many beautiful things to see in the Palenque area and, for most tourists, rather than struggling to
drive on the little winding roads, the easiest way to see them all is by van tour. Van tours are a big business in this region, and
almost all the vehicles on the small roads outside Palenque are vans filled with tourists. Our van from Kim Tours picked us up at
7:00 a.m. for a 12-hour tour to the remote Mayan ruins of Yaxchilán and Bonampak. After several hours on the road, everyone
in our group was grateful when the van stopped mid-morning for a sumptuous breakfast at a casual open-air restaurant.
Besides van tours, farming and agriculture play an important role
here too, and we watched with amusement as two cowboys on
horseback hustled a herd of cattle down the road while we were
getting back in the van after breakfast. Those cows could trot
After another hour or so of negotiating skinny, speedbump filled
roads, we finally arrived at the river that defines the border
between Mexico and Guatemala, the Río Usumacinta. Here we
boarded a small outboard-driven boat with a canopy top for an
hour-long boat ride up the river. Talk about remote -- these ruins
are really out there!
We were five
couples all together.
Two couples hailed
from Mexico City
and Argentina, and
they gabbed away in
Spanish with each other
and the guide. The other
two couples were from
French Canada and
France, and they
chatted easily in
French. We mostly
listened and enjoyed
The narrow river
thick jungle greenery along its banks. At long
last we spotted a tall pile of rocks between the
trees heralding our arrival at the ruined Mayan
city of Yaxchilán.
We climbed a steep, moist hillside trail and
suddenly found ourselves staring at the
familiar pyramid shape of a huge Mayan building, the "Little
Acropolis." This building was extensive and had rooms and
windows and unroofed hallways that begged to be explored.
However, we were given only an hour to see the whole sight
and the "Great Acropolis" complex of buildings awaited us
further on. If only you could go to a place like this easily on
your own and hang out for a few days...
Hiking back down and then up again,
we came to "The Labyrinth," a crazy
maze of winding tunnels that is pitch
dark inside. We relied on flashes
from our cameras to light the way.
Finally shafts of light penetrated and
we emerged on the other side,
standing in front of a series of doors
into the Labyrinth and looking out
into the Grand Plaza.
The jungle here has been
conquered, seeded with grass lawns, and swept back to reveal these
impressive ruins. But mossy overgrowth clings to everything. As we
wandered past sturdy walls and rows of doorways, two thoughts kept
swirling through my mind: what did this place look like when it was
newly constructed and filled with inhabitants? And what did the
European discoverers think when they first found this large complex of
buildings in the tight grip of the
jungle in the mid-1800's?
It is mind-boggling to think that this
little bend in a nondescript, brown
silty river was once a very important
spot, a destination, a port for trade.
Today it would be indistinguishable
from the rest of the jungle
riverbanks if it weren't for the
sprinkling of tourists
arriving every few
hours in colorful
Who built this stuff
Fortunately, Yaxchilán is loaded with doorway and window
lintels that are covered with square-shaped Mayan
hieroglyphic text, and they tell the story. Unraveling the
meaning behind Mayan hieroglyphs began in the late
19th century, when the numeric system was first
deciphered. Major breakthroughs came in the 1980's
(while studying lists of rulers in Palenque), and now
90% of Mayan writings can be read. The history of
conquests, defeats and transfers of power in Yaxchilán
are surprisingly well known, right down to specific days
and years due to the detailed Mayan calendar.
The area was likely settled by 250 AD, but
the first historic text points to 359 AD when
Yaxchilán's first ruler ascended the thrown.
Rulers with evocative names like "Bird
Jaguar" and "Moon Skull" reigned for
centuries, each date of ascension to the
throne carefully recorded in stone. One
ruler's wife, Lady Pakal, lived to the ripe old
age of 98. That may not have been a typical
ancient Mayan lifespan, but the ruling class
obviously lived well.
The city reached its peak in the early 8th
century, and most of the ruins date from that
time period when the reigning king (who lived
into his nineties) went on a building spree.
The amazing thing at this site, besides the expansive
grounds filled with 120 or so ruined buildings, is the
detailed carvings on the lintels. Passing under a
doorway you look up and see the most beautiful and
intricately carved stone just overhead. The images are
clear, and archaeologists have sorted out what almost
all of them depict -- with the help of the descriptive boxy
hieroglyphs that accompany each one.
One relief shows King Bird Jaguar IV playing ball in the
ball court, a game that had deep mystical overtones in
Mayan culture. The text around the images makes reference to
both blood letting and the decapitation of three deities leading to
three "dawnings." Two dwarfs are marked with the signs of Venus.
It is thought that they figuratively sweep the path for this rising king
as Venus sweeps the path for the rising sun.
Now it helps to know a little background about this guy Bird Jaguar IV. He was not born
in direct line to the throne, being the son of the 2nd wife rather than the 1st wife of the
king. It seems his mother, Lady Eveningstar, was quite ambitious for her son, however,
and there might have been a power struggle after her husband's death. She may have
even ruled Yaxchilán temporarily while she waited for her boy to grow up and take
over. After nearly ten years her son was finally crowned King Bird Jaguar IV.
Another relief shows this woman, the ambitious Lady Eveningstar, dressed to the nines.
Yaxchilán and its neighbors alternated between being friends and enemies, making
alliances through marriage, and taking each other's kings captive by turns. Victory
seems to have rotated between the city-states for a while, but Yaxchilán seems to have
come out on top in the early 9th century AD before
the entire ancient Mayan world slipped away into the
grasp of the jungle (possibly due to deforestation and
One of the nearby rivals was Bonampak, and
fortunately for us, its unique ruins were our next stop.
First, however, we had to take another river boat ride
back to the van. Waiting to see us off at the river's
edge was a very large, grinning crocodile. Our
boatman took us pretty close to this fellow so we
could get a good look, but he assured us our
outboard engine was
faster than the croc!
The ruined Mayan city of Bonampak is situated in the
Lacandón Jungle where a very special group of
indigenous people, the Lacandones, make their home,
deep in the rainforest. When the Spanish arrived in the
16th century, the Lacandón people retreated further
into the rainforest and were never discovered.
Although they had frequent contact with other Mayan-descended groups through the centuries, the rugged lands around them
helped them keep the world at bay, retain their identity and avoid the fate of most other indigenous groups for a long time.
Numbering just 650 or so native speaking Lacandón people today, it is only in the last fifty years that relentless logging,
ranching and tourism development have invaded their space and forced them to go through the conversions and changes that
the rest of Mexico underwent four hundred years ago. Besides learning Spanish, many converted to Christianity (mostly
Protestantism). Conversion was a change the men largely frowned upon because of its intolerance of polygamy. But the
women favored the idea because there was very little ritualistic cooking involved (unlike their own traditions). Ironically, the
recent introduction of TV and popular culture has largely brought an end to spiritual rituals of any kind among the younger
Today the Lacandones hang onto their traditions as best they can while
participating in the modern economy by working within the tourist trade.
They offer a peak into their world selling hand-crafted items, shuttling
tourists to ancient Mayan sites, taking them on tours of the rainforest, and
hosting them overnight.
At the edge of their land we were transferred into a van driven by a
Lacandón man in traditional dress (a white sack-like garment with wide
short sleeves). He spoke perfect Mexican Spanish and wore an official
badge. As I watched him behind the wheel I wondered what his
grandfather would have thought of his grandson chauffeuring international
tourists into his homeland in a van. Would his own future grandkids want
to stay in the forest, hosting tourists and preserving the memory of a
vanishing culture, instead of joining mainstream Mexican society?
The main plaza of the
Bonampak ruins are
very compact. A few
large, carved stelae
under shade canopies
are sprinkled across a
wide lawn. An
with small buildings
fills a hillside at the far
We climbed the stairs and poked our heads into the first doorway of the little white
building half-way up. Holy mackerel! We were absolutely blown away.
Inside was a single room with a steeply vaulted ceiling, and every single square inch of
the interior was painted with extraordinary, brightly colored frescoes. In the images
encircling the room people were engaged in all kinds of activities, wearing loincloths and
The side-view stance of each figure looked like those of the ancient Egyptians with the
feet placed one before the other and head in profile. But unlike the Egyptians the
shoulders were shown in side-view rather than twisted with one shoulder forward and
We moved on to
the next doorway
and found another similar room with a
totally different story to tell, and likewise
inside the third doorway. Wow!
Bonampak's construction began in the 6th
century, but the paintings were completed
in 790 AD. This was the same time that
Charlemagne was rising to power in
Europe and the Vikings were beginning
their raids in England.
These murals were "discovered" in 1946
when a Yale researcher was brought to
them by a Lacandón guide. The
Lacandones had revered the murals and
worshipped at the site and never shown
them to outsiders before. Sadly, in an
effort to document and preserve them
(hadn't they been preserved already for
1,150 years?), the scientists covered the
brought out the
but weakened the
plaster so it started
to flake off. They
mad, but today the
photos they took
incomplete and Yale
has renewed their
efforts to document the
Standing there, jaw agape, however, I didn't
care how much the paintings had faded in
the last 60 years. They are magnificent.
The expansive story-telling nature of the
paintings and their incredible detail had all of
us visitors oohing and ahhing to each other
in the doorways.
We later learned that the first room depicts
the presentation of the son and heir of King
Chan Muan II and Lady Rabbit (a
noblewoman from nearby Yaxchilán), in 790 AD, with great processions, trumpet playing and fanfare.
Unfortunately the city was abandoned before the infant came into power. The second room depicts the
violent conquering of an unknown enemy. Among several gruesome scenes, the unfortunate captives are
being tortured by having their fingernails pulled out. The third depicts a royal celebration, including ritual
blood-letting that the noblewomen performed by piercing their tongues.
Like Yaxchilán, the lintels over the doorways are highly decorated,
and the image carved over the first door shows King Chan Muan
holding a captive by the hair. Not only is the carving beautifully
executed, but the original blue painted background and some of the
red trim can be seen even today. Astonished by their good
condition, I had to ask the attendant if the lintels were original -- and they
While I was standing in awe of all this, trying to twist my body so I could
get the best possible shots of the murals despite the restrictive tourist
barriers, Mark had wandered off down the hill. When I caught up to him
he excitedly showed me a photo of a little Lacandón girl he had taken.
These ruins were her playground, and she climbed among the trees and
played with sticks in the dust as she watched the tourists coming and
going. Mark tried to talk to her, but Spanish and English got him nowhere.
Then he handed her the camera and showed her how to take a picture of
him and she grinned. They traded taking pics of each other and giggled
at the images on the back of the camera, all language barriers gone.
We got back to Palenque exhausted but happy. It had been quite a day.
But after a rest day in town we were ready to go again to see the famous
Agua Azul and Misol-Ha waterfalls.
Click here to see more from our adventure travels in Mexico.
Find Yaxchilán and Palenque on Mexico Maps.
Misol-Ha waterfall, a thin, pure stream.
Behind the falls.
Agua Azul's falls are wide and fast.
Agua Azul's pools of turquoise.
Little Amina goes
Everyone gets photos of themselves at the falls.
Vendors in palapas line the falls.
The falls tumble down many layers of boulders.
Our companions get into another van.
Comitán's Santo Domingo, built in the late 1500's.
Santo Domingo steeple.
Lots of church steeples in this town.
Modern sculpture in the Zócalo
Patio of wooden columns.
Spring is in the air.
Hilly streets offer views into the surrounding
Crowds take seats on the Mayan stadium stairs.
Performers appear on the 1200-year-old ruins.
Blowing on a conch shell.
Rituals for the dead victim.
Marina Chiapas at dawn.
(Photo courtesy of Capt. Andrés Reyes Prudente).
Agua Azul, Misol-Ha & Comitán, Mexico
March, 2012 - Besides the mysterious ruins of Yaxchilan & Bonampak, the Palenque
area is bursting with beautiful natural features as well. We hopped on another van
tour, this time to see waterfalls. We went with a no-name tour company, one of dozens
selling tours in town. It was cheap, this was just a day trip, and all we really needed
was transportation to the falls. We sat behind a very seasoned Central American
traveler from North Carolina named Tom who was just starting a four-month tour from
Mexico to Colombia. His itinerary, unlike ours for some reason, included both the
waterfalls and the Palenque ruins.
"I never have any expectations
when I get on a bus in these
parts." He said knowingly. We
had had plenty of bus
adventures, so we nodded with
him, almost as knowingly.
Our first stop of the day, after
bouncing over the rough roads
out of town, was the magnificent
Misol-Ha waterfall. A thin wisp
of water flowed in a steady
stream off a cliff into a cool, wide
pool. We followed a short trail
down to the falls and discovered
we could crawl underneath a rock
outcropping behind them. The fine
mist that sprayed us all was
Our group was in high spirits in the
early morning air as we piled back
into the van. Young European
backpackers dominated our group,
including a pair of gorgeous, tall,
leggy, blonde Danish girls up front
and three boys from Switzerland, Austria and Germany speaking German together in the
rear. A little four-year-old Mexican girl, Amina, from Playa del Carmen in the Yucatan, sat
next to me and asked to see our waterfall photos on our cameras.
A very comical and rudimentary conversation in Spanish ensued as our chatter wandered
to our granddaughters and she told us about her cousin. There's nothing like having a
four-year-old native speaker show you just how poor your command of Spanish really is.
Her giggles and funny faces made it clear we sounded pretty goofy to her. Luckily her
grandma bailed us (and her) out a
few times when our conversation
reached a total impasse of
incomprehension. We were quite
humbled when she later talked up a
storm with the van driver!
Our next stop was Agua Azul, a
series of cascading waterfalls that
rushes over stair-stepping boulders
and lands in the most exquisite
turquoise pools. Wooden viewing
platforms encourage tourists to take
their time soaking in the views and
posing for photos. The water
thunders down the rocks from
several directions and then rests for
a bit in shades of aquamarine before
The tour vans line up outside the park
while visitors are granted anywhere from
an hour to an afternoon to enjoy the falls
and pools. Lots of young travelers
eagerly donned their swimsuits and
jumped into the water.
Vendors selling all kinds of snacks and
trinkets under makeshift palapas line the
sides of the waterfalls at various levels beside the endless wooden stairs going up. We climbed up
and up and up looking for the top of the falls. The clan of young boys from our van rushed ahead
and later reported that there was a fantastic swimming hole
a mile or so away. We never got that far. Instead we
settled at a picnic table to enjoy eating mango on a stick (a
great way to eat mangos!) and watermelon slices in a cup.
After a few wonderful afternoon hours at these rushing
falls and placid pools, we all made our way back to the
van, a little damp, and rather tired at the end of a great
day. The drive back should have taken just an hour, but
this was a budget van. It turned out that not only had our
North Carolina friend, Tom, not been taken to the ruins in
Palenque as he expected, but the European travelers with
us were not returning to the town of Palenque at all. They
were headed in the opposite direction to San Cristóbal de
las Casas, some 5 hours away. Huh?
Apparently our van was supposed to meet another van on the
road somewhere and transfer the travelers over. Problem
was, "where" and "when" were not well defined, and although
we all stood by the side of the road in the middle of nowhere
waiting for over an hour, the other van never showed up. Tom
just nodded knowingly with a smirk on his face.
Luckily we all had lots to talk about, comparing notes about
what we'd seen in Mexico, and talking about what we missed
most from home. The young German fellow said he missed
his wiener schnitzel terribly, and we all missed our favorite dark
beers from home. Travel is wonderful, but homesickness for
familiar things steals over you once in a while.
Eventually the driver hailed a van labeled "San Cristóbal" and payed
for five tickets out of his own pocket so our companions could get to
their promised destination. That van was already full, so I can only
imagine what everyone thought when five extra people and their
luggage were piled into and on top of it for five hours of travel on
twisty, miserable roads filled with speed bumps. Tom said he'd just
catch a cheap combi van to the Palenque ruins on his own the next
day. No problema!
We could have easily stayed in Palenque another week, but
disturbing news from family in the US began to take on a more and
more urgent tone, and we decided it was best to begin our trek out
of the jungle just in case we needed to fly back soon. In the bus
station I saw a poster for a huge Spring Equinox celebration at the
Palenque ruins. Oh my! We were leaving the Mayan world on the
eve of the equinox! You can't do that!! Oh well.
The distance from Palenque to Puerto
Chiapas where Groovy was waiting for
us is only 550 miles, but it is two long
days of bus travel. We decided to
break it up by stopping in Comitán, a
colonial city we had glimpsed from the
bus window on our way to San
Cristóbal and that had perked our
After spending several weeks plunk in
the middle of the touristy Gringo Trail,
surrounded by fellow travelers from
foreign countries, it was a delightful
change to walk the streets of Comitán.
It has all the colonial charm of other similar towns, but has
not been singled out for tourism development in the same
way. Everyone on the streets was a local, or at least
Mexican, and all the happenings around town were put on
by the locals for the locals.
It is a hilly town, with a multitude of church spires piercing the sky. The
Santo Domingo cathedral is the oldest, dating to the late 16th century,
some 50 years or so after Comitán was conquered by the Spanish.
Santo Domingo sits on the edge of the Zócalo, or town square, and while
we wandered among the beautiful shade trees and colorful flowers in the
late afternoon, we listened to the priest giving a sermon to his flock,
broadcast over speakers on the outside of the church.
The Zócalo is the heart of the town, and people hang out in the park doing all the fun
things that parks are made for: relaxing, people watching, selling stuff, buying stuff,
and, of course, enjoying each other's company in a romantic setting.
While wandering around I
looked up to see a huge
poster advertising -- a
celebration of the Spring
Equinox at the local
Mayan ruins of Tenem
Puente! That afternoon!!
We quickly jumped into a
local combi van and
headed out to the ruins a
few miles away. This was
a hugely popular event
and the van was stuffed
to overflowing with
people. It was full body
contact on all sides for
bare limb, thigh,
elbow, etc., was
against those of fellow
passengers on each side.
We all breathed each
other's breath, except
those lucky enough to be
near an open window.
Dads stacked their kids
on their laps, oldest ones
on the bottom and
toddlers on top.
We learned that the
Mayan city of Tenem
Puente was at its peak
between 600 and 900
AD, although it was
occupied until 1200 AD.
It wasn't discovered by
archaeologists until 1925.
Unfortunately, when we
got there the ruins had
been closed off for the
celebration, so we saw
just the first building which stood opposite a hill of
staircases so common to Mayan sites. Those stairs make
perfect stadium seating, and as they quickly filled with
hundreds of people I got a chill thinking of
how the ancient Mayans had probably sat
there just like we were now for their own
gatherings over a thousand years ago.
Suddenly a trumpet sounded and some
figures appeared on the building. The men
wore enormous feather headdresses and
scrambled over the ruin. An announcer
had talked for a while about the
performance before it began, but I couldn't
quite catch all the details. The performance
depicted a battle, a killing, and some rituals
related to the death of the victim. I think I
had expected something mystical involving
the alignment of the setting sun and the
buildings and some fascinating connection
to the Mayan calendar. But this dance and music celebration had its own special
magic, especially as I scanned the crowd and realized that more than a few among
them may have had ancestors that lived inside these ruined walls when they were first built.
We took the overnight bus
to Tapachula that night, and returned to our sailboat Groovy in
the morning. The boat, the marina and the world of cruising
suddenly seemed very foreign in those early dawn hours. The
Tehuantepec had quieted down for a few days and boats
were arriving from Huatulco at the marina hourly. As we
caught the dock lines for the incoming boats our groggy minds
were still far away, filled with the vibrant images of the jungle.
Soon, however, we would be immersed in reality and thrust
back into modern American life on a long road that eventually
led to northeastern Arizona.
Find Palenque and Comitán on Mexico Maps.
Valley farmlands between San Cristóbal and Palenque.
Lush mountains behind corn fields.
Palenque is closer to the Caribbean!
Pretty La Cañada neighborhood in
Back streets to Palenque town.
Hard little beaded plant, like
Palenque is a busy town that is surprisingly nonchalant about
Quickie on-the-fly tailoring
Temple de la Calavera
Temple XIII and Temple of the Inscriptions
Temple of the Sun
Temple of the Cross
The Ball Court
Vendors sell trinkets on shaded blankets before the Palace.
Temple of the Inscriptions
Burial place of Pacal the Great
Elephant ear leaves
A ruin yet to be excavated and studied.
The Palace, a building worthy of a great king.
The watchtower -- or celestial
Hallways with the characteristic almost-peaked roof
Bas-relief sculpture shows what the Mayans looked like.
Left unattended, the jungle always wins.
Mayan Ruins of Palenque, Mexico
Mid-March, 2012 - We left the cool mountain air of San
Cristóbal de las Casas and took a five-hour bus ride north to
the jungle town of Palenque, home of an amazing ancient
Mayan city. This turned out to be another spectacular bus
journey through mountainous terrain. We climbed and
descended, first through beautiful pine forests and then into
more jungle-like landscapes.
As the elevation rose and fell, the pines mixed with palms and
banana trees. Eventually the pines disappeared all together and
the hills became lush and green all around us. Then we
descended into the thick, hot, humid jungle.
It was odd to look at the map and discover we were now closer to the
Caribbean than the Pacific, our home for the last six months.
Through an incredible stroke
of luck, the budget hotel we
booked online was under
construction and we were
moved to the lovely, upscale
Hotel Maya Tulipanes for the
same price. We took one look
at the plush king bed, the
large and beautifully appointed
stone tile bathroom and the
enormous flat screen TV and
said in unison, "We're never
The hotel is in the La Cañada
neighborhood of the town of
Palenque, a pretty, quiet,
shaded street that hosts a
handful of small hotels and
outdoor bistros. We wandered
through the jungly back streets
behind the hotel and were
amazed at all the new-to-us plants and flowers we saw.
The weird warbling cries and calls of the birds in the trees
added to the exotic feeling.
After the buzz,
excitement and breezy
international flavor of
San Cristóbal, the laid
back warmth of this
jungle town charmed
us right away. The
sultry heat kept people
outside on our little
neighborhood street until late into the night, and we
discovered that many of the people enjoying the
outdoor eateries were locals who had just gotten off from work. A group of Mexican guys invited us
to sit with them at their table. "Welcome to the jungle!" they said. They hailed from Cancún and
Mérida, several hundred miles away in different directions, and they were as excited as we were
about spending a few days in the rainforest.
The town was wonderfully vibrant and self-possessed, despite being a tourist hub for the nearby ruins. The stores sold
everyday items like shoes, clothes, and electronics, and the uniformed school kids hung out in Burger King in the afternoons.
We had to hunt around a bit to find a shop with a souvenir t-shirt that said "Palenque" on it. On our walk down the main drag
the music poured out of every storefront in classic Mexican style, thumping modern pop tunes and loud Mexican songs.
One thing we love about Mexico is how easy it is to get immediate walk-
in service for anything from haircuts to dental work. While walking
around one afternoon, Mark was frustrated that his shorts kept slipping
down. We searched high and low for a belt, but after trying on at least
a dozen in several different stores, he just couldn't find one with the
right style and fit. Then we passed an open doorway where a guy was
kicked back in a chair, shirtless, watching the world go by. A sewing
machine sat idle in front of him. The most delicious aroma wafted out
from a back room. It seemed he was passing the time people-watching
until his wife served lunch. Mark poked his head in and asked if he
could take in his shorts. "No problema!" The fellow sprang into action,
throwing a tape measure around his neck. Mark stripped down to his
skivvies and handed him his shorts. Ten minutes and two seams later,
the man handed the shorts back to Mark. "Ahhh," he said putting them
on. He turned around a few times and wiggled to see if they'd slip.
"Much better!" We paid the tailor a few pesos and continued on down
The famous Palenque ruins were a short combi van ride from town. When we piled out of the
van at the entrance to the ruins we found ourselves in a shark pit of hustlers trying to sell
guided tours. These guides are freelancers who charge about 100 pesos ($8 USD) for a one
to two hour tour. Some speak English, all speak Spanish, but it wasn't clear just how much
they had studied the archaeological record of the site. "Why are there so many guides?" I
finally said in exasperation to the group crowding around us. "No jobs!" Fair enough.
We escaped the crowd and
discovered at the main front
gate that Mexican government
sanctioned tour guides offer
similar tours for 500 pesos
($40). These guides wear
official government badges. But
the guide we spoke to had been
in Tulum last week and
Guanajuato two weeks prior,
and on a two week jaunt around
Mexico with a Hollywood
celebrity before that. Hmmm.
His knowledge of Palenque??
We decided not to use the services of a guide but to enjoy the ambience of these stunning
ruins in our own way and at our own pace. Walking up the stairs from the entrance -- under a
thick canopy of jungle trees -- we emerged onto a grassy field where we were staring right at
the Temple de la Calavera. Wow. Next door, to the left, was Temple XIII and then Temple of
Most of the structures were tall, yet massively
thick and squat. The dark stone was
formidable and imposing, set against the
bright green grass and dark green trees. All I
could think of was what it must have been like
to weed whack through the jungle to these
buildings, at the suggestion of a local Mayan,
as did the Spanish priest Pedro Lorenzo de la
Nada in 1567. The 16th century Mayans
called the place "Otolum," or "Land with
strong houses." The priest called it
"Palenque," Spanish for "fortification."
To my delight, just like
the Zapotec ruins at
Monte Alban, visitors
are allowed to scramble
up and down and all
around these ruins. It is
amazing and inspiring to
climb stairs that were
climbed fifteen hundred
years ago by people a
Palenque was first
settled in 100 BC, but
reached its heyday
between 600 and 800 AD, becoming the main power center in much of modern
day Tabasco and Chiapas. So while Rome was undergoing its various sackings
by the Vandals, Visigoths and Ostragoths in the fifth and sixth centuries, the
Mayan culture here was on the rise and not yet peaking.
Palenque was never a huge metropolis like Rome. In its prime
only 6,200 people called it home. However, the carved bas-
reliefs and inscriptions have divulged many secrets to insightful
archaeologists, and, to my amazement, we learned that the
entire dynastic line of kings is known by both formal name,
nickname and date, along with the history of the major events in
Powerful cities are prime targets for eventual sacking, and Rome
had company in Palenque a few centuries later. Palenque was
sacked by rival Calakmul twice: in 599 and 611. The second
defeat resulted in a break in the line of kings while the city
regrouped. An amazing 12-year-old boy emerged as king in
615, and during his 68 year reign he oversaw the rebuilding of
the city and the creation of many of the
buildings that are visible today. He
was nicknamed "the favorite of the
gods" and he was known as Pacal the
We walked through the parklike setting
of massive structures and crawled up
and down, in and around each
The site is spread out over a square mile, and we were stunned to find out
that just 10% of the ruins have been excavated and rebuilt. The rest are
hidden in the surrounding jungle.
One of the most impressive and most studied excavations here was the
tomb of Pacal the Great inside the pyramid atop the Temple of the
Inscriptions. Unfortunately visitors aren't allowed inside.
Our cameras had led
us in different directions
by now, and I had lost
track of Mark's
whereabouts in this
vast site. He finally
turned up amid a cluster of elephant ear leaves. He cocked his head towards a path that
exited the grounds to one side, suggesting we head that way. We had seen tour guides
slipping off into the tangle of greenery to the right of the ruins with their clients when we first
entered the site. Now we followed the path in that direction. Stepping into the jungle, we were
quickly swallowed up by plant life.
Suddenly we heard the most horrendous noise -- quite
definitely the roar of a jaguar. It wasn't just a roar. It
was a growl, a bellowing snarl made by a huge and angry
animal really close by. And it wouldn't quit. It just went on
and on. I stopped dead in my tracks. Mark flashed a grin
at me. "I want to see what it is!" He disappeared down
the path ahead. "Are you kidding?" The roaring just
wouldn't stop. In fact, I suddenly realized that whatever it
was wasn't alone. There were two of them. Two jaguars
circling each other, somewhere terrifyingly nearby, jaws
agape, huge canine teeth bared.
I couldn't move. I just stood there transfixed, imagining wild, angry animals, and
wondering when Mark was going to come back. I imagined the headlines: "American
hiker found half eaten in Mexican jungle…" And who would find him if I kept standing
here? Oh dear. I screwed up my courage and continued down the path. At long last I
saw him standing with his camera held high recording the sound. Did he know what it
was yet? No! He continued moving towards the noise and I tromped through the brush
behind him, my heart in my throat.
Suddenly we saw another hiker up ahead, and then three more. All were
standing with their heads thrown back, craning their necks to look up
high in the trees. And there it was, an enormous, black howler monkey,
bellowing away without stopping even to catch his breath. He was big,
and apelike, with a long furry tail wrapped around a branch. We had
been told there were monkeys in the jungle, but I'd expected something
little and white, something nervous and yippy. Not a big hairy roaring
beast like this guy!
We stayed and watched the monkey and his mates moving about the
forest canopy for a long time. Finally the big guy grunted a few times,
settled down and fell silent. He had said all he wanted to say. The
heavy, damp, jungly woods were still. We tiptoed back out again,
thrilled at what we had seen. On our way out we passed the
unmistakable rock wall of an unexcavated building. What a cool place!
The impressive thing about
Palenque is the completeness
and detail of the buildings. The
Palacio is a huge structure with a
tall watch tower, or celestial
observatory -- or maybe it was
Hallways and rooms and tunnels fill this enormous
This is a hot environment, and we found an intriguing
interior opening in a wall that seemed to act as a
vent, blowing a continual stream of cold air up from the stone rooms below ground level.
The Palace also had several T-
shaped windows that looked to me
like the perfect place to point a
weapon outwards while
remaining well protected behind
the rock wall. However, these
windows are theorized to have
something to do with the Mayan
god of the wind whose glyph is
also shaped like a T.
Many of the buildings are
decorated with ornate sculpted
images, most of which depict
historical events that archaeologists have miraculously been able to unravel. Several
have been set aside in the courtyard of the palace. What we found intriguing was the
surprising resemblance, in many ways, of the ancient peoples to some of the people
walking around Mexico today. Ironically, while the Spanish thought the builders of these
awesome ruins must have been Egyptian or Polynesian or anything other than the ancestors of the people they found living in
the area, it wasn't until 1831 that one Juan Galindo wrote of the resemblance.
We followed a narrow path that headed down, down and more down into a lower set of
buildings deep under the trees. Here we saw just how aggressive the jungle can be, as the
roots of very tall trees wrapped around the low walls of the ruins. Palenque was overtaken
by the jungle sometime after it was fatally sacked for the last time in 711 by the rival
community Toniná. The city was abandoned when the entire ancient Mayan civilization
fell, sometime in 10th century, almost six hundred years before the Spanish arrived.
There is a wonderful magic to
these ruins, and despite their
ongoing study and reconstruction,
we felt a deep mystery within their
walls that echoed in our souls.
We decided to stay in Palenque a
little longer so we could visit the
ruins of Yaxchilán & Bonampak.
Find Palenque on Mexico Maps.
Virgin of Guadelupe Church
Pretty architecture abounds in
There are lots of places to take a stroll.
El Arco del Carmen
A less-visited back street.
Chocolatier "La Sonrisa del día" (the smile of
Real roof tile - what all those new Arizona
homes try to imitate.
A placement exam?!
What are we getting ourselves into?
Mark with one of his teachers, Jorge
Getting ready for class.
Got it? Good! Next topic...
My instructor Jorge taught me a lot
about life in Mexico.
Mayan women on a back street.
That's a lot of inventory for
a small girl.
Young travelers love San Cristóbal
Rotisserie grilled chicken - cheap and yummy.
A brass band suddenly starts playing.
The jingle of the propane truck provides the
soundtrack of San Cristóbal.
A group of mountain bike riders on a Sunday morning.
Jaguar graffiti. Jaguars have special meaning to the
local indigenous people.
Courtyard arches in Casa Na-
Dining room table at the Casa Na-Bolom Museum.
Outside we found lush gardens.
Ingenious hot water heater / tortilla cooker at the
back of the garden.
Señor Fuego makes kindling.
San Cristóbal de las Casas (and Instituto Jovel), Chiapas, Mexico
Early March, 2012 - During our bus ride through
the southern part of Chiapas we could easily
see why many people consider it to be the most
beautiful state in Mexico. We soon discovered
that picturesque San Cristóbal de las Casas is its
crown jewel, a little colonial city right in the middle
of the state. Mexicans call it the "most magic" of
their specially honored "magic towns" around the
Founded by the Spanish in 1528 (just 7 years
after Hernán Cortés barnstormed across Mexico)
and, for once, not built on top of an ancient city,
San Cristóbal is chock full of pretty churches and
antique architecture. Several streets are paved in
patterned stone slabs and have been set aside for
pedestrians only. From morning to night these
charming roads are filled with people. Outdoor
bistros line the walking streets, and there are
countless perfect places for sitting back and
San Cristóbal is a lot like Oaxaca, but it is much
smaller, and it sits right on the so-called Gringo
Trail that takes travelers through southern Mexico
and Central America. After living on a boat on the
coast for so long, it was quite a dramatic change
for us to begin a period of extensive travel by bus
and hotel in the interior of Mexico. We suddenly
realized we had left the floating retirement
community of west coast cruisers and were now in
the center of the youthful international
Europeans were everywhere, and we listened to
snippets of conversation in German, French and
Italian. The arrival point for these transatlantic
travelers was Cancún, and they were all making
their way by bus through the various colonial cities, stopping to
visit the ancient pyramid ruins, the waterfalls, lakes and volcanoes
that make this region famous.
Along with international
tourists there are lots of
international residents as
well. This gives San
Cristóbal a rather
compared to the sandy
coastal beach towns we had
been seeing in our cruising
travels. Like other towns
that enjoy lively fun-filled
nights, this town is a late
riser. Few places open until
after 8:00 a.m., and lots of
coffee shops don't even start
pouring until 8:30 or 9:00.
But once things get rolling,
the streets are lined with
people sipping tasty
beverages and enjoying the
ambiance. We were delighted to find a terrific French bakery and
we gorged ourselves on flakey crusts and hot-out-of-the-oven
pastries. Baking is not a Mexican specialty by any stretch of the
imagination, so finding a native French baker in any town is always
a big score.
We had stopped into a fancy chocolatier's shop on our first night and then
bumped into another one the next day a few blocks away. Two wonderful
shops creating handmade chocolate just doors apart, how cool! Inside this
second shop there was a beautiful photo of a bicyclist riding on a path
towards a windmill and another photo of a large castle -- unusual decor for a
chocolatier in Mexico. The owner's father, a bent old man, came over to
explain to us in Spanish that he and his family had come from Bella Chiqué
in Europe and that their chocolate was not Mexican. They had brought all
their recipes and techniques from the old country to San Cristóbal.
"Bella What?" I was very puzzled about where he was from and where this
delicious chocolate was made, but his accented Spanish and my untuned
ears couldn't get it together. He repeated the name and explained it
was a tiny country on the north coast of Europe tucked between
France and Holland. Very small. Very lovely. I scratched my head.
My knowledge of European geography is fair, but this one stumped
me. I knew tiny places like Leichtenstein turn up at the Olympics to
dominate things like cross country skiing despite a quiet existence
wedged between larger European countries. So it seemed this tiny
country was another one I'd somehow missed. Mark and I laughed
about how little we really know about this big world of ours.
A while later the old man's daughter
came over to refill our coffee cups
and I joked with her that I would
have to look up Bella Chiqué on the internet and learn a little more about it, as it obviously was a
cool place I knew nothing about. Her eyebrows shot up and she looked at me in utter surprise
and then said in very halting English, "You...never hear of...Belgium people?" Oh my! What a
funny blunder! The Spanish word for Belgium is "Bélgica," pronounced something like
"Belheeka." Better work on that Spanish!!
San Cristóbal turned out to be a perfect place
for taking intensive Spanish classes. The small
Instituto Jovel is run by a German woman,
and the school teaches English, Spanish,
German, Italian, French and two indigenous
languages local to Chiapas: Tzotzil and Tzeltal.
We stopped by and signed up for "classes" at
the school, but after taking placement exams
we were each put in a class of one, as there
were no other students at our levels at the time. $100 for
a week of tutorial instruction - sweet!
The ten or twelve tiny classrooms in this school can hold
anywhere from 1 to 10 students each, and they are built around
a charming little garden. The upstairs classrooms have a view
over the garden and across the rooftops to the mountains in the
distance. It was an ideal place for us to take a breather from
traveling, tune our ears a bit more to the local lingo and loosen
our tongues to get that Spanish flowing.
We were each given two different Mexican tutors who had
certificates in teaching Spanish. Every morning we each spent
an hour and a half in tutorial with one teacher, took a five minute
break and then spent another hour and a half with the other teacher.
This was a wonderful system, as switching teachers mid-morning meant
we never got bored, and each teacher had a slightly different approach.
Any more than three hours a day of such intensive
instruction and our eyes would have glazed over
and our ears would have closed.
How much Spanish can you learn in a week? A
whole heckuvalot! Before Mark started, he knew
lots of Spanish nouns and adjectives but no verbs.
It's hard to construct sentences without those!
Raised in that era of American public education
when the teaching of English grammar was quietly
eliminated from the grammar school curriculum,
Mark was a little shaky with what, exactly, a verb
was when he walked into his first class.
"Who is the first person?" his teacher Gabriel asked,
leaning back in his chair. Mark fidgeted and looked
around uncertainly, and then said. "Dios mio!" (my god!). Gabriel burst out
laughing, "No - It's you!" With that, Mark was off and running. By the end of the
week he had covered most of a semester's worth of material. Suddenly he
started translating newspaper headlines and street signs and ads for me as we
walked around town.
My teachers did an intensive review of everything I had learned and forgotten in
the classes I took before our travels. Conversing exclusively in Spanish, we
practiced grammatical concepts while learning about each other's lives and
countries. We were very curious about each other, and we shared stories and
thoughts about life in the US and life in Mexico. We had some great laughs as
we uncovered our similarities and differences.
Mark and I spent the afternoons huddled over homework. Fortunately, the
weather had turned nasty and it drizzled for a few days, sending the
temperatures plummeting into the mid-fifties. We had absolutely no incentive to go
sightseeing in the afternoons, which was perfect.
By the time our week of classes ended, our heads were
spinning and our notebooks and pens had become
permanent fixtures in our hands. We stumbled out into the
streets of San Cristóbal and talked to anyone and everyone
who would listen
Little Mayan women in dark skirts
with infants strapped to their
backs wandered up and down the
streets selling their woven goods.
Their well trained children made
the rounds as well.
Modern day hippies meandered
through the streets too,
instruments strapped to their
backs. Sometimes they stopped
spontaneously to play a little street music.
The young international travelers like this town
because there are good cheap hostels and good cheap
eats. One of the best restaurants we found was a place that did rotisserie style grilled
chicken, vegetables and rice. Two big plates and two large cokes came to $5.75. No
wonder the under-25 crowd hung out here.
One day we were drawn into the street by the loud noise of a band trumpeting away.
Right there, under the shade of a large tree, a group of men were playing brass and
percussion. It sounded like a parade. People appeared in windows and emerged from
doorways to listen. Then someone started shooting off bottle rockets. Fsssssst-BAM! It
was like our own private 4th of July band concert! What a fun town.
The real sounds of San Cristobal
-- the ones that punctuated our
everyday lives -- were the jingling
of the propane truck and the
loudspeaker announcements of
the water truck. These two trucks
drove up and down the hilly streets all day long
every day, selling propane and water to homes
and businesses. You could hear them from half a
mile away as they moved around the city.
The propane truck got its jingle by dragging a
metal chain behind it on which were strung a
handful of metal rings. These rings clinked and
clanked on the cobblestone streets and against
each other as the tall propane bottles jiggled and
bounced around in the back of the truck. You
could definitely hear it coming. The water truck had a
different sound. A loudspeaker was mounted to its
roof and it would yell, "Agua Agua!!" followed by some
twiddly musical notes.
This was a town that managed to court the tourists while the residents lived
real lives. One Sunday morning we watched a group of mountain bikers
Possibly the biggest tourist attraction in town is the Casa Na-
Bolom Museum (Tzotzil for "House of the Jaguar"). This
unique property was once the residence of Frans and
Gertrude Blom, an explorer and a photographer who met and
fell in love while on independent expeditions into the nearby
rainforest in the 1930's. Their focus was the indigenous
Lancandon people, a very small group that lived so deep in
the rainforest that the Spanish never found them. When
Frans first met the Lancandones in the 1920's they were still
living much as they had for centuries.
The goal of the Bloms' work was to gather and make available as
much information as they could about the Lancondones. They wanted
to create a center for studying indigenous people, and host visiting
researchers who came to the area. Lovely bedrooms surrounded a
courtyard, and there was a big dining room and expansive research
library in the home. Since their respective deaths in the 1960's and the
1990's, their gracious property has become a museum as well as a
hotel and restaurant.
What we really loved in this museum were the gardens. Lush plants
surround the house in a wonderfully wild and rather chaotic landscape.
Overturned flower pots were mounted on light poles to create clever
landscape lighting, and the paths were bordered with upside down wine
bottles dug into the ground. There was a quirky sense of whimsy to this
place. Mark was soon lost among the flowers with his camera.
While wandering the pretty paths he came across the
garden's caretaker, an old man who appeared to live in a
ramshackle hut at one end of the garden. His nickname at
the museum was Señor Fuego (Mr. Fire), because he
always had his fire pit going. He had built the most
ingenious system for heating up water by rigging up a
tank, pipes and a valve. He ran the water through pipes
over his fire pit. This way he not only had hot water but he
had a place to cook tortillas as well.
He looked utterly
at peace in his
little corner, and
we watched him
tend his fire and
move about his
and trimming. At
long last I said to him, "Tiene una buena vida." ("You
have a good life.") He smiled the happiest smile and
said, "Estoy muy contento" ("I'm very content"). If only
we all could find such joy and peace in such simplicity.
Our ten days in San Cristóbal finally came to an end,
and we hoofed it down to the bus station for another
twisting, winding bus ride up and over more mountain
ranges, heading north until we were slightly closer to
the Caribbean than the Pacific. Then we descended
into the exotic jungles of Palenque.
Find San Cristóbal on Mexico Maps.
Quiet Marina Chiapas -- just Groovy and two sport fishing boats.
New thatch roofed palapa
restaurant under construction.
"Combi" or "Colectivo" van.
New train tracks will take cargo inland.
Puerto Madero market
Backwards tricycles take people around town.
We get a ride.
This little girl thought Mark's face was
worthy of a photo.
Sunrise in Marina Chiapas
Andrés catches a Sierra (Spanish Mackerel)
"Greyhound" type buses for inland travel.
Twisting mountain roads
We drove through countless busy little towns.
There were lots of military
In town, the streets are for strolling.
We had to get through this!
Swinging footbridges connected the towns on
both sides of the river.
Our road clings to the mountainsides.
Watermelon stalls fill one mountain peak.
Scenic views on our route.
A landscaped sidewalk connects many towns.
We share the road with
travelers of all kinds.
We pull alongside a horse and cart.
High school kids try to flag down the bus.
We stop dead in our tracks while a
transformer is replaced.
We discover San Cristóbal is full of life…and nightlife.
Puerto Chiapas to San Cristóbal de las Casas, Mexico
March, 2012 - We were very happy to return to Mexico after
visiting Antigua, Guatemala. Groovy was waiting patiently for us
in the brand new Marina Chiapas, and the construction around
the marina was still on-going.
A new palapa building that will soon house a marina bar and
restaurant was getting its final rafters, and Groovy was one of just
three boats that had taken up residence at the still-not-officially-
One day we took a crowded combi van to the big
nearby city of Tapachula and made the half-hour
trip scrunched up against a young family with a
toddler. The husband excitedly told us all about
the improvements coming to this small seaside
community of Puerto Chiapas. Besides the new
tourist marina, which is the pet project of ten of
Tapachula's captains of industry, the waterfront
is rapidly metamorphosing.
Once home only to a large shrimping fleet,
Puerto Chiapas has cleaned up the filthy shrimping process and now
has a cruise ship dock, a growing malecón, and plans to become a
major cargo shipping port with new train tracks that head to the inland
industrial hubs. This young dad was so thrilled by the prospects for his
small town that he nearly jumped out of the seat of the van as he
described the growth and what it would mean to his community. He
was most excited that the endless construction all around us was
supported by Mexico's President Calderón and the political power base
in Mexico City. His feelings of hope and anticipation for his hometown
and his young family were palpable.
That same joy filled the air in Puerto Madero, the small
town that fronts the harbor of Puerto Chiapas around
the corner from the new marina. This is a gritty small
town that bustles with color and noise, pungent smells
and spontaneous street music. It isn't a pretty town --
dust fills the air and, at first glance, it is dirty, decrepit
and run down -- but it hums with an inner vitality.
Smiles were abundant and all the streets were filled with crazy three-
wheeled backward tricycles that shuttled people from place to place.
Some of these trikes are made from the back half of a bicycle and
others are made from the back half of a motorbike, but all have a
skinny seat up front that is shaded by a flopping awning.
Passengers hop into the front seat and get a bumpy ride.
Mark couldn't resist trying one of these carnival
rides, and all of a sudden I was squeezing in next
to him and asking the driver to take us around
town. "Where?" he asked. "Oh, just up and down
the streets so we can look around!"
He was more than happy to oblige, and for 15 minutes or so he drove us up and
down all the narrow streets, waving to his friends while we giggled like little kids in
the front street. What fun!
Whole families would pile into these things, mom, dad and three kids hanging on;
old ladies would settle their shopping bags on the seat next to them; and
businessmen would spread out, relax, and fill the whole seat. In back, the driver
would pedal or roll on the throttle, and the little jalopy would jiggle and rattle
This is a tourist town for locals from Tapachula, the big city of half a million people
about 15 miles away, but it is far from an international destination. All the tourists
are weekenders and day-trippers looking for a few hours on the waterfront in a
small seaside village. Gringos are a rarity. So we got a great laugh when a little
girl pointed her camera at Mark -- from the safety of her seat next to her mom in
a combi van -- and took Mark's picture. We definitely stood out in this crowd.
Music played everywhere, mostly from
stereo speakers, but we rounded one
corner to see three men playing a
xylophone. They were totally in sync with
each other as each took one section of the
xylophone, and the music was lighthearted and fun. I later discovered that this long
legged xylophone was called a Marimba, an instrument that is prized and beloved
throughout the state of Chiapas. This one on the streets of Puerto Madero turned out to
be one of the first of many that we would see both here and further inland in the state in
the coming weeks.
to blow hard out in the gulf,
preventing other cruising
boats from crossing to
Marina Chiapas from
Huatulco, although many
boats were waiting on the
other side to make the jump. This meant life was very quiet for us
at night, as the two of us and Andrés, the captain on the sport
fishing boat parked a few slips away from us, were the only three
people actually living in the marina.
There was still no power or water at the marina, and soon we had
to make water to refill Groovy's water tanks. We invited Andrés to
accompany us on our excursion into the bay, and he grabbed his fishing pole and happily came along. There's no equivalent
Spanish expression for "A bad day spent fishing is better than a good day at work," but he knew exactly what we meant. He had
already finished his boat work for the day, so off we went.
It turned out to be a fantastic day fishing. After tooling around in the bay for just
a little while, Andrés caught a beautiful dinner-sized Sierra (Spanish Mackerel).
Back at the dock he cleaned it expertly and I made us all a dinner from it. We
had lots of fun chatting away in broken Spanish and broken English over a
gringo style meal, comparing notes on some of the crazy expressions that fill
both languages. Where we'll call a nice person a peach, Mexicans call a loved
one a mango, and where we sing "Happy birthday to you" they'll use the same
music and sing "You're a green toad." Seems funny, but it fits the music
perfectly, far better than the long words for "happy birthday:" "feliz cumpleaños."
In the afternoons of these
pleasant days at the
marina, the cabin of the
boat was hitting 90
degrees, no matter how
we shaded the deck or
cockpit. So we decided it
was time to head inland
into the cool mountains
We caught a combi van to Tapachula, and from
there took a large Greyhound style bus 200
miles inland to San Cristóbal de las Casas, a
quaint colonial town perched high up in the
What a ride that turned out to be. We had
front row seats to an incredible show.
If an interstate existed, the trip would be just
a few hours. But not so on this route. The
tiny, twisting, single lane mountain road
crosses two mountain ranges. "Topes," or
speed bumps, are planted along these roads
every few miles and traffic slows to a crawl as
each vehicle spares its shocks and creeps
over the steep bump. Every ten miles or so a
town crowds the road into a chaotic traffic jam.
And in between all this mayhem, the military bring the whole road to a
halt at strategically placed military checkpoints. At several of these
checkpoints we were all herded off the bus to oversee the inspection of
our luggage in the baggage compartment.
I counted seven bus
stops, seven military
checkpoints, and an
infinite number of
"topes." All this
would have made us absolutely crazy with
impatience, but the spectacular scenery
and lively towns we passed through made
it all worthwhile, despite averaging 22
mph for the entire trip.
For many miles we paralleled a river that
had communities living on both banks.
Little swinging footbridges connected the
towns on either side.
At the summit of one mountain we saw endless watermelon stalls, and for many miles
every town was connected by a bright red brick sidewalk trimmed with large, brightly
colored flowering bushes that flanked the highway.
This highway is traveled by vehicles of all kinds, from our huge bus to
cars and trucks to horseback riders to walkers pushing carts. Uniformed
high school kids stood in the middle of the road trying to raise funds by
waving cars down. The bus driver hung out the window and bantered
with them as we drove by.
When we pulled into one
town the bus had to
negotiate some very tight
turns. We were just
commenting to each about
how hard it must be to drive
a huge bus on these tiny city
streets when the bus turned
a corner and suddenly faced
a complete roadblock. Some electrical workers were replacing a transformer
on a power pole, and their truck blocked the entire road. Oh well! Our bus
parked in the middle of the road, and we all piled out onto the street yet again.
This time rather than watching men with machine guns rummage through our
luggage, we all descended on the local convenience store to get snacks and
drinks. What a hoot! We hung around in the street munching chips and
getting to know each other while we waited for the workers to complete the
transformer installation. At long last they came down off the power pole,
moved their truck out of the way, and we continued on.
We enjoyed this drive a lot. The last two
towns, Comitán and Teopisca, looked so
appealing we were tempted to hop out
and stay a while. But San Cristóbal was
our destination, and at last, after nine
hours of climbing and descending, we
finally pulled into the charming city set at
bags off at the
dashing out into
the night we
found little kids
and parents, teens, tourists,
lovers and old folks all filling
the streets. The air was brisk
and everyone was in jackets.
A chocolatier lured us into his
shop with the most delicious
fresh chocolate treats, and a
few doors down the mellow
tones of saxophone blues drew
us into the middle of a photographer's opening exhibition at an art gallery.
The wine flowed, the hot tamales were passed around, and the crowd spilled out of the gallery
and down the block. We shivered in the bitter mountain air, but the spirit of this town was warm
and inviting. It was easy to settle into San Cristóbal, and we ended up staying for 10 days.
Find Puerto Chiapas and San Cristóbal on Mexico Maps.
A "Tehuantepecker" blows at 50 knots.
On another day and in a better mood.
We make our crossing in dead calm.
A cute pooch waits to sniff the next boat.
Colonial architecture and ornamentation is Antigua's
Pretty cobblestone streets get much needed repair.
Antigua is nestled in the mountains.
Mayans sell colorful weavings in front of a
The most popular form of transportation is small
"McDonalds is my kind of place..."
"...my kind of happy place."
A sleek Porsche sets up the view of the cathedral.
The town lives for tourists.
Handmade chocolate bars.
Steel doors with viewing windows
protect the inhabitants inside.
The open air market.
Musicians set up street-side.
A bike shop where we picked up a pair of
awesome Guatemala jerseys.
A display of antique bikes.
Painted schoolbus that tourists are advised to avoid.
Our bus back to Mexico weaves through a bicycle race.
Late February, 2012 - We returned to Huatulco from our inspiring days in Oaxaca, and focused our thoughts on crossing the
dreaded Gulf of Tehuantepec, a 250 mile stretch of coast between Huatulco and Puerto Chiapas that is prone to horrific storms
affectionately nicknamed "Tehuantepeckers." During these vicious blows the wind howls from the north in the Gulf of Mexico,
then crosses Mexico's narrow isthmus and finally accelerates to gale force once it hits the Pacific on the south side.
The trick to crossing this gulf is timing, as the Tehuantepec blows and calms down at regular intervals all winter long. Armed
with today's sophisticated weather forecasting and a bit of patience, it is not too hard to find a good time to make the jump. The
Since the crossing takes a typical cruising boat anywhere from 32 to 48
hours, this allowed us plenty of time. Cruisers are advised to follow the
coastline with "one foot on the beach" (very close to shore) in case all
hell breaks loose unexpectedly, but we shot nearly straight across the
gulf in 36 hours of flat calm water and still air. We arrived at the brand
new Marina Chiapas rested and smiling.
We were now just 16 miles from the Guatemalan border, and the
check-in process included a boarding by four members of the Navy
and a cabin check by a drug-sniffing dog. The dog arrived with booties
on his feet so he wouldn't scratch up the boat. Very polite.
This marina is a great place to leave the boat for inland
explorations, and after a few days we packed our
backpacks and took an 8 hour bus ride to Antigua,
Guatemala. The distance isn't that far, but the bus
probably averaged 30 mph at best, as the roads were
twisty and there were lots of "topes," or speed bumps,
plus we made lots of stops.
The most important
stop was at the
where we all shuffled
off the bus, checked
out of Mexico,
walked across the border, and then checked into Guatemala. In the distance we saw people
crossing the river that defines the border, wading waist deep in water from one side to the
other, perhaps in an effort to avoid all the official border crossing paperwork. The border
area was chaotic with vendors filing the streets and money changers approaching us
constantly with wads of Mexican pesos and Guatemalan Quetzales clutched in their fists.
Our bus conductor shuttled us through the mayhem and we re-boarded our bus on the other
side, suddenly conscious that we were no longer in the familiar land of Mexico.
As the bus climbed and descended the mountainous terrain, we
crossed endless streams and rivers where women were
washing their families' clothes on the rocks. As the day wore
on and the washing was finished, each river we crossed was
strewn with clothes lying on the rocks to dry. We passed men walking alongside oxen and horses
carrying heavy loads, and we saw vast fields of sugar cane stretching into the distance.
Well after dark the road widened and the lights grew thick as we
approached Guatemala City. Suddenly our world was transformed
from extreme rural poverty to the glittering glitz and glam of new
wealth. Our fast, wide, multi-lane highway carried us at top speed
between flashy new buildings, and we watched in awe as all the
chain stores we have ever known flew past our window. The bus
station was deep downtown, however, and our driver had to slow to
a crawl and creep around sharp turns on narrow colonial streets
between crumbling antique buildings. We got stuck at one turn
where a parked car made it impossible for the bus to get around the corner without damaging
something. The driver hopped out, enlisted the help of a nearby cop and, to cheers from the
passengers, bent a large metal street sign back to allow the bus to pass without getting too
Once at the terminal, our bus conductor helped us negotiate a taxi ride
to Antigua, and soon we were being whisked along those same decrepit
inner city streets in a cab. At a red light the driver reached over and
manually locked each of the four doors of the cab. Mark and I
exchanged a look of surprise as we both us silently acknowledged that
we were truly in a new country.
Quetzales are currently about 7.7 to the US dollar, and I began
thinking about quick ways to handle this new exchange rate in
my head. I calculated and recalculated the gas prices I saw
posted at the gas stations, stunned by the prices. Gas was
nearly $5 per gallon, a far cry from the $3.30 or so that was
typical in Mexico. After about 45 minutes we arrived in Antigua.
It was around 7:30 pm, and we were surprised to find the
streets nearly empty. We had to ring the doorbell next to the
sturdy steel front door of our hotel to be let in. After dropping
off our bags in our room, we asked for suggestions of where to
get a bite to eat.
The hotel manager shrugged noncommittally and suggested we'd find something
within a few blocks. We took off into the night and walked a star pattern around our
hotel. The only people we saw on the streets were a handful of loud gringo tourists. It
took a good bit of walking before we found a restaurant that was open. A single gringo
patron was at the bar drinking a beer. The waitress was sullen. We ate in silence in a
room full of empty tables. Where the heck was everybody? The tab for two beers and
a small plate of french fries came to over $10. This was definitely not Mexico.
By day the mood
filled the streets
and we found them
peopled with tall
English in various
accents and tiny
Mayans selling woven textiles. The
architecture was wonderfully decorative
and old, and the narrow streets were all
cobbled, many in need of repair.
Antigua is known for its immersion
Spanish schools, and we had come hoping to take a week or two of classes
while living with a Guatemalan family during our stay. Apparently that was
why most other people were in town as well. There is a Spanish school on
every corner and several more on every street in between. There must be a
hundred Spanish language schools in this small town.
The teaching method is tutorial, and the price is generally $100 per week for
4 hours a day of tutorial work and $90 per week for a home stay that includes
meals with the family. All over town we saw pairs of people walking, sitting,
pointing and talking. Each pair was made up of one Guatemalan teacher and
one gringo student actively engaged in Spanish tutorials. Many solitary
gringos carried books around town, and students could be spotted
everywhere crouched over homework, their dictionaries, textbooks and
notebooks spread out on bistro tables next to their cups of coffee.
We took photos freely, trying to get the warm
and fuzzies for this odd place. After an hour
or so, however, Mark commented that he felt
really uncomfortable wearing his camera and wouldn't bring it out
again on our explorations around town. He found it attracted way
too much attention -- people were staring at it.
One of the best things we found in Antigua was its amazing
McDonald's, definitely the prettiest one we have ever seen anywhere.
It has a beautiful outdoor seating area with cushioned seats and sofas
(very popular for tutorial Spanish lessons). Its delightful shaded patio
looks out onto a lush garden filled with flowers. Ronald McDonald sits
on the park bench in the middle of the garden, his arms outstretched
on the back of the bench, inviting folks to take a seat and get a photo
with his iconic figure.
We stopped in and filled our
gringo tummies to the brim.
How awesome it was after
months of tacos to savor
one of the new Angus
burgers! We sat back and
relaxed for a moment, until
Mark noticed that a little kid
had made his way into the
bushes next to us to within
arm's reach of our table and
was eyeing up my camera
in front of me. "That kid is really interested in your
camera…" Mark commented. I grabbed it and
put it in my backpack. There was a creepiness
to this town that we were not accustomed to
feeling in Mexico.
The church ruins around town were lovely in a
way, but most had an air of abandonment.
Antigua is situated in a zone rich with
earthquakes, and each glorious cathedral and
church has been gutted repeatedly by
centuries of tremors and shakes.
The tourist map shows numbered streets that
are laid out with avenues in one direction and
streets in another. The street signs, however,
harken back to an earlier era when the streets had names that weren't numbers. So we felt our
way around town by becoming familiar with landmarks. However, because all the streets look
somewhat alike, the best landmarks turned out to be the people that inhabited the streets. Take
a left at the guy in the white shirt with no legs who lies on his back and holds out a tin cup (he's
on that corner everyday). Take a right at the man in the dark blue jacket who's missing both a
foot and an arm and reaches his good hand towards you clutching a shiny Quetzal coin in hopes
that you'll give him another.
In stark contrast, parked a few feet from the old woman in the tattered shawl who was hunched
over her begging basket was a brand new Porsche with Guatemalan plates. A few cars
down was a glistening BMW. Big shiny Range Rovers were common. Between these fancy
cars, over at one of the town's large public fountains, a line of women washed their families'
clothes in the outdoor pools under the
ancient church's stone arches. Tiny
tuk-tuks zipped all over the place,
ferrying people on bumpy rides up
and down the matrix of streets.
On our third day, in an effort to get
comfortable in this rather inhospitable
town, we moved from one hotel to
another a few streets away. We tried
to take one of these tuk-tuks so we
wouldn't have to carry our bags.
The hotel matron had told us not
to pay more than $1.50 for
the ride, but none of the
drivers would go that low,
and all drove off in disgust at
the idea of taking us a few
streets for less than $3. We
walked instead and were
glad for the exercise. In
Mexico, five mile taxi rides in
real cars were routinely just
$2 or so. Our sticker shock
in Antigua just didn't stop.
We had narrowed down our
school choice to either the highly rated (and new)
Antigua Plaza or to tutorials and a home-stay with a woman who taught
independently and had been recommended by a fellow cruiser. Both seemed
like they could be wonderful situations for improving our Spanish. But in
discussing life in Antigua with the school director we were strongly advised not to
go out at night, not to carry more than a few dollars in our pockets at any time,
and never to show our cameras in public. We were assured the school was safe
behind it's solid locked gate (and the outdoor setting for class tutorials in the
colorful garden was absolutely lovely), but the director confessed that she
preferred not to go out much herself.
An older woman walking her dog in a stroller caught our eye that afternoon and
we struck up a conversation. She had lived in Antigua for as an ex-pat for 12
years. "Don't go out at night," she suddenly said. "Don't carry more than $10 in
your pocket. And don't let anyone see your camera!" Here was the same
unsolicited advice again!! She explained that tourists and business people have
been targeted by "express-kidnappers" who zip up on a scooter
and either run the victim around town to ATMs to empty their bank
account, or strip them of their belongings at gun point. A woman
who refused to give up her bag in a recent robbery in
Antigua had been shot in broad daylight. "Things have
gotten really bad in the last six months," she told us.
Both of our hotels were barricaded by large doors that
were locked at all times. Guests were not given keys to
these front doors but instead had to ring a doorbell to be let
in. At night each hotel had a second steel door that
provided extra protection. When you rang the bell the
manager slid open a small window and peered out at you
before letting you in.
Antigua seemed to wear a superficial veil of prettiness over
a dark inner core of of fear.
We looked for signs of normalcy around town, for people who lived and worked in
Antigua outside of the tourist trade. We found few. There were none of the typical
Mexican tienda convenience stores or fruit stands or grocery stores or hardware
stores or clothing stores or pharmacies that make a community livable. A handful of tiny closet-sized stores sold
Budweiser-equivalent beer for $2 a can ($12 a six-pack) and expensive packaged snacks. Spontaneous smiles from the
locals were almost nonexistent.
The only place that offered a feeling of
congeniality was the large open air market at one
end of town. Here we saw imported fruits
(Washington apples) and local fruits and
vegetables of all kinds. Heading into the large
tents at the back of the market we discovered
where American designer clothes end up once
they've been marked all the way down. Racks
and racks of brand new clothes filled the back of
and a few still
showing their original
store tags, these brand new
designer label clothes were strung
up alongside used duds. We were
amazed to be able to buy a brand
new pair of Levi jeans, tags and all,
for $4 and several pairs of new
name-brand shorts for even less.
The economics in Antigua baffled
us. If the folks on the street had
seemed happy it would have been a
lot less unsettling.
We left Antigua after four days never having
gotten comfortable enough anywhere in town
to stay for a whole week of Spanish classes.
Other cruisers who had been to Antigua in
years past thought we were crazy not to have
fallen in love with the city, and other travelers
will surely have different experiences. But for
us it was a place we were very glad to leave
behind. Upon crossing the border back into
Mexico we both looked at each other and
laughed, saying, "Thank goodness we're back
The homes seemed better kept, there was a lot less trash on the roads, and
in no time we saw the happy grins and heard the exuberant laughter of the
locals that make Mexico so much fun.
Upon our return to Groovy in the marina at Puerto Chiapas, I researched the
travel advisories from the UK, Canada and the US to Guatemala, El Salvador
and Honduras to try to find out whether the scary vibe we felt in Antigua was justified. I discovered the warnings to each of
those countries are not only severe but are expressed in a totally different tone than those to Mexico. Even with the terrible
drug wars, the murder rate in Mexico in 2011 was 18 per 100,000, about the same as Atlanta. In Guatemala it is 41, a little
higher than Detroit (34) but less than St. Louis (45) which is the highest in the US. El Salvador's murder rate is 71 per 100,000
(the second highest in the world) while the rate in Honduras tops it, for first place, at a whopping 86.
Unlike Mexico where tourists have not historically been targeted by violent criminals (until
the recent bus robbery in Puerto Vallarta), tourists in these other countries have been
targeted along with business people because of their perceived wealth. Although each
advisory was quick to point out that the vast majority of travelers never have any trouble,
they also helped us come to grips with the unnerving sense of danger that we felt while we
were there. An El Salvadorian on the bus with us back to Mexico told us there had been 20
murders in his small village in the last two months. Not mincing words for a moment he
said quite plainly, "El Salvador is a beautiful country, but I wouldn't recommend that you
travel inland there now."
We settled back into life in the brand new Marina Chiapas for a few days. We were one of
just three boats staying there, as construction around the marina was still in full swing and a
dredge blocked the entrance to the marina. Not sure which direction to head with Groovy,
we decided instead to take another inland tour, this time on the Mexican side of the border
through the intriguing Chiapas countryside to the charming colonial city of San Cristobal
de las Casas.
Find Antigua on Mexico Maps.