Gulf of Tehuantepec, Mexico – Squeezing in a crossing between blows

Halloween, 2012 – We had enjoyed Marina Chiapas, but now it was time to leave.  However, because this marina borders a fabled body of water — one known for its bad attitude not its beauty — leaving was not such an easy thing to do!

The staccato way Mexicans pronounce “Tehuantepec” (Te-wan-te-PECK) makes it sound almost distasteful — they spit out the ending “Pec” with force.  Among cruisers, the Gulf of Tehuantepec is one of the few places in Pacific Mexico that can strike terror in our hearts.  I’ve heard it pooh-poohed only one time, by a married pair of 20-year veteran single-handers in Zihuatanejo (¼ down page) who were completing their third circumnavigation (aboard separate boats).  They brushed it off, saying, “The Tehuantepec is way overrated!” and promptly set off to sail 500 miles out to sea around it en route to the Panama Canal.  But for most ordinary cruisers, including us, it is a place to be respected and planned for, as it is known for its nasty temper and very big teeth.

Crossing the Gulf of Tehuantepec Mexico between Marina Chiapas and Marina Chahue

From red dot (Marina Chiapas) to blue (Huatulco), this is not a great time to cross the Gulf of Tehuantepec! Wind in light blue is 4-7 mph, wind in dark orange is 39-46 mph.

The Tehuantepec blows and calms down in cycles that depend on the winds in the Gulf of Mexico.  When the wind blows out of the north on the Caribbean side of Mexico, it picks up speed when it hits the Gulf of Tehuantepec and often reaches gale force.  Then it settles down for a few days before doing it all over again.

The goal for sailors is to look for a 3-day or longer period of calm to dash from one side of the Tehuantepec to the other.  There are marinas on either side, Marina Chahué in Huatulco on the west and now the new Marina Chiapas in Puerto Chiapas on the east, but there is nowhere to hide in-between other than the big, smelly industrial port of Salina Cruz that is loaded with freighters and requires the Port Captain’s permission to enter.

Going straight across this gulf is about 210 miles, but that’s a dangerous route because if the Tehuantepec suddenly gets ugly, you are stuck in a storm with hours of miserable sailing to get to safety near shore.  So the recommended course is to hug the coastline the whole way, sailing ¼ mile to ½ mile offshore, where the winds are slightly less and the waves are significantly smaller.  Going this way is 260 miles.  Crossing takes anywhere from 30 to 50 hours, on average.

Golfo de Tehuantepec crossing from Puerto Chiapas to Huatulco during calm

This calm period looks much better, doesn’t it?! Wind in light blue and lavender is 4-12 mph.

Compounding the problem of finding a good weather window to cross, when leaving from Marina Chiapas on a westbound trip, there is the additional hassle of checking out of the port.  Because Puerto Chiapas is on the border of Guatemala, every boat leaving Marina Chiapas for another destination in Mexico is required to pay a personal visit to the Port Captain’s office on the far side of town to purchase the official exit document (about $7 USD).

Also, 2 hours prior to the boat’s departure, you must invite both the Navy and their drug sniffing dog aboard for a final inspection of the boat as well as the Port Captain who comes to the boat for a final review of the paperwork.  You can’t just sneak out when the forecast looks good and the timing feels right!

The Tehuantepec had been blowing full force non-stop since our arrival a week earlier, but we studied Magic Seaweed and Passage Weather (North Pacific->California to Mexico) to determine the best time to cross, and we spotted a slim opening of about 12 hours of calm between two modest blows that would peak about 40 hours apart.  These websites, updated every three hours, seem to be very accurate in their prediction of the weather, but the resolution is small.  A one inch portion of the chart represents the entire 260 mile passage, and the time is given in GMT which was 5 hours earlier than local time in Marina Chiapas.

Some sailors don't like the Gulf of Tehuantepec

Anticipating crossing the Tehuantepec can make you a little crazy.

Studying these websites, I wrote out two pages of notes listing GMT, local time, forecasted wind states and sea states.  As of Monday, it seemed that Wednesday morning at 3:00 a.m. would be the best time to leave.  If we missed that window by 3 hours we would need to stay in port another week.

Marina management instructed Mark to visit the Port Captain right away to complete our exit paperwork.  They told us the exit document had no expiration date — it would be good indefinitely.

This meant that if the weather forecast changed, we could opt not to leave, and we’d still have a good exit document for when we were finally ready to go.  We also planned to hail the Port Captain on the radio about 8:00 Tuesday night to make arrangements for him, the Navy, and their dog to visit our boat around midnight.  We would be required to leave within two hours of that visit — or we’d have to invite them back to repeat the process.

Marina Chiapas slips and docks at sunset

It was hard to leave the safety of pretty Marina Chiapas but the windows for crossing the Tehuantepec were infrequent.

In the backs of our minds we were thinking that if the weather forecast changed on Tuesday and no longer looked good for a crossing, we would stick around the area another week or so and take advantage of the downtime to spend a few days at the coffee plantation Finca Hamburgo which has lovely cabins in the mountains.  They also have an exotic flower nursery, oodles of tropical birds and hiking trails throughout their property.  It sounded delightful.

We awoke Tuesday morning to find the marina’s internet was no longer working, so we couldn’t get a weather forecast.  On top of that, we discovered that marina management at this new marina had not understood all nuances of the rules related to boats leaving Puerto Chiapas.  It turns out that once a boat that is remaining in Mexico obtains its exit document, it must leave within 48 hours of the “leave by” date stated on the document — or return to the Port Captain’s office to obtain new exit paperwork.  So much for our option of easily sticking around for a week and hitting the coffee plantation if the weather forecast turned ugly.  We had to leave by Thursday afternoon, or spend another three hours going to the Port Captain’s office a second time to get a new exit document.

Marina Chiapas Porto Bello Restaurant Mexican Flags

Mexican flags fly at the marina’s new restaurant.

The last weather forecast we’d seen had been 10 hours earlier on Monday night.  So I hustled to nearby Puerto Madero to renew our Telcel USB modem (which provides internet access via the Mexican cell phone system).  When I was finally able to get online and see the forecast, I was horrified.  Everything had changed.  We needed to leave in 90 minutes — at 3:00 p.m. today, Tuesday, 12 hours ahead of our original planned departure time — or not leave for at least a week.

This would have us chasing a receding Tehuantepec blow for the first 18 hours, put us at the apex of the Tehuantepec at 3:00 p.m. Wednesday when it would be calm, and then have us chased by a newly growing Tehuantepec blow for the last 6 hours of our trip, delivering us to Huatulco at 3:00 a.m. Thursday, after 36 hours of sailing.  It would be a tight squeeze with little margin for error.

There was one other window a few days later that might work for very fast boats with very brave crew — but we weren’t in that category.

As Mark and I studied the weather charts, I felt a fear so palpable that my heart raced, palms sweated and mouth went dry.  “Stay or go?” I asked him.  I wanted to stay.  I wanted to run away to the coffee plantation high on that mountain and never come back.  He gave me a big happy smile.  “I have total confidence in you, Sweetie.  If you think this window will work, we’ll be fine.  You’re a great navigator and a great researcher and planner too!  I think we should go.”

Birds at Marina Chiapas

One of the best things about this marina is the constant sound of unusual bird calls.

My eyes were saucers.  He had that kind of faith in me?  What if I were wrong?  What if I’d miscalculated GMT and local time?  What if the weather changed in the next 24 hours before we got to the most vulnerable part of the voyage?  What if he got injured out there because of my decision?  What if the boat were damaged?  What if we had a horrible trip and then found out if we’d waited three days it would have been easy?  What if?  What if?  What if???  I was a mess.

Mark began organizing the boat, and after much consternation I picked up the VHF mic to invite the Port Captain and the Navy to our boat for our exit inspection.  I was intercepted by the marina manager who kindly said all the right things to the Port Captain in Spanish to convince them to come in 20 minutes.  45 minutes later, the Port Captain arrived by car.  But he wouldn’t come down to the boat until the Navy showed up in their launch boat, so he just waved from the parking lot.  Another 20 minutes went by before the launch arrived, complete with pooch.  They tied up at the dock.  The four men ambled onto our boat and took out clip boards, papers and pens while the dog sniffed everything.

Marina Chiapas at Puerto Madero - evening on the docks

At first we thught we’d leave at 3 a.m. but changed our minds to leave 12 hours earlier.

Mark watched the minutes tick by as they first had me run up to the marina office to make yet another a copy of our passports for them.  Then they struggled to understand what state had the abbreviation “SD” (our domicile) and where it was located.  “What are the border states?” they asked with great, unhurried curiosity.  North Dakota wasn’t a helpful answer, as they didn’t know that one either.  Montana got a nod.  Egads — we needed to leave, and now!!  At last they stood up to go.  Our engine was running almost before the last man stepped off the boat, and we were gone.  It was 40 minutes later than we wanted to leave, but still within the 3 hour window we’d set as our outer limit.

The Tehuantepec was blowing hard ahead of us, but we anticipated 18 hours of smooth sailing before we would get near the bad stuff, and it would be calming down in the meantime.  After an anemic sunset, the full moon we had looked forward to hid behind clouds, leaving us in the dark and making the lights on the row of 16 shrimpers off our port beam look even brighter.  Suddenly an intense white light appeared behind us.  The light grew brighter, and then we could see the red and green running lights of a boat’s bow and blasts of bow spray as it bore down on us at 30 knots or so.

Through the binoculars Mark could see it was a Mexican Navy ship.  “Maybe we’ll get boarded,” he said, shrugging.  The boat was coming straight for us.  Suddenly it swerved to our starboard side and stopped.  After a long pause (verifying our boat name with headquarters at Puerto Chiapas, perhaps?), it pulled around ahead of us and zoomed off into the middle of the shrimping fleet.  Minutes later we heard the Navy captain hailing one of the shrimpers on the radio, informing them that they were going to perform a routine inspection of their boat.  Twenty minutes after that the Navy captain hailed another shrimper for a routine inspection of his boat.  And so it went, the line of shrimpers stopped at a standstill, mid-ocean, awaiting inspections, while we slipped by on their right.

Neither of us likes night sailing at all, and since we are both light sleepers, we have found it very difficult to get good sleep while at sea.  The motion of the boat, slapping of waves on the hull and noise of the wind in the rigging are unsettling.  I tried my best to sleep, but after two hours something got me out of bed.

I found Mark in the cockpit staring into the darkness saying, “What do you make of this?  Watch.  He’s been doing this for 15 minutes…”  As he pointed, suddenly a powerful spotlight — by far the brightest I have ever seen on a boat — lit up our cockpit.  I felt naked.  When the light shifted for a moment we could see the source was a small panga, or outboard-driven open fishing boat, with two men in it.  The light flooded our cockpit again, this time strobing on and off, as the launch approached Groovy at top speed.  Then it swerved away.  The light turned off.  Then on again with another rush at our boat.  Then it was off, and the boat wheeled away from us.  All the blood drained from my face and my throat went dry.

Mark kept studying the boat.  It traveled at our speed for about 20 minutes, staying about half a mile or so behind us, and then made another rush towards us, spotlight strobing.  Finally it swerved away.  Were they trying to tell us something, to warn us about a fishing net?  Did they think we were somebody else?  Were they meeting a boat out there somewhere and we fit the description?  We’ll never know.  A few hours later another similar boat did the same thing, but with less intensity.  Who knows what it was all about.

I laid on my back in the cockpit and studied the sky to calm down.  The full moon now backlit the clouds whenever it was able to penetrate their depths.  For hours a flock of four frigate birds took turns trying to land on the top of our mast.  The mast swung wildly and it was impossible for those big wings and big webbed feet even to think about landing successfully, but they sure had a good time trying.  They easily went 30 miles with us, playing like that.

Gulf of Tehuantepec when it is calm

The Tehuantepec was calm at first

Overnight the conditions were so calm we let the distance grow between us and the shore until we were 15 miles out.  In the morning there was no dawn, just clouds.  But the good news was that a following current pushed us along as we motor-sailed at nearly 8 knots the whole time.  We had more than made up the time we had lost checking out with the officials.  The sooner we could scoot across the gulf the better — unless we went too fast and caught up to the big winds ahead of us before they died down.

The wind began to build, and with it the seas.  We started seeing 22 knots of true wind (30 apparent) and the boat began to slam into the waves.  It would rise into the air, the front half airborne, and then drop onto the water with a loud crash.

Gulf of Tehuantepec storm clouds on the ocean

Weird storms appeared and disappeared around us.

“Wow, check this out — storm cells on the radar!”  Mark called out excitedly.  Sure enough, two huge 8 mile wide pink blobs blocked our way forward, and up ahead we could see weird clouds with rain streaking out of them.  We dodged one by going towards shore, and then it disappeared, as if laughing at us for changing course to avoid it.  We tried going out to sea to avoid the next one, but it got bigger and bigger and we made no progress against it.  Then the one we had defeated reformed and suddenly we were boxed in by the two systems.  At the time I thought “who needs to see a photo of a chart plotter with two huge pink blobs boxing Groovy in?” but now I wish I could show it to you.

With rain starting and seas growing, the two storm cells suddenly began to flash with lightning.  Thunder rumbled ominously.  According to the forecast, we were supposed to be cruising along in 8 knots of light breeze with no storms, but that’s not what was here.  So it was time to seek shelter and hug the coast.  We made a beeline for shore, and after two long hours of pounding over the waves, we got to the safety zone by the beach — the recommended travel lane — where the depth is a sandy 40′ and the distance to shore is 0.2 miles.  The true wind dropped below 20 knots and the seas went flat.  Amazing!  We zipped along at over 8.5 knots for many hours on end.  It would have been a thrilling ride.  It would have been our best sailing in Mexico to date — after all, how often do you get lively wind on a close reach with flat seas? — but the fear in our hearts dissolved all sense of fun.

Gulf of Tehuantepec salt spray covers our dodger

Groovy got whip-lashed by a few big waves that smacked our dodger and soaked it.

How easy it is to walk on a 6×8 plank sitting on the ground.  Put it 30′ in the air and it’s terrifying, because all you can think of is falling off.  So it is with great daysailing in the Gulf of Tehuantepec.  Even when you get ideal sailing conditions, you keep waiting for the grisly sea monster to rise up and swallow you.

It had been 22 hours since we had last seen a weather forecast on the internet, and the one we’d just heard on the VHF radio rattled off the wind speeds and wave heights for all the regions of Pacific Mexico in Spanish — and in metric — way too fast.

Suddenly a panga with 6 guys in it appeared alongside us.  They circled us, yelling in Spanish.

“You’ve got to get out of here!  There’s going to be a lot of wind.”
“When? When?” I yelled back.  “We’re going to Huatulco!”
They all grinned heartily and gave us the thumbs up: “Mañana!”

We guessed that meant we were okay — we’d be long gone from here by then.  How incredibly kind of them, though, to make a detour to our boat to warn us of the coming weather.  We are always impressed by the thoughtfulness of the Mexicans.

As we approached the apex of the Tehuantepec’s danger zone, the true wind climbed to 25 knots, apparent was into the 30’s, and we were soaring on flat water at 9 knots, watching people flying kites an arm’s length away on the beach.  I held the laptop high overhead and was able to pick up a very faint internet signal from somewhere on shore.  After twenty minutes of standing with the laptop overhead (a great shoulder workout!), I had downloaded a tiny 599KB zip file containing a complete weather forecast from Passage Weather’s low-bandwidth site.  Nothing had changed.  Phew!!!  We were on perfect schedule.  All we had to do was let another 12 or so hours march by.  The only weird thing was we were supposed to be in 8-12 knots of wind at this point, not 25.

As darkness fell, we threaded a path between all the freighters anchored off Salina Cruz.  The coast turned more southward and we now had the wind off our starboard quarter.  The noise and mayhem settled way down as the wind from our own forward motion canceled out some of the wind blowing behind us.  We scooted along, continuing to slice through the water at almost 8 knots.

Tangolunda Bay Bahias de Huatulco

The morning after we relax in Huatulco’s beautiful Tangolunda Bay

It was Halloween, and we celebrated this eerie night of goblins and ghouls by watching the nearly full moon rise blood red in the black sky.  We’ve never seen the moon such a rich shade of red.  As it climbed higher, it slowly faded from ruby red to orange, passing through wisps of grey clouds.  What a classic Halloween image.  We tried to capture it with the camera, but the boat was rolling and all we got was blurry red blobs.

In our final hours we felt the winds and seas building again, and knew we had successfully scooted ahead and avoided the rising maelstrom behind us.  At long last, around 2:30 a.m. on Thursday morning after 35 hours and 260 miles (a whopping average (for us) of 7.4 knots, or 8.5mph), we pulled into Tangolunda Bay, a big bay at Huatulco’s south end.  We knew this bay from last year, and it was a relief to retrace our track on the chartplotter and drop the hook right where we had pulled it up eight months earlier.

We sat in the cockpit, securely anchored to the sand beneath us, and stared at the twinkling lights of the many resorts lining the bay.  All the fear and worry of the past two days suddenly fell from our shoulders, and an incredible sense of accomplishment began to take its place.  Our first Tehuantepec crossing last spring had been a breeze, a no-brainer, “pan comida” (a piece of cake), as we’d had a six day window of minimal wind.  We had crossed near the middle, covering 228 miles in 36 hours.

Tangolunda Bay in the Bays of Huatulco

It’s party time in Huatulco’s Tangolunda Bay

Our crossing now had gone equally well, but had been a tactical challenge like none we have ever faced on the water before.  Everything had gone like clockwork: we had arrived at each landmark on schedule or slightly ahead, thanks to a 1 knot favorable current, and the Tehuantepec had cooperated by sticking to its forecasted plan (except for the unexpectedly blustery conditions near the apex).  If we hadn’t been so spooked by the potential for disaster, we might have even enjoyed the ride!

But for now we were excited at the prospect of swimming and snorkeling off the boat the next morning, and waving at the jet skis that would soon circle us from the fancy resorts that surround Tangolunda Bay.  All the resorts were quiet now in these wee hours of the morning, however, and we slept like babies as soon as our heads hit our pillows.

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Marina Chiapas in Puerto Madero (Puerto Chiapas) Mexico – Sailing near Guatemala

If you are taking your boat to Marina Chiapas, please visit our Marina Chiapas Cruising Guide for waypoints and travel ideas!

October, 2012 – As we watched New Mexico’s unique Bisti Badlands disappearing in our rearview mirror, we began to focus all our energy on exchanging our US land travels by RV for our Mexico travels by sailboat.

Phoenix Hermosillo Mexico City Flights - Mexico Map

Our route: Phoenix – Hermosillo – Mexico City – Tapachula (Marina Chiapas)

standin on a corner in winslowe arizona

There’s a girl, my Lord, in a flat bed Ford…

We breezed through Winslow, Arizona, just 24 hours after the conclusion of their big “Standin’ on a Corner in Winslow Arizona” festival, but we stopped long enough to stand on that special corner ourselves.

Javalina in Fountain Hills Arizona

Mark spots a javalina near a friend’s house in Arizona

Several weeks vanished in a flurry of visits with friends and family along with shopping for goodies we knew we’d need in Mexico but couldn’t buy there.

Phoenix Hermosillo Mexico City Tapachula airplaine flights

Three flights and 12 hours from RV to sailboat

We put the buggy away in storage and finally flew out to Tapachula near the end of October. It took twelve hours of travel to get from our trailer’s door to our boat’s door, including three different planes and extraordinarily thorough baggage inspections before boarding each one.  When we stepped off the last plane in Tapachula at 1:30 a.m., we felt like we were stepping into a sauna, and we were suddenly immersed in the thick, dense, pungent air of the tropics.

 

Sailboat in Marina Chiapas (Puerto Madero) Mexico

Groovy was happy to see us.

Groovy was waiting patiently at the dock, and even in the dark the boat sparkled, inside and out.  Our friend Andrés Reyes Prudente, the captain of a neighboring sport fishing boat, had taken good care of her during our absence.

Palms at sunset in Marina Chiapas (Puerto Madero) Mexico

The moody skies were enchanting

It was still the end of the rainy season in the tropics, and every day we were treated to fantastic clouds, a few showers, and even one doozy of a thunder and lightning storm that pelted everything with sheets of water and made us jump out of bed when a bolt hit somewhere very nearby.

Marina Chiapas (Puerto Madero Puerto Chiapas) sunset and empty slips

Sunset at Marina Chiapas

 

 

 

 

Of course, having just completed a long to-do list for the trailer in Arizona, we now faced another long to-do list for the boat.

Mark leapt into action on the engine, and we ran off to super markets several times for provisions.  Taking the “combi” van to Walmart, we found ourselves packed in like sardines as 23 people squashed into each other and sat on each other’s laps to fit into a van built to seat just 15 people.  Ah, Mexico!

Marina Chiapas (Puerto Madero Puerto Chiapas) sunset on palm treet

Yanmar 55hp engine Hunter 44DS sailboat

Mark says “Hello” to his good friend, our Yanmar 54hp engine

As each person climbed into the “combi” van, they greeted everyone already aboard with a friendly “buenos días,” a practice we have seen over and over here.  In my younger days I rode very crowded subway trains all over Boston, but I sure don’t recall anyone ever greeting anyone else with a big smile and friendly “good morning” as they got on.

Sailing in Puerto Chiapas (Marina Chiapas and Puerto Madero)

What fun to be sailing on Groovy once again

The intense heat zapped our energy every day.  We don’t have air conditioning on the boat (probably a “must” both here and in the deepest of the tropics).  The temps inside the cabin got up to 94 every afternoon.  There wasn’t a breath of air.  Sweat covered our bodies, head to barefoot toe, even if we sat motionless in front of a fan.

Fishing at Puerto Chiapas (Marina Chiapas and Puerto Madero)

Andres brought his fishing poles

We hadn’t been on the boat 48 hours when we excitedly untied the lines and took it out into the bay to cool off in the ocean breezes and see if all the systems still worked.

Andrés joined us, and he brought two fishing poles in hopes of catching dinner.  The fish weren’t biting, but the ocean water felt great, even at 91 degrees.

Sunset on the docks at Marina Chiapas in Puerto Chiapas Mexico

The sunsets were exquisite

The Chachalacas (birds!) sat in the trees and made their funny bird calls at each other morning and night, and exotic flowers grew on their own among the weeds on the roadsides.

Passion flower growing at Marina Chiapas in Puerto Chiapas Mexico

Mark found a Passion flower in the weeds

Every afternoon the sunsets transformed the marina and inspired us.

Sunset at the docks in Marina Chiapas (Puerto Madero) Puerto Chiapas Mexico

The fun thing about being in a marina like this is that everyone has a long to-do list for their boat, and sometimes you can abandon your own list to help a friend with theirs instead.

sportfishing Marina Chiapas (Puerto Madero Puerto Chiapas)

We hitch a ride to the fuel dock

One afternoon Andrés needed to take his boat over to the fuel dock to fill up, so we came along for the ride to help with the dock lines.

The fuel dock is tucked into a back corner of the estuary and it has grubby black rubber tires that put marks all over your white fiberglass when you tie up, so having some extra hands to help with the maneuver makes it easier.

We needed to test some more systems on Groovy too, so off we went for another daysail in the bay once again.  This port is a border port (just a few miles from Guatemala), so it is tightly controlled by the Port Captain and the Navy.

Marina Chiapas Porto Bello Restaurant Puerto Chiapas (Puerto Madero) Mexico

The restaurant “Porto Bello” under the newly completed palapa at Marina Chiapas

Every time we went out for a daysail, and every time we returned, we had to call the Port Captain on the VHF radio to let him know what we were doing.

Sport fishing at Puerto Chiapas in Marina Chiapas Mexico (Puerto Madero)

Success!!

We are capable of doing this in rudimentary Spanish ourselves, but it was fun to turn the task over to Andrés and watch him rattle away on the radio on our behalf, giving the Port Captain all the detailed information he needed about our bay voyages.

He also had success fishing that day, and happily reeled in a Sierra.  This pretty Spanish Mackerel is covered with yellow polka dots, and it made a yummy dinner.  A small fish doesn’t go too far for three people, but a pile of tortillas and refried beans with hot sauce stretched it nicely.

Sierra (Spanish Mackerel) has yellow polka dots Puerto Chiapas Mexico

Sierra (Spanish Mackerel)

By the way, neither of us would have ever even considered eating those things with fish before living in Mexico, but when Andrés said, “no frijoles??” when he saw his plate, I quickly remembered what a great combo that is and warmed up some refried beans.  We were slowly getting our Mexican vibe back.

Groovy gradually came together, and the to-do list got whittled down to just a few items.

Sailboat at Marina Chiapas (Puerto Madero) in Puerto Chiapas Mexico

Getting used to the Life Aquatic

We had been watching the weather to see if a window would open up for us to dart across the difficult Gulf of Tehuantepec — at the same time that Frankenstorm Sandy swirled up the east coast — and eventually it looked like there might be a 12 hour window of total calm between the endless march of gales.

This is hardly long enough to be called a real “window,” and our cruising guide warned that windows for crossing the Tehuantepec can “slam shut in an instant.”

Sailboat at Marina Chiapas Puerto Chiapas (Puerto Madero) at sunset

Catch a ride on this pretty sailboat with local tour operator Macaw Tours Tapachula

 

But “Tehuantepeckers” had been blowing for a full week since our arrival, and they were forecast to continue to blow for the entire following week too.  Good grief, what kind of crazy place is this gulf?

So, while we had hoped to take an inland trip to the local coffee plantation Finca Hamburgo for a few days, when the chance came to leap back into cruising and cross the Gulf of Tehuantepec, we grabbed it.

For waypoints and cruising notes for Marina Chiapas as well as an inland travel guide for what you can see OFF the boat in southern Mexico, please visit our Marina Chiapas Cruising Guide.

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Yaxchilan and Bonampak – Haunting Ruins in the Jungle

Sail blog post - the remote Mayan ruins of Yaxchilan and Bonampak in Chiapas, Mexico were highlight of inland trip from Marina Chiapas.

Kim Tours starts our day with a big breakfast.

Yaxchilan & Bonampak Tour - Cowboys on horseback hustle cattle down the road.

Cattle are hustled down the road.

Yaxchilan & Bonampak Tour - Boats waiting to take tourists to the ruins upriver.

Boats waiting to take tourists to the ruins upriver.

Yaxchilan & Bonampak Tour - Boats waiting to take tourists to the ruins upriver. Yaxchilan & Bonampak Tour - We all pile into our boat for an hour's journey to Yaxchilán.

We all piled into our boat for an hour's journey

to Yaxchilán.

Yaxchilan & Bonampak Tour - Boats waiting to take us to Yaxchilan Yaxchilan & Bonampak Tour - Our guide.

Our guide.

Yaxchilan & Bonampak Tour - We spot the edge of the Yaxchilán ruins through the trees.

We spot Yaxchilán through

the trees.

Yaxchilan & Bonampak Tour -

Hiking up to the

"Little Acropolis."

Yaxchilan & Bonampak Tour - The

The "Little Acropolis."

Yaxchilan & Bonampak Tour - Entering

Entering "The Labyinth."

Yaxchilan & Bonampak Tour - We emerge...

Light at last…!

Yaxchilan & Bonampak Tour - ...in front of

We emerge in front of "The Labyrinth."

Yaxchilan & Bonampak Tour - Green moss clings to everything.

Green moss clings to everything.

Yaxchilan & Bonampak Tour - Yaxchilan & Bonampak Tour - Yaxchilan & Bonampak Tour - Yaxchilan & Bonampak Tour - Note the boxy hieroglyphs above the doorway.

Note the boxy hieroglyphs carved

in the lintel above the doorway.

Yaxchilan & Bonampak Tour - Structure 33.  When built by Bird Jaguar (752-772), this made quite a sight from the river.

Structure 33.  When built by Bird Jaguar (who reigned

752-772 AD), this made quite a sight from the river.

Yaxchilan & Bonampak Tour - Structure 20.

Structure 20.

Yaxchilan & Bonampak Tour - Yaxchilan & Bonampak Tour - King Bird Jaguar IV plays ball amid symbolism about his rise to power.

King Bird Jaguar IV plays ball amid symbolism and hieroglyphs about his rise to power.

Yaxchilan & Bonampak Tour - King Bird Jaguar IV's mother, Lady Eveningstar.

King Bird Jaguar IV's mother,

Lady Eveningstar.

Yaxchilan & Bonampak Tour - Yaxchilan & Bonampak Tour Yaxchilan & Bonampak Tour -We're faster than that croc, aren't we?

We're faster than that croc, aren't we?

Yaxchilan & Bonampak Tour - Yaxchilan & Bonampak Tour - Van ride for our leg into the Lacadón Forest.

Van ride for our leg into the Lacadón Forest.

Yaxchilan & Bonampak Tour - Bonampak'a main plaza has shaded stelae and an enormous stairway with small buildings.

Bonampak's main plaza.

Yaxchilan & Bonampak Tour - The three doorways leading into the matchless rooms of Mayan murals.

Three doorways lead into three rooms of

matchless Mayan murals.

Yaxchilan & Bonampak Tour - Room 1: Pomp and circumstance for the presentation of Chaan Muan II's infant heir.

Room 1: Pomp and circumstance surround the presentation

of King Chan Muan II's infant heir.

Yaxchilan & Bonampak Tour - Mayans bound their foreheads to flatten them.

The detail -- nearly 1200 years later

-- was astonishing.

Yaxchilan & Bonampak Tour - Yaxchilan & Bonampak Tour -

Celebrating with trumpets.

Yaxchilan & Bonampak Tour - Yaxchilan & Bonampak Tour - Room 2:  Prisoners are tortured by pulling out their fingernails.

Room 2:  Prisoners are tortured by pulling out their fingernails.

Yaxchilan & Bonampak Tour - Room 3:  Nobelwomen pierce their tongues in ritual blood-letting.

Room 3:  Noblewomen pierce their tongues in ritual blood-letting.

Yaxchilan & Bonampak Tour - Lintel above Room 1's doorway:  Chan Muan holds a captive by the hair.

Lintel above Room 1's doorway:  Chan

Muan holds a captive by the hair.

Yaxchilan & Bonampak Tour - Modern day Lacandón girl.

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

pretty fast!

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 views.

The narrow river

meandered between

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

canopied boats.

Who built this stuff

and when?

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

overpopulation).

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

generation.

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

enormous stairway

with small buildings

fills a hillside at the far

end.

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

elaborate headdresses.

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

one back.

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

murals with

kerosene which

brought out the

colors temporarily

but weakened the

plaster so it started

to flake off.  They

photographed like

mad, but today the

photos they took

are considered

incomplete and Yale

has renewed their

efforts to document the

paintings.

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

were.

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Agua Azul & Misol-Ha – Waterfall Adventures in Mexico

Sail blog post - traveling inland by bus from Marina Chiapas, we toured he incomparable waterfalls outside Palenque, Mexico: Misol-Ha and Agua Azul.

Misol-Ha waterfall, a thin, pure stream.

Behind the falls, Misol-Ha waterfalls, Chiapas, Mexico

Behind the falls.

Through the trees, Misol-Ha waterfalls, Chiapas, Mexico

Misol-Ha.

Four-year-old Amina.

Agua Azul waterfalls, Chiapas, Mexico

Agua Azul's falls are wide and fast.

Crashing water, Agua Azul waterfalls, Chiapas, Mexico

Agua Azul.

Tumbling into turquoise pools, Agua Azul waterfalls, Chiapas, Mexico Serene aquamarine pools, Agua Azul waterfalls, Chiapas, Mexico

Agua Azul's pools of turquoise.

Little Amina goes

swimming.

Visitors get photos of themeselves, Agua Azul waterfalls, Chiapas, Mexico

Everyone gets photos of themselves at the falls.

Vendors at Agua Azul waterfalls, Chiapas, Mexico

Vendors in palapas line the falls.

Eating mango-on-a-stick, Agua Azul waterfalls, Chiapas, Mexico

Mango-on-a-stick.

Agua Azul waterfalls, Chiapas, Mexico

The falls tumble down many layers of boulders.

Agua Azul waterfalls, Chiapas, Mexico Agua Azul waterfalls, Chiapas, Mexico Agua Azul waterfalls, Chiapas, Mexico Van tour, Agua Azul & Misol-Ha waterfalls, Chiapas, Mexico.

Our companions get into another van.

Comitán's Santo Domingo Church, late 16th century.

Comitán's Santo Domingo, built in the late 1500's.

Santo Domingo Church, Comitán, Chiapas, Mexico

Santo Domingo steeple.

Church steeple, Comitán, Chiapas, Mexico

Lots of church steeples in this town.

Church bells, Comitán, Chiapas, Mexico Lots of churches to visit in Comitán, Chiapas, Mexico Modern sculpture in the Zócalo, Comitán, Chiapas, Mexico

Modern sculpture in the Zócalo

Mayan woman, Comitán, Chiapas, Mexico Happy old vendor, Comitán, Chiapas, Mexico Lovers in the Zócalo, Comitán, Chiapas, Mexico Patio of wooden columns, Comitán, Chiapas, Mexico

Patio of wooden columns.

Flowering trees in spring, Comitán, Chiapas, Mexico

Spring is in the air.

Hilltop view from Comitán, Chiapas, Mexico

Hilly streets offer views into the surrounding

countryside.

Tenem Puente ruins & Spring Equinox celebration, Comitán, Chiapas, Mexico

Crowds take seats on the Mayan stadium stairs.

Tenem Puente Spring Equinox performance, Comitán, Chiapas, Mexico

Performers appear on the 1200-year-old ruins.

Spring Equinox at Tenem Puente, Comitán, Chiapas, Mexico Blowing a conch shell, spring equinox celebration, Tenem Puente, Comitán, Chiapas, Mexico

Blowing on a conch shell.

Dramatic headdresses, spring equinox performance, Tenem Puente ruins, Comitán, Chiapas, Mexico Mayan rituals for the deceased victim in a spring equinox celebration at Tenem Puente Mayan Ruins, Comitán, Chiapas, Mexico

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

refreshing.

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

sliding on.

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

interest.

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!!

What luck!!!

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

everyone.  Every

bare limb, thigh,

elbow, etc., was

pressed tightly

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Palenque – Ancient Mayan Ruins and Terror in the Jungle!

Sail blog post - We traveled inland from Marina Chiapas to the thought-provoking and myserious ancient Mayan ruins of Palenque, Mexico.  Beautiful photographs!

Valley farmlands between San Cristóbal and Palenque.

Lush mountains on the way to Palenque.

Lush mountains behind corn fields.

Palenque is closer to the Caribbean than the Pacific.

Palenque is closer to the Caribbean!

Pretty La Cañada neighborhood in Palenque, Mexico

Pretty La Cañada neighborhood in

Palenque

Back streets to Palenque town.

Back streets to Palenque town.

Flowers in Palenque jungle, Mexico

Hard little beaded plant, like

Mardi-Gras necklaces.

Flowers in Palenque jungle, Mexico Flowers in Palenque jungle, Mexico Flowers in Palenque jungle, Mexico La Cañada neighborhood, Palenque, Mexico Palenque is a busy town that is surprisingly unaware of its tourists.

Palenque is a busy town that is surprisingly nonchalant about

its tourists.

A tailor in Palenque, Mexico

Quickie on-the-fly tailoring

Temple de la Calavera, Palenque, Mexico

Temple de la Calavera

Temple XIII and Temple of the Inscriptions, Palenque, Mexico

Temple XIII and Temple of the Inscriptions

Temple XV, Palenque, Mexico

Temple XV

Temple of the Sun, Palenque, Mexico

Temple of the Sun

Temple of the Cross, Palenque, Mexico

Temple of the Cross

Temple XIV, Palenque, Mexico

Temple XIV

The Palace, Palenque, Mexico

The Palace

The Ball Court, Palenque, Mexico

The Ball Court

Palacio, Palenque, Mexico

Vendors sell trinkets on shaded blankets before the Palace.

Temple of the Inscriptions, Palenque, Mexico

Temple of the Inscriptions

Burial place of Pacal the Great

Palenque, Mexico

Elephant ear leaves

Jungle, Palenque, Mexico Palenque, Mexico

A moth

Palenque, Mexico

A ruin yet to be excavated and studied.

Palenque, Mexico El Palacio, Palenque, Mexico

The Palace, a building worthy of a great king.

Palace courtyar, Palenque, Mexico

Palace courtyard

Watchtower, Palenque, Mexico

The watchtower -- or celestial

observatory.

Palenque, Mexico

Hallways with the characteristic almost-peaked roof

Palenque, Mexico

Thick walls

T-window, Palenque, Mexico

T-window

Mayan bas-relief sculpture, Palenque, Mexico

Bas-relief sculpture shows what the Mayans looked like.

Palenque, Mexico

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

leaving!"

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 street.

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

the Inscriptions.

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

world away.

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

the city.

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

Great.

We walked through the parklike setting

of massive structures and crawled up

and down, in and around each

building.

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

both.

Hallways and rooms and tunnels fill this enormous

structure, and we wandered freely through it.

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

San Cristobal – Colonial Delights & Spanish Immersion

San Cristobal de las Casas, Mexico, is a charming colonial city filled with worldwide travelers.  We spent several weeks enjoying the sights in this town.

Virgin of Guadelupe Church

Arches in San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico

Pretty architecture abounds in

San Cristóbal

The cathedral in San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico

The Cathedral

Walking streets in San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico

There are lots of places to take a stroll.

Colonial streets in San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico

Colonial doorways

El Arco del Carmen, San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico

El Arco del Carmen

San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico

A less-visited back street.

San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico Chocolates in San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico

Chocolatier "La Sonrisa del día" (the smile of

the day).

Windows, San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico Rooftops San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico

Real roof tile - what all those new Arizona

homes try to imitate.

Instituto Jovel Spanish School, San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico

A placement exam?!

What are we getting ourselves into?

Instituto Jovel Spanish School, San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico

Mark with one of his teachers, Jorge

Instituto Jovel Spanish School, San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico

Getting ready for class.

Instituto Jovel Spanish School, San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico

Got it?  Good!  Next topic...

Instituto Jovel Spanish School, San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico

My instructor Jorge taught me a lot

about life in Mexico.

Back streets in San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico

Mayan women on a back street.

San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico Mayans selling textiles in San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico Little Mayan salesgirl in San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico

That's a lot of inventory for

a small girl.

Mayan girls pose for a photo - for 5 pesos each - San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico Hippies play music in San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico

Young travelers love San Cristóbal

Yummy rotisserie style grilled chicken in San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico

Rotisserie grilled chicken - cheap and yummy.

Music on the streets of San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico

A brass band suddenly starts playing.

The jingle of the propane truck provides the

soundtrack of San Cristóbal.

"Agua Agua!!"

Mountain biking club group ride in San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico

A group of mountain bike riders on a Sunday morning.

Jaguar graffiti in San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico

Jaguar graffiti.  Jaguars have special meaning to the

local indigenous people.

Casa Na-Bolom Museum, San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico

Courtyard arches in Casa Na-

Bolom.

Casa Na-Bolom Museum, San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico Casa Na-Bolom Museum dining room table, San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico

Dining room table at the Casa Na-Bolom Museum.

Beautiful flowers in Casa Na-Bolom gardens, San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico

Outside we found lush gardens.

Exotic flowers in Casa Na-Bolom museum, San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico

Ingenious hot water heater / tortilla cooker at the

back of the garden.

Señor Fuego, garden caretaker and groundskeeper, Casa Na-Bolom Museum, San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico

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

country.

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

people watching.

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

backpacking crowd.

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

sophisticated feeling

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

pedal past.

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

garden, weeding

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chiapas by Bus – A Day of Adventure

This page describes our exhilarating bus ride through the mountains of the state of Chiapas in Mexico.  Vivid color, vibrant people, beautiful scenery.  Read on!

¡Vive México!

Marina Chiapas, Puerto Chiapas / Puerto Madero, Chiapas, Mexico

Quiet Marina Chiapas -- just Groovy and two sport fishing boats.

Marina Chiapas, Puerto Chiapas / Puerto Madero, Chiapas, Mexico

New thatch roofed palapa

restaurant under construction.

Combi / Colectivo van in Puerto Chiapas, Mexico

"Combi" or "Colectivo" van.

Puerto Chiapas train tracks

New train tracks will take cargo inland.

Shrimping industry in Puerto Chiapas, Mexico

Shrimping fleet.

Puerto Madero market, Puerto Chiapas, Mexico

Puerto Madero market

Puerto Madero / Puerto Chiapas tricycles, Mexico

Backwards tricycles take people around town.

Puerto Madero / Puerto Chiapas tricycles, Mexico

They're everywhere.

Puerto Madero / Puerto Chiapas tricycles, Mexico

We get a ride.

Combi van, Puerto Chiapas, Mexico

This little girl thought Mark's face was

worthy of a photo.

Marimba players, Puerto Chiapas, Mexico

Marimba players

Sunrise in Marina Chiapas, Mexico

Sunrise in Marina Chiapas

Fishing in Puerto Chiapas, Mexico

Andrés catches a Sierra (Spanish Mackerel)

OCC bus to San Cristobal

"Greyhound" type buses for inland travel.

Twisty mountain roads from Tapachula to San Cristobal

Twisting mountain roads

Little towns crowd the road from Tapachula to San Cristobal

We drove through countless busy little towns.

Plenty of military checkpoints between Tapachula and San Cristobal

There were lots of military

checkpoints.

Chiapas, Mexico

In town, the streets are for strolling.

Chiapas, Mexico

We had to get through this!

Chiapas, Mexico

Swinging footbridges connected the towns on

both sides of the river.

Mountain roads, Chiapas, Mexico

Our road clings to the mountainsides.

Watermellon, Chiapas, Mexico

Watermelon stalls fill one mountain peak.

Mountain towns in Chiapas, Mexico

Scenic views on our route.

Mountain towns in Chiapas, Mexico Mountain towns in Chiapas, Mexico

A landscaped sidewalk connects many towns.

Mountain towns in Chiapas, Mexico Mountain towns in Chiapas, Mexico

We share the road with

travelers of all kinds.

Mountain towns in Chiapas, Mexico Mountain towns in Chiapas, Mexico

We pull alongside a horse and cart.

High school kids try to flag down the bus.

Mountain towns in Chiapas, Mexico

We stop dead in our tracks while a

transformer is replaced.

Mountain towns in Chiapas, Mexico San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico

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, GuatemalaGroovy 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-

open marina.

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

through town.

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.

Meanwhile the

Tehuantepeckers continued

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

once again.

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

mountains.

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

7,500' altitude.

Dropping our

bags off at the

hotel and

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Antigua, Guatemala – Trying Hard for Tourist Dollars

Gulf of Tehuantepec, Mexico, blows a

A "Tehuantepecker" blows at 50 knots.

Gulf of Tehuantepec, Mexico, is calm

On another day and in a better mood.

Crossing the Gulf of Tehuantepec, Mexico

We make our crossing in dead calm.

Navy check-in at Puerto Chiapas, Mexico.

A cute pooch waits to sniff the next boat.

Antigua, Guatemala Antigua, Guatemala Antigua, Guatemala Cathedral at Antigua, Guatemala

Colonial architecture and ornamentation is Antigua's

hallmark.

Cobblestone streets in Antigua, Guatemala Cobblestone Streets in Antigua, Guatemala

Pretty cobblestone streets get much needed repair.

Arch in Antigua, Guatemala Bell tower in Antigua, Guatemala Cobblestone streets in Antigua, Guatemala

Antigua is nestled in the mountains.

Mayans sell colorful weavings in Antigua, Guatemala

Mayans sell colorful weavings in front of a

church ruin.

Motorbikes are the best form of transportation in Antigua, Guatemala

The most popular form of transportation is small

motorcycles.

McDonalds in Antigua, Guatemala

"McDonalds is my kind of place..."

McDonalds in Antigua, Guatemala

"...my kind of happy place."

Cathedral ruins in Antigua, Guatemala Cathedral in Antigua, Guatemala Porsche parked in front of cathedral in Antigua, Guatemala

A sleek Porsche sets up the view of the cathedral.

Church grounds in Antigua, Guatemala Tuk-tuk driving in Antigua, Guatemala Horse drawn buggy in Antigua, Guatemala

The town lives for tourists.

Cathedral in Antigua, Guatemala Horse drawn carriage in Antigua, Guatemala Pan flute street performer in Antigua, Guatemala Antigua, Guatemala Hand made chocolates in Antigua, Guatemala

Handmade chocolate bars.

Steel door barricades a building in Antigua, Guatemala

Steel doors with viewing windows

protect the inhabitants inside.

Open air market in Antigua, Guatemala

The open air market.

Street musicians in Antigua, Guatemala

Musicians set up street-side.

Mayans in Antigua, Guatemala Bike shop in Antigua, Guatemala

A bike shop where we picked up a pair of

awesome Guatemala jerseys.

Antique bike display in Antigua, Guatemala

A display of antique bikes.

Mayan woman displays weavings in Antigua, Guatemala Painted schoolbus in Antigua, Guatemala

Painted schoolbus that tourists are advised to avoid.

Bike race in Antigua, Guatemala

Our bus back to Mexico weaves through a bicycle race.

Antigua, Guatemala

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

conventional wisdom is to wait for a three-day window of calm weather.  We were lucky and got six.

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

Guatemalan border

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

scraped up.

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

improved slightly.

Brilliant sunshine

filled the streets

and we found them

peopled with tall

gringos speaking

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

the tent.

Unsorted,

occasionally dirty,

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

in Mexico!"

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.