Friday, April 29, 2005

MEXICO, DAYS 28-29: Ancient Mayan Ruins at Palenque

Palenque, with Pakal's temple (left) and the palace (right)

Palenque is described as one of the most impressive of the ancient Mayan cities, 2nd in most people’s estimation only to nearby Tikal (across the border in northern Guatemala). Like Tikal, Palenque is simultaneously breath-taking (for the contrast between the ancient stone temples and the surrounding tropical jungle) and mind-boggling (for the fact that most of these impressive buildings were constructed over 1500 years ago, half a world away from the presumed cultural centers of the world in Europe and Mesopotamia). Discovered by the Spanish in the 1700s, Palenque (palisade in Spanish, certainly not its original name) was the gateway through which archaeologists have uncovered many of the mysteries of the ancient Mayan civilization, including the ruins of a number of other ancient cities hidden in the jungles of this region.

The Mayans apparently rivaled the ancient Romans and Greeks in sophistication, developing scientific mathematics, astronomy, engineering feats, advanced agriculture, and even their own calendar (the Tzolkin, still in use today in some indigenous villages descended from the ancient Mayans). Religion is another matter, however, as the Mayans worshipped a variety of gods (including a corn god, in deference to their primary source of subsistence; the Mayans were possibly the first to domesticate and cultivate corn) and practiced some literally heart-wrenching forms of human sacrifice. Their civilization peaked from AD 100 to 900, after which all of these impressive cities were mysteriously abandoned, possibly due to an enormous natural disaster. No one knows for sure, since the Spanish did not arrive for another 600 years, and the ancient cities were all completely grown over by dense jungle. The survivors had relocated to various nearby mountainous highland villages, where their descendants mostly remain to this day, now divided into over 2 dozen tribes (all speaking their own language) spread throughout southern Mexico, western Belize, Guatemala, and western Honduras.

Ancient carving depicting a Mayan ruler

Today at least half of the pyramid-shaped temples and palaces at Palenque have been restored to something resembling their original form (minus the bright red, blue and yellow colors that reportedly adorned the buildings in their prime). Also much of the jungle has been cleared away and replaced with grass in the center area around the most impressive structures, making for some very scenic photo opportunities. However there are still several clusters of smaller temples that have not been restored. Set back amidst the dense jungle and left mostly in the form in which archaeologists discovered them, these crumbling structures have little discernible form, and many even have huge trees growing right out of the tops of them. It was nice to see both restored and un-restored ruins to gain a deeper – and humbling – perspective.

The view from Templo de Flores

The big temple that contains the ruler Pakal's tomb

Rabbit Skull!

Carley on the temple with the Rabbit Skull

In the ruined palace...

Templo de Flores (flowers)


Some un-restored ruins

There is definitely something dizzying and deeply philosophical about being in a place so ancient. You can simultaneously feel both insignificant and connected to something larger while walking through the tunnels and rooms and thinking of those that walked them over a thousand years before you.

We spent the night at a campground called Mayabell, in a small jungle village called El Panchán, just outside the gates to the park that encloses the ruins. El Panchán is a hangout for travelers from all over, and you can find everything from campgrounds to a resort here, all set amongst dense jungle. From the incredible assortment of sounds emanating from the jungle (especially at night!), this area is apparently home to a rich variety of wildlife, including the legendary howler monkeys, which sound more like some vicious wild dogs or large cats than monkeys. Trying to fall asleep in the tent with such a cacophony outside was an adventure in itself!

The Mayabell campground was really nice, featuring several grassy areas for pitching a tent, a number of thatched-roof cabañas, an on-site restaurant with a performance space for local and traveling bands, and even a swimming pool. However, the swimming pool would pale in comparison to the nearby natural swimming holes, as we would learn the next day…

On to DAYS 29-30: Jungle waterfalls at Agua Azul, Misol-Ha and Agua Clara

MEXICO, DAY 27: San Cristóbal De Las Casas, the heart of Chiapas

From Tuxtla, the drive to San Cristóbal does not look far on the map. However, San Cristóbal is much higher in elevation, and the whole drive is uphill. If you decide like we did to opt for the older, free highway (as opposed to the new, toll highway), this drive is 2 hours long with nothing but winding mountainous curves, often with huge cliffs dropping off to the side. The views were amazing, but the extremely slow trucks and buses tested our patience.

When we arrived in town, we were astonished by the difference between this place and Tuxtla. San Cristóbal is a much smaller city, for one, actually a large town with beautiful colonial architecture, cobbled streets, a large, beautiful pedestrian plaza, and crystal-clear, cool mountain air. What’s more, the culture here reminded us more of Berkeley, California, than anyplace in Mexico. With its large selection of organic and veggie-friendly cuisine, its hip café and music scene, and the abundance of travelers and ex-pats from everywhere, we felt like we could really be at home here!

A hillside view of San Cristobal De Las Casas

Santo Domingo Church

Cathedral of San Cristóbal, near the central square in San Cristóbal De Las Casas

We checked into the Backpacker’s Hostel, a nice cheap option which offers a full range of tent space, hammocks, dorm rooms and a shared kitchen, though ultimately we decided on a nice cheap private room instead of setting up the tent. Here there were a variety of young, hip travelers with whom we could share travel stories.

Our favorite establishments in town were, in no particular order:

Revolución – Part café, part restaurant, part bar, and part performance space, this place really reminded us of Berkeley, with its revolutionary motif and its hip clientele. When we arrived in the early evening, a band was setting up on the little stage in the corner of the front room, and we stuck around for their 1-hour set. Consisting of 2 female singers (one played acoustic guitar, and the other percussion), a male singer/guitarist, and a bass player, they played percussion-driven, acoustic songs, all in Spanish, of course. Due to the fact that the 3 singers were all white-skinned and looked very much like people we might see at a Sector 9 or Phish show, we guessed that they were Americans. Wrong. It turns out that 2 of them were from Italy and one from Argentina! (We guessed correctly that the bass player was Mexican.) All of them now lived here in San Cristóbal. Perhaps the most surreal part of our stay happened while we were at Revolución. Rob looked out of the window and tapped Carley on the shoulder. Our mouths were both agape at the sight outside: a red-wigged woman walking around on high stilts with fairy wings on her back. Where are we again? It certainly felt more like Northern California than Southern Mexico.

Casa Ruiz – named after the beloved Bishop Samuel Ruiz, the local leader of the Catholic Church until his 1999 retirement and a vociferous human rights campaigner against the oppression of indigenous people, this place is actually a beautiful old chapel converted into a jazz club/art gallery/restaurant. We checked out a live jazz band for about a half hour, while admiring the revolutionaries brightly depicted in the paintings on the wall.

Madre Tierra (Mother Earth) – a very vegetarian-friendly restaurant, displaying paintings by Frida Kahlo and other female Mexican artists, this was a great spot to get a dinner with such dishes as spinach-stuffed cannelloni, lentil soup with plantain, and quality salad. (of course this was decidedly non-Mexican food but very yummy nonetheless!)

Casa del Pan (House of Bread) – touting an all-organic menu with ingredients from local cooperatives and farmers, this place was the most “Berkeley” of all. Besides an assortment of the best breads we’d had since leaving California (including potato-cheese bread, olive bread, cheese-stuffed croissants, and curried-vegetable stuffed pockets), this café also has a great menu of omelets, sandwiches, soups, snacks, smoothies, coffee and tea, all organic and healthy. Set in a pretty courtyard with friendly service and relaxing music playing in the background, our dining experience here was perfect.

Overall, San Cristóbal De Las Casas gets our highest recommendation for progressive culture, quality food and entertainment. We know we’ll be back here sometime soon, as it’s only a couple hours drive from Guatemala!

The beautiful church Iglesia de Guadalupe in San Cristobal

Rob with Guadalupe

On to DAYS 28-29: Ancient Mayan Ruins at Palenque

MEXICO, DAY 26: Tuxtla Gutiérrez, capital of Chiapas

After a long and winding drive southeast through multiple sets of mountain ranges, we arrived in Tuxtla Gutiérrez, the capital and commercial center of the final state in our road-trip through Mexico – Chiapas.

Chiapas is all the way in Mexico’s southeast corner, bordering Guatemala. This mountainous region, with its large number of Mayan-descended indigenous tribes and its notorious history of resistance to Mexico’s central government, is culturally much closer to Guatemala than it is to the rest of Mexico, and many of the towns and villages here have a very different ambience than we’d become accustomed to throughout our long drive through about a dozen other Mexican states. In fact, before Chiapas was finally annexed to Mexico, it was part of a different country that also included western Guatemala. (called Los Altos - this country no longer exists.) In the 1990s, Chiapas made world headlines when a federation of indigenous groups calling themselves the Zapatistas, weary of subversion by wealthy plantation-owners and fed up with being marginalized by the Mexican government, started a rebellion that almost led to a minor civil war. Things have been much calmer recently, with no major violence in over 5 years. However the Mexican army troops still have a network of checkpoints throughout the state, while we saw several villages with signs proclaiming themselves “Zapatista” and anti-government.

Chiapas was by far our favorite state in Mexico. The place is absolutely beautiful! The highland areas offer stunning mountain vistas around every turn, as well as beautiful mountain lakes and river trips through breath-taking canyons, while the lowland jungles in the northeast part of the state are like a tropical paradise, with crystal clear waterfalls and swimming holes galore. Chiapas is also an archaeological treasure trove, with the ruins of a multitude of ancient Mayan cities hidden amongst and buried under the vast jungles.

But before we hit the woods, we decided to spend the weekend in town. Our goal on Friday was to reach San Cristóbal de las Casas, since it had been highly recommended to us. However, when we finally reached Tuxtla Gutiérrez after almost 7 hours of driving, we decided to save the rest of the journey to San Cristóbal for the next day.

Our Friday night in Tuxtla was nothing really to write home about. To us it was just a big city with a lot of traffic, and not really reflective of what the rest of the state held in store. As we drove through the outer part of Tuxtla, we passed a string of corporate chains lining the highway, including Sam’s Club, Burger King, KFC, and a few others we were not expecting. Nevertheless, once we got into the downtown area, it was easy to find a variety of cheap hotels, cafes, and veggie-friendly food for Carley. We were especially pleased with Naturalissmo, where we enjoyed an excellent breakfast the next morning.

We were also really impressed with the zoo in Tuxtla, the only zoo in Mexico worth checking out, according to our Lonely Planet book. Almost all Mexican zoos are described as “sad” in this book, but this zoo, set amidst a dense forest, is widely regarded as one of the best in Latin America. The fauna displayed here are all native to Chiapas, and most of the animals (except the crocodiles and bats) seemed to have a very large area in which to roam around, while still visible from the well-designed walkways. Rob was a bit overly fascinated by “the stuff that could kill us”, and Carley had to practically drag him out of the building housing the insects and spiders. (At least we learned that the huge whip spider – “añara látigo” – that we killed in our room at Carlos Einstein’s hostel a week earlier was harmless; nevertheless, if you saw a spider like this (click here) next to your bed, what would you do?) Carley’s favorites were the spider monkeys, swinging through the high treetops above us, and the big cats, which included jaguars and pumas. Unfortunately, we never spotted the howler monkeys on display, though we definitely heard their deep, rumbling barks, both at the zoo and a few days later in the real jungle. We also both enjoyed seeing the broad selection of delightfully colored parrots, macaws, toucans and quetzals, all of which are endangered and hard to see in the wild these days due to over-hunting.

A spider monkey swings through the trees at Mexico's best zoo in Tuxtla

Next it was off to San Cristóbal de las Casas, where we would spend our Saturday night.

On to DAY 27: San Cristóbal De Las Casas, the heart of Chiapas