Merry Christmas from Playa!

Today I took a little walk to capture a few Christmas impressions. Have a look!

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This Christmas tree is standing in our stylish new mall “Alegria”.

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This tree is in front of our Palacio Municipal. The nativity scene includes a horse and an elephant!

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These statues made from sand are really impressive and a total tourist attraction down at the ferry terminal.

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Wishing you a wonderful Christmas wherever you are!

Hidden in the jungle: Coba

Can you feel it? Christmas is around the corner! Not that in this part of the world anything would indicate it except for the very persistent Christmas items in all the stores. And it is surprising they are still available, after all, I spotted the first stands of wrapping paper and dancing santas already in July.

That’s as Christmassy as it gets: Christmas Tree in Cancun.

Last year, my parents came for Christmas which is why at the moment I am thinking a lot about all the fun stuff we did together. And I realized that I never wrote that post about Coba that I actually promised in August!

Every tourist visits Tulum at some point, but not everybody makes it all the way to Coba. But if you have one full day and are in the mood to discover some ancient Mayan history, you can easily set off for Tulum in the morning and then go to Coba from there. From Playa del Carmen you drive about an hour to the south to get to Tulum. It takes most people about an hour, maybe an hour and a half to explore the ruins, afterwards there is plenty of time to drive another hour northwest to Coba. And even the drive is worthwhile: You pass through tiny Mexican villages and finally get to Coba that is set amongst two lagoons, so you can catch a glimpse over the water before entering the parking lot.

I’ve said it before and I will say it again, if you think (like I did) that seeing one Maya site covers them all more or less, you are wrong. They are all very different and unique, and while I love Tulum for its picturesque setting by the sea, I still prefer Coba due to its almost mystical flair.

Coba is a lot older than Tulum, it is said to have been founded between 100 BC and 100 AD. It very quickly became the most important and powerful trade hub in Yucatan with more than 50,000 inhabitants. I read that Coba had strong connections with Guatemala and the south states of Campeche and established not only military alliances with those states, but also arranged marriages. I always wonder how people back then travelled that far. By the time the bride arrived, she must have grown a lot older!

Around 750 AD, Chichen Itza emerged and altered Coba’s importance. In fact, those 2 cities got into a power struggle resulting in Coba losing its position as political leader, but maintaining its religious importance. But although Coba lost its leading role to cities closer to the coastline, it only got abandoned around 1550 when the Spanish conquered Yucatan.

Taxi Bikes in Coba.

By now, I have been to Coba a few times, but I vividly remember the first time: It was magical! Unlike Tulum, Coba is not such a popular tourist attraction and I was relieved to see that we didn’t have to pass a plaza of souvenir shops and restaurants to get to the site. Instead, you enter through a large gate and find yourself amidst the jungle. If you don’t like to walk, you can either rent a bike for USD 3 per hour, but there are also rickshaws waiting behind the entrance which is great for people who are in whatever way handicapped (they cost USD 10 per hour).Or lazy. My vicious me couldn’t help but notice how bizarre it looks to see young, slim, and mostly short guys transporting big and often just sluggish tourists through the woods… Could there be any better motivation to get your butt off the couch than seeing a muscular sweaty back in front of you while you are doing nothing but having your heavy body carried around? Sorry, got sidetracked…

Coba gets a lot less visitors than Tulum, but even if you might feel that there are still quite a few tourists with you when you enter the site, after a few yards everyone spreads out, and it is getting really quiet around you. The first ruin that you encounter is the iglesia, the church. The name is due to a little statue that people once interpreted as a statue or virgin Mary. Unfortunately, this statue got destroyed during a hurricane, yet the name remains.

Right behind the church is the ballcourt where they used to play pelota – the Maya version of soccer.

The ball court.

Afterwards you follow the little pathway towards the big Nohoch Mul pyramid that is actually the tallest pyramid on the whole Yucatan peninsula. You can climb up the 120 steps that are rather steep (bring hiking boots!) and enjoy the view over the treetops. But although the pyramid is very impressive, my favourite part is getting there: You wander amongst the high trees and lucious bushes – and all of a sudden you stumble upon a majestic ruin! It always makes me realize how enthralling it must have been for archeologists to detect those ancient buildings! And still, there is a lot to discover, a lot that lies hidden in the jungle. You really have to look left and right in order not to miss a ruin, it feels like being an explorer!

The big pyramid.

And like a real explorer, you shouldn’t forget to bring mosquito repellent, water and good hiking shoes (if you want to climb the pyramid). Now that I come to think of it… It’s time we get some more visitors, I am really in the mood for another trip to Coba now!

A building from the paintings complex.

Paco, I believe this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship…

After a more or less sleepless night in the jungle, we had been looking forward to getting rid of our hiking boots and enjoying some city life in Campeche. Campeche is the capital of Campeche state and was declared world heritage site in 1997. (By the way, Campeche’s original name Ah-Kin-Pech means “place of snakes and ticks” – doesn’t that sound awfully inviting?)

Our drive to Campeche, though, proved to be full of hurdles. Like before, we got stopped at each and every police and military checkpoint. Finally, we were about an hour away from our destination when we entered a roundabout. Straight on, there was a waving policeman standing, however, we needed to turn left. Upon entering the street, we got stopped by a second policeman. He checked our license, registration card and told Mr. R. to get out of the car. Apparently, we had done something wrong. You might remember how I was raving about freestyle Mexican driving but my enthusiasm turned out as a little premature. The policeman, let’s call him Paco, pointed out Mr. R. hadn’t used the indicators.

Although sometimes Mr. R. tends to drive like 007, he almost always indicates, a fact that Paco couldn’t possibly know. He took all the papers and told us we couldn’t drive on, instead they would keep the car until we had gone to the nearest police station to pay a fine, and we would get the car back tomorrow. Mr. R. insisted we needed to get to Campeche where our hotel room was waiting, but Paco kept repeating: “Today you will go nowhere, Sir.” At that point, I would have waved with some peso notes, but Mr. R. didn’t give up. He claimed he had indicated and that I was his witness. Paco started thinking. Then we had to show him that our indicators worked. He thought some more and said, well… MAYBE he didn’t see it because of the sunlight.

Looked like we could have continued on our journey? No, Paco still wasn’t happy. Probably he had to buy his wife a birthday gift or something and was a little short on cash. He took our registraton card and claimed it wasn’t a valid formate. Huh? Mr. R. then pointed out that if the state of Quintana Roo didn’t use the right formate, it wouldn’t be his fault, would it? Paco sighed, shook my husband’s hand and handed him the papers, whereupon Mr. R. gave him a pat on the back. It almost seemed like the tender beginning of a beautiful friendship. But then we drove on and left Paco behind.

And while we were still laughing about how ridiculous this whole incident had been, we entered the next checkpoint. To our relief, they didn’t find anything wrong with our papers or their formates this time. The rest of our trip, it became my husband’s obsession to analyze the faulty vehicles we passed, and almost every car had something that was off: lack of an outside mirror (or 2), no license plates, 25 passengers too many, a sooting exhaust pipe, cracked or missing windows, flat tires… Not to mention all the families that all squeeze onto one motorcycle – without wearing helmets, of course. Well, at least that little incident kept us entertained until we reached the city of Campeche.

Now isn’t that beautiful?

We checked into a beautiful colonial style hotel in the old town and were eager to explore the city. That is until we entered the room. Once I saw the room, I felt like never leaving again, it was stunning. Maybe even more so after our experience of the previous night. But forget about the room, I could have LIVED in that bathroom. Anyway, never mind, we wanted to go for a city tour. When we went outside, it was like walking into an oven, but luckily, the plaza where the city tour busses leave, wasn’t far from the hotel. To our disappointment, though, there were no city tours between 12 and 5pm.

Hotel Casa Don Gustavo

One of the beautiful Streets of Campeche

Instead, we went for a walk. So we walked down one pretty, colourful street and found out that all shops and restaurants were closed until 6pm. Then we walked down another pretty, colourful street, and then another. One street looked like the other – beautiful, but if you’d seen one street, you’d seen them all. We decided that there had to be more, probably on the outside of the old town.

Reminds me of some people: A beautiful facade with nothing behind…

The tiny picturesque old town of Campeche is surrounded by an old city wall, and we paid a little fee to go up and enjoy the view of the city. Maybe then we would discover where we had to go. Well,… There was really nothing to see. What amused us was the fact that we saw many colourful housefronts – with nothing behind. It was like a theatre backdrop, very bizarre! Sweaty and exhausted from 97 degrees (36 Celsius), we returned to our cool hotel room and hung out until 5pm to then finally take that sightseeing tour. However, the friendly lady at the ticket counter informed us that today there was a big event in Campeche that all busses were needed for. But the next morning, they would start again at 9am.

A little disappointed, we went to the waterfront (Campeche is by the Gulf of Mexico), watched the sunset and went for a little walk. And then we saw the event that the lady had referred to earlier: Hundreds of people were marching into the town square, all wearing Mexican costumes, a band was playing, and all those people started performing a dance. It was beautiful to watch! Well, maybe not the dancing, but all the costumes, the cheering crowd, and all the happy faces put us into a very festive mood.

We found a charming little restaurant serving Italian and Mexican cuisine and a little chocolaterie where we had the best chocolate cake ever, and decided that Campeche was worth a visit for half a day – preferably after dark.

Campeche’s cathedral at night.

When on the next morning we were informed that the next city tour would leave at 12pm only – in the unlikely case of 5 or more passengers showing up until then – we packed our bags and drove back to Playa del Carmen.

By the way, once we had passed the border to Quintana Roo, we never got stopped by the police once.

Green Stones and Colourful Murals – Yaxchilan and Bonampak

The next morning, the rain had stopped, the sun was about to peep through the clouds, and the jungle was wide awake. We skipped breakfast and instead signed up for a boat trip to Yaxchilan straight away, the only way to get to this isolated Mayan site. Since it was early, we were the only guests on the trip, and it was stunning!

Rio Usumacinta

The trip takes about 45 minutes and the boat goes really fast – better put on sunglasses for otherwise, you get all kinds of insects in your eyes! Oh, and keep your mouth shut. Luckily, our boat driver wasn’t the talkative kind, so we could admire the nature and the early morning light.

When we reached Yaxchilan, we got off and climbed a large flight of steep stairs that lead us right into the jungle. Again, we were the first and only visitors so far and were tempted to only whisper. The howling apes however, didn’t feel shy about making a lot of noise and were howling away like crazy. But after all, that’s their trademark.

Yaxchilan is called the “place of the green stones”, and once you arrive you see why. Whereas the Tulum ruins are all pretty and clean and dried out by the sun, and while Palenque rather reminded me of a beautiful campus with fancy (and strangely decayed) buildings, the ruins of Yaxchilan are mysteriously mossy so you actually get the feeling for how old they are! The whole place is humid and sticky, yet I got the chills when we had to find our way through a pitchdark ruin. The walls exuded an unfamiliar coolness, and I screamed when something dropped on my head – why hadn’t we brought our torch lights???

Doesn’t it look mysterious?

Being the only ones wandering around the ruins was, of course, a very special treat. Everything was so quiet (apart from the apes) and peaceful. However, when I did a little research on Yaxchilan’s history, I had to find out that it hadn’t been a peaceful place at all. Yaxchilan had been founded prior to 300 A.D. as a little hamlet that evolved into a powerful city by 600. Somehow, I would have thought that due to its remote location, Yaxchilan’s inhabitants would have had no choice but to stay to themselves and lead a quiet life. Silly me. In fact, Yaxchilan’s history includes a series of wars with neighbouring kingdoms like Piedras Negras, another site by the river which is now Guatemala, and surprisingly Palenque. Now, when I think of how much time it took us to travel from Palenque to Yaxchilan, it goes beyond my imagination how they actually got there. But they did, and they also liked to take war captives. They apparently were not so wise and peaceful as I would have thought! At the end of the Maya classical period around 900, Yaxchilan collapsed as did the other Maya hubs.

One thing that always surprises me when visiting Maya ruins is the height of the steps. I am an average size kind of girl, but I really have to stretch my legs. At the same time, the steps are that short that it becomes clear that Mayas at that time must have had tiny feet, and on top of that, the stairs are terribly steep. Mr. R. and I used to zigzag our way down in order not to fall and jolt our way down… But how did those tiny guys do it? Mr. R. suggested they might have gone on all fours. Maybe that’s the solution. Or they must have had bouncing powers, hopping up and down the ruins – anything is possible, right?

Sometimes I think that maybe those Mayas were able to fly. How else would they be able to do all those beautiful carvings so high up?

After visiting Yaxchilan, it was time for us to get to know Bonampak, a site famous for its still colourfully preserved murals. You cannot drive to the site itself but have to leave your car at a small parking lot where a handful of guides are waiting for you. Luckily, they are not as intrusive as the ones we met earlier on… From the parking lot, you can continue on your way in a little shuttle. Well, shuttle sounds quite sophisticated, doesn’t it? An old Indian was driving us in his van while chewing and spitting out his chewing tobacco. When he dropped us off, he promised to be back in an hour since Bonampak is rather tiny. Then he disappeared in the jungle, and we were surrounded by silence.

We had to walk across some fields to the site, passing some stalls with Indian jewellery, but nothing in this area is as touristy as are Palenque or Tulum or, of course, Chichen Itza. In fact, apart from us, there was only one other family inspecting the site – we got spoilt that day! There is really not much to see other than the murals, but those are truly impressive. Understandably, you are not allowed to take pictures as the flash light would harm the colours, but I was amazed by how well they are preserved.

A photograph of one of the paintings at Bonampak

A photograph of one of the paintings at Bonampak (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

After Bonampak, we felt we had seen enough ruins for a day and drove to Campeche as the last stop of our journey. So next time, I will tell you about the weird backdrop city of Campeche and how Mr. R. found a new friend amongst the Mexican police force…

Oops, how did we end up in Guatemala?

After the most lovely time in San Cristobal, it was time to hit the road again. This time we wanted to drive further south to the city of Comitan. Hoping that our GPS might actually show us the correct way this time, we typed in “Comitan, Chiapas” and were surprised to see it wanted to direct us to the very opposite direction, towards Tuxtla Gutierrez.

We decided to be smart and follow the signs rather than our GPS, after all, it didn’t prove terribly reliable when we arrived to San Cristobal… It took us a long time to get to the outskirts of the city as it was market day everywhere. Finally, we found the highway towards Comitan – only that it was blocked that day and there seemed to be no alternative route. So we didn’t have much choice but to eventually follow our GPS that would surely lead us some loop road somewhere.

Only it didn’t. We ended up in Tuxtla Gutierrez where we turned around again to head back to San Cristobal. That little detour took us 3 hours, yet we hadn’t gone anywhere really. By that time, we had realized that there were several Comitans, and the one we wanted was Comitan de Dominguez. Petty but important details…We consulted our old fashioned road map and found a countryside highway in order to avoid the downtown traffic of San Cristobal. What should have been a 90 minute drive at most turned out as a 5 hour trip, but never mind, in the end we made it to Comitan. De Dominguez.

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Hardly anyone ever mentions the city of Comitan but it was actually quite beautiful, and we found an extremely nice, extremely cheap hotel downtown. We also found the said to be “best restaurant in town” where we had a mediocre dinner at best, while 6 waiters were eyeing us curiously from behind a column. Every now and then, one of them got pushed forward by his colleagues to approach our table and see how we were handling the pasta. At 9pm they started their live music programme which seemed weird since we were the only guests, and it got so noisy that we finished our dinner in sign language.

The next morning we started off early because we wanted to see the Lagos de Montebello National Park, before we would drive all the way to the border of Guatemala where we intended to spend the night. This time, we didn’t bother to use the GPS, we just followed the signs that luckily were everywhere.

When you drive through Mexico, you will always encounter numerous police and military posts. At the Riviera Maya, where we live, they always exclusively stop Mexicans, tourists (or expats) never get checked which I always found highly unfair. In Chiapas it is the other way round, not a single Mexican needs to undergo a screening but we did every single time. That day I believed we might have gotten our fair share. I was wrong, there was more to come on the last bit of our trip.

I am not sure what those guys are looking for as every checkpoint does different controls. Some just ask you where you are from and where you are headed to, some will check your papers, some will note down your license plate, some the serial number of your car which seems a silly thing to do as they have no computers. I am sure they hand their handwritten papers to someone like once a week, and that someone throws them away immediately. But maybe it is to practice calligraphy.

And then there are those who let you get off the car and search for God knows what. They even check under the vehicle floor and under the car mats. One of them very seriously asked me to hand him my bag which he searched thoroughly. Thank goodness, there was nothing embarrassing in it! Nevertheless, an airline refreshing towel aroused his suspicion, but he just couldn’t figure out what it might be. Uh, the misteries of foreigners! This very determined search process lead to my belief that we must look like real European criminals trying to smuggle their grandma tied to the vehicle floor cross country. Or German potato dumplings. Another guy, though, was checking for something else: He asked us how to say “God” and “Jesus” in German. Maybe that was a test to see whether we were real Germans and not just mental patients talking in some funny accent.

Anyhow, after passing several stops we didn’t really pay attention anymore so we must have missed a crucial detail somewhere… I got a little suspicious because I thought we should have arrived at Lagos de Montebello by now, so I got out my iphone to check my GPS. I didn’t have network anymore and was informed, I should enable roaming services. Seemed a little odd to me, so better consult the map. And who would have known: We were in Guatemala already!

We turned around, found the junction that we apparently had missed earlier due to a missing sign, and finally arrived at the National Park. On the road leading to the park, we got stopped like every 10 minutes by someone who offered his services as a guide. Since we didn’t want a guide, we drove on. Then we passed the first stall to pay an entrance fee and more guides waiting for work. After a while, we passed the second stall to pay another entrance fee and even more guides who tried to stick their hands and heads into our car. After a while, we got stopped by an old man who showed us ancient, possibly inherited postcards of the park to prepare us for the stunning sights (maybe he thought we might collapse out of joy otherwise?) and who wanted to convince us to take his young colleague as a guide. By then, we were rather annoyed. We drove on a little and stopped to take a look at the map – but the minute we stopped the car, someone started running towards us waving a screaming – another guide.

Lagos de Montebello

Upon leaving the car at the first lake we encountered, we were surrounded by helpful guides and an old gentleman who insisted we took a horse ride. I told him that Mr. R. was allergic to horses, but he probably had never heard of such a fancy thing as an allergy. Finally, we got rid of all the people and could admire the lake.

However, all this brash behaviour had dampened our spirits a little. We drove to a few more lakes and then decided to continue our journey towards the little border village of Frontera de Corozal which turned out to be a wise decision as it got dark soon. The last few miles to the village, we had to drive on dirt tracks full of potholes. I felt literally shaken when we arrived at our destination. The village of Frontera de Corozal was awaiting us in complete darkness, but luckily we found the hotel very soon.

It was 8pm when we received the keys for our hut and were informed that the restaurant was closed already. However, they’d be happy to prepare a little something for us. We ordered two surprisingly delicious quesadillas (for our anniversary dinner, by the way!) and got out our torch lights to search for our hut in the jungle. It was very simple, just a bed under a large palapa, the toilet was missing its seat, the shower had no walls, but well, it would be enough for a night. However, we slept miserably. A thunderstorm was shaking our hut, and we could hear the howling apes really loud. On top of that, I was worried that a tarantula or a scorpion might enter our room through one of the many gaps in the wood.

I was relieved when the alarm clock indicated 5am and I could get up to start into a new adventurous day!

A long winding road into the great cold…

After visiting Palenque, we set out for San Cristobal de las Casas in the Central Highlands of Chiapas. It is not too long a drive, about 300 km / 220 miles, but… Oh geez, that was one winding mountain road! Picturesque, yes, but winding…

You need to know that I get motionsick very easily, and so I spent those looong hours that it took us to get through the mountains clinging to the next truck’s bumper with my head out the window praying it may soon be over.

A typical village in Chiapas

Mexican friends from Chiapas had warned us in advance about people in that area “having very bad habits”. The bad habits show in mild roadside ambushes which you should be prepared for. Whenever you enter a little village, there will be plenty of speed bumps next to which there are people (very often women and children) waiting to sell their goods. They tend to tighten a rope over the street hoping you might slow down and buy some oranges or pineapples. If you actually stop, they will jump on you, trying to get their hands inside your car, but if you just keep on driving, they will most likely let go of the rope and you can continue on your journey. Nevertheless, this is quite a peculiar situation.

A typical grocery store

Of course, you feel sorry for those people who are so obviously poor. However, I read (and believe that it also shows) that these Indians (mostly Tzotzils) do not have the slightest desire to be like us. Our possessions don’t seem tempting to them, nor does our lifestyle, and the closer you get to a city, the more independent those people strive to live. Quite a comforting thought, I find.

Phew, finally, we arrived at San Cristobal. Here, our GPS gave up. And I don’t blame it, it is too painful to find your way around town. We are used to numbered checkered streets, right? I had forgotten what it’s like to have curvy streets with actual names! And then there didn’t seem to be a system as to what street you can enter in which direction. We drove around and around, hit dead ends, entered the pedestrian zone, got lost again, until we finally found our very charming little hotel.

Upon leaving the car, something very unfamiliar hit me right in the face: Fresh, cool, crisp air! What a treat! The air actually smelled fresh, unlike here where it is just very humid and sticky. I just had wished I had brought a little vial to bottle the air!

San Cristobal

And then we went for our first walk through the city. Oh, how charming it is! All those beautiful old buildings, the colourful fronts, queer little shops and cafes – if it hadn’t been for all those indigenos wandering the streets in their colourful dresses, I would have believed to be in Europe.

In the evening, it appeared to be freezing – we hit the 50 mark (10 degrees celsius)! For the first time in months, I put on jeans and a sweater and socks and shoes other than flip flops, but nevertheless, my teeth started chattering. Needless to say, that our hotel room wasn’t heated. Nobody prepares for some silly people who are used to be sweating all day long. And then the next morning, we didn’t have hot water, uh, what a nice surprise!

San Cristobal’s main cathedral

Nevertheless, I loved being cold, and I loved the fact that we could actually walk around for hours without getting all sweaty and tired. We did a tour of the city in a lovely little tram, we climbed the stairs to the Iglesia de San Cristobal, we enjoyed plenty of coffee for which Chiapas is famous, found a quirky little Indian restaurant run by two Americans who served us the best Baba Ganoush I ever had and enjoyed every minute of our stay.

San Cristobal at Night

The second day, we drove to the remote mountain villages Chamula and Zinacantan. Chamula is a very poor village famous for its unique church. You cannot enter Chamula by car, but you have to leave it in a parking lot by the village entrance. Of course, you have to pay a parking fee that is higher than anywhere in Playa del Carmen, and on top, you have to pay someone who will make sure “nobody scratches your car”. Right. Upon getting out of the car, we were again surrounded by people trying to sell us highly desirable objects such as embroidered ballpens and crocheted bracelets. One little girl was exceptionally persistent and followed us all around town.

The church of Chamula

The church wasn’t hard to find since there is not much to see otherwise, however, it was very hard to get into. We had to find the tourist information to get a permission (and pay an entrance fee), then we were allowed in. Unfortunately, we couldn’t take any pictures, but I have never seen anything like it in my life. The floor is covered in pine needles, and there is no electric light but only candles everywhere. Does that sound a tad dangerous to you? Yeah, to me, too. But anyway. On the walls, there are mannequins incorporating saints and you see people kneeling in front of them praying. Otherwise, people are sitting everywhere on the ground, chatting and praying. I read that very often shamans are present who will crack eggs over sick people’s heads, but unfortunately, I didn’t see any. Also they still do offerings of either living or dead chickens. In this case, I wasn’t sad I didn’t see that either, I only was aware of some chickens kept in plastic bags outside.

After leaving Chamula, we drove to  Zinacantan, a wealthier village – if you want to use the word “wealth” here. Again, we had to pay an entrance fee, then we were allowed to park downtown. It is prohibited to take any pictures in this village much to my disappointment. Zinacantan is famous for its embroidery, and everywhere you will be approached by people inviting you to their homes to show you their craftsmanship. You are not bound to buy anything, they are just a very friendly people. Unfortunately, Mr. R. wasn’t up for this kind of adventure, so we just had a look around and drove back. I have to admit that for us it is quite a strange situation to have people clinging on to you all the time begging you to buy something, but hey, different countries, different customs, right?

We spent another night at our beautiful hotel La Casa de Guadalupe before we made our way to the city of Comitan. But that’s another story for another time!

Palenque: Meeting King Pakal

So, hmm.. I am back! Back from a relaxing, interesting, inspiring, and adventurous vacation in Chiapas. But where to start? Maybe the beginning would make for a good…err…beginning. Right?

So on our first day, we drove all the way to Palenque which is about 500 kilometers or 300 miles southwest from Playa del Carmen. Our numerous travel guides informed us that the city itself wasn’t worth visiting, but I actually found it quite charming. Maybe I am just very easy to please. Or have a weird taste. Who knows? But a little Mexican city on a Saturday night is just buzzing with music and laughter and fun, it is impossible to not like it. But the deafening music and cheap beer were not the reason for our trip, we wanted to explore the ruins!

Isn’t it stunning?

We arrived at the site as early as 8 o’clock in the morning which I would recommend to everybody. The minute you enter the parking lot, you are surrounded by helpful (money expecting) Mexicans. One will hold out his hand for finding you a parking spot, the next one for guarding your car while you are visiting the ruins, the next 10 or so want to be your guides, and then there are all the boys and girls who offer you little bracelets and good luck charms and whatnot. If there is one thing that you need when travelling this country, it is change. And hand sanitizer.

Once you enter the archaeological site, you leave the vendors behind (for now) and immerse yourself in tranquility. Early in the morning, the ruins are still covered in mist, there are not many people – it is a magical place!

The palace.

King Pakal

Despite the fact that Palenque was discovered already in 1773, it was only in the 20th century, that the excavations got started. Everything was covered under a jungle canopy, and still there must be many buildings hidden in the jungle. Palenque is very well kept, you feel like walking in a beautiful, sunlit park. And the ruins are just stunning. First you get to see the temple of inscriptions where King Pakal’s crypt was found. Palenque was founded around 300 A.D. and became a flourishing Maya hub. However, after some military defeats, it was King Pakal who made the city regain its wealth in 700 A.D. That’s probably why you see his (not so attractive) face EVERYWHERE.

Next to the temple of inscriptions, there is temple 13 where they just recently discovered the remains of an apparently rich guy together with a female and a child. When you walk further, you get to the very impressive castle, the temple of the sun and the temple of the cross from which you have a wonderful view of the site. But make sure to bring some decent hiking shoes – I saw a lady on wedges, it wasn’t my favourite sight of the day, I can tell you.

Between the ruins, there are a lot of vendors setting up their little stalls. Well, maybe not stalls, they present their goods on blankets, and you can get some very pretty things there if you are in the mood. We weren’t, but they also were not chasing us around like we experienced it in other parts of the country…

Misol Ha

Not far from Palenque, we visited the waterfalls Misol Ha and Agua Azul. I believe, that Agua Azul is the more famous one, at least that’s the one I had heard of before. However, I found Misol Ha so much more impressive! Again, there are not many people (unlike at Agua Azul), and you can walk all around the waterfall amidst the dense jungle. Due to the humidity, it is quite a sweaty activity, but when you walk right behind the waterfall, you get a refreshing spray of water all over you!

At night, we found a very unique little Italian restaurant (since we live here, we don’t feel the urge to always eat Mexican food…) hidden in the jungle. It is called Monte Verde and it feels very remote. When you feel like you have reached the end of the world already, keep driving. Of course, there are no lights on the way, so the ride gets a little bumpy, but the experience is worth it! We sat outside on the terrace and were the only guests after a most suspicious little group of people, consisting of one guy and three ladies whom he all kissed and caressed equally, had left. Uh, well, those Mexican machos, they seem to do something right with the ladies… But anyway, the food was really good and cheaper than cheap – a perfect end to a beautiful start of our vacation!

Sounds all lovely and cosy, doesn’t it? Well, it got all rougher and more adventurous afterwards, you’ll see!