Thursday, May 01, 2008

Chiapas Trip Part 3 - Palenque and the jungle/ Chiapas Travel

All is not yet told with our trip to Mexico. So far we have wandered around San Cristobal eating walnut popsicles and banana soup, attended strange religious rites in a Mayan village church, waded in a waterfall (when we really should have swum), spooked some crocodiles off some river banks, and consumed our weight in mangoes (daily). Next stop: the Lacandon rainforest and the ancient Mayan city of Palenque.

The Lacandon is the western hemisphere's most significant rainforest north of the Amazon, and is home to a huge percentage of Mexico's biodiversity. Jaguars, ocelots, howler monkeys, toucans, crocodiles, and many other exciting beasties, not to mention Zapatistas. Of course, we saw almost none of those things in our brief excursion to the jungle -- just howler monkeys, but that was what I most wanted to see, so it's okay.

Let me begin telling this story by saying that our first four days in Chiapas, the weather was perfect. Blue skies and all. And whenever we would meet a traveler who'd come from Palenque, they'd say, without exception, "It is SO HOT. Rivers of sweat. Streaming, dripping sweat." And other graphic descriptions of amounts of sweat. I was a little trepidatious about this, not being a sweat-lover, but I was game for the jungle -- eager for the jungle -- and I figured sweat was just part of the scene. So.

When we woke early early to catch our bus, and it was raining quite heavily, I was not afraid. We had a five-hour drive ahead of us. I guess I just assumed there was a little patch of rain hovering over San Cristobal, but that our bus would drive away from it, and then it would be sunny. The first problem was that our van was full, and it being full, there was no room in it for our backpacks. The backpacks had to go on top. In the rain. "There is a cover," said the driver, proceeding to climb up on top and start arranging said cover. It seems to me now quite ominous in retrospect, that he did not want any of us to help him, or even to watch him. Could that be because the cover didn't. . . cover? Well.

We drove, and drove. The roads in Chiapas are not only snakey-curvy, but they are fraught with speedbumps. More speedbumps that you have ever seen in your life. You're zooming along, then you squeal to a stop for another series of speedbumps. You jounce around a lot. It's fine. You get used to it. There are a lot of little villagey encampments right alongside the road, a lot of strolling livestock, hence the bumps. We drove. The rain did not abate.

We reached our first stop of the day, the long-anticipated Agua Azul waterfall, where I had hoped to fulfill the "swim in a waterfall" dream (well, I have swum in waterfalls, in Hawaii and here in Oregon, but I really really wanted to swim here. Look how blue this is, how beautiful. . .

Um, I got those photos off Google. Here's what it looked like when we were there:

Not azul. Not on April 14, 2008! Oy. What you can't tell from this photo is what I had to go through to get this photo. See, the rain had flooded the waterfall. The river had leapt its banks and turned all the pathways into rivers, all the stairways into waterfalls. To even get to the viewpoints we had to walk upstream against the tide of these newborn little rivers, and they were brown and powerful and you couldn't see where you were stepping and. . . people started falling into holes.

The local kids could have stopped it, they could have called out, "No, not that way!" but they didn't. They sat back and howled with laughter. It was pretty funny. Until, er, I fell in the water! Oy, up to my waist. And I was wearing jeans. Soaked, heavy jeans! Bleh. And that was to be the extent of the "swimming" at Agua Azul! DRAT!

At our next stop, the waterfall of Misol Ha, I bought a skirt so that I could change out of my jeans. It was a cute skirt, too! But I needn't have bothered -- we went on to Palenque and by the time we'd been there for ten minutes, I was entirely drenched again! It was the most extraordinary rain I have ever encountered. It was ludicrous rain. The sky was just plain showing off. You really couldn't see. The whole world was a waterfall. And here we were, at Palenque, a wonder of the ancient world, a once-in-a-lifetime (maybe) trip! What to do? Well, of course we had to go and see what we could, rain or not. So we bought cheapo ponchos and waded in.

Remember what everyone told us about Palenque? How hot? Streams of sweat? Not so much! Oh my GOD. The rain. Everywhere the standing water was well above our ankles and we slogged through, laughing hysterically inside our ponchos, looking like a little troupe of wet hunchback ghosts. Here we are:
And here's beautiful, mysterious Palenque, lost in the mist:
Well, on a normal day, so we're told, Palenque gets between 1400 and 6000 tourists tramping around. This day, there were about 5. At the time it was comical, but now I feel like we were lucky to witness such a ferocious act of nature, and to have this spot to ourselves.

Did I mention that they haven't had this sort of out-of-season storm in over 20 years? Ha! Well, we were also told that as insane as the rain was, it was just "a shower" compared to the storms of late summer. Wow.

And the best part of the day was yet to come. After we'd finished our slog and were about to get back on the bus, the rain abated almost entirely and a series of incredibly eerie roars started to echo through the trees. Monkeys! Yay, yay, yay! Monkeys! They're called "howler" monkeys, but this is an incredible misnomer. They don't howl. They ROAR. They sound like monsters, and they were all around, roaring back and forth. We could see them moving through the treetops and the sound, it was just insanely alien and freaky and COOL. It made my day.

The day ended at El Panchan, which is a kind of "backpacker village" in the jungle just a few kilometers away from Palenque:
Set amid dense trees and a crisscrossing of streams, there are a number of hostels and cabanas, and a really really good restaurant called Don Mucho's, where you sit under a thatched palapa and listen to really really good live music while drinking cervezas and maragaritas and eating delicious "Mexican-Italian food."
It's really very good that there was this pleasant end to the day, even if I had to go to dinner dressed in Jim's swim trunks and oversize sweatshirt because my own clothes were ruined. Ruined. As expected, my backpack was wet. Not just wet: saturated. Everything in it could have just been fished out of a river, that's how wet. And that's not all. The new scarf I had bought at the market in San Cristobal had bled blue all over everything. I now was the owner of many extremely wet, extremely tie-tyed clothes! And my brand-new hair dryer was dead, so I couldn't even dry my wet soppy hair! Oh. If it wasn't for the good food, the cervezas and the margarita, I would probably have cried. At least El Panchan is just the kind of place where you can go to dinner in your husband's swim trunks and no one will think anything of it!

Here's adorable little "Nyeli," who's half-Tsotsil/half-Canadian, and who just loves to dance:
To wrap up the rest of the tale in a quick and slap-dash way, we spent the next day at the gorgeous ruins of Yaxchilan and Bonampak, deeper down in the Lacandon. Look at this ENORMOUS TREE. It makes me feel like a fairy!We took a river trip along the Usumacinta, which makes the border with Guatemala, we heard a whole lot more howler monkeys, and ended the day once more with good music, good food, cervezas, and margaritas under a palapa in the jungle. Oh yeah, there was chocolate cake too!

And the next day, with sun shining, we returned to Palenque and really saw it. It was gorgeous, the weather was perfect, and it wasn't even hot or humid! We hired a guide and he told us a lot of interesting history and identified trees and bird sounds (heard toucans, didn't see them), and all in all, it was beautiful. Here's the biggest pyramid; the red circle is there for scale (there's a wee little person inside it!)

And that's our trip to the jungle! Next time I go somewhere with jungle, I really want to experience JUNGLE. I want to take a Sierra Club trip or something, camp in a jungle, ride an elephant, see huge creepy spiders, that sort of thing. (Jim might not so much want that, though). But this was a glimpse, and good to get it now. Sadly, the Lacandon is being cut down at an absolutely alarming rate, like every other forest in the world. If you want to see trees, you should probably see them soon.

{If you didn't know this, you should: Bush is pushing hard to log Sequoia National Monument. Yah. Sequoia National Monument. Whaaa? Now is a really time to become a Sierra Club member and help combat this insanity.}


Q said...

I think I want one of those trees in my backyard. And one of those waterfalls.

I'm pretty sure you can't log a naional park--only national forests. And only then with permits and limits and other fun stuff like that. If he tries to get Sequoia unparkified or something, he'll fail.

tone almhjell said...

Everything is so huge! The trees! Teh leaves! The ziggurats (is that the right term?)! Are you absolutely sure you didn't shrink in the rain?

Laini Taylor said...

q -- you're right. It's the National Monument. I've changed it. They're right in the same territory, though, and the National Monument includes half the giant sequoias in existence, including one of the ten largest in the world. The thing I really don't understand it: Jim & I went to Sequoia last summer, and it was made very clear that sequoias make crap timber, unlike redwoods. they tend to break into a lot of small sections when felled. So why LOG them??? ARG!!! Right now, I think judges are finding against the logging. I'm a lilttle behind on the current info, though.

Unknown said...

quite the adventure!

so here's my rather lame question after reading your exciting post:

what's the best way to eat mangos? I always make a mess of them, but I keep trying.

Deirdre said...

What a wonderful adventure!

Claudia said...

It sounds amazing - even the rain.

Anonymous said...

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Annie Jeffries said...

That river is breat-taking.

Stephanie Perkins said...

Hee hee hee! Still giggling about your bag of wet, blue clothing and you sitting in the restaurant in Jim's swim trunks. (Which I realize is actually NOT funny, but I'm happy you shared it with us anyway.)

I have a phobia of being trapped in heavy, wet clothing thanks to the unfortunate day I was dragged on a theme park water ride, and upon soaked exit, I discovered my brand new, super-cool vintage running jacket had STAINED MY ARMS GREEN. So I had the choice of either (A) walking around all day with green arms, or (B) walking around all day in wet clothing (it was a cloudy, cold day). I chose B because I was a self-conscious teenager, but I think now I would rock the green arms!

And WOW - those leaves! I did a double take on that picture. Isn't nature incredible?

Marimar - said...


I read your blog on your recent trip and had to laugh when I read about you wearing Jim's swim trunks to dinner. I too had a similar experience in Guatemala after a torrential afternoon rain storm. The sun was out and not a cloud in the sky and bam! I got drenched and my cute little leather penny loafers became small boats. I decided to put them next to the fire when we got back to our cabin to dry them out and in the morning I found them curled in on themselves. I wore one shoe and hobbled a mile through the mud to the boat dock where a little girl was selling sandals out of old tires for $1.00. Good times!!

andalucy said...

So it seems that overall, you loved Chiapas, right? You would go back?