This was my MO for getting from one place to another in Mexico (and in South America, for that matter): Arrive at the bus station and ask for the next bus to wherever I wanted to go. One was usually leaving in a few minutes.
In this case: “En diez minutos.”
In ten minutes, I was settled on the Palenque-bound bus, a fairly quick trip up highway 199. When we pulled into Tuxtla, however, I felt that nervous tingle signaling that something was awry. I consulted the paper map I’d carried throughout Mexico which, in the absence of GPS, had been pretty handy.
Yup. Tuxtla was in the opposite direction of Palenque. This bus would go in a big circle before landing in Palenque, in oh, an unknown number of hours from now.
Crap. Note to self: always ask for the next direct bus to…wherever.
I was going to see a lot of the lovely state of Chiapas
About eight later, the bus pulled into the town of Palenque, gateway to the iconic Maya ruins of the same name. While San Cristobál had been in the highlands, Palenque was jungle.
I didn’t want to stay in town, which seemed busy and unremarkable. I was aiming for a place on the highway to the ruins, as close as I could get. My fantasy was to wake up in the morning and walk there. I wanted to stay someplace where the jungle crept through the windows, and the howler monkeys filled the night with eerie wails. Also, as it turned out, where large flying cockroaches dive-bombed my pillow.
I arrived at Mayabell with sweat dripping down my neck. This was more from humidity than heat. Who needs a pool when you can swim in the air? I snagged a private room with a shared bath and paid too much for a basic chicken with rice meal, eavesdropping as those damned Europeans conversed effortlessly in three languages at the neighboring table.
Twice while I was there, I overheard guides telling their Europeans groups, “Oh, the Americans are all shopping on the beaches in Cancun.” Not sure why this was a selling point for Palenque. Besides, it was so patently untrue. Look! Soy aqui! Americana!
But I digress.
The morning was blessedly cloudy. I walked along the road to Palenque, enjoying the strange jungly vegetation that seemed scarcely contained by concrete and asphalt.
Palenque is one of the most studied and iconic of the great Maya ruins, even though it’s much smaller than other major sites like Chichen Itza or Tikal. Set in the emerald jungle and saturated with flowing watercourses that gather into pools and waterfalls, it has a mystery and beauty completely unlike the hot desert ruins in the Yucatán.
Palenque began as a village in about 100 BC and reached its zenith as a dwelling place of kings in 650 AD. It was ultimately abandoned in about 800 AD, long before the Spanish conquest. Despite so much scientific attention, most of the site still lies buried by the jungle. There may be 1000 buildings still uncovered in Palenque.
Palenque was not crowded on the cloudy day I visited. Howler monkeys screeched continuously in the background enhancing the mysterious vibe of the place. I wandered around the complex, not really understanding what I was looking at, but absorbing the atmosphere of peace and antiquity. I was selective about which pyramids I invested the effort into climbing. (Those pyramids with their narrow, uneven steps are scary to climb.)
Water is a hallmark of the jungle, and the ancient builders planned their way around (and over) various streams and babbling brooks. (Nine of them around the site, actually) They created aqueducts to control the flow and conducted some of it underground. Some was diverted to the palaces for bathes.
I wandered in and through the buildings for hours until the skies finally opened and the rain poured down. I was hoping to visit the small museum that houses some of the precious artifacts from the site, but I was so quickly and completely drenched that I changed plans and caught a bus back to Mayabell.
It was full. The receptionist was unsympathetic.
After cogitating on my options, I ended up at El Panchán, about 2 km up the road. It is a meandering, topsy-turvy hippie hangout with tumbledown cabanas and a storied past. I scored a private, ensuite room for about $12, and considered my damp self lucky. Yes, the electricity and water went out randomly, and someone had to jiggle the pipes and cords outside my princely accommodations. Yes, the place was full of young people doing their young people things, but it was a thatched roof overhead and shelter from the storm.
I ended up with food poisoning from chicken soup (!), which scuttled my plans for visiting Agua Azul, a nearby series of pools. My memories of Palenque, however, are of graceful, ancient buildings carved from intense green jungle set against the eerie calls of howler monkeys.