Palenque and Bonampak, Chiapas

After our experience switching off from work in San Cristobal, we moved on to a more active section of our trip with promises of jungle hikes to get us a little practice (!) for our coming PCT thru hike. Hiking has taken somewhat of a back seat the past couple of weeks though we can still feel our recent efforts below our vacation butts.

We took off to Palenque the really really long way round but via smooth sailing roads on a comfortable bus for 8 hours through two scruffy cities, Tuxla Gutierrez and Villahermosa to hit the jungle town of Palenque by mid afternoon. There was another couple who also had clearly not researched the length of the journey like us. They turned out to be a newly married couple Becca and Jam from Oz. We ate pizza and drank mezcal with them later and got some ideas for our coming days in Oaxaca.

Our cabin was in the jungle, on the edge of the ruins of the ancient Mayan city Palenque. I stayed here a decade ago and was glad to see very little had changed since then. Still the rustic, sweaty hippie hang out in the trees with 2×1 cocktails all afternoon, pizzas and the smell of the Californian’s smoke next door. It was 101* and everything was dripping in permasweat.

As we settled down for a good sleep the first night, we heard howler monkeys screaming in the canopy. Imagine an dinosaur who’s irritated with a neighbour and you’d have some idea of what they sound like. A pretty haunting sound and a loud one too.

What was once a building on our improvised jungle tour

The first morning we set off walking up the jungle road to a supposed jungle trail we were told didn’t need a guide to show us the way. This turned out to be the case and we dipped off the trail to explore bat filled tunnels in 1000 year old ruined buildings, now taken over by the jungle, the walls crumbled and covered in earth.

Everywhere you look there are mounds of earth and rock where temples and houses once stood. Spiders, iguanas and other lizards scuttled out of the way while we explored.

After this we arrived in the renovated ruins of Palenque. These have been painstakingly excavated and restored in parts. Only 10% of the city has been fully explored and studied. Most of the site looks like the above photo but the restored parts of the city show its glory in the 7th century.

We had the run of the place and walked around exploring and climbing most of the larger pyramids with our Aussie friends Becca and Jam. By the time we had reached the streams we were hot and bothered and ready for the pool and an ice cold beer.

The next day we jumped on board a local bus and headed towards the Guatemalan border to another Mayan site, one that Jen has always wanted to visit called Bonampak. A smaller site that is famous for some murals that are in pristine condition.

After dealing with a painfully long tour to visit the Canyon of Sumidero, we took our own route via public transport to hopefully avoid other tourists and their scheduled though would mean it costing just as much if not more to get there under our own steam. The combi bus flew alongside the jungle on one side, hurtling over speed bumps and through towns and eventually pulled up at the junction to Bonampak.

The site is 14km deep inside the jungle. In order to arrive we had to hire a local in his car for a couple of hours to take us there and wait for us while we explored the ruins. Antonio took us to a surprisingly small site whose almost run down facilities were quite surprising considering the fame the ruins and its murals have.

The souvenir sellers only budged slightly in their hammocks as we walked past, much more used to groups of 15 plus people arriving in mini buses. Staff weren’t at the entrance to the murals and they had to come out especially for us! We were literally the only two visitors in the entire site.

We shared it with a tree full of Oropendola birds. They have my favourite call of all birds, Something that really has to be heard! Their nests are crazy and amazing too. It reminded me of Belize and hearing several of these birds at once is quite the experience.

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Montezuma Oropendola
The call of the Montezuma Oropendola

After marveling at the birds, we checked out the murals and were suitably impressed by their clarity considering they were painted around the 6th century. They show lots of day to day life for Mayan people and also sacrifices.

After some suitable chin touching and pyramid climbing, we stuffed ourselves with La Vache Qui Rit and headed back to Palenque the way we came, only stopping briefly for the Guatemalan men to be pulled off the bus and frisked before our onward journey. We were heading to Tabasco the next day.

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Chiapas, Mexico

After quitting our jobs we have a little more than three weeks to say goodbye to Mexico by visiting some of our favourite places as well as some new spots along the way. We flew south from Mexico City to the state of Chiapas.

I came to Chiapas before, just shy of ten years ago by myself at the end of a chilly December. My main memory is getting more rain in that week than I got on the entire Appalachian Trail. So everything was more or less mine alone for the taking as long as I put on my road worker yellow mac and sucked the weather up. I have a hazy memory of fog and slipping n tripping over cobblestones in this town, San Cristobal. While I appreciated the beauty of the place, I didn’t imagine returning especially as Oaxaca sits so much closer to where I lived the last eleven years, Mexico City.

View from our kitchen

Jen had never visited before and so it was the perfect time to come back with fewer worries of time and money, plus the weather is a whole lot nicer in May. We got a little house on the outskirts of San Cristobal, a big town of 200 thousand nestled in the mountains. Two bedrooms, a living room with pallet and crate sofas, tables, chairs and bookshelves, a simple but perfect kitchen and a dark but wonderful shower house painted in Shrewsbury Town blue and amber. All of these are built around a large terrace with one of the best views in town. We overlook a small valley of farmland tended to by locals. Seems they’re farming cabbages from the pickups that skirt past us when we’re walking into town.

the kitchen

We spent most of our time cooking and resting, drinking wine and not doing too much in the way of preparation for the trail – at least me (Jake) anyway, Jen runs a lot. Just a few short hikes and some vague preparation of gear lists and brainstorming of ideas. We used the pressure cooker to rustle up some really delicious healthy meals, picking up all the ingredients at the end of the street, a three corner crossing with a beer store, a grocery corner and a fruit n veg stand. Perfect to pick up our ingredients.

Our patio

We cooked a whole load of beans and lentils and had some meat free days which got me thinking of at least becoming a flexitarian at times. Too many mouths to feed on this planet to be eating other things with mouths. The terrace where we often ate has humming birds buzzing around the herb and flower garden as the neighbours play banda a little too loud.

Just outside the house is a pretty scabby alleyway, inhabited by the occasional Pox addict (a local booze made on the cheap), the alley’s 200ft high all the way up to the church at the top of the hill at the end of Real de Guadalupe Avenue. A good workout for the mountain climbing muscles that will be all important soon.

Real de Guadalupe

The main avenue has plenty of restaurants, wine bars and the like. Once a day we’d pop out and burn away a couple of hours people watching while sipping cheap wine. We were slightly worried that we had set aside too much time to be in San Cristobal: 8 nights in total. This was far from our worries though as we really enjoyed just chilling out and slow eating basically all day.

El Canyon de Sumidero

We took a couple of day trips. One to the local canyon de sumidero on a speed boat, shooting past crocs and spider monkeys followed by cooling pozol de cacao. Another day we went to the spectacular El Chiflon and hiked high into the hills to see a series of several increasingly large and more isolated waterfalls in ever increasing heat as we climbed out of the jungle. A spectacular day. We felt ready to move on to the jungle after that.