It turned out that a few of us from the hostel were headed to moving on from San Cristobal to Palenque where we could see some more ruins but this time in the Jungle. We decided to jump on a tour that would take us 5 hours to Palenque via a couple of popular waterfalls: Agua Azul and Misol Ha. Instead of getting the bus back, we’d just hop off the bus in Palenque after the ruins tour and try our hand at winging it and finding a hostel as the cost of the tour was comparable to a one way bus ride to Palenque.
After a 6am start with all of us weary eyed and for a couple of the crew functioning on a few hours sleep thanks for the hostel owner’s bottle of mescal, we all piled into the bus and picked up some other tourists from various hotels. The default thinking was that we’d all get some shut eye over the five hours it would take to get to Palenque. I thought the bus ride from Oaxaca City to Puerto Escondido was bad enough but try going through mountainous terrain with a thousand topes mixed in with sleep deprivation was just as bad. I had a window seat but every few minutes as I drift off into a state of sleep I wake up to my head banging on the window with my head kinked at a 90 degree angle.
The first stop we arrive to was Agua Azul. This place was spectacular. Turquoise coloured waterfalls cascading down for hundreds of meters. The mineral content of the water covers everything from the rocks to fallen branches with a thin layer of limestone. The water was cool but I didn’t go in for a swim. I was big of a chicken that day. I’m not sure why. Maybe it was the sleep deprivation as I would normally go in any day especially when it’s 30 degrees, humid and one is wearing jeans… fail
An hour later we pile back into the comfort of an icy cold air conditioned bus and jet off to Misol Ha. It’s known as the tallest waterfall in Mexico that plummets into a small dam. Whilst marvelling it’s beauty, I just keep thinking back to the scene in Predator where Arnie, being hunted down by the Predator dives off a waterfall.
[EDIT] Holy shit I just did some research and it was in fact the exact place where they filmed that scene!
Back on the bus, I decide to do a bit of pre reading on the Palenque area and ruins as I’ve been very lazy and taken these historical places for granted and treated them like an item that just gets ticked off.
Palenque is one of the oldest ruin sites in Mexico and dates back as far back as 200BC and it’s fall was estimated around 1100AD when it was reclaimed by the jungle. It’s only considered a medium sized site compared to Tikal nearby in Guatemala, however only an estimated 10% of the city has been excavated. Most of the area is now classified as national park which prohibits excavation but makes for excellent hiking areas. More on this later.
We spent a couple of hours at the ruins site. Half of the time was probably in the shade. The midday-3pm sun here in Mexico was brutal. No wonder why people default to sleeping during this time. Back at the carpark, we take refuge under a huge shade umbrella at a street food stall and we spend the next half hour eating tacos and observe the locals boys sell magic mushrooms to the tourists.
Back on the bus, we get dropped off a place called Maya Bell which we read about that had a pool. Sounds good ay? We arrived and it was a camping ground with RV’s parked on the perimeter and the only rooms available was the one room with 5 beds in it to accommodate us. Not for us! So we picked up our bags again and decided to walk what we thought was 6km to an area between the ruins and Palenque town called El Panchan. I’m not sure why we all agreed to walk that distance. The longest I’ve walked with this backpack is about 300m. Maybe it was heat stroke? Determined to go the distance we plugged the iPod into my portable speakers and start walking to the “James Browns’ ” I Feel Good which pretty much sums up the mood for the next couple of days.
Back to the walk, we got to the 2km mark and realised that El Panchan was not the 6km as we originally thought. Straight away we looked for accomodation at a place called Margarita’s and Ed’s which came highlly recommended. We managed to get the last available cabanas. Very simple layout. Double room, two singles, a fan, bath, shower and a huge padlock on the door to keep our posessions safe from howler monkeys. We dump our gear and head straight to the bar to smash a few beers. Why not? We deserved it.
We met at Don Muchos where we down a few beers and decide on some dinner as well. Being in the jungle and with an extensive menu that would satisfy anybody at the United Nations, I wasn’t expecting much but I was eating my words when the dishes came out. Tender steak, Tacos, Pizzas from a purpose built wood fire oven. This place was killing it. I would rate this place as one of my favourites in Chiapas state.
Later on, this local fella stops by and strikes up a conversation with us. He turned out to be a local Mayan called Gabrielle who grew up in Palenque and now works as a guide doing jungle tours off the beaten track Having no agenda for the following day we agree to go on the tour and continue to drink well into the evening…
The following morning, we meet Gabrielle at 1pm and a short ride on the collectivo we are at the National Park. As soon as we enter the gates we take a right hand turn off the main trail and off onto unmarked trails. Essentially, this short mayan fella could leave us to get lost in the jungle pretty easily. After a few minutes, everybody is walking barefoot on the forest floor and Gabrielle points out all of the nice and not so nice stuff about the forest, what to look out for and nailing home the point of look where you’re step and what you grab onto.
After 30min, we’re led to a pool with a waterfall and tiny fish that eat the dead skin off your feet. Quite the sensation and those who have had the experience with fish spas in Thailand can vouch for that. We all dive in an frolic around for about 10 minutes.
Continuing our trek through the jungle, we can notice that it’s quite cooler and more bearable as the jungle canopy provides a shield from the punishing Mexican sun. Gabrielle also points out and gives us a taste of the bounty that the forest can offer. Nuts, fruit mushrooms as well as ants that tasted like carrot. He also later reveals that he’s a qualified salsa dancing instructor. Is there anything that this man couldn’t do? Apart from a lizard and a poisonous snake we didn’t get to see much other wildlife. We heard plenty of toucans and monkeys but only towards the end of the day when the park was closing.
Towards the end of the tour Gabrielle explains that the ground we have been hiking on are actually ancient ruins that have been reclaimed by the forest hundreds of years ago. The caves we crawled through were once ancient rooms and the ponds and waterfalls were once aqueducts that fed water to the inhabitants. This explained to me why all of the waterfalls and pools looked manmade like but it never really clicked.
Palenque is a place that surprised me and I enjoyed it thoroughly. Being able to see a set of ruins that were different to any other throughout Mexico and also getting a local’s story on how times have changed over the years and how peaceful being in the jungle could be and also rushing through the forest trying to find howler monkeys only to step onto their fresh poo. Although it could be a bit out of the way for some, I highlly recommend coming to Paleque, staying at El Panchan and seeing the ruins and trekking through the jungle over a two day period.