Never give up. That sounds like trite, tired advice, right? Well, it often is, but as with all such hackneyed phrases, there’s more than a grain of truth there. After the heat of Valladolid, I was eager to get to the highlands as quickly as possible. The airconditioning on my truck had started to work erratically, and I worried that it would give out entirely. Though Joanna had recommended it, and despite it being right in my path, I was ready to skip Campeche entirely. But as you can see from the prior post, luck intervened, and I had a very nice two days in Campeche.
But two days was enough for Campeche, and I longed to get to higher ground. My next destination was Palenque, and I was eager to see this ancient, Mayan City. According to my research, it had an unparalleled urban plan, many very fine temples, and plenty of intact sculpture. So I set my course to Palenque, and made the drive there.
The town of Palenque isn’t much to blog about. It’s kind of the Cancún of the foothills of the southern Sierra Madre, minus the lovely resorts, beach, and seafood. Which is to say that it’s pretty modern and generally lacking in “Ye Olde Mexican Charme.” Or, more plainly put, totally boring. But I found a decent hotel, with air conditioning (a must), for a very reasonable 350 pesos, and the guys at the desk were nice, and there was also free, gated parking. So what’s not to like?
The next day I went to see the ruins, and I was not disappointed. The setting is spectacular, deep in a verdant jungle, wrapped in a mysterious blue mist that completely obscures the tops of the surrounding mountains. And it seems pretty obvious to this casual observer that the city of Palenque must have been a good deal richer than many other Mayan cities due to the obviously richer topsoil and growing conditions. Remember, Uxmal sits in a relatively arid part of Yucatán, and the city is festooned with shrines to Chaac, the Mayan god of rain. This means water was in short supply. And the same appears to be true of Mayapan, relatively arid with very thin topsoil. But in Palenque, the jungle is luxuriant and thick with trees. A still-functioning aqueduct runs through the ruins. Each tree is covered with vines, and various epiphytes such as orchids, bromeliads, and other plants which I don’t recognize. Banana trees grow wild along the road, and there are also plenty of coconut palms too. How could an ancient city located in such an apparently fertile region not be relatively prosperous?
And the scope and scale of the city give testament to this observation. In its heyday, Palenque must have been truly awe-inspiring. Now, most of the city remains buried under the verdant jungle foliage. I would guess that only about a fifth of the ancient buildings have been excavated and restored. But those buildings which have been restored are magnificent, many with remaining plaster sculptures on the facades and interior walls. There are also a number of stone tablets that really show the beauty of Mayan art. Graceful figures in bas relief rival anything produced during the Classical period in Greece. The hieroglyphs, though unreadable to this traveler, are also beautiful in their own right. Sadly, the bas reliefs are poorly lit, and don’t photograph well. Worse, some are deteriorating due to incursion of water which is leading to algal growth. Left unaddressed, these problems will probably destroy this art within a generation. You should also note that most of the “good stuff” requires a hike to the top of the temple, something that to my surprise, many visitors didn’t do.
The site of Palenque itself is also a wonder. Because of the lush jungle, the site appears like a large, well-groomed park. During my visit, exotic flowers were blooming, a number of trees were in bloom, and others were simply splendid in their broad, leafy greenness, providing both beauty and much-needed shade. The temperature was about 97°F and probably 100% humidity. Because of this greenness, the temples are separated by broad stretches of lawn. And unlike Chichén Itzá or Mayapán, which are located on plains, the people of Palenque were able to utilize the terrain as part of the urban design. And certain temples are built into the hillsides, adding to the grandeur of the overall site. I was eager to explore.
But after about three hours of climbing up and down pyramids, I was spent, and my shirt was literally soaked through. Given the humidity, there seemed to be little prospect of it ever drying, so I put on a fresh one. But even that didn’t help much. By this point, I had seen everything except the museum. When I saw that the only parking to the museum was in the blazing sun, I said, “to heck with it,” and set course for San Cristóbal de Las Casas on Carretera Federal 199.
Joanna had warned me about this road. “There are 299 topes,” she said. “We counted them on our last trip there.” I also knew that the road wound through the mountains to get to San Cristóbal, which lies at an altitude of 2,100 meters, or 6,900 feet. So I knew that I was in for a lively drive. And Joanna had also warned me that I’d likely get stuck behind big logging trucks on this highway. What I didn’t know what that this highway was to be the worst drive of my life.
Initially, the road seemed good enough. Yes, it’s a two-lane secondary road that winds through the jungle. But I was up for a windy road, having expected as much. And I was ready for topes too. But after about 20 kilometers or so, the condition of the road deteriorated drastically. There were severe dips on the edges of the road. There were potholes. None of this was too challenging, though I did have to pay attention. But then I came across a sign that said, “Deslave – 100 metros.” “Deslave,” I thought to my self. “That’s one I don’t know. Sounds like something to do with water or washing. Hmmm…” But soon enough, I learned the meaning of “deslave.” It means that as much as 2/3rds of the road has been washed down the hill. So the formerly two lanes becomes about a third of a lane.
Fortunately, for my first “deslave,” there was no other car in sight, and duly warned and traveling at a moderate speed, I just drove around it. But as I continued, I realized a few things. First, there were plenty more deslaves. And second, not only were there other cars on the road, but they included 18-wheelers, and full-sized tourist buses. Yikes! I was terrified of meeting one of those at a “deslave.” Fortunately, I was lucky. Not only did I not encounter an oncoming large vehicle at any deslave, but I was fairly easily able to pass slower-moving vehicles when I did encounter them.
However, as I went along, the road continued to worsen. At stretches, the pavement disappeared completely, to be replaced by stretches of dirt and gravel, studded with potholes that would have swallowed a lesser vehicle. Thank God I was driving my truck, which handled all the obstacles with aplomb.
Three hours passed, and I had only driven 90 KM, about 56 miles. I finally reached Ocosingo, Chiapas, about halfway to San Cristóbal. I had a decision to make. If the next 100 KM were as bad as the first 90, I was in serious danger of having to drive this awful highway in the dark. I drove through Ocosingo, and mentally calculated. “It’s about 5:00 now. If the next stretch is as slow, that means I’ll get to San Cristóbal by 8:00. Might I get there sooner? Or will I end up driving in the dark, at risk for god-knows-what dangers?” I realized that it’d be foolhardy to continue. This highway was such that literally any wrong move could have resulted in disaster. Anything could happen — hitting a bad patch at speed, or plunging over a cliff, hitting an animal, or worse, a person. No. I had to turn back. I even considered going back to Palenque and skipping this part of the journey, but I realized I was half way, and that beyond San Cristóbal, the roads would improve. I wanted to give up, but I didn’t, so I spent the night in Ocosingo.
The sign below reads, “The land belongs to those who work it. For that we live, for that we die. No to the highway. Zapata lives. The struggle continues.”
There’s not much to be said about Ocosingo. It’s a little town in the mountains with about 35,000 inhabitants, a nice little town square, and a lot of minibus stations. After settling into a hotel, I wandered the plaza for a bit, where I was accosted by some young people who were hoping to practice their French with me. I said I’d give it a shot, but my French is pretty rusty. Turns out they are students at “Universidad Technológica de la Selva,” or the Technical University of the Jungle, something which I found quite amusing. But I didn’t let on about my amusement, as they were very nice young people. I did try to persuade them that English would be a much more useful second language than French, but we’ll see where that goes. We finally settled on Spanish for conversation, and had a nice chat about the city, what they planned to do in the future, and what to see while here. They tried hard to persuade me to stay a couple days in Ocosingo and let them take me sightseeing, but I had to decline as I’m beginning to feel the need to head back north soon.
After we had chatted for about an hour, I begged off and headed back to my hotel. What would the second leg of my drive be like the next day? I fell asleep pondering that question. Though I’ll save impressions of San Cristóbal for a subsequent post, I am there now, and am glad I didn’t give up. It’s a terrific place, and worth even the horrendous drive. Saludos!!!
P.S. This post would have arrived sooner but for a now-resolved emergency that arose in Boston last night.