The alarm woke us up at 3am. Not a nice time of
morning night to be getting up but we had booked a tour and couldn’t sleep through the pick up time. The tour we had booked was three days long, started in San Cristobal and ended in Palenque. At 2500 peso each this was by far the most expensive excursion we had been on in the last eight months and although enjoyable, looking back we are unsure if it was worth that amount of money.
The van driver picked us up and it was soon obvious that he was a crazy driver. This set off my motion sickness and throwing up into a bag I always keep close during transport I was glad of the darkness before managing to get some extra sleep. The whole van of tourists was abruptly woken en-route as the driver clipped another car while he was performing one of his many dangerous overtaking manoeuvres. Even worse was that he didn’t stop. I’m glad this mode of transport actually had working seatbelts which has been a rarity. Over the next three days we would be visiting the waterfalls Agua Azul and Misol-Ha, Palenque, Yaxchilan and Bonampak archaeological sites and the final day would be a jungle walk in the Lacandon jungle.
We arrived at the first destination of Agua Azul, this was quite a touristy site with a lot of stalls catering to the naive tourist. After downing our preprepared breakfast of overnight oats and poached fruit (we rarely buy food at tourist traps and overnight oats have become a breakfast staple), we snapped a few photos of the falls before walking straight past the vendors and up river to see what else the area had to offer. Further up we found a lovely place to swim and Tom was immediately in the water. Over the last few months I’ve become better and braver with cool water and can now throw myself in without too much girly squealing. This also means that Tom doesn’t need to grab me and throw me into the water as well. The water was so fresh and a perfect escape from the heat of the sun but our time was short and we soon had to make our way back down to the van so we wouldn’t be left behind.
Next stop was Misol-Ha, with a pretty waterfall and only 30 minutes to see it. There were two ways to the other side of the waterfall; walking around the path or swimming across the pool…we chose the pool though a majority of others walked, we like being different.
Finally for the remainder of the day we stopped at Palenque archaeological site. This is one of the most famous in Mexico and as we were with a tour we had a guide. Unfortunately being with a group meant we were doing the ‘tourist visit’ which only consisted of the two main structures. Usually we enjoy taking our time and seeing the whole site. Nevertheless we liked Palenque and were already planning to return to see the rest of the site and the museum another day.
Finishing the day was a food stop and this meal was not included. We have been on enough tours to know that when the food isn’t included to check the price as it’s usually not the standard cheap fare we would pick for ourselves. Typically the buffet was 150 peso each and we weren’t starving so we passed. This gave us a chance to figure out our accommodation as it was supposed to be included but the driver didn’t seem to have a clue. I quickly got frustrated at him as we didn’t have any credit on our phone so we had no way to find out the hotel on our own. He copped out and asked the receptionist at the hotel to call the tour company and ask. Luckily this was cleared up in 5 minutes and he knew where we would be spending the night, which was not on the side of the road as we had started to think. We were dropped of at some cabaña style accommodation and they had a room reserved for us…hooray! This was also the last time we would see this driver which was a relief. Though the room was a bit sparse, we had come to expect this from cabañas, the mosquito netting seemed adequate so it would do.
The hotel was located out near the ruins so we had to get a colectivo into town to find food as we passed on the expensive buffet earlier. We stopped at a taco restaurant and ordered a meat platter (mmm meat) which ended up being a LOT of food so we took the remainder takeaway. Afterwards we did a few stops of nearby budget hotels as we would need to get our own hotel after the tour had finished and we wanted to be prepared. Heading back we discovered that we had missed the last colectivo back to our hotel and would potentially need to take a taxi which wouldn’t be cheap in this touristy part of the country. Looking like confused tourists does pay off sometimes as a colectivo driver pulled up beside us and asked where we were off to and offered to drive us out there for only 10 peso more than what the colectivo would’ve cost. Yay! I guess the price for the 20 minute drive would be beer money for him.
The next morning we were woken by monkeys which was a new experience. The loud booming sounds of the howler monkeys was a little scary sounding but a good alarm clock. We had to meet our driver for the day at reception at 6am so it ended up being another early start. Luckily we had a new driver who was more pleasant as well as a better driver than the previous day.
On our way we stopped for breakfast (which was included) and we ate our fill from a simple buffet of eggs, beans and rice. Yaxchilan is located right on the border of Guatemala and to get there we needed to leave our van and board small boats for 45 minutes before arriving at the site. It would have been a difficult place to get to back in it’s hey-day. The ruins are in a proper jungley feeling jungle and are covered in moss. After walking down a track we arrived at the first structure. This was an old temple and to reach the plaza we needed to find our way through the labyrinth of still standing temple rooms. Tom set off Indiana Jones style exploring the various rooms with the light on our tough camera, he was in his element. The cool and scary part of the temple (other than being in the dark) was the stereotypical temple animals. There were bats hanging out all over the roof which made their annoyed chirping sounds from above our heads when our cameras flashed or the light shone on them. More frightening than the bats (because I actually think bats are pretty cute) were the whip spiders. We had seen these twice before in a dark toilet in our hostel in Zihuatanejo as well as in Zipolite. But these ones were HUGE and numerous and I hate them! In case you don’t know what a whip spider is, or think it looks a little familiar in the photos, they were apparently the type of spider (a CGI version) used in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire when Madeye Moody demonstrates the unforgivable curses.
The rest of the site flew by as we had spent quite a bit of time in the first temple and we were on a time limit to get back to the boat. I think we both wish we had a little more time here. Soon we were back in the boats and off to lunch which was a standard but always tasty menu del dia before heading to our next site.
Bonampak is also in the jungle but closer to civilisation, around an area where there are a lot of local Mayan communities still keeping with their old traditions. The Bonampak site is quite small but had a decent sized pyramid which we climbed as well as three impressive rooms of murals still showcasing their bright colours.
After a short drive down the road we were dropped off at a rural cabaña style accommodation where we would stay the night and be fed dinner and breakfast before a four hour jungle walk in the morning. The basic hut which was our room seemed bug proof enough with a net over the roof of the cabaña. The dinner was a small basic plate consisting of a few quesadillas, luckily we had been fed sufficiently throughout the day. After dinner we got to know the other people who would be on our jungle walk before getting a good sleep. The next morning wasn’t an early start like we had for the previous two days so we were feeling perky at 8am when we showed our face for breakfast. Food again was basic; small and included the amusing addition of Bimbo branded pre-toasted bread. We have found this product hilarious as it’s sold in packets as pre-toasted, super processed white bread, so you tap it and it’s already crunchy and hard…weird. What’s wrong with popping a few slices of nice grainy bread into a toaster? Sigh, things we miss from home.
After breakfast we were joined by a local woman who would be our guide for the walk and off we all trooped down the road and into the jungle. The tracks were small and often bisected by other trails. I’m so happy we had a guide as a person could get completely lost within the kilometres of jungles around this area of Mexico. During the walk we saw lots of different varieties of bugs including a millipede with bright orange stripes, beautiful butterflies, heaps of cicadas, a large spider, some tiny frogs and even a snake, although the snake was quick to move in the opposite direction from us. I asked our guide whether there are tarantulas in the jungle to which she replied “Yes but they are seen more in the roofs of the cabañas”. I’m glad I discovered this AFTER spending the night…
We walked for ages, crossing multiple streams forded by dodgy log bridges, all to the soundtrack of the loudest cicadas I have ever heard. Finally we arrived at a small hill within the jungle, this was the remains of an old Mayan temple and we climbed to the top where we could see the old room at the summit. Because of the protected nature of this area of jungle and potentially the remote area this temple would never become a manicured tourist trap like others in the Yucatan.
After more walking we arrived at a river where we could go for a dip to refresh. The walking wasn’t hard as the terrain was all flat but the jungle was a little humid and we were glad to cool down in the river. We stripped off and dove (literally) into a deep pool, this pool had a dead tree trunk where Tom and I decided we would play a game of gladiators. I won…but that’s because I have better balance than Tom and the log was slippery. The natural spa pools made from small waterfalls were lovely as well. Drying off we set off back through the jungle to return to the accommodation to eat lunch and relax for the afternoon before our van driver was due to pick us up.
Arriving late afternoon back into Palenque we checked out a few more hotels before settling on one just off the main street. Our plan for the next day was to revisit the archaeological site so we could take our time exploring the different parts of the ruins. We went on a mission to the supermarket so we could pick up supplies to make our own ham tortas to take with us.
Arriving at Palenque ruins early was lovely in the morning air, much preferred to the heat from midday onwards. Saying that I still struggled (and continue to struggle) with the temperature in the Yucatan, my body hates it and I get disgustingly sweaty. It also makes me quite cranky…sorry Tom…
After winding our way downhill through the less popular areas we exited near the museum for a quick look at what that had to offer. We had been at the site for about four hours so we wanted to be quick in the museum, although we stuck around to see the different videos on Pakal the famous ruler of Palenque with potentially the most famous tomb in Meso-America.
Our next stop was Aluxes Eco-parque where we spent a very enjoyable few hours checking out the various animals and birds. We had been warned by the lady at the ticket desk to watch out for the blue and black bird in the park as it likes to steal stuff. We didn’t know what to expect or where this bird was until we entered a walk-through aviary. This character of a bird immediately made itself known to us and Tom was able to get it to stand on his hand and give it a pat. Super cute bird but very cheeky and a little obsessed with attacking my shoes for some reason. While we were having a giggle over this bird two green parrots made themselves at home on my cap. Luckily we both like birds as I imagine this could be a nightmare for people who have ornithophobia.
That night we walked around searching for somewhere to eat and typically after venturing out multiple blocks we returned to a small eatery ten meters from our hotel. We decided to order sopes, these are something we haven’t really eaten much of as I’m pretty sure this is what we got food poisoning from way, way back in Puerto Vallarta at the start of our travels. Sopes are soft thick tacos topped with frijoles, your choice of meat/vegetable option, lettuce, crumbled cheese and crema. Drool! We enjoyed them so much that we returned the next night as well, luckily with no food poisoning this time around.
Originally we had planned to return to Agua Azul for a day trip but after some great internet research by Tom we decided to visit Cascadas de Roberto Barrios. We took an easy colectivo to get to the site which was much closer to Palenque than if we had gone for our original option. The waterfalls ended up being stunning, there were no stalls selling crap here at all and only a handful of other people. We had our pick of heaps of different pools naturally made by the water so we worked our way through a few different ones over the course of the afternoon. The water was clear and cool. A tree truck cantilevered over a large pool gave us the opportunity to carefully walk up the trunk before diving in, great fun! As was running off waterfalls and exploring a cave. Some other tourists who were at the waterfalls with us showed us this cave, it was tricky to blank out my mind and enter it as you had to dive under the water about 30 cm and swim inside a half meter. The cave was tiny and after being checked out by multiple people the air was starting to get a bit stagnant. We had been told that the last colectivo back to town was between 3 and 4 pm but after chatting to one of the other groups of tourists we knew we could get a ride in their booked colectivo at 4.30 pm. This idea was a failure, as we realised when we couldn’t find those people at the entrance that there were two entrances. It wasn’t looking good for us in this tiny remote town 14 km from the main road and walking would take forever especially as I had hurt the arch of my foot after slipping down the wooden stairs at the waterfalls. It had already started to show an impressive bruise. We must have looked desperate as one of the locals said there was a colectivo heading back to town but it was for another (different) group. When they showed up they luckily took pity on us and allowed us to pay our way back to Palenque, the cost was the same as our colectivo that morning. Whew we were lucky not to be walking.
As I mentioned before we returned to the same place for more sopes for dinner. A guisado is like a stewed meat dish which can be any meat and any flavour, the options we tried for our sopes were picadillo (beef mince with vegetables, this reminds me of the filling to shepherds pie), tinga de pollo (chicken), cochinita pibil (pork), pollo mole (chicken mole) champiñones (mushrooms), rajas (green poblano chillis with cream and corn) as well as others, and they were all awesome. We are quite familiar with the various flavours of Mexican cuisines and both have our favourites. The one I don’t understand, and avoid, is chicharron which is like pork crackling that has been recooked in a sauce making it squishy again. To me this defies the purpose of pork crackling which is supposed to be crunchy, but even then I’m not a huge fan of crackling….(this is your opportunity to boo, hiss and throw stones…).
So we had a productive visit in Palenque but were ready to keep moving on to our next destination. Tom had made friends in a Modelorama (Modelo branded beer shop) with a guy who organised tours, he gave us a tip that there was a cheaper way to get to Villahermosa which was by shuttle. We easily found the company who ran the shuttle and waited for the next one.
The drive to Villahermosa was uneventful over the potholed roads and we arrived into muggy hot air. On our walk to find cheap hotels we only managed to find places which went from awful to nasty and overpriced at that. After a smelly walk down litter filled streets we eventually found ourselves at the ADO bus station. This was not an appealing city for us and without even checking out the zocalo we decided to ditch Villahermosa. Planning on heading to Campeche straight away meant we would not only have an overnight bus ahead of us but a six hour wait in the bus station. Our phone and tablet were quite low in battery so our first plan after buying tickets was to discover a power-point. No luck in the bus terminal so we ventured out into the next door mall. Finding some near a selection of ATM’s we looked a little dodgy hanging around near where people were checking balances and withdrawing cash but soon someone else joined us so it was obviously a phone charge point. During this we each headed out to get food and returned; me to the supermarket and Tom to Subway.
Finally our devices were charged and it was time for us to return to the terminal waiting room. It wasn’t super comfortable but we settled in and watched a few episodes of Breaking Bad until our bus was called. It had been a long day but we were on our way to Campeche, arrival would be early so hopefully we could both get a good sleep in the bus.