How To Have a Mexican Road Trip

We don’t mean to toot our own horn (get it? road trip? horn?) but we’ve pretty much become experts on driving in Mexico. That’s what happens when you spend 18 months driving 24,737 miles thoroughly exploring 29 of the country’s 31 states (Monterey and Tamulipas, we’ll get you on the way back up). Here are our top tips about how to have a Mexican road trip so you can make the most of your own driving adventure in Mexico. We sure wish we’d known this stuff before we left…

 

1. Fuel is cheaper in Mexico than it is in the US

During our travels we paid an average of $2.40 per gallon for diesel for our truck when fuel was cheaper and the exchange rate was stronger than it is now. Still, fuel costs remain below the US average. As of June 24, 2011 (calculated at the current exchange rate 11.81 pesos = US$1):

Magna (regular unleaded) was 9.24 pesos/liter  =  US$2.96/gallon;

Premium was 10.34 pesos/liter  =  US$3.31/gallon;

Diesel was 9.60 pesos/liter  =  US$3.08/gallon.  NOTE: there is virtually no ultra low sulfur diesel available in Mexico, but PEMEX has announced future plans to refine ULSD in the future.

Here’s a good place to find current fuel prices in Mexico.

 

2. There is only one gas station chain in Mexico

It’s called Pemex and it’s owned by the Mexican government which sets fuel prices for the entire country (though fuel can be a touch pricier near the US border and a touch cheaper in the free-trade zones in the southern border areas with Belize and Guatemala). This means you don’t have to waste time (and fuel) driving all over creation comparing prices at the Shell and the Exxon and the BP. What you see is what you get so just pull in and fill up.

 

3. All gas stations are full service in Mexico

Learn to say “Por favor, lavar el parabrisas” and they’ll clean your windshield too. We generally give the guy (and, occasionally, the girl) a couple of pesos for the effort. Another good gas station phrase to know: “Acceptan tarjetas de crédito?” (Do you accept credit cards?). Even if they say yes, ask them to run a charge through for the amount of gas you want before you pump. We’ve been left paying for a big fill-up in cash after the local Bancomer refused to process our credit card which the attendant said the station accepted.

 

4. You can use a GPS in Mexico–sort of

Magellan makes a GPS device that includes data for Mexican roads. It’s called the Roadmate 1470 and we used it throughout the country. Even so, it’s a bit tricky to use in small towns or in remote areas where data is thin and it can be confusing finding specific streets because name abbreviations are so often used. Sometimes it can be even more confusing in cities that can have dozens of variations of the same street name. Still, our Magellan did help us get oriented in big cities which is very helpful.

 

5. Better yet, buy a Guia Roji

Available at most big book stores in Mexico and at some big gas stations, this is the Rand McNally atlas for Mexico and still the best source of roadway and city maps plus it has a relatively accurate chart that will help you calculate what the tolls will cost if you choose to take the country’s pay highways instead of the network of free roads (see below).

 

 

 

 

 

6. Pay  Highway vs. Free Roads…

Pay highway pros: wide and well paved; usually bypass towns and villages; virtually unenforced speed limit; fastest way between two points–often 2-3 times faster than the free road route; you’ll often have the whole road to yourself; drivers on pay highways are automatically covered by limited insurance that covers civil liability, medical payments and funeral expenses (this does NOT satisfy your requirement to have Mexican insurance, however–see below); pay highways are patrolled by the Green Angels, an amazing fleet of bright green tow trucks driven by mechanics ready to fix what’s broken free of charge (see below).

Pay highway cons: tolls can add up (the 178 mile pay road between Puebla and Veracruz costs US$28, that’s more than a peso per kilometer, and you could spend more than US$350 in tolls driving from one end of the country to the other); since pay highways bypass towns and villages you don’t see much of real Mexico–driving on a pay highway is virtually the same as driving on a US interstate.

Free road pros: no tolls; since they pass through towns and villages you see Mexican life as you travel.

Free road cons: can be 2-3 times slower than the pay highway route; often narrow roads that connect towns and cities becoming slow moving main streets through each town and city along the way before turning back into a “highway” out of town; lots of topes (see below); cheaper trucking companies use the free roads too, so there are often big trucks on small roads.

You can get a detailed driving route with pay highway times and tolls from Mexico’s Secretary of Communications and Transportation. This is a particularly great tool for planning routes between cities.

 

7. The Green Angels make AAA look like a racket

Any driver on any road in Mexico can call the Green Angels and a bright green truck driven by bilingual mechanics will show up (8 am to 6 pm) ready to fix what’s broken for the price of the parts/fuel/oil (tips are appreciated). Green Angels patrol the pay highways, but if you don’t see one when you need one you just dial 078 and they’ll come to you.

 

 

 

8. Topes are a bitch

Tope (pronounced toe-pay) is the Spanish word for bump and is used for speed bumps. These concrete and rock humps in the road vary in steepness, width and severity but they’re all hellish. In the course of our Trans-Americas Journey we must have driven over tens of thousands of them. They are efficient and brutal–especially the ones that are unsigned and sneak up on you before you can slow down. There’s a reason there’s almost always a tire repair shack at or near a tope.

They’re also dreadful for your fuel economy and your shocks–which is part of the reason we upgraded to Bilstein shocks.

By the time we left Mexico we’d come up with two new terms relating to topes (no, they’re not swear words):

-nope (pronounced no-pay): What you find when you slow down and reach what you thought was a tope only to discover that it’s not.

-rope (pronounced row-pay): A tope made by laying a massive rope across the road. These can be even more brutal than the stone and concrete varieties.

 

9. Hoy no circula!

Mexico City’s air quality has improved dramatically in recent years, thanks in part to the innovative hoy no circula (today you can’t drive) rules that designate “no driving” days for all private vehicles in Mexico City and the state of Mexico based on the last number in your license plate. These rules absolutely apply to foreign drivers and it’s important to understand the rules, follow them and be armed with a good working knowledge of the program so you can make your case when a Mexico City cop pulls you over and (wrongly) accuses you of driving on a day or at a time you aren’t supposed to, which has happened to us. Here’s where to get complete hoy no circula rules in English.

You can also apply for a 14 day tourist waiver that exempts you from the hoy no circula rules in Mexico City.

 

10. Shakedown breakdown

Even armed with full knowledge of Mexican road rules and full compliance with said rules you will probably get pulled over by a cop in Mexico. Despite the fact that the Mexican government has made it illegal for the police to extort drivers for money (that had to be officially spelled out?), it still happens to locals and to foreigners. Soon after arriving in Mexico an expat tipped us off to this trick for getting out of these situations and after being pulled over multiple times in Mexico we can tell you that it works.

A. Act dumb and pretend that you don’t understand much Spanish, why you were stopped or what the cop is asking for. Maybe the cop will get bored and irritated and give up at this point. If he doesn’t…

B. Have the person in the passenger seat (also acting clueless and stupidly kind of excited by this “brush with the natives”) pull out a point and shoot camera and start happily taking pictures of this vacation memory in the making. Smile. Shoot some more.

C. Drive away. Because all cops know that extortion is illegal none of them will want to be photographed in the act. The cop will probably get angry when he sees the camera, but he will also tell you to get the hell out of there and the whole altercation will be over with no money paid, no shouting and no confrontation.

 

11. Mexicans are not bad drivers (they just have some wacky habits)

Two of the most important Mexican driving habits to understand are as follows:

A. Making two lanes into three lanes. Many two-lane Mexican roads have ample shoulders. This allows for an intricate ballet that involves slower traffic driving primarily on the shoulder allowing faster traffic to pass straddling the center line in an imaginary third lane. Cooperation from all parties is obviously required.

B. A left turn signal does not mean I’m turning left. Usually, it means “it’s clear to pass me.” This leads to some confusion when you really want to make a left hand turn which is accomplished by pulling over to the right of the road and waiting for all traffic behind you to pass, then turning left.

 

12. Not all Mexican auto insurance is created equal

You must carry Mexican auto liability insurance if you’re going to drive your own car in the country, but who you choose can make a huge difference. A company called Adventure Mexican Insurance Services acts as a brokerage for Mexican auto insurance and it is totally Trans-Americas Journey approved. They’re based in the U.S. and their 800# is always staffed with English speakers who can help with questions or issues, they offer great rates and they have fixers who can help solve claims problems. If we’d gone through Adventure Mexican Insurance Services instead of buying direct from stinky old GNP Insurance in the first place, we wouldn’t have gotten so screwed when a taxi ran into us and GNP jerked us around when we made a claim. That’s why when it was time to get a new policy we went right to these guys.

Use this link to purchase your insurance through Adventure Mexican Insurance Services and you won’t pay any more but we’ll get a small comission which will help us put a few more gallons in our gas tank.

 

13. You can’t beat a Mexican car wash

They’re cheap (less than 60 pesos, about US$5, for the exterior of our huge truck) and they’re often meticulous. Basically, a team of guys descends on your vehicle with high pressure washers and buckets of suds. No surface is left un-scrubbed, including the wheel wells and undercarriage. The whole thing culminates in a wipe down and polish of all rubber/plastic surfaces including your tires. We’ve had epic washes all over Mexico but the car washes in Mexico City and outside Playa del Carmen stand out. Set aside at least 45 minutes.

They’ll give the same treatment to your interior too for just a few pesos more.

 


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Mujeres y Mayans – Tapachula, Chiapas, Mexico

Tapachula could be just another border town (when your Wiki page starts with “Tapachula is a hot, humid town…” it ain’t good), however, there are two standout reasons to stop.

The first is Casa Mexicana, a boutique hotel with just 10 rooms each named for an iconic Mexican woman. Yes, Frida gets a room. Bt the hotel also pays homage to Doña Josepha Ortiz de Dominguez, known as La Corregidora, a privileged woman who lived in Querétaro and was one of the earliest agitators for Mexican independence. Then there’s  Ofelia Medina, a seminal Mexican actress and singer who’s still alive today. And Maria Bonita, a famous beauty who had an infamous affair with a singer who gave her her name. Short bios of each woman are part of the eclectic and colorful in-room decor.

One of the rooms at Casa Mexicana in Tapachula, Mexico.


In fact, the whole place is fun to look at too–chock full of art and kitch collected by the peripatetic owners, including an impressive mask collection, some fascinating religious art and a massive two-part painting of women’s legs in fishnets that was rescued from a burlesque hall in Mexico City.

This pair of paintings at Casa Mexicana was salvaged from a burlesque hall in Mexico City.

Lucha in a box! Just one of the many playful pieces of art in Casa Mexicana.


There’s also a swimming pool, an inviting open air bar, a great restaurant and charming co-owner Manuel. With doubles from around US$80 it’s a great value.

The swimming pool at Casa Mexicana in Tapachula, Mexico.


The second reason to do more than just pass through Tapachula is the Mayan ruins at Izapa archaeological site. Some experts believe that this collection of three little-visited sites which may have played an important role in Mayan astrology and calendar making. Yes, that same calendar that “ends” in 2012 which has sparked theories ranging from “it’s the end of the world” to “it’s a chance for humanity to reboot” to “they must have run out of stone.”

A plaza at one of the areas that makes up the Izapa archaeological site which some experts believe is connected to the Mayan calendar which mysteriously ends in 2012.

A rana (frog) altar at one of the areas that makes up the Izapa archaeological site which some experts believe is connected to the Mayan calendar which mysteriously ends in 2012.


All three of the pre-Hispanic sites lie a few miles outside of Tapachula on the way to the Guatemala border. They’re small, free and overseen by a caretaker family. You will likely be the only visitor there. All day. There are not a lot of structures to see in the Izapa group, but there are carved rocks galore, including what some believe to be the origins of the calendar which mysteriously comes to an end in 2012.

Small stele at one of the areas that makes up the Izapa archaeological site which some experts believe is connected to the Mayan calendar which mysteriously ends in 2012.

An unusual fertility sculpture at one of the areas that makes up the Izapa archaeological site which some experts believe is connected to the Mayan calendar which mysteriously ends in 2012.


Need another reason to put  Tapachula on the itinerary? It’s also the jumping off point to the coffee fincas of the Ruta de Cafe, which we raved about in our last post.




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Coffee Culture – Finca Hamburgo & Finca Argovia, Ruta de Cafe, Chiapas, Mexico

Chiapas has the legacy of the Zapatistas, the many charms of San Cristóbal de las Casas, and some of the most vibrant indigenous cultures in all of Mexico. As if that weren’t enough to love, this state also produces outstanding coffee (not that we like Starbucks, but the mega chain gets a chunk of its supply of coffee from Chiapas).

You can thank the Germans. More than 100 years ago the Mexican government sent out a call for help to Germany saying it would welcome immigrants willing to develop and then work coffee growing and processing plantations in the highlands of Chiapas which had been identified as prime coffee growing terrain.

Coffee on the bush in Chiapas, Mexico. The red beans are nearly ripe.


At the time, every harvested coffee bean (then referred to as “green gold”) in the world passed through the port in Hamburg, Germany  before being distributed around the world so reaching out to Germany for help made sense. Many German families answered the call and soon the hills were alive with coffee.

Then came WWII and deep suspicion of Germans which eventually lead to deportations and land reclamation that saw some German families in Mexico lose it all. When they were able to return to Mexico many were asked to buy back their own land.

Today, coffee is flourishing in Chiapas. There are up to 400 million coffee plants producing here and many coffee fincas (farms) are still run by descendants of the original pioneering German families. A few of them have expanded their plantations to also offer tours, boutique hotels and innovative new eco farming practices.

Two of them lie above the town of Tapachula in the highlands of Soconusco, Chiapas–an area referred to as the Ruta de Cafe.

The beneficio (processing plant) at Finca Hamburgo, one of many coffee plantations in Chiapas.


Finca Hamburgo

Finca Hamburgo was founded in 1888 by Arthur Erich Edelmann from Perleberg, Germany and his wife Doris Mertens. Like all of the coffee pioneers in Mexico, the Edelmann family had to plant thousands of coffee plants on incredibly steep hillsides and build facilities for the processing of coffee (they put in the first flying fox in Mexico) and run it all using power from their own hydroelectric plant.

Finca Hambrugo is still run by descendants of Arthur Erich Edelmann, but a few other things have changed since 1888, as we found out when we were invited to visit. But first we had to get there. Though just a few dozen miles from the town of Tapachula, the journey up into the coffee growing region takes at least an hour on a well-worn dirt road (no rental cars, please).

Still it’s an easier journey today than back in the late 1800s when the fincas were established. At that time it took three days to get from Tapachula to the plantations. Once we reached Finca Hamburgo at 4,100 feet we were rewarded with cooler temperatures and views of Volcan Tacaná (the highest point in Central America at 13,320 feet (4,060 meters) on the border between Mexico and Guatemala. On a very, very clear day it’s also possible to see the Chiapas coastline from here.

Karen enjoying a sunrise cup of coffee grown on site and delivered to our door at Finca Hamburgo.


Finca Hamburgo continues as a working coffee plantation (one of the largest) but it’s now also in the tourism business offering six rooms and two suites, all with deep wrap-around porches–perfect for enjoying those views and your morning coffee. The hotel looks and feels a bit like two big Cape Codders plunked down on a ridge in Chiapas. There’s also a restaurant where you can get German beer.

The Cape Cod-esque guest rooms at Finca Hamburgo in Chiapas, Mexico.

Burlap sacks for coffee grown and processed at Finca Hamburgo in Chiapas, Mexico.


More rustic but incredibly atmospheric rooms (tile floors, patios, heavy wood beams) are sometimes available at Finca San Francisco, the operation’s flower farm where exotic flowers are grown in huge hothouses before being washed, trimmed and meticulously packed (sometimes shrink-wrapped) and shipped to big floral companies overseas.

Exotic flowers being grown for export at Finca San Francisco, the hothouse flower portion of the Finca Hamburgo coffee plantation in Chiapas, Mexico.


Finca Hamburgo has also turned part of its original processing plant (called a beneficio) into a museum full of photos and tools and other artifacts from the plantations early days in the late 1800s, including what’s left of its ground-breaking flying fox.

Coffee beans drying in the sun at Finca Argovia.


An even better example of how to take coffee history forward with insight and innovation is Finca Argovia, down the hill from Finca Hamburgo on the way back down to Tapachula.


Finca Argovia

Sure there’s a hotel at Finca Argovia and it’s a member of the prestigious Tesoros Hotel Group offering a lovely collection of beautiful wooden cabins in the jungle that we really loved. There are three cabins for two people, three larger family cabins, one two-room suite and one Casa Grande with a kitchen and everything. All of them are well-appointed, stylish, peaceful and really impart a sense of place.

Our cabin at Finca Argovia.


There are no TVs or phones but there are fresh cut flowers (more on those in a minute) and fun golf carts to shuttle you around the cobble stone paths back to the main building and the restaurant where staff are trained for days in the art of brewing the perfect cup of coffee. The welcome “cocktail” is a petite scoop of powerfully addictive homemade coffee ice cream and when we were there a new pool, spa and luxury tent accommodation were all in the works. We already want to go back and check it out.

This massive coffee dryer at Finca Argovia is well over than 50 years old and still going strong.


But the hotel, spa and restaurant are just part of  the vision of Bruno Geismann, the fourth generation of his family to run Finca Argovia, and his overall goal of being totally self-sufficient economically and totally sustainable agriculturally.

Bruno, an imposing combination of German physique and Mexican mannerisms, believes diversification is the best way to offset the vagaries of coffee prices which can spike and drop drastically. Bruno poses a convincing argument that coffee really should be about $200 a pound in the supermarket based on the cost of producing it and the amount many people are willing to spend on a cup of coffee (Starbucks, again).

Relax. Bruno doesn’t actually propose that we should all pay $200 a pound–just that $8 or $11 a pound is clearly too little. In addition, he insists that Fair Trade coffee movements have done little to trickle retail level coffee profits down to the actual coffee growers who still get pennies per pound.

Bruno’s growing success with a combination of working coffee plantation, luxurious lodge/spa/restaurant and eco-agro flower business is radical thinking and a radical investment in the coffee business where profit margins are often pennies. It’s also the best way for Bruno to prove that his green leanings are also good business.

We were surprised to learn that burlap sacks used to pack and ship coffee beans are one of the priciest items in the production of coffee.


As a visitor you can tour Bruno’s labors on a two hour sunrise hike up through his jungle-shaded coffee plants to a lovely mirador for views of Volcan Tacaná (with a thermos of fresh coffee, of course) or sign up for coffee processing and flower production tours–which Bruno was kind enough to lead us on.

Bruno is a passionate eco-agriculturist and very proud of the fact that his coffee is organically grown and that his processing is done using hydroelectric energy generated at the finca. His processing also uses a minimum of water and what is used to clean, de-hull and ferment the coffee beans is treated at an on-site residual water treatment plant–the only one of its kind in Mexico–before being returned to the gorgeous rivers on his property. The discarded coffee hulls, usually a waste product of coffee processing, are used as compost at Finca Argovia.

Even Bruno’s machinery is recycled, sort of. Most of it is original to the 100+ year old business and it’s still chugging along.

Sunrise behind Guatemala's Volcan Tacaná--the highest point in Central America--as seen from the hilltop mirador at Finca Argovia in Chiapas, Mexico.


With so much land and such a need to diversify his business, Bruno quickly saw the potential in growing ornamental tropical flowers. Today he has devoted many acres to growing haliconias, orchids, ginger blossoms and other exotics which he gets around 10 pesos for (less than US$1). per stem Anyone reading this in North America or Europe knows that each stem of these coveted flowers goes for many dollars apiece through your local florist or online flower seller.

Finca Argovia also works to protect and enrich soil, preserve indigenous forests and keep trees along all streams and rivers to conserve water.

Part of the labor-intensive process of harvesting, washing and packing the organically grown exotic flowers at Finca Argovia.


Bruno says his eco approach is not making him rich, but he is able to turn a small profit more easily since his fortunes are not completely tied to the traditional coffee market. The results are delicious too. Finca Argovia’s small-batch organic coffee is sold around the world and served in some very fine restaurants, including the restaurant at the celeb-favorite five-star hotel Maroma on Mexico’s Riviera Maya.

Haliconia flowers ready for packing and shipping to floral companies around the world.


Finca Argovia is profiting in other ways too. Our cabin (like all of them) was right in the middle of the jungle but there were almost no mosquitoes. We could sit on the gorgeous porch at dusk and not get bitten. Incredible. This is, according to Bruno, because the environment at Finca Argovia is finally back in balance.

So much so that Finca Argovia has earned certifications from The Rainforest Alliance, USDA, Organic Farming, JAS and bird-friendly organizations concerned with promoting coffee cultivation which retains bird habitat. Things are so healthy in the forest around Finca Argovia that an independent audit of birds on the property found more than 150
species and the rare resplendent quetzal has also been spotted nearby.

Why more bird watchers don’t come to Finca Argovia is a mystery: you’ve got world-class birds and world-class coffee to help you get up at dawn to see them…

Our thanks to both fincas for teaching us how to drink coffee without putting milk in it. It’s not hard. Just drink good coffee.

The cafe/bar area at Finca Argovia.

More Chiapas coffee.

Sunset over hillsides covered in coffee bushes in Chiapas, Mexico.





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Pits and Parrots – Parque Nacional Cañón del Sumidero & Sima de las Cotorras, Chiapas, Mexico

In many ways it was very hard to leave San Cristóbal de las Casas. But in one way it was very easy: it’s all downhill from there. Between San Cristóbal de las Casas and Tuxtla Gutiérrez the well-maintained road drops 6,000 feet via the non-pay highway out of town. We didn’t touch the gas for 20 miles. Heaven.

 

Chiapa de Corzo & Tuxtla Gutiérrez

Our first stop, once we reached the bottom of that massive hill, was the colonial town of Chiapa de Corzo which was charming  but way too expensive for us (a festival was on so hotel prices were all jacked up). We quickly moved on to Tuxtla (no one uses the second half of this city’s name) where we found the biggest hotel values on the Journey so far.

Fuente Colonial, a brick fountain built in 1562 in Chiapa de Corzo.

 

Hotel San Antonio in Tuxtla has four rooms around a small back courtyard that go for 200 pesos (about US$17). Each is spotlessly clean (they have a gadget that dusts the ceiling fan blades and they use it!) with cable TV and a double bed and a private bathroom.

The courtyard is lovely and the WiFi works. For some reason the rooms upstairs are more expensive (perhaps because they’re larger) but they’re stuffy and dirty and the WiFi signal is weaker up there, so don’t get fooled. If you can get into one of the 200 peso courtyard rooms downstairs you’ve scored.

During an evening stroll around Tuxtla (not much going on) we discovered that the city’s cathedral was brutally “renovated” in the late ’80s and now holds no charm except for the hourly parade of saints out of its clock tower. We ended up at Jardin de la Marimba (Marimba Garden) where a dance festival was taking place featuring fairly aged dancers. Each surprisingly spry troop performed traditional regional dances in traditional regional costumes. Of course the troop representing Chiapas got the loudest applause.

See for yourself in our video, below.

 

Another Tuxtla bargain? The Zoologico Miguel Alvarez del Toro Zoo on Mondays when the zoo is free to nationals and visitors. The zoo is laid out on a sprawling, wooded, shady chunk of land just outside the city and it features a gorgeous black panther and some jaguars, a resplendent quetzal bird and a couple of sadly stuffed harpy eagles, among other things. The enclosures are decent and its a very popular place for families.

 

Parque Nacional Cañón del Sumidero

Part of the dramatic canyon that makes up Parque Nacional Cañón del Sumidero in Chiapas, as seen from one of the view points on the rim.

 

Between Tuxtla and Chiapa de Corzo is the entrance to the Parque Nacional Cañón del Sumidero. We opted out of the pricey and loud motor boat rides up the river at the bottom of this deep, steep canyon and chose to see its massiveness from above from a series of five miradors (view points) off a central road along the canyon’s rim.

Part of the dramatic canyon that makes up Parque Nacional Cañón del Sumidero in Chiapas, as seen from one of the view points on the rim.

 

The 10 mile road that connects the miradors was as close to a US-style National Park road as we’ve seen since leaving the US: narrow, winding and full of slow moving buses, passenger cars and tourist vans full of gawking travelers. The turnouts to the miradors had ample parking and paths to the canyon rim. All of the miradors except #5 had picnic tables too.

 

Sima de las Cotorras

The Sima de las Cortorras is 525 feet wide and 460 feet deep and full of parrots.

 

From there we headed to Sima de las Cotorras (Abyss of the Parrots), a massive almost perfectly round sinkhole that’s 525 feet (160 meters) wide and 460 feet (140 meters) deep. That’s amazing enough, but there’s a forest at the bottom of this sinkhole that’s home to hundreds of green parrots which fly out en masse each morning and trickle back in every afternoon.

A tame parrot amongst hundreds of wild ones at Sima de las Cortorras in Chiapas, Mexico.

 

Tourist facilities around this amazing bird-filled hole in the ground were created with the help of Sendasur, the same orgnization that helped created Las Guacamayas (where the main attraction are scarlet macaws) and they’re both impressive places.

At the sima we checked into a room in the small two story stone guesthouse on the property. For 300 pesos (about US$25) we got a charming room with a great bathroom and a private furnished balcony. There are good raised-platform camping sites here too (100 pesos) that come with flush toilets and sinks (but no showers). The on-site restaurant also served great food, including some of the best hand made tortillas we’ve had in Mexico.

The pet parrot kept by the folks who run the restaurant loved the tortillas too, as Eric found out. Watch them sharing breakfast in our video, below.

 

Those bright green specks against the gray karst rock are parrots emerging from the Sima de las Cortorras at dawn..

Wild parrots emerging from the Sima de las Cortorras in Chiapas, Mexico.

 

A trail has been built below the rim inside the crater which takes you around the hole. A badass local guide named Nancy will lead you around or even harness you in for a rappel a bit deeper into the ground where you can see more than 40 pre-Hispanic paintings and hand prints which were somehow put on the walls more than 200 feet below the rim between 5,000 and 10,000 years ago.

Wild parrots emerging from the Sima de las Cortorras in Chiapas, Mexico.

 

But the real attraction is watching the mass exodus of parrots at sunrise. Around 6 am we heard a tentative “buenos dias” outside our room and that was our cue that the birds were on the move. Sound is amplified inside the sinkhole, so the birds wings and cries sounded extra loud. They flew incredibly quickly (making photograhy and video tricky in the early morning light) as the first handful of birds grew into a crescendo of green wings.

Wild parrots taking a brief break after emerging from the Sima de las Cortorras in Chiapas, Mexico.

 

Like the thousands of swifts which saw emerge from the Sótano de las Golondrinas in Aquisimon, Mexico, this mega flight was amazing but brief.

Not so amazing? The nearby Aguacera Waterfall. Feel free to skip it and its 25 peso per person entrance fee.

 

Eric and his new friend.

 

 

 


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Zapatista Signs of the Times – Chiapas, Mexico

The New York Times called the Zapatista movement “the first post-modern revolution.” The movement boiled to the surface on January 1, 1994, the day the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) went into effect–when mysterious balaclava-wearing Zapatista leader Subcomandante Marcos and Comandante Romona lead thousands of armed villagers in a surprise attack on the Mexican army which culminated in a bloody shootout in the main plaza of San Cristóbal del as Casas in Chiapas, Mexico. Fighting went on for years and the Mexican Army still maintains a very visible presence in the area.

Though technically still at war with the Mexican government, the days of palpable Zapatista revolution (which called for land rights, resource rights, rights for women and economic and educational equality for Mexico’s indigenous poor) seem gone. For the visitor, at least, the most noticeable remains of the movement are hand-painted signs and murals which keep the spirit alive in the many rural village that support the EZLN (Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional, the Zapatista government) in Chiapas.

We saw dozens of Zapatista and EZLN signs throughout the state and here are a few of our favorites examples of this ongoing artful protest.


This mural, on a building in the Oventic caracol, an autonomous village run by or Zapatistas, depicts corn (a symbol of the land), an indigenous woman defending her rights and Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata--the inspiration for the term Zapatista.

This sign shows a snail (caracol in Spanish--which is also the word Zapatistas use for their autonomous villages) wearing the signature black balaclava of the movement's leader, Subcomandante Marcos. We love the Virgin of Guadalupe at the bottom wearing a typical EZLN red bandana over her face too.

In this sign little baby Zapatistas are depicted as growing ears of corn--wearing balaclavas, of course. Part of what was (and still is) radical about the Zapatistas was their inclusion of women and women's rights in their doctrine.

An ode to Emiliano Zapata, for which the Zapatista movement is named.

We loved the simple, graphic nature of this painted wall depicting Zapatista leader Subcomandante Marcos on the left and Emiliano Zapata on the right.

"Land and Liberty," two basic tenets of the Zapatista movement.

"The land belongs to those who work it" is a basic belief of all Zapatistas.

A tienda in a village in Chiapas which is sympathetic to the Zapatistas.

The Zapatistas stay involved in fresh issues that affect them too--including taking a strong stance against a major road project through Chiapas.

"You are in Zapatista territory" this sign proclaims.

This is one of the most understated EZLN signs we saw.

The Zapatistas stay involved in fresh issues that affect them too--including taking a strong stance against a major road project through Chiapas.

This sign welcomes you to an autonomous Zapatista village and makes it clear that the people here are "in rebellion."

An autonomous EZLN-run village makes its politics known.





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A Final Resting Place (finally) – Nahá, Lacandon Jungle, Chiapas, Mexico

In 1951 Danish historian, anthropologist, explorer, art history teacher, archaeologist and oil man Frans Blom and his Swiss wife Gertrude “Trudi” Duby Blom, a journalist and mountain climber turned photographer and ecologist, founded the Na Bolom Center of Scientific Studies based in San Cristóbal de las Casasin Chiapas, Mexico.


First wishes

Their goal was to preserve the ways and rights of the indigenous Lacandon people and other indigenous groups in the region and it’s virtually impossible to overstate the impact their documentation, respect and support have had on these groups. Their legacy is part of the reason the Lacandon and so many other cultures exist in Chiapas today—though with an estimated total population of just 800 people, the Lacandon aren’t out of the woods (or the jungle) yet.

One of the many jaguars at the Na Bolom (Jaguar House) museum, hotel and restaurant in San Cristóbal de las Casas.


Na Bolom (which means jaguar house) continues in its original non-profit mission. There’s also a wonderful hotel (Henry Kissinger and Diego Rivera have stayed here) with rooms in the main rambling house and dotted throughout a large and lush walled garden. Each one is decorated with traditional weavings, some of Trudi’s extraordinary black and white photographs of the striking Lacandon people and most also have fireplaces to ward off the high-altitude chill of San Cristóbal de las Casas (expansion work was underway when we were there).

Rooms are still set aside to accommodate any of indigenous people who may need to overnight in the city and many people use Na Bolom as a kind of drop in club house.

Members of local indigenous groups use the Na Bolom museum, hotel and restaurant as their haven in the city of San Cristóbal de las Casas.


Many of the writings and photographs that Frans and Trudi left behind are displayed in a small but informative on-site museum (open to guests and non-guests and definitely worth a visit for a crash course in the history of the Lacandon and other local indigenous groups).

Na Bolom in San Cristóbal de las Casas operates a museum, hotel and restaurant to help fund its non-profit work on behalf of the rights of local indigenous groups including the fast-disappearing Lacandon.


A visit to the Na Bolom museum also includes a tour of intimate spaces like Frans’ beloved library and Trudi’s bedroom which brings these two larger-than-life characters into sharp focus.  We were impressed with the sheer determination and innovation of Frans and Trudi (they definitely seem like “Just Do It” kind of people). We were also impressed with the passion of the staff and volunteers who continue their work, including a massive project to archive and preserve the tens of thousands of photographs that Trudi took in her lifetime.

The bedroom of Trudi Blom is now part of the museum at Na Bolom, the non-profit advocacy group she co-founded in 1951 in San Cristóbal de las Casas.


Last wishes

Both Frans and Trudi spent a good portion of their time in what is now Lacandon Jungle and when they died they stated that they wished to be buried in the jungle they knew and loved. Unfortunately, when Frans and Trudi passed (in 1963 and 1993 respectively) the jungle was still virtually impenetrable—especially carrying a coffin–and the Zapatista uprising at the time Trudi died made jungle trekking a complicated business as well.

2011 marks the 60th Anniversary of the founding of Na Bolom and the occasion seemed like the right time to finally lay its founders to rest in the place of their choosing.

Special coffins were hand made to carry the remains of Na Bolom founders Frans Blom and Trudi Blom to their final resting place in the Lacandon Jungle of Chiapas.


We were honored to be invited to travel to the Lacandon village of Nahá with a group from Na Bolom (and, of course, the remains of Frans and Trudi) and witness a very special ceremony to re-bury the Na Bolom founders in the Nahá cemetery next to Chan K’in Viejo, a legendary Lacandon leader (and friend to Frans and Trudi) who died in 1996 at the age of 104.

Na Bolom co-founder Trudi Blom with legendary Lacandon leader Chan K'in Viejo.


Once-in-a-lifetime opportunity

Among the group of devoted people from Na Bolom who traveled to Nahá was a woman named Doña Betty. As a child she was informally adopted by the Bloms (there’s a photo of Betty as a young woman in Trudi’s bedroom at Na Bolom) and she often made mule trips with them into this jungle where she worked as the camp cook.

On this occasion Doña Betty returned to familiar territory, running the camp kitchen (and accepting very little help) to feed the 25 people or so in our group. Doña Betty is in her late 70s now and she appeared to be as respected by many of the Lacandon as Frans and Trudi were.

Our group camped on land given to Trudi by the Lacandon. Nearby, the Lacandon of Nahá have also built a handful of bunglaows available to the scant tourists who make it out here (Na Bolom can arrange complete tours). The camping area consists of a long tin-roof covered shelter with a level dirt floor. The roof (and the methodically-maintained drainage ditch dug around the perimeter of the shelter by a mute Lacandon) proved crucial given the epic downpours that pelted us while we were there.

The camp also has an open-sided cooking/dining area (Doña Betty’s domain) plus an outhouse. All in all, more than adequate and far more comfort than we expected way out here in the Lacandon Jungle.

Carved coconut shell bowls full of a fermented drink called balche during a ceremonoy marking the re-burial of Na Bolom founders Frans Blom and Trudi Blom in the Lacandon village of Nahá in Chiapas, Mexico.


Final journey

Frans and Trudi made their final journey to Nahá and their beloved Lacandon Jungle in a pair of child-sized beautifully carved wooden caskets made specifically for their remains which were removed from their original graves in San Cristóbal de las Casas along with their enormous concrete headstone with a jaguar and a Mayan cross carved into it.

At 11:00 the morning after our arrival our group headed for Chan K’in Antonio’s house. As the son of Chan K’in Viejo, Chan K’in Antonio is the most devout keeper of Lacandon traditions. But he is not a shaman. Rather he believes that he, like all Lacandon, can speak directly to the Lacandon Gods and request help and favors. Better health. Better wealth. But there are no guarantees and there are certainly no miracles.

Chan K'in Antonio, son of legendary Lacandon leaders Chan K'in Viejo, who led the traditional ceremonies surrounding the re-burial of Na Bolom founders Frans Blom and Trudi Blom in the Lacandon village of Nahá.


Chan K’in Antonio is one of the few Lacandon to have a God House (something many Lacaondon used to have) and this is where the pre-burial ceremony took place. We filed into the God House, a 20′ by 15′ open-sided, dirt-floored, thatch-roof structure, and women sat on one side with men seated on the other. Almost everyone in the God House was part of our group from San Cristóbal de las Casas. Where were the people from Nahá we wondered.

This vessel is a replica of a very important Lacandon ceremonial piece. It was to meet an untimely end...

Chan K'in Antonio breaking out the balche, a fermented wild honey drink made in a wooden canoe.


Chan K’in Antonio wasn’t waiting around for them to arrive. He jumped right in with chanting in the fast-disappearing Lacandon language and distributing drops of balche (more on that later) to molded figures representing the Lacandon Gods. Each also received a small hand-formed ball of copal which was ultimately lit on fire.

Chan K'in Viejo leading an elaborate traditional Lacandon ceremony to mark the re-burial of Na Bolom founders Frans Blom and Trudi Blom in the Lacandon village of Nahá.

Chan K'in Viejo leading an elaborate traditional Lacandon ceremony to mark the re-burial of Na Bolom founders Frans Blom and Trudi Blom in the Lacandon village of Nahá.


The ceremony culminated in the drinking of balche, a beverage made of wild honey fermented for days in a wooden canoe. Balche is a cloudy, beige, sweet and sour vaguely slimy liquid. Not unpleasant, but not delicious either. However, balche is effective and a number of people noted a certain impatience in the ceremony as if some participants were rushing to get to the balche which was ladeled out of the canoe into a hand-made pottery jar (a replica of an important original vessel) then distributed in cups made from coconut shells. Sadly, the gorgeous ceramic jar was dropped and shattered later that night after perhaps one too many balches.

Part of a traditional Lacandon ceremony to mark the re-burial of Na Bolom founders Frans Blom and Trudi Blom in the Lacandon village of Nahá.


In the afternoon Frans and Trudi’s coffins were taken out of the Nahá community center, where they’d been displayed on top of a small shrine, and carried to our encampment accompanied by a procession of villagers. At the encampment, the coffins were displayed on top of the picnic tables in the dining area. Small bags of soil from Frans and Trudi’s birthplaces (Denmark and Switzerland, respectively) were added to the coffins.

The remains of Frans and Trudi Blom being carried to our jungle encampment on their way to the cemetery in the Lacandon village of Nahá.

Traditional meets modern as this Lacandon boy learns how to use a GPS device and a digital camera in the Lacandon village of Nahá.


As people shared stories and memories from the lives and times of Frans and Trudi, emotions started coming to the surface and by the time we put the coffins into the back of a small white pickup truck and convoyed to the cemetery tears were on the way.

With storm clouds building, a group of men lowered Frans and Trudi into a joint grave near that of Chan K’in Viejo then placed their massive concrete headstone and grave marker on top.

Frans and Trudi Blom's joint grave, near their friend Chan K'in Viejo, in the cemetery in the Lacandon village of Nahá.


Unlike at the God House, many villagers showed up at the cemetery including two ancient sisters dressed in gorgeous traditional dresses, each with a tiny, delicate bird wing adorning her long braids.

Villagers pay their respects before Na Bolom founders Frans and Trudi Blom are laid to rest in the cemeterty in the Lacandon village of Nahá.


The Lacandon believe that now that Frans, Trudi and Chan K’in Viejo have been reunited these three old friends can “continue their conversations” even in death. After witnessing some of the most solemn ceremonies of a threatened culture as they honored two of their most fervent defenders, we tend to agree.


Check out our video, below, and make up your own mind.





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The Last of the Lacandon? – Nahá & Metzabok, Chiapas, Mexico

The Lacandon Maya are the descendents of the Mayan who fled what is now southern Mexico and northern Guatemala in order to escape the Spanish. It worked and since that time the Lacandon have survived in the ever-shrinking jungle–what’s left of the millions of acres they once called home.


A Lacandon man sporting the traditional white tunic and long hair in the village of Metzabok in Chiapas, Mexico.


Changing times

Some Lacandon communities had no contact with the “outside world” until the mid-20th Century but things have changed fast since then. Inter-marriage, a yellow fever outbreak, the lure of the big city and general loss of the jungle areas that sustain the traditional Lacandon way of life mean that fewer and fewer Lacandon people are being born and even fewer are learning and practicing their traditional ways.

Even in what are considered to be Lacandon villages it’s common to see inter-cultural families. Some Lacandon families send one or more children to the nearest Mexican city to make pesos which are increasingly used in this society which once functioned just fine without the concept of money. As happens so often, some Lacandon kids are lured out of their villages in search of things like TVs and motorbikes.

A community meeting in the Lacandon village of Nahá.


Disappearing jungle

Then there’s the jungle problem. The Lacandon–not unlike the jaguar–require healthy jungle and lots of it to sustain their gentle and effective form of agro-forestry which includes crop rotation and hunting and gathering. Mexican ranchers and loggers, on the other hand, require enormous swaths of land to graze cattle on and extract timber from and these interests have been able to take over huge tracts of jungle only to clear it for timber and pasture land.

Almost all of the land surrounding the protected Lacandon Jungle has been cleared for ranching or logging.


Today there may be as few as 800 Lacandon left in the world…and by world, we mean Chiapas, Mexico.

In 1971 groups concerned with the continuation of Lacandon traditions and the shrinking jungle environment helped persuade the Mexican government to carve out and protect the Lacandon Jungle, a 1.5 million acre (614,000 hectare) chunk which is a haven for flora and fauna and home to the Montes Azules Biosphere Reserve and important Mayan archeological sites including Yaxchilan and Bonampak.


A friendly local rancher we stopped to chat with on his cleared property on the outskirts of the protected Lacandon Jungle.


The last of the Lacandon?

Three of the most vibrant remaining Lacandon settlements are Nahá, Lacanja Chansayab and Metzabok which are each believed to be locations where Lacandon gods traditionally lived. In these areas, deep within the Lacandon Jungle, villagers and increasingly concerned anthropologists and environmentalists are working to preserve and build upon what’s left of Lacandon traditions.

Jungle cleared for cattle ranches lines the road toward the Lacandon village of Nahá.


One of the longest-standing and most effective of these groups is Na Bolom which, since unorthodox artistic and philanthropic free spirits Frans Blom and Trudi Duby Blom founded it in 1951, has been primarily concerned with preserving the Lacandon way of life and their jungle areas while ensuring they (and other local indigenous groups) benefit from modern services like health care and education on their own terms.

Recognizing that the outside world is coming in whether they like it or not, these communities have chosen to control local tourism in their own way and you can now visit most of these remote villages as a traveler and enjoy camping, cabins or homestays with the Lacandon as well as hiking and canoeing in their lovely jungle. The non-profit Na Bolom can arrange comprehensive trips to Nahá and Metzabok out of San Cristobal de Las Casas and these trips directly benefit these communities and support Na Bolom’s work on behalf of the Lacandon in general.

Nahá Lake has invitingly crystal-clear water...and a lot of crocodiles.


Scorpions, magic rocks and the underworld in a Lacandon village

The heart of the village of Metzabok, where fewer than 30 Lacandon families live some of them running a small community tourism project which includes a handful of bungalows, is Laguna Tzibana. When we visited Metzabok we headed out to cross the lake in, of all things, a small paddle boat.

Beautiful Laguna Tzibana in the Lacandon village of Metzabok.


About midway across the lake we realized that we were not alone. A scorpion was also in the tiny boat with us and we both jumped up and tried not to flip the boat while attempting to kill or evict our dangerous little hitchhiker. Eric finally squashed it and, after a quick survey for other stowaways, we continued on our way.

The Lacandon believe that this rock on Laguna Tzibana is a God.


Our destination was a very special rock on the far bank which features red hand prints and other paintings. Our Lacandon guide explained that the rock is believed to be a God and new symbols appear on it after storms. A nearby cave is also believed to be one of many pathways to the underworld that the Lacandon must navigate after death.

Our Lacandon guide (far right) explains that the petroglyphs (far left) appear on a rock face after storms then takes us into a cave believed to be a pathway to the underworld which all Lacandon must navigate after death.


We were honored to be invited to visit the village of Nahá as well, along with a group from Na Bolom as part of a very special ceremony to re-bury Na Bolom founders Frans Blom and Trudi Duby Blom in the Nahá cemetery next to legendary Lacandon leader and activists Chan K’in Viejo (who died in 1996). It’s where Frans (who died in 1963) and Trudi (who died in 1993) always wanted to be buried and the Nahá villagers believe that reuniting the three old friends will enable them to “continue their conversations” even after death.

Find out what we saw, heard and drank in Nahá in our next post all about this once-in-a-lifetime chance to be part of some of the most solemn ceremonies of a threatened culture as they honored two of their most fervent defenders.


Our time in the Lacandon Jungle coincided with some very heavy rain. Our video, below, lets you experience one of the most epic downpours we’ve ever experienced without getting wet. This is why they call it a rain forest…

All that rain made for some very high rivers too which raged past us as we drove deeper and deeper into the Lacandon Jungle.

Rivers swollen by heavy rain in the Lacandon Jungle.





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Church of Stone, House of Stone – Ocosingo & Toniná, Chiapas, Mexico

Ocosingo

Ocosingo does not make a winning first impression. It’s dusty and run down and at odds with the Zapatista strongholds in the neighboring areas (some of the worst battles in the 1994 Zapatista uprising took place in Ocosingo). But there is charm in this town.

The scenic mountains that surround the so-so town of Ocosingo.

 

For starters, there’s the daily Tiangius Campesino which is like a magnet for indigenous women (and only women) who bring their corn, flowers, chickens, herbs, tamales (and their babies) from miles around. The women’s hands never seem to stop. If they’re not setting up their displays on the ground or selling or re-arranging their displays or tending to their kids then they’re working on elaborate embroidery.

Indigenous women sell anything they can grow in the ground or make with their hands at the colorful Tiangius Campesino in Ocosingo, Mexico.

Indigenous women sell anything they can grow in the ground or make with their hands at the colorful Tiangius Campesino in Ocosingo, Mexico.

 

 

Then there’s the town’s church which looks pretty ho-hum on the outside but just you wait. The inside is covered in smooth river stones in varying shades to create an enormous portrait of Jesus as well as agricultural scenes and  general fabulousness. Not a drop of gold leaf in sight. This was, by far, one of our all-time favorite organic foo-foo-free churches. It just felt faithful.

The interior walls of the church in Ocosingo are in-laid with stones that make intricate, organic mosaics..

 

We can also highly recommend the Hotel La Casona in Ocosingo which really could be charging more than 250 pesos (about US$21) for their spotless rooms right on the square with TV, fan and WiFi. They even had parking big enough (barely) for our truck.

 

 

Toniná

But the main reason to go to Ocosingo is to visit the Toniná archaeological site. After a short and gorgeous drive out of town, past grazing cattle and small farms and one very big army base, we see the remains of Toniná up on a slope. It still presents itself with dignity and it’s imposing.

The still-formidable Toniná archaeological site in Chiapas, Mexico.

Toniná archaeological site in Chiapas, Mexico.

Toniná archaeological site in Chiapas, Mexico.

View from the top of the main temple at Toniná archaeological site in Chiapas, Mexico.

 

The experts tell us that Toniná, which was constructed on a hill the Mayan built up, was even more imposing when it was inhabited by what appear to have been fairly war-happy rulers. One main rival was Palenque.  Toniná is also famous for its stucco and carvings including more than 100 Long Count calendar carvings. This is of particular interest to anyone who’s paying attention to the fact that the Mayan calendar ends in 2012. In fact, Toniná may have the last known Long Count date on any Maya monument.

Some of the detailed decoration still visible in the nooks and crannies of Toniná archaeological site in Chiapas, Mexico.

Some of the detailed decoration still visible in the nooks and crannies of Toniná archaeological site in Chiapas, Mexico.

A stelae still stands guard at Toniná archaeological site in Chiapas, Mexico.

 

To reach the site itself you have to walk along a pleasant lane from the ticket booth, past more grazing cattle. We hear the museum near the ticket office is good but it was closed when we visited.

The word Toniná means house of stone in Tzeltal Mayan language–which doesn’t really narrow things down in the Mayan world where everything was made of stone (except at Comalcalco archaeological site in Tabasco, which the Mayans there built using bricks and mortar made with oyster shells).

What they did with stone at Toniná is a bit different, however. Many of the structures have round corners and there are lots of nooks and crannies and tunnels that you can poke around in. This is one site where it pays to be nosy.

 

Toniná means "house of stone" and intricate designs in stone walls like this one still remain at the archaeological site to give us an idea how this Mayan city got its name.

Karen doing the Mayan Stairmaster again...

Toniná archaeological site in Chiapas, Mexico.

Yes, that nearly vertical wall is the staircase up...

 

 


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Too Much of a Good Thing – Wejlib-Já, Misol Ha and Agua Azul Waterfalls, Chiapas, Mexico

This area of Chiapas gets some of the heaviest rainfall in the whole country–120 inches in some parts of the state. Result? Lots and lots of waterfalls.

Not far from Palenque we turned down a dirt road in search of one of them. What we found was a mostly empty gravel parking lot. Now, a nearly empty parking lot is either a very bad sign (this place sucks so no one comes here) or a very good sign (this place is a hidden treasure). Cascada Wejlib-Já (a Mayan phrase for falling water) is a good example of the latter.

After paying 15 pesos (about US$1.15) each to the ejido (local community) which owns the waterfall we walked the path along the falls–which is really a series of small, wide falls. That gentleness was part of the reason the water was still clear and though there was plenty of it flowing through the falls there were still pools that were calm enough to swim and sit in–as a couple of Mexican families were happily doing.

Palapa-covered tables (but, weirdly, no chairs) had been turned into overflowing picnic spots and all that was missing was a six pack cooling in the water.

Cascada Wejlib-Já in Chiapas, Mexico.

Cascada Wejlib-Já in Chiapas, Mexico.


Misol Ha Waterfall

The parking lot at the much-more-famous Misol Ha waterfall was packed, but we braved the crowds in order to see this 115 foot monster from a very unique perspective. Here a trail takes you from one side of the flow to the other by passing behind the waterfall itself, then going on to the other side of a huge pool that collects beneath the falls. There’s no way to stay dry. Because the water was extra high a safety rope had been put up across the pool and there were even a couple of whistle-toting lifeguards on duty making sure that swimmers stayed behind the rope, far from the dangerous cascade at the bottom of the pool.

Misol Ha, where the trail takes you behind the spectacular cascade.


And then it happened. When we turned around to see what all the sudden, frantic whistling was all about we saw that a young Japanese man had let go of the safety rope across the natural pool and was struggling to resist the pull of the water. He was no match for the flow, however, and was slowing but surely being sucked toward the lower falls.

In jumped one of the lifeguards (handily answering any questions we may have had about his ability to swim) and moments later he had the (very embarrassed) Japanese man back on dry land.

Misol Ha, where the trail takes you behind the spectacular cascade.


Check out the view from behind the spectacular Misol Ha waterfall in our video, below.


Agua Azul

About 15 minutes further down the road is Agua Azul (Blue Water), an even more famous series of waterfalls and cascades. True to Chiapas’ rainy reputation, the sky opened up and it poured for an hour as we arrived at Agua Azul so we pulled over and took a nap in the truck.

So many people visit Agua Azul that the trail from the parking lot up past the cascading pools is lined with food and souvenir sellers. During our visit the place was more like Agua Cafe, however, since the water had become so churned up and filled with silt on its way down the mountains that it looked like a foaming river of latte, not an inviting series of brilliant blue pools that appear to be melting due to the thick coating of mineral deposits draped over their edges. We guess that’s what postcards and imaginations (and the dry season) are for.

Agua Azul is usually a series of brilliant blue pools but rainy season rain can stir up enough sediment to turn the pools temporarily brown.

Agua Azul is usually a series of brilliant blue pools but rainy season rain can stir up enough sediment to turn the pools temporarily brown.

Agua Azul is usually a series of brilliant blue pools but rainy season rain can stir up enough sediment to turn the pools temporarily brown.


See the high water at Agua Azul in action in our video, below.





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Never Stop Digging – Palenque, Chiapas, Mexico

The experts tell us that Palenque, which was inhabited from 100-800 AD with a peak around the 7th century, is smaller than, say, Tikal but it sure feels big. The structures are hulking and the area that’s open to the public (a fraction of the six square miles or 15 square km the city is believed to have covered) is full of nicely groomed trails which take you through the city’s “suburbs” so you can see where some of the people lived beyond the temples and main plazas and royal areas.

Overview of the main plaza at Palenque archaeological site in Chiapas, Mexico.

The El Palacio structure at Palanque archaeological site in Chiapas, Mexico.

 

When Palenque was flourishing it was a major political and creative powerhouse. We know this because the site has been extensively studied for years.  Elaborate frescoes and glyphs have been discovered here, demonstrating superb artistic technique and many works also tell the story of the city’s dominating and visionary rulers and their considerable accomplishments.

The discovery of the tomb of Pakal, perhaps Palenque’s most venerated leader, in 1952 by Mexican archaeologist Alberto Ruz Lhuillier was a major find at the site. Ruz Lhuillier himself is buried at Palenque–under the trees in front of Templo XIII.

Pakal, one of the most revered leaders of Palenque, was buried in an elaborate tomb under the Temple of the Inscriptions.

The Temple of the Inscriptions with Temple XIII to its right. This is where the tomb of the so-called Reina Roja was unearthed in 1994.

 

And yet, they keep finding new goodies. In 1994 archaeologist Arnoldo Gonzales discovered the tomb of a woman underneath the already-explored Temple XIII. The last resting place of the Reina Roja (Red Queen)–so called because she is believed to have been a dignitary and because her body was dyed red from the cinnabar used during her burial–is now a major attraction. The sarcophagus is still at the site and it is, indeed, very red.

Palenque archaeological site in Chiapas, Mexico.

Patio of the Captives in the El Palacio structure at Palenque.

Relief of a captive at the Patio of the Captives at Palenque.

Masks still stare out from the El Palacio structure at Palenque.

 

In 2010 archaeologists also discovered the only known pressurized aqueduct system in the Mayan world at Palenque.

Part of the charm of Palenque is its park-like setting, including a beautiful stream and waterfalls like this one called Baño de la Reina.

 

So, there’s lots to see and plenty of fascinating structures and design elements and nooks and crannies to explore (though you can’t climb much anymore) AND Palenque retains a sense that is still has plenty of secrets up its sleeve. It’s intoxicating and we spent more than three hours here, not counting time spent in the adjacent (free) museum.

Here you can see a replica of Pakal’s tomb (the original is not open to the public) with its intricately carved sarcophagus. The museum also has a large collection of pottery incense burners and plenty of English on their signage.

A panel of Mayan glyphs in the free museum at the Palenque archaeological site.

This Tablet of the Warriors from the 7th Century AD is on display in the free museum at the Palenque archaeological site.

As we left the Palenque museum we passed this Lacandon man wearing a robe made out of pliable tree bark which, he told us, had been softened in a waterfall.

 

Be aware: Palenque is a rock star and it draws rock star crowds. We parked at 8:45 and the lot was already swarming with tour buses and it just got worse as the day wore on. The ticket booth employees were dealing off a stack of tickets that was at least a foot and a half tall. Also, there are a LOT of vendors selling cheap tourist crap set up right in the main plaza, which breaks the spell a bit.

We also wonder why Palenque is a National Park with it’s own separate fee of 25 pesos per person (about US$2.50)? There is no apparent ecology protection or national park-like infrastructure in the area–just a gate with a guy who has an excuse to charge an entrance fee.

This carving, which we like to call "Old Smokin' Dude," is unusual in its depiction of old age and of smoking.

 

The modern town of Palenque, about a 10 minute drive from the site,  is really nothing to write home about (hot, dusty, noisy)  but there is one notable relatively new addition to the tourism landscape: Palenque now has a bonafide boutique hotel half way between town and the site. It’s called Boutique Hotel Quinta Chanabnal and it’s run by Italian Mayanist Raphael Tunesi and his Mexican wife (whom he met at Palenque).

The hotel, which Raphael built using modern interpretations of Mayan construction methods and designs, has seven huge rooms and a lovely pool. The dining room, where you can enjoy traditional Mayan dishes (like snail and chaya soup) if you ask in advance, is decorated with modern versions of Mayan carvings depicting milestones in Raphael’s life (the birth of his daughter, the building of the hotel, etc).  For more, read our full report about Quinta Chanabnal for iTraveliShop.

Raphael is putting his expertise in Mayan glyphs to work with lots of new seminars and tours of Palenque and other Mayan sites scheduled for 2012–the year in which the Mayan calendar “ends.”

Raphael Tunesi, Mayanist and hotel owner, on the grounds of his Boutique Hotel Quinta Chanabnal near the entrance to the Palenque archaeological site.

 

Our video, below, delivers a view of the main plaza at Palenque, including the Temple of the Inscriptions, as shot from the El Palacio structure.

 

 


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