After a week together in Oaxaca, my wife Jan headed home while I began a two-week solo adventure in the world of the ancient Maya. From Oaxaca, I flew to the Mexican state of Chiapas, where my main target was Palenque, a Mayan city whose structures mostly date from the seventh century.
But first, let me contrast my airline experience in Mexico to the usual US airlines. I flew Interjet from Oaxaca to Mexico City, then onward to the capital of Chiapas, Tuxtla Gutierrez. My one-way flight cost $72 USD, and check out this legroom!
It may not look like much in the photo, but believe me, that is far more comfortable than the cattle-car flight I had on American Airlines to get to Mexico. It’s hard to believe how bad US air travel has become when compared to other countries. OK, enough complaining. On to the fun…
San Cristóbal de las Casas
After a crowded colectivo van from the airport, I arrived in my destination of San Cristóbal de las Casas at dusk, and checked into my room.
I had just enough time before dark to explore the city a bit. In San Cristóbal, there are two long streets set aside for only walking. They are the heart and soul of this city of 185,000.Outside the pedestrian area, traffic can be pretty heavy along the city’s one-way streets.After visiting a local tour company to arrange a couple of excursions, I was in bed early. I had a busy day coming up.
El Cañon del Sumidero
The tour van arrived right on the time the next morning on the street outside my hotel. I piled aboard with the other tourists. We were a pretty even mix of Mexican nationals and extranjeros from countries all over the world.
The ride to the day’s activities was down the mountain from San Cristóbal’s elevation of 7200 feet to a mere 1400 feet at the small town of Chiapa de Corzo. I can honestly say I’ve never had a more white-knuckle ride! Our tour driver was apparently trying to make up some time we lost waiting for a couple who were late in getting ready.
Down the mountain highway we went, at speeds that made we wonder if the tires were going to blow out in the curves. We passed everything on the road, arriving in 30 minutes instead of the expected 40! My mapping app clocked us at 85 MPH going down the curvy mountain road!
But the mildly terrifying ride was worth the payoff. At Chiapa de Corzo, we boarded a boat to tour Sumidero Canyon, a true wonder of the world. This 8-mile canyon and national park in southern Mexico has walls up to 3300 feet high above the Grijalva River.
After about an hour and a half in the boat, we were back in the van headed high above the river.
Back in San Cristóbal
Back to town for the night, I headed out to explore.Just as the last remnants of daylight faded, I saw dozens of indigenous women setting up for a market in front of the cathedral.
I was puzzled, because the plaza in front of the cathedral was really quite dark. How would people even see the products they were selling? A few minutes later, my question was answered. Each vendor had brought their own battery powered lights to illuminate their goods.
Out of commission
The next morning I was scheduled for another tour, this time to San Juan Chamula, a nearby village where a small church offers a glimpse at the syncretism between catholicism and the far more ancient beliefs and rituals of the indigenous cultures of Chiapas.
But alas, I knew when I woke up that my schedule was going to have to change. I’m not sure whether to blame the snowcone I had in Chiapa de Corzo, or a bowl of pozole I had at a nice restaurant. Regardless of the source, I was suffering from some microbe that my system didn’t know how to handle. I called and cancelled my tour and headed to a nearby pharmacy for some quick medical advice.
I even notified the hotel that I expected to stay another day or two, despite having a prepaid bus ticket for 6 am the following day. I just didn’t see how I could manage an 8-hour bus ride to Palenque in my current condition.
And that was true. I still didn’t feel up to it early the next morning. However, as the medications slowly worked their wonders, I improved. By 10 am, I decided that I could make it. So I headed off to the bus station, bought a new ticket, and embarked on an 8-hour journey to Palenque. Fortunately, I survived it.
The village of Palenque
Still tired after a couple of miserable days, I checked in to my hotel on a quaint little street in the small village of Palenque.Dinner was my most ambitious in 48 hours, during which I had eaten only a slice of white bread. I’m glad to say that my fish in Veracruz sauce didn’t kill me. It was in fact delicious.
And fortunately, with a strenuous day scheduled at the Mayan ruins, I awoke the next morning feeling much better. After breakfast overlooking the street, I was ready for the day.
Mayan ruins of Palenque
The Mayan site of Palenque has been on my must-see list for many years, and I was finally there.Palenque is a smaller site than some of the others on my itinerary, but it definitely has an atmosphere that is unique. Its setting in the jungle and the beauty of the buildings is unparalleled.The best-known building at Palenque is the one pictured above, the Temple of the Inscriptions. It was within this building that the tomb of the king Kʼinich Janaabʼ Pakal was found in 1952. The discovery of an intact tomb of a ruler deep inside this temple provided lots of insight into the Mayan culture.
Across the plaza, the Palace is the most expansive of the buildings at Palenque, and it features a curious square observation tower. Also notable are the Corbel arches (aka false arches) that are a common feature in many Maya sites.
There are quite a few carvings in the patios near the palace.For me, the most appealing area in Palenque was the Cross group, a cluster of three buildings around a large plaza.
The Temple of the Foliated Cross looks pretty eroded from here, but the views of the Temple of the Sun make the interesting small stairway a worthwhile climb.The view of the Temple of the Sun is great from here. I’ll be climbing it next.
Each building in the Cross group is home to inscribed panels at the top. These are from the Temple of the Sun.And the views from up here are well worth the climb.
Just off the Cross group is a more wooded area of the jungle site, with several small temples. Although only a few steps from the cleared areas, this felt more remote.
Compared to the ball courts I’ll see later in my travels, this one is tiny.
Starting to head toward the exit, there is one more major group of structures.An unexpected pleasure of my visit to Palenque was the trail leading out of the site. It winds through the jungle, passing a few more ruins along with streams and waterfalls.
Looking back along the trail I had just descended, I was a little sad to leave the site.I had a great time wandering around, climbing the pyramids, and imagining what it must have been like here when Kʼinich Janaabʼ Pakal was king back in the mid-600s AD.
But my upcoming schedule had plenty more Mayan sites in store. I headed back to the room to relax and rest up for another busy day.
I would be leaving well before sunrise headed into the Lancandon jungle near the border with Guatemala. You’ll see more about that in my next post.