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Road trip to Palenque, Mexican-style

sunny 34 °C

Things are heating up in Chiapas again. There were plenty of protests and roadblocks when we were in Chiapas three weeks ago, but they did not feel like a direct threat to us. We were unaware at the time of the issues affecting the area just south of Palenque. Robberies, roadblocks, "donations", and balaclava-clad toll-takers at popular tourist destinations like Agua Azul and Misol Ha have made travel in certain areas of this beautiful state a little riskier for tourists. We had planned to drive to those two sites today, but even the most photogenic waterfalls are not worth getting held up at gunpoint.

But back to the beginning - our drive from Chetumal (at the Belize border) to Palenque. We left on Friday morning, all excited at the prospect of a 5 1/2 hour drive on straight, flat roads. Short day, easy drive.

And then this happened.


We were redirected from the highway to a detour - no idea why, for how long, or even where we were going to end up, but this guy in the truck was in front of us, and seeing our confusion, he waved us over to the convoy of cars that were heading down a sandy, dusty, rutted road. We kept saying to each other, "This can't be a proper road - why are we on this road?" It just didn't feel right, and our gut instincts have been fairly reliable travel companions. Anyway, with no other options, we followed along - our slight reassurance being the number of cars along with us (we were not being spirited away to be robbed and left stranded). Or if that was the case, we were all in it together.


Then, after about 20 minutes, someone realized we had taken the wrong road, and we all had to turn around. Try and imagine this scenario. Now we're heading back from whence we came, reach the fork in the road, take the other road for about 20 minutes, and finally see signs of life - a ranch, some open spaces, and mercifully, the highway again. Same scene - many military trucks and personnel, and at least a kilometre of vehicles stopped.

Still no idea what the problem was, and why the intense military presence, but we kept driving, and were starting to relax again, when Stephen realized he had left the charger for his iPad in our hotel room in Chetumal. There would be no going back for it.

We started looking for a place to stop for lunch and switch drivers. We pulled into a little roadside place, and I wasn't hungry, but Stephen ordered a chicken sandwich, and we each ordered a drink. Drinks arrived, and after 20 minutes, we realized that "una sandwich de pollo, por favor" had somehow been lost in translation, and no food was coming.

None of these things were really big deals, but we just had one of those goofy days where nothing went smoothly. We arrived safely in Palenque about 2 1/2 hours later than we had anticipated - which is how it has gone for us all through Mexico - so I guess we could say we arrived on time.

Palenque town is not about the tourists - it is busy, noisy, sweaty and all Mexican. Tourists are here for one or two nights, and for one reason only - to take their money out of town to the ruins. So the town continues on with its business, and locals are neither friendly nor unfriendly. I took this photo of the main street, but was reluctant to take any more street scenes where there were lots of people, as we were being openly scrutinized. With no obvious tourist attractions, taking photos felt a bit rude and even unwise.


Just two blocks away from the boisterous main drag is the tranquil neighbourhood called La Cañada - no relation - it means "glen" or "ravine" in Spanish. It is indeed a leafy, lovely, quiet forested glen, and this is where many of the hotels, including ours, the Hotel Xibalba, are located. We have a beautiful room at the back of the building. It is quiet, clean, has hot water, a good bed, and reliable wifi, and there are days when hitting all those notes makes you feel incredibly grateful.


This is the exuberant entrance to our little neighbourhood - Mayan symbols and statues are everywhere in this area.


And this is one of the peaceful sidewalks leading through La Cañada.


So, back to the issue of safety in Chiapas. The road between Palenque and San Cristobal can be challenging, as we found out when we encountered the roadblock there over three weeks ago. That particular donation was for a protest over jailed comrades. Another issue that is causing a lot of grief with the locals is the building of the new highway between those two cities. It took us over six hours to navigate the switchbacks, topes, potholes, numerous pueblas (and our roadblock) on the current two-lane road. It is estimated the new road would take four hours. According to what we have heard, that road comes with a huge cost - expropriated land, "missing" landowners, and ongoing injustices tht have caused the Zapatistas to take up the cause in protest. Work blockades, "tolls" for park entrances and roadblocks are a few tactics. Since this road is being built to serve the vast number of tourists who visit a number of sites in that corridor, we represent the source of their hardship. The same scenario is being played out in Oaxaca state - a huge highway project between Oaxaca city and Puerto Escondido on the Pacific coast is only partially completed - ongoing blockades and work shutdowns have slowed that project as well, for a whole host of money and land issues with the locals.

This is not the spot for an uninformed opinion on my part - just another example of how driving through Mexico requires flexibilty and an ear to the ground.

(note to parents, children and others who may now feel concern for us): We're on to Plan B, which is to abandon our plan to visit those sites, and will instead spend today here in town, by the pool at a nearby hotel, catching up on reading. It is disappointing, but when the hotel front desk manager (whose livelihood depends upon tourism) admits that Agua Azul is not safe, we listen.

On a lighter note, as VW owners we notice the huge number of 30-year-old VW vans and bugs (the originals) that are still driving around Mexico. Some are fairly pristine, but most are in various states of decrepitude, and it has been fun to see just how ragged a car can look and still be on the road. Yesterday, though, we saw a VW that even Fred MacDonald would not touch. It has become street sculpture; stripped of everything but the shell.


Yesterday, we got what we came for - to visit the ruins of Palenque. It ranks up there with our most memorable days, and by far, is the best site we have seen. We got there for the opening at 8:00 am, to try and beat the crowds and the heat. We had been warned that it might be an idea to slip a kid 20 pesos to "watch" our car, but that revenue stream has been taken over by grown men, who also offer to wash your car, sell you bug spray and act as a guide. The cost of watching the car has gone up to 30 pesos, but for 100 pesos, he would both protect and clean the car. A number of men came over to confirm that our car was shockingly filthy - in fact, a couple were laughing at how dirty our car was. (It was a sight, after our dusty detour).

So we all had a good chuckle, especially since we agreed to have our car watched, washed and buy bug spray for 150 pesos - the joke was on us. Like market vendors everywhere, the first sale of the day sets the tone, so we made a lot of people happy. No matter - we came back hours later to an intact, spotlessly clean car, at no inconvenience to us.

I'm posting this now, with a teaser photo of our visit to the ruins. Too many photos and experiences to describe in this one - the rest will be posted later today.


Posted by millerburr 06:28 Archived in Mexico

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Ah sorry to hear about the chicken sandwich. x D and L

by Dave

Reminds me of a trip to Tijuanamany years ago. I parked my car and was asked by a cute young boy whether he could watch my car for $1. I was thinking about it but when his 200lb buddy walked out from behind a post hitting his palm with a heavy mallet, I decided just to get back in my car and head back over the border.

by Ted Bowles

Now that's the making of a book. You got me shaking to my toes, reliving a motor-home trip from Zihuatanejo, to Nogales, before our final destination in San Diego. We were boarded, fridge stripped, but no other robberies. Still it was a monumental driving adventure. Carol

by Carol Martin

Since we are in the category of "others who may feel concern for us", Mitch and I are grateful you chose Plan B. We are happy you made it to Palenque, though, and look forward to hearing all about it!

by Heather

You two are having such a crazy, wonderful adventure! And Ginny, you're a very prolific story teller! Enjoy the rest of your trip and stay safe.

by Cindy Burr

Hi you two
Take lots and lots of pix.Can never be too many for me.One of my great regrets is that I will never have the opportunity to see what you are seeing and its my own fault.Dad/Keith

by Keith Miller

I agree with Dad..never too many pics. I want to relive this with you two one day. Travel safe, thank you for taking me along.

by Nanc

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