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La vida loca! Wished you were there? We did, so here we are on our big adventure! A year in central America, to make sense of this vida loca...

Northern Chiapas - Mucho Mas Mayan Metropolises

MEXICO | Tuesday, 28 July 2009 | Views [2078]

Stela scene with original dyes, Palenque

Stela scene with original dyes, Palenque

We booked a micro bus to take us out of Guatemala.  We suffered a rather large wait for a connecting bus at Quattro Caminos, which caused a rather large Italian fellow traveller to go into an angry tirade with the new bus driver in good Italian fashion.  Our new bus then took us up north through wide valleys in the highlands, up to Huehuetenango, and over to Semilla and the border with Mexico.  The border crossing was surprisingly easy – no bribing officials or extortionate fees like we’d been warned about.  The only glitch was that we had to change bus again, but angry Italian had now decided he was better off using a different transport means and had buggered off somewhere.  So, after initially not noticing his absence, we turned round and drove around the border looking for him, until finally deciding he was probably better off somewhere else anyway, and heading out.

Our original plan had been to get off in Comitan, but we were disuaded, partly because Comitan turned out to look like a fairly unpromising industrial city, and partly because our bags were at the bottom of the heap on top of the van and it wasn’t worth the bother….  Therefore we carried on to San Cristobal de las Casas.  San Cristobal is a pretty colonial town, surrounded by green wooded hills.  Its slowly becoming gentrified, but its in no way as expensive or gringofied as Antigua.  One interesting thing was the lack of Americans – maybe they’ve been put off by the the whole Zapatista thing, but there were far more European visitors here.

Another cheery Mayan motif, Palenque

We decided to come back to San Cristobal and stay a while (story to come), but first, took a bus up to the north of the region and Palenque.  Our journey took us through wide, pine-covered valleys.  It reminded me a strange way of Europe – Germany or Scotland perhaps - it was just nice to find ourselves in a familiar landscape.  Soon, however, we headed down into the heat of the lowlands.  Palenque is a hot, dusty town with little going for it.  In our five nights there we didn’t find a decent meal - stale tortilla chips, rubbery steaks, bitter coffee.  However, the Mayan ruins are what people come here for, not the cuisine.

The Palace, Palenque

The Palenque ruins are in a lovely site – nestled into the edge of the tropical forest, with temples piercing through the canopy – a little like Tikal.  The palace with its observatory tower and murals was probably the most impressive building – different from any of the other sites we’d been too.  However, it was the altar murals and stellae which really did it – the artistry in the lords and gods, along with the glyphs was fantastic, and most were really well preserved.  The tomb of the great lord Pakal was just the icing on the cake.  We also saw a very strange orb spider with a spikey body.  Cudos to anyone who can ID him for us….

Bizarre alien orb spider, Palenque

Following on in the Mayan theme, the next day we travelled down into the badlands of the border road and the Lacandon forest to visit the nearby sites of Yaxchilan and Bonampak. 15-20 years ago both these sites were only accessible by plane, but following the rebellion, there’s now a good paved road all around the triangle of the border with Guatemala.  Its also pretty safe – there are military checkpoints at regular intervals – not that it was ever especially dodgy, unless you were a Mexican soldier.  A rather strange American fellow traveller insisted on asking random nationals at our lunch stop whether they were Zapatistas.  This was despite the fact that to admit as much probably isn’t very good for your health in these parts….

Yaxchilan is still only accessible by long lancha down the strong, swirling Rio Usumacinta, right on the border between the two countries.  It’s a fun journey – the river is obviously much fuller in the wet season, as islands and platforms of hard clay border and bisect the river, which our lancha guy had to swerve around in the strong current.  Yaxchilan is enveloped in forest.  The main plaza is really the only clear area and past the temples thick vegetation grows unhindered.  The site is renowned for its carved and painted door lintels – many of which are still in place, although a lot have been carted off to Mexico City and the British Museum (ooh!  that’s us Brits again!) – which is fine from a preservation point of view, but I can’t help but think that they lose much of their power when taken out of the context of this arcane city in the jungle.

Long lanchas on the Rio Usumacinta

Such was my anticipation, and the limited time period we had until our lancha left, that I sped off up the hill to make sure I saw the temple groups away from the plaza.  Rachel is often happy to mooch around as I hive off to explore that temple on the horizon.  In this case, however, she was actually trying to follow me, and eventually caught up with me half an hour later, not best pleased after chugging uphill around various forest temple groups, trying to avoid rampaging howler monkey troupes.  In the top temple complex we were bemused by a Spanish group, consisting mostly of middle-aged women in white loose clothing, hugging trees and appearing to be inciting the sun god.  What I thought we needed at this point was an ancient Mayan priest to pop out, tear out their finger nails, carve out their hearts and burn them in front of them.  Don’t look at me like that.  It’s what Chak would have wanted!

Musicians, Bonampac murals

Bonampak is a small site, with just a very impressively large stellae and a massive set of stairs which lead up to a series of small temples containing the famous painted frescoes of a dedication ceremony, battle and parade.  To be honest, much of them have faded so badly as to be unrecognisable, and we only really knew what was going on because we’d seen a recreation at the Mayan museum in Chetumal – still it’s a pretty marvelous place.  A large tree in the plaza contained a dozen or so hanging oropendula nests (if I haven’t talked about these guys before, they’re large brown birds with a yellow tail and a gorgeous bubbling song).  Rachel spent a good twenty minutes trying to take a picture of a bird entering one of the nests – harder than you might think, as by the time you click the shutter, the bird’s either gone in, gone out, or has hidden itself behind the nest.  Thirty shots later we gave up – thank goodness for the wonders of digital photography (or more accurately the delete function :) ).

At a nearby border village, with a name like ‘New Union’ or some-such (positive thinking on the Mexican government’s behalf methinks), our American friend pays some local women and kids to pose for a photo.  He thinks they must be Lacandon Indians – despite the fact they are dressed like, and look like ladino immigrants – probably brought in to try and stabilise the area.  The nearest we got to the Lacandons were the women and rangers at the Bonampak reserve, the men with their give-away long hair and moustaches.  Eh well.

For more photos of Palenque click here

For more photos of Yaxchilan and Bonampac, click here

Tags: bonampak, chiapas, lacandon, palenque, yaxchilan


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