Palenque: A breaking and entering

San Cristobal de Las Casas

As I wound my way down the valley into San Cristobal de las Casas, I was curious to see how the town would unfold in front of me. It did not take long for me to see the appeal and why it was highly recommended. It was as if a European city with all the acoutrements had been dropped into this lush Mexican landscape. Like Oaxaca, it too had cobblestoned roads and an exuberent energy that seemed endless. The building facades were ornate and there was an exceptional selection of international restaurants from Thai to Argentinean. It took only a night there to realize why this was one of my favourite towns in Mexico...it was the weather. The sunny, warm days quickly cooled at night often demanding pants and a jumper. If there was one thing that cooler weather was good for at night, it's sleeping and by god I slept very well in San Cristobal. It was another sweet reprieve to escape the often heavy Mexican heat. It helped that our hostel Puerto Viaje was truly outstanding, one of the best hostels I've had the pleasure of staying at. It was a new place and they were eager to please.

Yet again I came away with some great new friends like the full-of-beans Mika, an Australian chick  and Omar the American cyclist who was riding to Argentina both of whom I'd meet up with again down the line in San Pedro, Guatemala. San Cristobal allowed us to restore some sort of normality. We ate like kings, drank like queens and slept like princes.

 

Although it wasn't an activity-packed stay, we did have one rather unique experience on the outskirts of town in a village called Chamula. While the road out was not long, it was briefly memorable in that it saw me ride off it, into a ditch. I was admiring the view and had taken my eyes off the road for a split second only to have veered off into a ditch of a drop of about 2 feet. I was able to keep control of the bike and luckily emerged unscathed, save for having my heart in my throat. It was a humbling lesson in respect for the machine and how one should never take my eyes off the road. I was overwhelmingly grateful it was so minor. Had it been off the other side of the road, there's no doubt I would have slid down the mountain.

The unique experience lay within the town's church which supposedly hosted some bizarre religious ceremonies. Photography was strictly prohibited so I have only words to describe the scene. The first thing you notice is the pleasant smell of burning copal resin incense as you walk through the archways and into to dimly lit church. The church is illuminated by a hue of countless candles which looked random placed, stuck into the ground with melted wax, all burning dangerously close to carpet of flammable pine needles which litter the floor. Families are sitting on the ground around the candles drinking an artisanal sugar-cane-based liquor and slugging ferocious of Coca Cola while entranced in prayer/chants. The fizzy cola is drank to force them to 'burp' out the evil spirits which they believe dwells inside of them. I saw a couple crying emphatically in what I can only imagine was a desperate plea to their God. The ceremonial bizarreness of the burping, crying and chanting was further solidified by the sacrificial offerings of live chickens brought here by the families and offered up only in dire times of sickness and affliction.

It all made for an incredibly intense and fascinating scene. I felt out of place in the church despite there being other tourists. It felt like too deep of an emotional experience for the locals for a gringo like me to be gawking at. Nevertheless, I took it all in and it was a rather humbling experience. 

Bike-wise, San Cristobal was a significant maintenance milestone as it was where I replaced my rear tire for the first time, roughly 5000 miles in. Expecting a long day of hopping around garages speaking broken Spanish trying to explain my situation, I was ecstatic to luck out in the first place I tried. A short stroll from my hostel, it was the three fully geared BMW GS adventure-ready bikes outside a mechanic shop that caught my eye...bingo! I got chatting to the staff and quickly learnt they belonged to two brothers who co-ran the garage with their uncle, also a rider and owner of the big daddy 1200cc parked out front. After drooling over their bikes, I asked about tires. They were sympathetic to my cause and seemed thrilled to have me there telling them about my journey south. All they had was a used but in very good shape Heidenau K60 Scout for my wheel size. One of the best tires out there, it was in much better nick than my current rear and it easily had a few thousand miles in it so I snagged it. Cost me a mere 500 pesos(45USD) for the tire and the labour. I’d also enquired about getting some stickers/decal printed somewhere for my bike(flags for the countries I’d be visiting, some name plates etc). The amicable owner walked me right over to a print shop, where I drew some designs, explained what I wanted and made the order. I would collect them the next day. He said the tire change would take a few hours so I pottered about to kill some hours. When I skipped back to pick up my bike, I barely recognized it. As well as fitting the rear tire, and much to my chagrin, a kid had cleaned my bike with what I can only imagine was a power washer. It was beyond sparkling and certainly cleaner than when I’d picked it up from the dealer in Queens. Over 5000 miles of an accumalated camouflage of dirt, dust and muck….gone, just like that! While I couldn’t fault the guy for knowing my ploy to ugly-fy my bike to deter any pilfering bandits, there was a genuine worry inside of me as I admired how damn fine she looked, glistening in the afternoon sun. Oh well, what's a man to do!

What have they done to her?! First time seeing my baby dismembered for maintenance.

After stopping at a roadside eatery, it didn't take long to attract some curious onlookers. These kids were fascinated so you could only imagine their delight when we slapped some gear on them and let them clamber up onto the saddles.

'Oh hey there!'

Palenque

Palenque hosts one of if not THE most important Mesoamerican Maya ruins. Having purposely put off Monte Alban in Oaxaca and Teahucan in Mexico City so we wouldn’t be ‘ruined-out’ by the time we got to the big dogs, Palenque was upon me.

Someone had recommended the Jungle Palace, a more jungle-than-palace cheap lodging outside of Palenque in the jungle community of El Patchan. I was able to get a cabin to myself for only 100pesos/6USD . Half-consumed by the forest, the wild cabin sat above a stream and below screeching howler monkeys. Deep in nature I was.

The night I got in, the Paquio vs Mayweather fight was on and I was keen to watch to watch it. I ripped into Palenque and after trying a few bars eventually found a restaurant showing it. It was with Spanish commentary but jaysus you can’t have it all!

Anticipating busy crowds early on, myself and a Polish girl I’d met in the hostel in San Cristobal ambitiously got up at 6am and hopped in a collectivo to the entrance where we’d catch sunrise over the ancient grounds. We rocked up only to be told the grounds would not open until 8am. I looked at my watch; 06:30...bollocks. We started walking back down the road, deflated and contemplating checking out of our cabins first and coming back after 8 until we saw an opening in the perimeter fence which was clearly calling out for us. After weighing up the risks and potential consequences of being caught for a grand total of 10 seconds, we threw caution to the wind and clambered over. Things quickly turned into a ‘Lost’ episode as we sneakily traversed the thick jungle trying to find a path far enough away from the entrance to avoid detection. About an hour later, round 7:30 we finally trekked into a maintenance path which led us to the ruins. Success. Amazed that neither of us had fallen victim to this unforgiving jungle, all we had to do was hide out until after 8 to allow some other tourists to circulate about and blend in like we hadn’t just broken into the place. I found some howler monkeys having a good morning howl where I stood and watched, boggled as to how these fairly friendly-looking fellas were able to make sounds that more suited a tiger than a monkey. 
Just after 8am we spotted a couple of tourists so the coast was clear and we were able to enjoy the fairly empty ruins basking in the morning sun before the place become quickly overrun with local vendors selling their Mayan wares and bus loads of tourists.

A stunning 114-foot waterfall called Misol-Ha and a series of turquoise cascading waterfalls called Cascadas de Agua Azul were a short ride away from Palenque. Shortly before I left the cascades I was approached by a friendly Swedish man and his family who were living in Mexico City. I could tell by his zealous demeanor and his fascinated interest at my story that he saw a bit of himself in me. I bid them adieu and starting riding off. Just before they were out of earshot I faintly heard his son bellow out 'You've got a new Instagram follower!'. Chuckling to myself at the absurdity of it, I shifted up to second gear and left that beautiful state of Chiapas.

 A permadent resident of the Jungle Palace in Palenque.

A permadent resident of the Jungle Palace in Palenque.

The magnificently beautiful Cascada de Agua Azul on the way to Palenque.

 The equally impressive Misol-Ha waterfall also outside of Palenque.

The equally impressive Misol-Ha waterfall also outside of Palenque.

The classic awkward pose in front of the Cascades of Agua Azul outside Palenque.