Palenque » San Cristóbal; Palenque, Misol-Ha, Agua Azul

Latitude 17.48494°N Longitude 92.04881°W

Thursday, October 3, 2002

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Diary:

Started with a nice breakfast in Paleque, then checked out of the hotel and drove the few kilometers to the Palenque ruins, arriving at 9:30am.

The Palenque ruins were great and well worth the visit. The weather was in the high 30s and 90% humidity. Unfortunately, one of the main features, the Templo de las Inscriptiones, was closed for restoration and we could not visit the tomb of great ruler Pakal.

We finished up just after noon, ate a hasty lunch of tortas at the entrance, and hit the road for San Cristóbal.

Along the way we stopped to see the great waterfall at Misol-Ha and the huge cascades at Agua Azul, which, given the overcast weather of the (by now routine) afternoon thunderstorm, was not very azul (blue) at all. More a murky brown (¿Como se dice "murky brown" en Español?).

Visiting these remote locations entailed leaving the highway and traveling down some pretty suspect dirt roads through even more suspect village communes, and we were not completely at ease with this. Chiapas is Mexico's poorest state, and apart from plenty of unrest arising from local political and religious conflicts, has a dangerous reputation as a route for drug smuggling and crime. Traveling into Chiapas from the richer neigbouring states of Campeche, Yucatán and Qunitana Roo made the poorer living conditions here quite evident. Despite this, the local people and their handwoven dress were unique and fascinating to observe as we drove along.

After Agua Azul we continued on to San Cristóbal, which was about 130km away. Unfortunately we had become accustomed to travelling at high speeds on the long straight roads of the Yucatán Peninsula, and had not reckoned with the condition of the mountainous and windy Palenque - San Cristóbal road. It soon dawned on us that we wouldn't make it to San Cristóbal until long after nightfall. Normally, driving in Mexico at night - while certainly to be avoided - would not have caused undue concern. Up until now we had planned things so there had been no need to drive at night. However, at this point I started getting a little anxious. There were several worrying statements in our guidebooks about the security of the Palenque - San Cristóbal road, and how, under "no circumstances", should one be on this road after nightfall - it having been the scene of highway robberies, abductions and worse in the past. And here we were. Ooops!

Old Mexican road warrior's proverb:
The 3 things neccessary for survival on Mexican roads (in order of importance):
#1. Good horn
#2. Good brakes
#3. Good Luck!

"OK", so I say to myself, "I really have to make good time on this road to get out of the mountains ASAP". But picture a road as windy as say, the windiest road you've ever driven on (California readers, think of the roads that lead up to Skyline Blvd), but in this case, it was over 100km long! The kind of windy road you rarely get a chance to take the car out of second gear! Where was my faithful M Roadster now? But we did not have the time to cruise slowly, and before long we were taking the corners on two wheels. Soon poor Keiko was ready to puke from all the high-G turns.

At some point around dusk, I got passed by a minivan who immediately took off and blazed away ahead of me. Since I felt as though I was already driving at the limit of physics, my eyebrows raised in respect at this driver's prowess. I felt nightfall encroaching and a nagging pressure to make better time (my GPS was telling me my average speed was something like only 25 km/h!) Perhaps the minivan driver could set a better pace for me. So I jumped on the throttle and fell in right behind him.

Immediately it was clear to me that this driver knew the road really well. I mean, perfectly well! It was uncanny. He knew every curve like the back of his hand. Pushing our cheap rental car to its limit, it was all I could do to keep up with him. Soon it had become pitch black and this guy was not letting up at all. I guessed that he was also heading towards San Cristobal and didn't want to be anywhere on this road after dark.

In Mexico, it is common to have speed bumps (called "topes") on the roads to protect pedestrians, especially on the outskirts of the more remote villages. These topes, unlike their contemporaries in developed countries, are lethal constructions that command respect from all drivers and cannot be ignored. They force an almost complete stop of a vehicle, followed by a careful nudging across the bumps until the rear wheels are free. Hitting these speed bumps at any speed greater than a snail's pace is an invitation to utterly destroy the front suspension of your car and maybe rip off the rear axle for good measure. Normally, these topes are clearly marked, many times, well in advance (you do not want to hit a tope at 120km/h by accident). But in Chiapas, on this road, all the topes were unmarked and basically, invisible. Just another small detail to make our drive through the mountains more pleasant.

Long after it got dark, my respect for the driver of the minivan notched up even further. His knowledge of the road was so complete that he even knew the location of every tope, which were now almost invisible in the darkness. He would start braking well in advance of an approaching tope, long before it could be made out by our high beams. He would brake to a complete stop a few feet in front, nudge his van over the bumps, then roar off again at maximum acceleration. Following him, I was the lucky beneficiary of his extraordinary tope road knowledge. Without him leading the way, I would have been reduced to driving that road at almost a walking pace.

So there we were, two lone drivers on a remote mountain road, me trying to keep up with this guy as he threw his van around corners with sheer cliff dropoffs and no guard rails... in pitch darkness. Village people and their animals would suddenly appear at random all over the roads, causing us to swerve violently to avoid hitting them. We would then both suddenly come to a tire-screeching stop for apparently no reason, nudge our cars over an yet another invisible-but-lethal speed bump, then take off again like racing cars. I was sweating hard from the concentration of trying to just keep up with him.

Then things got more interesting. We'd both come screaming up to some slowpoke vehicle. He would immediately overtake, without any fear or hestitation, no matter where he was. Blind Narrow Curves with Sheer Cliff? No worries. Out and away he went. And every time he did this, the clock started ticking for me to duplicate his suicidal manouvre. Any delay on my part was to increase the chance of never catching up with him again, which in fact almost happened a few times.

So now we're both overtaking vehicles like madmen, in total darkness, on this horrifyingly narrow, winding mountain road without any guard rails or reflectors or even a center line painted, with sheer cliffs at our sides. With animals / people appearing randomly. With invisible killer speed bumps sprinkled about. Then it started to rain and the road became slick and oily. And just when i thought the conditions could ABSOLUTELY NOT get any worse, a thick fog decended on us and reduced the little visibility we had to complete zero. Honestly, I felt that my entire 20+ years of driving experience was merely training to survive this one night of ultimate driving - a final challenge to get the ultimate high score.

Miraculously, we both made it into San Cristobal around 9pm without mishap. But when I finally stopped the car at a gas station in town, Keiko had to pry me out of the driver's seat with a crowbar I was so tense! Completely exhausted, we set about finding a hotel. We found nice rooms at the Hotel Real del Valle and moved in. Then the next drama unfolded.

Somewhere along our travels (Keiko is adamant it was Playa del Carmen), a queen ant of some sort had crawled into the straps and webbing of keiko's backpack and claimed it for the site of her new colony. Today was the day all the eggs hatched (or something) and when Keiko noticed all the swarming activity on the surface of her backpack as she carried it out of the car she almost fainted. As we peeled layer after layer of backpack infrastructure away, more and more ants came swarming out, some even carrying small white eggs. The entire surface took on a velvety, undulating appearance that we realized with horror was millions of baby ants now being mobilized. It was quite a sight; just what we (read: I) needed to deal with after the tortuous drive. Quite some time later, after the backpack had been completely disassembled and cleaned, Homo Sapiens (Sapiens) declared victory over The Ants and we set out looking for some stiff drinks and dinner.

Luckily it was not too late for this type of activity in San Cristóbal and we found a cool restaurant "Paris Mexico" nearby to the hotel where, for 38 pesos each (approx $3.50), we enjoyed a delicious authentic Chiapas homemade meal.


Photos: (click on images to see full size)

PalenquePalenque Mayan carvingMisol-HaAgua Azul (aka "Murky Brown")


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