Paradise and Parenting: Palenque, Leg One of Chiapas Trip

When I talked to people about our upcoming trip to Chiapas, Mexico I got many reactions. Several expats had no idea where Chiapas was. The ones who had heard of it thought it was maybe north of here. If they had heard of Chiapas, quite a few of them had only heard of the unrest during the Zapatista uprising in the 1990s.

When I spoke to Mexican locals about our trip, they had (thank goodness) all heard of Chiapas, but most had never been there. All of them expressed a deep desire to go, and every one of them had heard of someone who had gone and couldn’t wait to return.  When I asked why, they said “because it’s the most beautiful place they’d ever seen.”

So there it is. When people hear about the southernmost state of Mexico, Chiapas, they think of mystery, danger, and beauty. I have wanted to see and experience it all (with a de-emphasis on the danger) ever since I first arrived in Mexico in 2000 and heard about the untamed jungle, the archeological wonders in Palenque, and the independent first peoples who still spoke their own dialects.

Because of our desire to visit some of the greatest hits on the tourist trail in Chiapas, we were advised to land in Villahermosa, Tabasco, which is one of the larger airports in the area, and pick up a car so we could drive to Palenque. From there, we could see some of the major archeological sites. We stayed in Palenque for three nights.

During our stay, we took in some of the waterfalls such as Misol-Ha and Agua Azul. In case you have a teenaged boy or a husband, Misol-Ha is the site of the final scene of the Predator movie. Plus there’s a cave right behind it that you can explore. The guy at the entrance will even give you a flashlight so you can check out the cave waterfall in the absolute darkness (hope you enjoy bats).

Palenque is not to be missed. We paid our entrance fee and found a couple of tour guides waiting to take groups out to the site. My husband is an absolute archeological groupie and I decided if there was ever a time to splurge on the 500 pesos for a guide for the day, this was the time. It was well worth it. Not only did our Mayan guide have a profound understanding of customs and culture of the people who inhabited the city, he knew all the most macabre stories that would keep the kiddos interested for the two hours we spent around the site.

We also signed up for a tour to the ancient Mayan civilizations of Yaxchilan and Bonampak. The trip involved three hours in a van and an hour long boat ride on the Guatemalan/Mexico border edging the Lacandona jungle. That’s where we must have woken up a group of howler monkeys. If you ever feel like hearing the sound that you imagined the monster under your bed made when it was feeling frisky, be sure to find a cranky howler monkey or two.

We made the drive from Palenque to San Cristobal de las Casas, 196 km according to Google Maps, in just under six hours. That’s because the road is a little two-way number that winds and twists itself up and around about 2100 meters in elevation. It passes through any number of small indigenous communities, and thus speedbumps (topes) are constant.

Not only that, we had to stop at a roadblock set up by two little girls who were not about to let us pass until we bought some platano macho chips they had for sale. Further down the road, traffic was at a standstill for a large tree trunk that was blocking the way on both sides of traffic. The impromptu local road crew removed the tree with a chainsaw. They finally let us pass one by one, as long as we dropped a few pesos in their hands as payment for their labor.

Next week I’ll continue with a bit about the city of San Cristobal de las Casas and let you know if it’s worth this long and somewhat nerve-jangling journey (spoiler alert: it is).