Into the Jungle, November 2009
As I’m writing this, we sit under a palapa (roof made of palm tree leaves) to protect the computers from the tropical downpour in the jungle surrounding the Mayan ruins of Palenque in Chiapas. The howler monkeys seem to have taken refuge somewhere as well, we can’t hear their Jurassic Park – style utterings any more.
Typically for the Snailtrails team, we didn’t take the straight route from Oaxaca, where we spend a week-end witnessing the “Dia de los Muertos” celebrations. We first made our way through the mountains down to the Pacific coast, to a famous surfer spot by the name of Puerto Escondido. It’s a very relaxed place, especially during the low season, still untouched by large developments. A day on the beach is exactly what we need after a strenuous drive down a narrow, curvy and steep mountain road.
With new strength, we set off towards San Cristobal de la Casas, in the heart of Chiapas, the most distinctly indigenous state in Mexico. Chiapas was in the news in the mid-1990s during the Zapatista rebellion, which was crushed rapidly by the army. Today, many villages still have signs near the road, informing travelers that they are entering autonomous and rebellious Zapatista country. In practice though, a heavy army presence, including numerous military check-points, is the only tangible sign that this is a part of the country where indigenous peoples try very hard to preserve their lifestyles, sometimes violently.
San Cristobal itself, in contrast, has all the tourist facilities: hotels, restaurants, handicraft vendors and shops, supermarkets – as well as a small Zapatista protest camp in front of the cathedral. An indigenous rock festival compensates for the slightly “gringo” atmosphere with songs in ancient Mayan tongues.
The jungle really is a new experience, one that we were very much looking forward to. During our descent from the highlands, the landscape became lusher and greener by the hour, the air warm and humid. Banana trees replaced pines, street vendors offered coconuts, the sinuous road turned into a green tunnel through the thick forest. It’s in such an environment that we explored Palenque, one of the largest known Mayan cities. Surrounded and mostly overgrown by the jungle, the site makes the visitor feel like an explorer, and scenes from Indiana Jones movies come to mind.
Palenque has been an excellent introduction into our own Mayan exploration, which we intend to pursue in the next couple of weeks, in Chiapas, in the Yucatan peninsula, and in Northern Guatemala, where the visit of Tikal should be a worthy conclusion.