Next stop was Palenque. I took a night bus there with Olatz and Nienke, and we arrived at 8am and wandered through the little mountain city. It’s hillier and more haphazard than flat Merida, with the latter’s colourful cobbled lanes replaced with topsy-turvy highstreets crammed with pharmacies and hat stalls. At the end of each street, when each one inevitably dipped away or curved around, green broccoli mountains line the horizon. I noticed very few backpackers or tourists in the city, which is simultaneously pleasing and a little intimidating when you can’t speak the language and are aggressively blonde.
We checked into our hostel at 8am, ate breakfast, fell asleep in hammocks and woke up in the rain, and two hours later the Dutch boys Luuk and Bas arrived from Bacalar in the south. I was very happy to be reunited after parting ways with them in Vallodolid. It felt like seeing old, long-lost friends again.
We drew up a plan: collectivo out of town and into the jungle, to explore the archaeological zone of Palenque – an abandoned city of ancient Mayan ruins. I’d heard about them from a backpacking couple on the whale shark trip in Holbox, and as soon as I heard the words ‘jungle’ and ‘ruin’ used in the same sentence, my mind was made up.
The collectivo drove us through bright little wooden villages, away from modern civilisation and towards an ancient one. At the site’s visitor centre and museum we bought tickets, and guides offered to take us around but we were all far too cheap. Alongside the guides were men selling magic mushrooms, which seemed like an explosively shit idea given how many machine-gun toting police trucks patrol Palenque’s new town 24/7. We got lost for a bit on the road, watched a monkey flailing about in a tree, got chased by a man desperately trying to sell us shrooms, and finally, through a large stone gate, we entered the jungle.
We followed a stream, criss-crossing it on wobbly bridges which Luuk and I jumped on to scare the girls. The forest was dense and beautiful, with heavy vines looping over branches and steam dancing in shafts of sunlight. We heard strange birds as we wound our way along the path, and the air smelled damp. Five minutes into our hike, we found the first sign of a lost civilisation: a small stone structure, covered in moss, half reclaimed by nature. This was somebody’s home, a long long time ago. The mind boggles.
My friends went ahead and walked up a mossy stone staircase surrounded by giant tree trunks, and I once more found myself thinking about Indiana Jones and wishing I had a whip and a map. Not the leather jacket though; wildly impractical for such climes. You’d sweat your tits off.
The main archaeological site, when we finally found it, was vast – several square kilometres at least. There were perhaps a dozen pyramids, many of which were accessible to the public – unlike at Chichen Itza where you can’t climb on anything. I was a little apprehensive to climb such an important and ancient site, but then – they’re big piles of rocks and have sat there for a thousand years, through storms and earthquakes and wars. They can probably handle my 68-kilo form lumbering up them for five minutes.
As we emerged from the beneath the forest’s canopy and climbed the staircase of our first pyramid, we heard a great roar coming from the thick of the trees. It reverberated around the site, up the steps of the temple and back down again. As one we froze and looked to the forest. Howler monkeys. They live in the forest and they hoot and scream and bellow, and I loved it: I looked at the ancient abandoned city and imagined explorers first discovering it, centuries before, advancing warily through the site wondering what evil befell these people that was so severe they vanished completely – and then hearing a chorus of beastly roars from the depths of the jungle.
The pyramids are perilous to climb up, and even more so to climb down. The stairs are high and short, meaning a fall from the top would guarantee a swift and messy arrival at the bottom. At the top of several pyramids were the remnants of colourful Mayan murals, carved into the rock, depicting strange scenes of gods and monsters. I explored a tomb that was open to the public, but there wasn’t much to see beyond an empty grave.
We left the ruins after a couple of adventurous hours, and on the way back I sweated an astounding amount due to my t-shirt, which was thick and grey, which I wore because I’m an imbecile with an IQ of 7. By the time we got back to the collectivo I looked like one of those translucent grease bags they give cookies in at school.
That evening we drank beers and partied at the hostel and there was a big big storm and we played pool and I lost and we had some tequila and met a nice Bolivian man named Zamir and we went to a club and did some nice dancing but it wasn’t that fun because it was techno and I think techno is rubbish.
Next day we went to a waterfall. Olatz, Nienke, Luuk and Bas make very good travel companions because they like to actually do shit. Left to my own devices, I rarely do ‘activities’. I think things are too expensive or too hackneyed or too far away, and consequently I do nothing. And then I wonder why I’m bored, lol. So it’s good to travel with active, enthusiastic ‘let’s go do something’ people; I’m usually reluctant and/or unsure, but I never regret it in the end.
The collectivo to the waterfall was 45 minutes, and on the way we passed a village with a lot of murals of revolutionaries like Che Geuvara and a lot of red stars and big painted letters on the side of buildings. Olatz leaned over to take photos, and explained it was a Zapatista settlement. The Zapatistas, Olatz told me, are a militant revolutionary group based in the mountains of the state of Chiapas, inspired by Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata. They’re mostly indigenous Mexicans, and their politics is a mixture of socialism and anarchism. They fight against the government for more rights for indigenous Mexican people, morally opposed to capitalism and globalisation. According to Olatz, the government knows where their camps are, but they don’t mess with them. Pretty gnarly.
We arrived at the river, in a tiny poor village with jovially painted buildings and chickens running around. We bought bananas and handmade bracelets off a mob of tiny children, and for a couple of hours we explored the five waterfalls that made up the river. Olatz and I got separated by the others, and down a leafy jungle path we found a chameleon, with its big eyes swivelling around to look at us. We moved and it ran away to climb a tree and change colour, from green to brown.
It’s funny how your expectations can radically alter a place: I found the waterfalls very beautiful, with their thundering coffee-coloured waters. It was only when we got home, several hours later, that we saw printed-out photos behind the hostel reception of the same waterfall with iridescent turquoise waters. The girl on reception explained that the waters were brown for us because of all the rainfall recently. It was odd: before seeing that photo, I’d felt very lucky, because I’d seen a beautiful waterfall – now I felt unlucky, because the waterfall I saw wasn’t as beautiful as it could have been.
Not sure what the lesson is in that, though. Ignorance is bliss? Don’t… compare things? Happiness is all a matter of how you look at… stuff?
Good one, Dan, you genius Zen guru, you.
Olatz left in the evening to take a night bus to San Cristobal – Nienke and I would reunite with her in a couple of day’s time. Down to a quartet for the time being, Luuk, Bas, Nienke and I had a cheap dinner and an early night.
Next day, the four of us took a collectivo out into the countryside to visit another waterfall. The collectivo dropped us on a quiet country lane, not a building in sight, and the air was alive with dancing yellow butterflies. We passed corn growing in fields and cows with curling horns. At the bottom of a winding hill we bought a ticket for 10 pesos from a man in a bamboo hut, and we entered the park for the waterfall. Even from afar, it very quickly became obvious this was not going to be a repeat of yesterday: from 200 metres away, through the gaps in the trees and vines, there was a veil of dense white – and it was moving. Not just at ground level either: the air was brilliant and shifting even at the canopy, twenty metres up.
“Fuck,” I said, eloquently, on our approach.
The waterfall grew as we neared, until finally we passed the last of the trees and great jungle leaves and it appeared before us, and I realised it was ten times bigger than any waterfall I’d ever seen. It wasn’t a sequence of rapids and smaller waterfalls, like the day before. This was one giant cliff over which plunged a fat greedy torrent of water, plunging into a stormy deep pool below. The air smelled wet and the sound of the crashing water was soothing, and once again I got that feeling: Indiana Jones, baby. I love it so much.
We went down the water’s edge and took pictures, and then we paid a local guy chilling nearby 50 pesos to take us all the way behind the waterfall, to the other side. He gave us life jackets and I wondered why on earth I would need a life jacket because there was what appeared to be a clear path behind the waterfall, with a handrail.
We drew nearer to the furious veil of water, and from below I watched the white torrent soaring over the lip of the cliff and smashing into the pool. On our approach, the consistency of the air became less ‘humid’ and more ‘shower nozzle piped straight into your mouth’. It was hard to breath and hard to see and impossible to hear – but I thought hey, at least we were on a well maintained, railed path as we set off to cross behind the waterfall. A path which then fucking stopped.
“Come,” said the lunatic leading us, and stepped over the handrail onto wet, uneven boulders.
It was so loud and so insane that I couldn’t say anything back beyond ‘AAAAAH’, amid a lot of deranged, terrified laughter. To make matters worse, in a sealed plastic bag clutched only in my very human and fallible hand, I had my phone, wallet, Nienke’s phone, and her purse. This meant I had only one hand to steady myself as I scrambled after our fucking guide, who was nimbly hopping from rock to rock and apparently unaware of the world exploding around him. The air flashed like a strobe light as streaks of water from all directions caught glints of sunlight and then vanished. My hair was plastered to my face, eyes blurry, a mini waterfall of my very own pouring from my nose and chin. All I could say was ‘GUH’.
I don’t know how, but we made it across: our guide showed us useful handholds and safe places to stand, and after what felt like fifteen years of ‘AAAAAH BLBLBLBLBLBLB AAAAHHH SHIIIIIIIIT, we arrived, adrenaline-mad, on the far bank.
There wasn’t much to do there however. So: we looked around, chuckled insanely, sighed with exhaustion, then it was time to head back.