Choosing to visit the world renowned Mayan ruins of Palenque was easy. Deciding how to get there, however, required more careful consideration. In last week’s blog I mentioned the widespread protests against literally anything and everything in these parts ( often resulting in road blockades ). Given that Palenque is internationally known, a major tourist draw and is most often accessed from San Cristobal de las Casas, protestors have, for years now, set up rotating blockades on the main road to the ruins, route 199, just outside the town of Ocosingo. The direct route is shown in blue in the second map below and is already ( at best ) a 5 hour drive. The worst part is that you cannot guarantee to be allowed through the blockades and if you are, generally with some additional delay and the payment of an unofficial toll ( perhaps this is where the term “highway robbery” originated ? ). We took the liberty of asking some locals, the police and then the tourist information folks about the route. Responses ranged from “No problem senor” to “Just leave early and get to Ocosingo before 8am” and finally – wait for this……”Be sure to drive in a convoy” ! Since a convoy could not be hastily arranged and travelling the direct route was clearly questionable, we took the long road to Palenque………
While it looked like a much longer route ( and it was in terms of kilometres- see top map, above ), we managed to cover the extremely circuitous San Cristobal – Tuxtla Gutierrez – Route 145D – Route 187 – Cardenas – Villahermosa – Palenque route in just under 7 hours ( a very long driving day in Mexico ). No delays, no blockades and, all things considered, a pretty comfortable and often scenic drive as well.
Palenque, we thought, better be worth this long drive ! In fact, it was not really so far out of our way since our next destination – the Yucatan – required that we cover much of that same ground anyway. Having heard so much about the place our expectations were very high. We had already seen Teotihuacan in Mexico City and had other similarly famous ruins planned in the weeks ahead. We need not have worried – Palenque was absolutely worth the effort to get to and altogether different than Teotihuacan. The latter, I suspect, only sees more tourists because of its proximity to Mexico City and thus relative ease of access – not because it is a more impressive archeological site. Palenque’s mystique is in a sense heightened because of its relative remoteness, and is absolutely enhanced by the lush setting – that jungle backdrop really gives the place ( please excuse the Hollywood analogy ) somewhat of an “Indiana Jones” movie set feel. What is interesting is that, as impressive as it is, only a small percentage of this site has actually been uncovered – there is much more there that hasn’t been exposed so far. The museum nearby, viewed after the site visit, contains many of the detailed sculptures that would otherwise weather away if left exposed to the elements – very impressive as well and it’s air conditioned comforts were a welcome relief nafter hours outside in very hot and extremely humid conditions.
Following Palenque our route turned north east to the old Spanish garrison town of Campeche. Perched on the shores of the Gulf of Mexico, Campeche has quite the rich history. A major trading port during the colonial era, its riches drew the attention of roving pirates and in response the Spanish built a fortress to surround the city, the well preserved remnants of which survive to this day. Within its walls lie what is known today as the Centro Historico and contain a couple of excellent museums that we explored and which provided a glimpse into life at Campeche in those days. Also one of the prettier cities to simply wander around with well preserved period buildings and other historical landmarks, now complemented with great restaurants and coffee shops ( which we also sampled ).
Campeche was only a short 2 hour drive to one the most anticipated cities we would visit in Mexico – Merida. While the scenery and conditions continued pretty much as they had been all the way to Campeche- very flat, very green and very hot- we did experience a “first” in Mexico. A good, old-fashioned attempt shake-down by one of Mexico’s Policia Estatal ( State Police ).
Just north of Campeche one of the many police inspection stops one passes in Mexico lay ahead. It looked for all the world like any other – and in every other case but one, we were waved through ( or ignored ). The one that stopped us a few days earlier just wanted to impress us with his English – a few irrelevant questions from him, compliments from us on his English skills, and we were on our way. Not so today.
The Policia always work in pairs and when the first one waved us over ( meaning for us to stop ) his wingman quickly slid in to speak to us. Unusually, he had a very stern look on his face. All the others smiled a lot. We were asked if we spoke Spanish ( we always answer “no” ) but he tried some Spanish on us anyway. We missed a lot of it, but picked up three critical things; 1) we had not put our hazard lights on when approaching a police stop – doing so is the norm in Mexico, if not exactly the law, 2) this was a serious “infraccion”, and 3) the cost to “resolve” the issue quickly would be “dos mil pesos” ( 2,000 pesos or about 135 Canadian dollars ). Explaining politely that this was not a rule in Canada and we simply did not know about it got a polite shoulder shrug – he repeated “dos mil pesos”. We promised not to do it again ( lol ! ) if this could be converted to a warning perhaps. Another shrug and second request for dos mil pesos. A stand-off.
Lois then recalled a tip we had read about. She pulled out our Say Hi Translate app and asked if he could take us to the station, show us the rule we had broken, and issue us a formal ticket at which point we would pay. Suddenly we got the puppy dog eyes look, a markedly different tone and an admission from our friend that he would forget about this if we had something to give him. He seemed to be eyeing a bag of Cheeto’s sitting in our console so I offered those up ( opened, and half eaten – but he could not see that ) – he happily accepted them, gave us a wry smile and waved us on. I think we were barely out of earshot, the window safely wound up before we both burst out laughing. Proud of Lois for for her defiant stand, and glad we hadn’t eaten all the Cheeto’s yet !
Alas, back to Merida, which, in short, was a bit disappointing for us. More of the same things we were starting to tire of ( churches and cobblestone streets ) and none as splendid as those we had seen before. The campground was not great, the neighbourhood a bit rough – frankly, Campeche was much more impressive. It was so unimpressive in fact that we’d have considered it a waste of time if it was a destination only but it was fortunately en-route ( and close ) to another of Mexico’s world-renowned Mayan ruins – Chichen Itza.
Approaching Chichen Itza, Yucatan tourism signs heavily promote the fact that the site is now one of the 7 Man Made Wonders of the World ( I was not aware that the places on that list ever changed ? ). This and it’s proximity to Cancun / Playa Del Carmen ensure that thousands of tourists converge on the place at any given time – the site is impressive, though I’d put Pelanque ahead of it in terms of the “wow” factor. Unlike Pelanque, at Chichen Itza it was virtually impossible to get photos without hordes of other folks in the image ( we had to be creative ? ).
Having had our fill of pyramids, churches and Spanish fortress ruins it did not take much convincing for us both to agree that a short “hotel” holiday was now in order. While we feel fortunate to have endured very little rain during the Mexican wet season, the high humidity that is also typical of this time of year has persisted and a cool break was called for. Given the unbelievable deals available at hotels here in the off-season and the fact that Yucatan campgrounds are neither inexpensive nor very good, we decided to use the rest of the week to enjoy some cool, pool-side relaxing time and also get some important onward travel planning done. Playa Del Carmen was close, we knew it well, and when we found the 50 Suites Hotel just off 5th Avenue offering a deal we could not believe we quickly hit the “Book” button. Pool time it was…..