Don’t go there the Zapatista are near!
Once again this journey proved how wrong and inaccurate some travel guidebooks are and even so-called knowledgeable locals can be wrong. We were a little concerned when we were planning this trip, as in the Southern Mexico section of a reputable travel guide it stated, “Mountain terrain, the scarcity of gas stations, and the poor quality of the roads make driving an ordeal. Those who choose to drive are advised to do so only during the day. Access to some parts of Chipas is restricted because of the Zapatista problem.” This guide was published just two years before we were visiting the area.
Firstly the mountain terrain was enjoyable to drive through, as we never knew what was around the corner. Secondly there was no shortage of gas stations and the roads were in good order and I certainly did not find it an ordeal to drive in Southern Mexico.
We arrived in Tehuantépec, a stopover on our drive from Oaxaca to San Christóbel, and as I was unloading the car a tour bus pulled up and a group of Germans got off. I went over to the tour guide, Hans, who was born in Mexico of German parents. We were both on the same ‘tourist track’ of this part of Mexico. After San Christóbel we were both going to Palenque with stopovers at Agua Azul and Misol-Ha. Hans advised me not to stop at Agua Azul as two days previously the Zapatista had apparently held up three tourist buses in that area and robbed the passengers. Hans then added that he had made a decision not to stop at Agua Azul.
However, on the following day after talking to some locals in San Christóbel who assured us it was all right to stop at the waterfalls we made the decision to stop at Agua Azul and were very glad that we did. The reputable travel guidebook states its 125 kilometres to Agua Azul when it is 176 kilometres.
This is an example of ensuring that you get information from a variety of sources, remember not all travel guidebooks are 100% right but there again not all local information is correct either.
150 Topes to Palenque
I suppose in some ways we were a little apprehensive about our journey from San Christóbel to Palenque due to what we had heard in Tehuantépec. We were a little poignant to leave San Christóbel as we felt the three days we had spent there were not enough to see all that we wanted to see. However, with the anticipation of new destination awaiting us we left town after a breakfast of huevos rancheros in high spirits.
I had found driving in Mexico quite comfortable as the roads were in moderately good condition; the road signs good and the majority of drivers that we encountered were very courteous. However, there was one disagreeable feature of Mexican roads and that was the large number of topes, which are speed bumps. Some are so small that there is no need to slow down, but Mexican drivers always come to a stop before crossing any tope, which I found to be annoying when I was behind our self-imposed schedule.
Our first stop was Agua Azul, the first time we had heard about these waterfalls was an Ian Wright episode on television. The clear aquamarine water flowing over golden coloured rocks looked really appealing and we were not going to pass Agua Azul without a visit. The aquamarine water cascading endlessly over the rocks was Mother Nature at her best. Surrounded by forest we made our way pass the numerous food and handicraft stalls to the top of the falls where the view was nothing short of magnificent. After spending time photographing the falls we sat on the grassy banks of the lower part of the falls and enjoyed our Mexican lunch while other tourists swam in the river.
After leaving Agua Azul we drove the short distance to Misol-Ha, a simple waterfall that although much higher than the Agua Azul falls did not have the magical colours. The track leading down to the pool at the bottom of the waterfall passed behind the cascading water. The cooling spray was very comforting in the hot midday sun but the noise was deafening. So against some local advice we had visited the two places we were advised not to go to without any problems and came away with wonderful memories.
Although Palenque is not as well known as Chichén Itzá to me it was truly a mysterious and commanding archaeological site. Perhaps I was more in awe as Palenque was the first Mayan site I had visited as previously I had only seen the Zapotec sites, which were not as impressive. The advantages Palenque has over Chichén Itzá are that is not as crowded, it is set in the jungle and therefore cooler to walk around and there are not hawkers all over the site pestering you.
The Temple of Inscriptions is the most imposing building at Palenque although it is not the biggest. That honour goes to the Palace, which is set on a 330 by 260 foot platform, which is 30 feet high and topped with a four-tiered tower that was used as a lookout post. One of the other buildings that impressed us was the Temple of the Sun with its glyphs and stucco friezes. We would have liked to spend more time at Palenque but we had a 300-kilometre drive to Campeche, so with heavy hearts we left this wonderful 2000 year-old Mayan city.
As we were having a cup of coffee before departing we were discussing Palenque and the journey to another tour guide who informed us that his associate had counted the number of topes from San Christóbel and he proudly told me, “there are 150 topes to Palenque”.