We had been planning to do a trip from San Cristobal de las Casas to the Mayan ruins in Palenque since we arrived, so we finally made the rounds of the tour companies in town and chose one which offered the daytrip for 450 pesos, about $23 each. The trip included 1.5-2 hours at the Agua Azul waterfalls and a 45-minute stop at Misol Ha waterfall. We had really wanted to do the trip over two days so we would have more time at Palenque, but weren’t able to find a tour company offering this option, so we went with the one-day tour. We booked the tour for the following day with van pickup at 4-4:30am and return to San Cristobal estimated at 10-10:30pm, a really long day, mostly consisting of driving time. Little did we know that our trip would become longer and more complicated and uncomfortable than we expected.
The tour company offered hotel pickup, but since the arrival of the van at your hotel may be first or last on the list, we didn’t want to risk being near the end and getting cramped seats, so we asked the tour agent what was the first pickup location. She said that it was in front of the OXXO store (the Mexican equivalent of 7-Eleven) in the zocalo, only two blocks from our AirBNB, so we chose to be picked up there.
We set our alarms for the next morning at 3:30am and pre-packed a daypack with water bottles, camera, and made some ham and cheese sandwiches in case food was uncertain on the trip. The next morning we were in front of the OXXO at 3:40am. Surprisingly, the van arrived five minutes before 4:00am and was empty, so we took the two roomier seats behind the driver. We drove around town picking up the other passengers, all who came on board with full suitcases or backpacks. From this we assumed they were not returning to San Cristobal with us.
The route to Palenque followed highway 199, first heading south past Rancho Nuevo, which we had visited the previous week, and then cutting north towards Ocosingo. Everything went fine and the highway was good, except for the constant slowing and speeding up over the hundreds of speed bumps on the way to Ocosingo. In Chiapas we never saw any speed limit signs or signs in towns requiring traffic to slow down. Instead, there are speed bumps placed wherever there is a need to slow down, and also in many places where there doesn’t appear to be any reason to slow down. We guessed that the reason for using so many speed bumps is that they require no police force to achieve this purpose. We rarely see any police cars on the highways in Mexico.
About 10 minutes past Ocosingo we encountered a roadblock. We had talked with a German couple who had rented a car for the trip to Palenque and they had been told by the rental company not to take highway 199 because of Zapatista roadblocks. Instead they were going via Tuxtla Gutierrez and Villahermosa, which takes 9+ hours instead of five. We had wondered about the possibility of a roadblock on our trip but decided the tour company must do this route all the time and either knew in advance that the way was clear, or had a way to get through the roadblocks. Wrong!
The roadblock consisted of a large Coca Cola truck parked across most of the paved roadway and a flimsy barricade of boards manned by men with machetes and sticks. Half the men had their faces covered and the others were either helping man the barricade or were just locals chatting with the men. It wasn’t clear which. I asked the driver what was going on and he said Zapatistas. Later we read descriptions of the people involved and the write-ups said they were a mixture of Zapatistas and local indigenous people. There was a sign attached to the Coke truck which explained what they were doing this for, but my photo isn’t clear enough to read it now…something about protesting government treatment of the local people. What seemed strange about the whole scene was how totally laid back and non-intense the encounter was. There was no angry waving of weapons or threatening feeling of any kind. The ironic thing was they used a Coca Cola truck to block the road, and the Coca Cola company has been under attack by indigenous villages outside San Cristobal for using up all the ground water to fulfill the water needs of their massive bottling plant nearby, leaving villages without any drinking water.
Our driver parked at a restaurant right next to the roadblock (the restaurant owner must have thanked his lucky stars that they chose this location for the roadblock) and told us we should eat breakfast there. He seemed only slightly concerned and was noncommittal when I asked him if we were going to be able to pass through the roadblock. Inside, the restaurant was serving a breakfast buffet in covered trays which looked like the food had been cooked two hours earlier and was uncovered for each group that came through. We passed on the offerings and I had coffee and ate one of our sandwiches. Ger was already starting to feel a bit queasy from the windy road and speed bumps so she had nothing.
After about 20 minutes the driver informed us we weren’t getting through the blockade. We loaded up the van and headed back the way we had come. The driver was talking repeatedly with people on his cell phone and it sounded like he was trying to find an alternative route. Several miles down the road he turned off onto a side road and said we were taking a different route through the mountains. He didn’t seem absolutely sure about the route as several times he stopped to confirm that he was going the right way and also to ask if there were blockades on this route as well. Everyone seemed to confirm that the route ahead was clear. As we climbed higher and higher into the mountains the roads went from gravel to dirt to very rough and unmaintained dirt. The van was being bounced around every which way as we drove on roads which were better suited to 4-wheel drive vehicles and occasionally the bottom of the van scraped on high points causing the driver to curse. Coffee for me is something of a laxative and after an hour of being thrown around in my seat I was regretting having that cup of coffee at the restaurant and hoping we would find a town or at least someplace we could pull off the road if things became dire. I chewed a couple Pepto Bismol tablets and hope that would help slow things down. At some point about halfway through the detour we came upon a convoy of white tour vans from other tour companies who had obviously come up with the same solution to bypass the roadblock. We joined them at the end of the line. At least now we hoped that the person in the lead actually was familiar with the route and we weren’t on a wild goose chase.
In some ways the detour was rather interesting as we passed by many micro-villages with indigenous people working or more often stopping to watch the strange convoy of a dozen white vans passing by. Ger was waving at them and getting waves and smiles back. Eventually, after about two hours on this awful road we started to see power lines and the road turned to gravel, signs we were nearing a town. As we entered the first town I said to the driver that I needed to use a bathroom soon. He said something about losing time, but I didn’t care, I was about ready to explode. We passed through the town without stopping anywhere. I again told the driver he needed to stop very soon. At the next town he relented and stopped at a place where we could use the bathrooms for five pesos. Several others sprang out of the van ahead of me, so I wasn’t the only one in need. The best five pesos I ever spent. The driver announced that since we were so far behind on time we would need to cut time off some of the destinations.
We arrived at Agua Azul just before noon and the driver said we had one hour, instead of the 1.5-2 hours we had originally been promised. Agua Azul is actually a series of falls which spans a fairly long distance and requires hiking uphill to see everything. Ger and I hiked up as much of the falls as we could in the time allotted, probably about 2/3 of the total height of the falls, with me furiously snapping photos the whole way. It wasn’t enough time to really enjoy the place, but at least we got to see it and take some photos. After we left the falls the driver discussed the options. He felt we didn’t have time to visit Misol Ha waterfall if we wanted to have the full time for Palenque, so we decided to skip Misol Ha. We arrived in Palenque at about 2pm and he stopped at a somewhat fancy resort hotel where he said we should eat because there would be no other food stops for the rest of the trip. The hotel only offered a full buffet for 150 pesos, which looked fine, but Ger was feeling worse after the mountain route and again didn’t want to eat anything. I wasn’t really hungry enough to dive into a full buffet dinner right before I was going to be climbing around a bunch of ruins, so we just drank water and waited to leave.
At 2:30 we headed to the Palenque ruins. We declined the services of an English-speaking guide and got a map and went to explore the ruins by ourselves. Exploring Mayan ruins is all about climbing steps…a lot of steps, and these are not easy steps, often they are about the height of two normal steps in stairways we are used to. With my hip-replacement in mind I was being very careful where I placed my feet and was climbing and descending very slowly. We managed to climb up most of the pyramids and structures worth climbing and from the higher vantage points I took a lot of nice photos of the ruins. Palenque is truly a beautiful and amazing place and the work that was required to construct the huge palace and temples was extraordinary. We loved the large expanses of space around the ruins which give them a feeling of timelessness. We had been thinking that 2 hours was a very short time to see the ruins but they actually aren’t as extensive as we had thought they would be and we were able to see pretty much everything that was open to the public in the time available. Some of the main temples were closed and maybe if they had been open we would have needed more time.
The driver had told Ger there were monkeys at Palenque and she was very excited and looking around through the trees while we were there but didn’t see any monkeys. Back in the parking lot we got drinks and shared a sandwich and the driver spotted us and came over. We asked him about the monkeys and he pointed to the trees on the other side of the parking lot. There had been some sort of noise going on which we hadn’t really been paying attention to…it sounded sort of like the sound I would expect a jaguar to make and I had assumed it was from one of the vendors we had seen selling these toys you could blow into to make bird or jaguar sounds. Only when we paid more attention we realized the sounds were coming from the trees. Then we saw the upper branches of the trees moving and eventually spotted a dark monkey moving around in one tree where the loudest noise was coming from. It’s hard to believe that such a small creature could be making such a loud noise. We later read that these are howler monkeys which are famous for their loud howls. I tried to take a picture but it was far away and mostly hidden by foliage.
After we left the ruins the driver dropped all the other people in the van at their respective hotels nearby and then it was just the driver and us two left. We started the journey back to San Cristobal at about 4:45pm. He waited for a few minutes for three other white tour vans to meet up with us for the trip back, probably for safety reasons. It seemed to us that we were driving much faster on the way back and we were thrown from side to side a lot more when rounding curves, but we were happy to be making good time while it was still light out. At about 6:30 the light was gone and we were probably about ½ hour from the area where the roadblock had been. We stopped in a town and all the drivers got out and started conferring. The driver said we’d only be there for five minutes, but it stretched to 15 minutes and he came back to the van and told us the roadblock was still there and that we’d have to take the same mountain route we’d taken before to get home. We were not happy. Ger was feeling really carsick and I told her to take her ginger candies and gave her a Benadryl. We continued to wait and we asked why and the driver said we were waiting for more tour vans to arrive so we could all go together. A young Italian couple who had been riding in another van were moved to our van and the woman had lived in Madrid and spoke good Spanish and she was asking the driver a lot of questions. She found out that there were going to be 15 vans travelling together. The couple were coming from Palenque and hadn’t experienced the mountain route yet, so we told them about our morning trip and that they should be ready for two hours of truly horrible roads.
Eventually after about a 45 minute wait, we departed. Ger was feeling horrible and the back seats in the van were empty to she went back and laid down across the seats. The trip back through the mountains was just as bad as before except now it was in the dark. I didn’t tell the Italian couple about the places where the dirt road was next to a sheer drop off which rivaled some of the scary roads from Srinagar to Leh in India. An hour into the trip I asked her what she thought of the detour and she said it was the worst road she’d ever been on in her life. After we emerged from the two hour mountain passage I expected we would return to highway 199 for the rest of the trip home, but we didn’t. Instead we returned to San Cristobal on back roads which had fewer speed bumps than the main highway but which were much curvier and more uncomfortable overall. I think maybe the route might have been the old way to get to Palenque before the newer highway was built. We arrived in San Cristobal just before midnight and were dropped at the Zocalo and walked the two blocks to our AirBNB where we immediately dropped into bed after a 20 hour daytrip which included only about 3 hours at the actual sites.
Was it worth the grueling trip? Yes, absolutely. When traveling often things happen which at the time are uncomfortable but they also make the trips more memorable. Now we can say “remember when we were stopped by Zapatista roadblocks and drove through remote mountain villages in Chiapas to get around them?”
The Italian woman had asked the driver if we were driving with 15 vans for security and he said “Yes”, so apparently it wasn’t just to help other drivers follow the route around the roadblock. We later read accounts from within the last year of tour vans being stopped and the tourists being loaded into trucks and driven beyond the roadblock and dumped on the highway to find their own way home. We’ve also read about buses being burned. During the trip we did have to avoid a burned truck blocking an entire lane of the highway which had not been removed. So, clearly our situation could have been worse. It’s interesting that we saw police on the highway only a couple miles away from the roadblock and they didn’t seem to be interested in dealing with the situation, so either the police are sympathetic to the protesters or have been told to avoid any confrontations with them. The local indigenous people in Chiapas have been treated badly or ignored by the Mexican government for a long time, so maybe these kinds of actions will have some effect in initiating changes in government policy. Time will tell.