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Monkeys, Zapatistas and Pyramids - San Cristobal de las Casas to Palenque

Over the last couple of months, we have been stepping back to reflect on our trip so far. It has been incredible. We have met so many wonderful people, seen so many indescribable things and really stepped out of our comfort zones. We have spent more time exploring Mexico than we ever intended, and still have only seen about half of what we had hoped to. We have come to realize that traveling is something that we want to do, not just for a year or two, but for as long as possible. Traveling in a financed vehicle, and without an income, puts some serious limitations on our ability to travel long term.

So, with that in mind, our plan now is to shift gears. Once we leave San Cristobal, we will head back to Kentucky. There, we will work to save money, rehab a house that is currently gutted and get it rented (income), and sell the Jeep to build a vehicle that we don’t owe payments on.

We will probably take it slow, making our way back across Mexico over the next couple of weeks. We're also planning some stops in Austin TX, New Orleans LA, Gulf Shores AL, Nashville TN, and Asheville NC.

We plan to be in the states for about a year and then, we’re back on the road! It's not an easy decision, but it seems like the best solution. A short hiatus, in trade for a much longer trip.

Okay, now back to your regularly scheduled programming.

Leaving Zipolite was tough, but only a few days after our last post, we finally made it out. Knowing that we were headed toward one of our most anticipated stops on our trip, San Cristobal de las Casas, made it a little easier. So we headed out early(ish) towards a stopping point at Tuxtla Gutierrez.

Indigenous Woman stencil

While still in the state of Oaxaca, we encountered two traffic jams. At the first, we followed some local traffic off of the highway and onto a short dirt road that bypassed the traffic. At the second, some locals offered to show us how to get around the traffic for a small fee. They wanted to ride with us to show us the way, but when we explained that we didn’t have any seats, one of them agreed to run ahead and we could follow him. All of this was complicated by the apparent urgency of the situation, and Brian’s less than perfect Spanish. About half way down the road, Brian told tour makeshift guide that we could find our way and paid him. His running all the way down this dirt path seemed like too much work for the agreed upon 30 pesos (about $2.50). When we finally made it back to the highway, we were still blocked. It was a teacher’s strike, and they were blocking a bridge with tires and rocks. We came out of the woods right at their roadblock, and it was obvious that we had been trying to bypass it.

Luckily, they were too preoccupied with some of the truck and bus drivers who were trying to reason with them to open up the road, to notice. We had read about people sitting at these roadblocks for up to 4 hours, so we figured that we should settle in for a long wait. Fortunately, they decided to open up the road within about 5 minutes of our arrival. We got to hop right in front of the line (which made some of the bus drivers a little mad) and continue on. We made it to Tuxtla Gutierrez before dark and camped in a hotel parking lot, good wifi and clean restrooms, who needs anything else?

From Tuxtla we headed to the nearby “Sima de las Cotorras” or a giant sinkhole filled with thousands of green parrots! Or so we were told, as long as you come at the right time of year, which apparently we hadn’t. The sinkhole itself is pretty interesting, and at least a few of the parrots had stuck around, so we got to see between 20-30 parrots take flight together at about 7:30 am. Together, the parrots, the sinkhole, and the free camping, made it worth the visit.

Sima de las Cotorras

The next day, a short drive brought us to San Cristobal de las Casas. It’s hard to not be impressed with how culturally diverse the city is. There are several indigenous peoples who live in and around the city who walk the streets with their homemade bracelets, scarves and delicious sweet treats for sale. Mexico is going to give us diabetes.

We camped a couple of nights at the local campground, Rancho San Nicolas RV Park, feeling like maybe we had made a mistake leaving the beach. After weeks of endless sun in Zipolite, we weren’t prepared for the cool evenings of this mountain city. We decided to rent an apartment (complete with a fireplace, and free firewood!) off AirBnB to use as a home base while we explored the city and ate our weight in pozole and tacos dorados (local soup with chicken and hominy and fried tacos, respectively).

Brian and a tarantula at the Museo de Bichos

The campground at San Nicolas RV Park is really nice and safe. There are a couple of adorable dogs and one annoying cat on the grounds and the staff is accommodating and friendly. Bathrooms are clean, showers are hot (most of the time, except the one time Carley used them. Womp Womp) and the wifi is pretty good. It's easily a 20 minute walk to the center of town, but it's mostly flat, so no sweat.

Our first day in town, we had lunch at a small cafe in the center of the square. The sun was shining, music was playing, children were running around trying to get tourists to buy their bracelets. It was one of those moments where you just think, "man...this is why we're doing this. THIS is why we're here". That may sound cheesy, but it's true. San Cristobal is a lot like Guanajuato in that it can sweep you off your feet. There are several pedestrian streets lined with shops, cafes, restaurants, etc. You name it, they've got it. Known for their coffee and cacao, there's a shop selling either on every corner. You should indulge. We did.

Colors in San Cristobal

Kakaw Museum & Chocoloteria has a menu of local hot chocolates and truffles. The Columbiana cafe has some kick ass empanadas. Lucita's serves the largest bowl of pozole we've seen in Mexico. It'll keep you going all day.

After about a week in the city, we were ready to head toward the jungle. Onward to Palenque!

As soon as you leave the city, you see the hand painted billboards and signs indicating that you are entering EZLN territory. Much of the rural and mountainous regions of Chiapas are considered indigenous communities of resistance, and most of them identify as Zapatistas. Some significant tourist locations have been at the center of deadly land rights disputes between the federal govt., the Zapatistas, and another armed paramilitary group called the OPDDIC. The OPDDIC has taken advantage of the Zapatistas unwillingness to sign property deeds issued by the Mexican govt. and has been participating in a land grab throughout Chiapas over the last decade. One of the disputed locations is the popular Agua Azul waterfalls, just north of San Cristobal. This has lead, on occasion, to shootouts and robberies, and more often, to multiple unofficial tollbooths set up by each faction, causing visitors to pay multiple times for entry. We would advise skipping a visit to Agua Azul until the site is back under Zapatista control.

Handmade Zapatista doll

The long and windy road north to Palenque was littered with “topes” (speed bumps, usually homemade) and local roadblocks (kids holding a rope to block the road, trying to sell oranges, bananas, corn, and coconuts, for small amounts of change – we’re still undecided about how we feel about giving them money. They’re pretty cute, though, so it’s up to you). By the time we arrived at the Maya Bell RV Park, it was close to 3pm. So we walked the short hike up to the entrance to the ruins and asked the man at the desk how much it was to get in. Since the park was scheduled to close in a little more than an hour, he offered us a “discount”. So we tossed 30 pesos into his pocket (roughly a quarter of the usual cost) and headed in.

It's quite a hike up the trail to the ruins, and after driving all day, it may seem like a drag. But when we finally made it to the top, it was totally worth it. Palenque is impressive, to say the least. The beautiful jungle setting, complete with monkeys, iguanas, and waterfalls, makes it feel almost staged, and since we got in on a discount, we felt it would be smart to see as much as possible.

The Temple of Inscriptions

Temple of the Skull

That evening, as we sat at the campground's restaurant/tiki bar, drinking a couple of beers, it poured rain. Like, heavy, straight down, beating up the ground, rain. So, we stuck around and had a few more beers. What choice did we have? It was nice. We had planned to leave the next morning, but without a clear idea of where we would camp, we decided to stick around for another day and see more of the jungle. That morning, we woke to the sounds of howler monkeys in the distance. They do not sound at ALL like what we had imagined. It's like, a dinosaur/lion on a loud speaker at an amusement park (if you will). But they're not on a loud speaker. They're in the trees. And since you can't see them, it's a bit spooky.

Howler Monkeys at Palenque

All that rain made the green a bit brighter against the dark muddy backdrop, so we walked around the land and took some pictures. Later that afternoon, we took a hike through a different part of park and totally lucked out! Brian spotted THREE howler monkeys climbing around in the trees no more than 30 yards from us. We stood in awe for a bit and then moved on.

Carley in a bamboo forest

The tiniest little grasshopper

Sleepy treefrog

Golden Orb Weaver

Back at the campground, we ran into some folks we met back in San Miguel de Allende, and again in Oaxaca, and again in Zipolite, and AGAIN in San Cristobal (do you see a trend?). A German couple called Etta and Helmut (incredibly nice people) and they told us about a route that they had taken from San Cristobal to Palenque. A round about way to three waterfalls and one other set of ruins. Perfect! We now had a plan. Dinner and margaritas at the RV Park restaurant and we were set to head out in the morning.

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