Achaessa at YaxchilanWe had a great time in Chiapas last month, traveling with a group of young, professional Catholics that Miguel’s youngest sister is associated with. It was a lively, international group of about 40 people that included a psychologist, a corporate attorney, a doctor in economics, a Spanish priest based in Mexico City, an Italian seminarist from Rome and regular folks like us. They were all very warm and welcoming and Miguel and I really enjoyed being part of the group.

Miguel, his sister and I flew in to the capital city Tuxtla-Gutierrez and stayed the first night at the Crown Plaza. It wasn’t a luxury – it was preparation for the 6+ hour drive the next day. Plus I haven’t sat in a bathtub since March, so I blissed out in the giant bathroom. (Note to travelers: The Crown Plaza Tuxtla is beautiful – nicer than it’s American counterparts and much less expensive. The only glitch – to get to the Crown’s private entry, you have to traverse the Holiday Inn lobby, pass through the shopping and restaurant plaza, and cross the pool and patio area, all on foot. Then the Crown valet will take your keys and park your car in their secure lot. Very strange, but worth the walk.)

The drive to Palenque took us over the mountains where we were actually above the clouds. When the clouds opened up, the view of the jungle below was vast and densely green. I had imagined a suffocating mass of tropical plants, but it was just the opposite – and impossible to judge how far away the eye could see. I had run a map on Microsoft Streets & Trips, but it was no help. The roads were so poorly marked that we never knew where we were. In some places, there were signs right next to each other for two different highways – Mexico 99, Palenque 84 km – Mexico 98, Palenque 91km – but there was only one road. We were in a rented Tsuru – economy 4-door – not really that low, but the road bumps were often so high they scraped our underside.

Palenque was a beautiful torture. Trees, vines and plants of enormous proportions. Flowers and birds of unexplainable colors. But the humidity and the heat were at times unbearable. Thank goodness we opted for the expensive room – it not only had a private bathroom, but had air conditioning as well. It wasn’t a sealed room, in fact, the windows on one side didn’t even close, but the air conditioning box mounted high on the wall was quiet and kept the room fresh enough to sleep.

In Mexico most houses don’t have doorbells and the front door is not on the street, so the customary manner to raise the house is to knock on the front metal gate or the front window with a coin. It is an unmistakable sound. The first night at La Aldea I spent waiting for whoever was knocking on all the windows to get to our door to see what he wanted. Every 15 minutes he would knock on another window, then quiet. In the exhausted morning, I discovered that there is a small transparent lizard that makes the coin-tapping sound.

We found a knowledgeable and humorous guide the first day at the ruins in Palenque and persuaded him to be our guide the next day, too. A 30-something shaven-head Mayan – do not think small here, he was almost as tall as Miguel and more sturdily built – named Salvador. His bright green eyes were shocking in his tan face. He carried a back pack full of reference materials about the area – National Geographic articles, Mexican archaeology magazines, photos and maps. I didn’t like Salvador at first sight because of his eyes. They scared me. But after a short while his humor and professional manner won me over. By the end of the second day I even hugged him when we all said goodbye.

So the first day we went to Palenque, where the well-kept grounds and signage gave it the feel of a museum. We ended the day swimming at a waterfall called Misol-Ha. The second day we took a boat ride on the Usumacinta River, with Mexico on the eastern shore and Guatemala on the western shore, to tour the island ruins of Yaxchilan. The ruins here were wilder than those at Palenque and the air was full of jaguar screams, monkey howls and bird screeches. Then we raced to get to Bonampak before the site closed. Bonampak is the only site with well-preserved paintings (as opposed to carvings). According to Salvador, about 10 years ago the Mexican government had agreed to flood this river valley, covering these spectacular ruins, to create a hydroelectric power plant for Guatemala. Fortunately, the global community supporting the indigenous populations stepped in and persuaded them to abandon the project.

The climbing and hiking were strenuous at points. The photos you’ve seen of ruins with stairs that appear to go straight up depict the truth. In all of the sites we visited, though, there were only a few roped off ruins, and never any “do not walk” signs, so the tourists spread out and walked anywhere they wanted. From the look of the undergrowth I think the open areas rely on human traffic to keep the jungle growth from taking over again.

The last day we drove back to Tuxtla-Gutierrez. Everyone in our group had been appalled that we’d driven so many hours – most had flown into Villahermosa in Tabasco, just two hours from Palenque. They assured us there was a better driving route back to Tuxtla – still six hours, but real highway with no road bumps. Well, we got to Villahermosa just fine, and had the most marvelous lunch. A local river lobster called a Pigua, roasted with crunchy pieces of garlic. My mouth is watering at the memory of it. After Villahermosa, we immediatelly got lost. Or at least I think we did. There were no roadbumps, but it was definitely not highway and it took us seven more hours without even stopping to eat. We got to the outskirts of Tuxtla, on the other side of the city from the airport, about 10 minutes before our plane was set to take off. So we decided to stay another night.

After 9 hours of driving I was ready for another night at the Crown Plaza. Bathtub from heaven. Bed of clouds. Real air conditioning. But driving down the main avenue, we saw a fancy-looking steakhouse on a corner and Miguel decided we should stay in the hotel above it. It was an older hotel with a large modern lobby in marble. The rooms, however, were sad and dark. What the heck, we left our bags and went downstairs for steak.

Balam Steak House Restaurante turned out to be exceptional and more than made up for Miguel’s bad hotel choice.  Mexican steaks are generally paper thin, unaged beef. We were surprised by the American style thick cuts and even more surprised that the chefs knew how to cook them properly. Best rib eye I’ve had in ages. Equally stunning was the presence of salads on the menu and we were pleased to receive a variety of fresh greens and not one leaf of iceberg lettuce. After dinner we walked down to the local plaza, Jardin de la Marinba, which was still overflowing with people and vendors and mariachis at 10 o’clock.

The next day we took a boat tour up the Sumidero Canyon. A famous mountain pass flooded to build a hydroelectric dam that opened in 1981. We saw crocodiles and monkeys and white cranes. And garbage. Fortunately, the garbage was just in one football field size area and there was a work crew trying to scoop it up, but it was just another reminder of how this society truly fails to connect their personal actions with the ultimate environmental impact.

I’ve posted our photos on Box.Net at (Don’t worry, it’s a straight link with nothing to sign up for.) There are three subfolders – Chiapas-Ruins, Chiapas-Sumidero, and Chiapas-Vacaciones. Open the first photo in each folder and then just select Next Picture so you can scroll them all full-size. Unfortunately, my camera died half-way through the Sumidero boat tour, so that folder is sparse. The last folder, Vacaciones, is miscellaneous shots that closes with a 4-photo summary of the only form of mass transit we saw while in Chiapas (outside of the capital city).