Read the Part 2 of our time in Mexico.
We took an ADO bus out of Oaxaca which would get us to San Cristobal de Las Casas overnight. Weirdly sleeper buses are not a concept out there but fortunately the ADO buses are luxurious enough to spend the night comfortably. Parul slept as soon as the bus hit the highway but I stayed up initially, trying to test my Spanish against a movie that was being played. Come morning, we were at our destination.
Ahh! San Cristobal!
We walked for around half an hour to get to our AirBnB. I think Parul has caught on to my fascination for walking; or maybe just given up on me 😛
The AirBnB was at quite a distance from the Zocalo in a secluded residential area which was still not completely developed. We saw a skateboard rink on the way and something that looked like a sports complex.
Our hostess, Rosario, welcomed us and allowed us an early check-in. She fed us some fresh quesadillas and tea while we chatted about India, China and other unrelated things. This was going to be our only interaction with her but we did not mind. The accommodation was a beautiful adobe house with it’s independent access and we loved the look and feel of it. It had been a while since we had gotten time for ourselves 😄
We took a short nap and then headed to the centro. There was a certain expectation we had from this town. Every traveller we had shared our plans with on the road had inevitably sighed at the mention of San Cristobal de Las Casas.
“Ahh! San Cristobal!” they would all say and then their eyes would visibly twinkle and zone out. Their minds lost themselves to, what I supposed were, pleasant memories. “You’re going to love it there!” they’d finally say after a few moments with the broadest smile on their faces.
This had happened too many times to be a personal experience of a single traveller. It seemed to be the general sentiment of the travel community in this country! It did not take us long to figure out why.
San Cristobal initially seemed to me to be a smaller version of Oaxaca City. But as we walked around, there seemed to be more and more to this small town. The centro was small and colourful which gave loads of opportunities for street photography. Characters from Middle Earth - Gandalf and elves - stood around, offering a picture with themselves in exchange for a tip. There were artists dressed as shamans and performing high energy dances for an awed audience. Street vendors sold clothes and items of food. Hippies sold chocolates and strummed their guitars. And of course there was the cafe and xocolate that Chiapas is so popular for. It was a little bit of everything stuck into the small and vibrant city center.
We checked out a couple of museums (as we must!). One of jade and another of cacao. Neither was mind-blowing but the Jade Museum had a really good recreation of the tomb of Pacal that we would see later at Palenque.
Then we walked around to the cathedrals which dotted each direction of the town.
We climbed up the hill to the west of the city where sat Iglesia de San Cristobalito. In the retiring day, it was a nice climb which gave a beautiful view of the city. The colourful flags hanging over the stairway made the climb somewhat less tiring 😅
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After sunset we came back down and spent some more time at the centro before finally heading back to the AirBnB. That too because the vegan lunch that we had had was not letting us sit and eat/drink in a cafe (damn vegan food! 😬) We picked up some pizza and mezcal on the way back and finished Roma (which we had started in Oaxaca at the recommendation of Fernando and Marianna) before calling it a night.
People of the Land
The next morning we had scheduled a tour with Alex y Raul to Zinacantan and Chamula. This was a culture tour and had come highly recommended by our hostess. We decided to give it a shot in order to understand the culture of the land better. Would definitely be something different from what we were used to. We reached the Zocalo at 9:30 AM and were met by our guide, Cesar. The group was a small one. A four member family from Netherlands and the two of us. We learnt over the course of the tour that they were doing a road-trip across the Yucatan and had come inland as far as Chiapas.
The tour started at Zinacantan, a community of Tsotsil speaking Mayans who had adopted Christ and his ways. We walked around the church first, which seems to form the crux of all towns in Mexico. The town’s main church was under restoration so they had shifted into a temporary one.
There was a wedding going on and Cesar asked us to passively observe it from the side. Everyone here, Cesar explained, wore something like a uniform which was typical to their village. Every community or village in the area had it’s own uniform of sorts so that you could immediately tell where the people were from by simply looking at them. This village had adopted Christianity widely and held on to a few traditions as well. They had their unique justice system headed by three elected judges from the village. The children went out to study and work. The village was liberal in many ways, the community system was strong and everyone devoted a year to community services. The customs of this village reminded me of Khonoma (Nagaland) in many ways.
We went to visit a family of weavers next. Every village had it’s own typical designs and the women of the family weaved various articles using traditional techniques which made the production slow and laborious. Opening the house to tours was a way for them to gain supplementary income. Everyone was comfortable with cameras and getting clicked except for the eldest granny who was around 90 years old and not very fond of the camera 👵
They also fed us tortillas with a pumpkin seed powder that was utterly delicious!
Parul bought a tote bag from the weavers on our way out. We headed to the van which ferried us to our next destination. Chamula was a different part of the land and, as was to be expected, the clothes of the people here changed to reflect the change in location. The town was much bigger than Zinacantan. The people here also spoke Tsotsil but were much more conservative about their traditions than the people of Zinacantan. Cesar explained the various differences as we walked in front of the massive church and then took us inside, warning that the people here did not appreciate the camera so we had better put it away. It was an extremely surreal experience to walk in that church. The people had adopted the Christian God and saints but modified them to fit into their traditional belief. Candles burnt everywhere in the church and hay lined the floors. People sat chanting and shamans carried out rituals to heal the sick. The Vatican had tried interfering a few times to establish it’s version of Christianity but the locals had violently repelled it away.
Cesar took us to see a spiritual leader next. These were people who served the community and were selected based on application. They held special positions in the society but a lot of them had to save their entire lives to gather the funds required for a year long service as a spiritual leader. As the incense burnt and the spiritual leader chanted to gods hidden behind veils of leaves, Cesar commented on how this village had it’s own way of functioning. How traditional medicine was still used here and was claimed to work. But missionaries from USA came and tried converting these people to their faith.
We went about to see the town’s market and the local prison next. The prison cells were open to observation and Cesar explained how the justice system here was orthodox but effective. Severe crimes were punished by lynching and moderate ones by public shaming.
The tour ended at the town’s graveyard where Cesar showed us the unique tombs of the natives. He emphasised how the natives had modified Christian beliefs to match their own and why they were not wrong in doing so.
I agreed with what Cesar was saying. The village had it’s right to exist in the manner that it wished to. Modernization would bring about many changes for sure but adopting those changes was a choice of the natives. It should not be forced on them. This strong hold on the traditional way of life was probably the reason that Zapatistas were so firmly rooted in Chiapas. They were a bit like Naxalites in India, only much more supported by the local communities and much more effective.
We thanked Cesar for the wonderful tour as he dropped us back to the city center. This had been an extremely insightful experience and we decided to do more of such culture tours whenever we could. There are things you do not understand as an outsider unless it is explained to you by a well informed local.
Back in San Cristobal, we had a wonderful lunch of soups in a restaurant where two old men played a marimba for our entertainment. Parul thought that one of them looked like Robin Williams when he smiled 😄
We went back to the room and after resting a while we left for some Mexican food in a nearby restaurant followed by some drinks in the Zocalo. San Cristobal had our hearts ❤️ We would now have the familiar response to anyone asking us about this magical place.
Change in the Itinerary
We had a flight out from San Cristobal to Merida but we decided that we were rushing things too much. We had been having active days ever since Zicatela and both of us wanted to rest for a day or two. Plus, we wanted to see Palenque as well and had we gone to Merida as planned, Palenque would become too off route to pursue. So we decided that the flight was cheap enough to give a miss and extended a day in San Cristobal. This was today, when we decided to take it easy and do as little as we could.
We woke up to the chirping of birds in the fallow land next to our property. I spent many a minutes trying to click an elusive hummingbird with my zoom lens. The flora and fauna of Mexico is starkly different from Asia’s and it is a treat in itself.
We also went to check out the Museum of Mayan Medicine which was on the other side of the town. This was strictly okay but we managed to have tamales on the way. This staple dish is somewhat like upma and best had roadside with the corn drink atole. I made do with some coffee though.
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In the afternoon Parul went back for a nap and I sat in a cafe editing pictures and drinking more coffee with chocolate. I returned to the AirBnB later and decided to go for a run in the sports complex nearby. This was the SEDEM park and seemed to be quite an elaborate public amenity with football fields, a jogging track, basketball courts and more. While jogging around, I thought how it’s things like these that make life so much more livable and enjoyable.
I ran a disastrous few laps and cursing myself for the bad shape I had gotten into, returned to the room. My phone had been misbehaving for a few days now and the battery finally died during the run. Frustrated, I swore off Motorola phones.
That night we went back to the city center to book a tour of the Sumidero Canyons and then book a ticket to Palenque with ADO. After getting done with all the bookings, we sat at TierrAdentro, a Zapatista cafe that Dahlia had suggested. Like all her suggestions, this turned out to be pretty amazing. There was live music, okay food and lots of drinks during the happy hours 😄
Doing it All Wrong
The next morning we packed up and waited in front of the SEDEM gate for the tour company to pick us up. We eventually got into a van full of Mexicans and headed to the Sumidero Canyons.
It seemed slightly odd to begin with but that was just because we were not used to tours. The driver ranted off information about the canyon in rapid Spanish and I tried to catch some words here and there. Once we reached the jetty, we were transferred into a motorboat and thus started two hours of the canyon tour.
The canyon was grand! Cliffs rose on both side and it seemed like a scene out of the Jurassic era.
There were strange formations on the cliff and the boat guide described these in rapid Spanish. We used to stop often at such “points of interest” and click pictures or benefit from the guide’s knowledgeable rant. There were small caves and stalactites hanging from them. Egrets, pelicans and vultures flew around. It was quite surreal.
Of course, there was the plastic pollution floating in the water and the strong smell of diesel to remind you that you were still in the present age and world.
Our motorboat, like many others around, zoomed through the canyon and reached the other side. Here some boats selling food and drinks hooked on to ours while people made their purchases.
Then we zoomed back the way we had come and stopped at a spot to see some monkeys and admire a crocodile basking in the sun at close quarters. Then the boat whirred it’s way back to the jetty where we got off.
The tour would have been great … except … I had this constant feeling that we were doing it all wrong! Parul and I chatted at the end of the tour and she was feeling the same way. We should have been in kayaks, slowly making our way through the canyon. But a kayak or row-boat would have taken too long and who has the time these days? Get in a speed boat that noisily rushes through the canyon. Who cares about the fauna being disturbed by the sound or the rippling water or the smoke of the diesel engines? See everything in a rush, go click-click and leave with a bucket list tick. Mass tourism is a menace indeed! This could have been so much better. Too bad that it wasn’t but we learnt to trust our guts for the next time. We had been super indecisive about the canyons and we now realised it was for good reason. We also decided to be more responsible in the future and do our due research in such cases.
After the canyons, the tour van stopped at Chiapa de Corzo, a town nearby which probably deserved a couple of days to itself. We had some interesting lunch at one of the home owned restaurants.
Then we sat in the central park chatting, clicking pictures and commenting on things that did not need our knowledgeable input 😛
The rest of the day was all about killing time till our bus later that night. I got my phone working by a local repair center (there are no official Motorola repair centers in the whole of Mexico 😑) and I just hoped that it lasted till the end of the trip. We sat at a Starbucks to use their good internet and worked on the blogs. Eventually it was time for the bus and we headed to the ADO bus stand right outside the town center.
The late night bus took a long route to Palenque. The direct route was one of those that were “not safe”. The tourist vans went there in the daytime with a convoy for security. This was the darker side of Chiapas, the land of Zapatistas, the rebellious natives and the scorn for capitalism. The longer route, however, was safe and come morning, we woke up in the town of Palenque.
We walked to the apartment we had booked. It was just a half hour walk, something we were not averse to by now. The apartment seemed nice and cozy and our host explained things to us, gave us a bunch of recommendations and left us to ourselves. It was a whole apartment with a functional kitchen, an air-conditioned bedroom and a clean bathroom. What more could a weary traveler want? 😄
We went to see the Palenque ruins that morning. We freshened up and then walked out of the apartment. Our host had told us where we could get a colectivo for the ruins and we found one waiting there. We got in and a short ride through a beautiful road got us to the Zona Arqueologica of Palenque.
We bought the tickets and denied the guides who were explaining the site to us. These sites would definitely make more sense with someone to explain the history of the place but we were on a budget that did not allow such luxuries. Getting a guide would have meant cutting down on a whole lot else. So we contended ourselves with admiring the beauty, making sense from the short descriptions written here and there and imagining as much as we could.
The first three buildings that commanded out attention right after the entrance were the Temple of the Skull, Temple of the Red Queen and Temple of Inscriptions. They were in various states of restorations and except for the Temple of the Red Queen, the other two were cordoned off by ropes. We admired the beautiful restoration and the description on the boards helped us put these temples in perspective of their histories.
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The next building was the elaborate Palace. We were free to walk around in this one and we did so, looking at the splendid architecture and the murals carved in limestone.
We then wandered off into the jungle to see some off the path temples. The shade from the jungle was welcome but it was accompanied by the oppressive humidity. We decided to take it easy rather than do a thorough combing of the site.
We came back to the Cross Group Plaza which connected a bunch of temples of all sides. This was the religious center of Palenque.
We lazily did the temples, all of which involved climbing considerable number of stairs. As a consolation, the vantage points provided good opportunities for taking pictures.
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As we exit the plaza, we took a look at the impressive craft that was up for sale. The famous Mayan calendar was also available and we ended up taking pendants of limestone made for our respective Mayan horoscope 😄
We walked around the Palace to the other side and took a break in the shade of a tree. We sat and took in the Mayan glory all around us. This was by far the most beautiful site we had seen in Mexico (Teotihuacan and Monte Alban). The restoration, the surrounding jungle and the narration, all added to this beauty.
While there were more sections of the site that were marked on the map, we decided to slowly make our way to the exit and the museum. We took a shorter route out that went through the forest and we stumbled across insignificant and unmarked ruins. Well, this called for a photo-shoot for sure 😛
Out here we ended up spotting a keel-billed Toucan and a black squirrel which was stealthily avoiding attention 😆
The route down to the visitor center went along cascades of extremely clear water. The water seemed so inviting because of the heat but it did not seem like the stream was open to visitors 😛
Back near the visitor center, we spent some time in the museum and saw Pakal’s grave. The recreation at the Jade Museum in San Cristobal de Las Casas that we had seen earlier seemed pretty accurate now.
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We got a colectivo back to the centro and decided to go check out a Chinese food place that we had earlier seen. Thus ensued a funny episode where we tried conversing in Spanish with the Chinese lady to figure out if she had vegetarian food or not 😂 She dismissed us harshly when she understood what we were asking for 😛 We sought food elsewhere and I shopped for some basic vegetables and groceries for later. The dinner was made in the rare luxury of the kitchen and after watching Andhadhun I was dazed enough to fall asleep.
The next morning we woke up later than planned. While we had initially planned to just spend a day in Palenque, it got extended to two. The relaxing apartment was partially responsible for it and the other reason was that I was quite excited about the Roberto Barrios cascades that our host had described as unique. After cooking and and eating some breakfast, we headed to the market to get a colectivo for the cascades.
Parul had not been sharing my enthusiasm for the cascades since the morning. Partly because of the hot weather and partly because the idea of “another waterfall” did not seem exciting to her. Meghalaya and South-East Asia had presented us with enough waterfalls to raise the bar for what exited us and what did not. I offered that she sit it out and chill in the centro but she did not take take option as well. Her mood was visibly sullen during the hour it took us to find a van and another on the road to get to the cascades. We bought a ticket and then went to check out the cascadas.
My first impression was that this was a slightly more spread out version of Kuang Xi (Luang Prabang, Laos). The water was not as surrealistically blue but the surrounding area was much less touristy. It was mostly a jungle with trails leading down by the sides of the cascades. There were a few tourists scattered here and there but not a lot.
We went down a couple of levels and found a nice pool where I wanted to take a dip. Parul joined in after much hesitation. Her mood visibly lightened once she got into the water 😄
There were ropes drawn across the pool. Apparently Mexicans share the same problem as Indians with regards to swimming skills. There were shaded spots where we lounged and the water’s temperature was extremely relaxing in the hot weather. The cascades formed infinity pools at every level and it was a delight to see. There seemed to be no end to these cascades!
We took a lot of pictures and swam around in the pool for the better part of an hour. I even jumped off a tree near the pool surface 😅 It was mighty fun!
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The crowd increased as the day progressed and here I had thought we were late! We walked off to explore more cascades and saw some small ones hidden away in the forest. I have no idea how much of the whole thing we actually witnessed 😱
We exited and got a refreshing serving of mangoes and coconut at the exit. These guys put salsa on everything 😑 I had some grilled chicken with rice for lunch and then we found a van to take us back to the town.
We ended the night with some micheladas, mezcal and another movie. It had been a fun couple of days in Palenque.
Chiapas would remain with us. The beautiful town of San Cristobal with it’s hippies and chocolate, and the magical Mayan city-state of Palenque, all of it abounding in natural beauty and a rawness that commanded admiration. This was also where we learnt the culture of the modern Mayans a little better. We now understood what attracted travellers to this part of the country and why they seemed to leave a piece of themselves out here, much like us.
Read the next one from Mexico here.