The Mayan ruins of Palenque

My first night bus experience was from Tulum to Palenque, a 10 and a half hour trip, which wasn’t that bad but definitely not up there but with the best experiences of my life! I was glad to arrive at Palenque at 9.30am and as I just had the day to spend there before my bus for San Cristobal left at 5pm later that day, I decided to spend a few hours at the ruins. For the first time in a few weeks I noticed there weren’t that many tourists around, which was a refreshing change from the Yucatán.

I found Cafe de Yara (recommended by Lonely Planet, had a breakfast of fruit and yoghurt and then found the Transportes Palenque to catch a colectivo bus to the ruins. The colectivo costs 20 pesos each way (which I’ve heard has doubled in price recently), and was at the entrance to the ruins in minutes. On the way into the grounds of the ruins, you pass through the national park, Parque Nacional Palenque, where the shuttle stops and you have to pay about 22 pesos admission fee and you get a wristband. Only foreigners pay this fee, as the locals seem to be exempt from it, as it is with most entrance fees to museums and other historical sites. At the entrance to the ruins, I bought my ticket from the official booth and decided against getting a guide as I wanted to explore the site myself. I had some information on the ruins in my guidebook and most of the ruins there had signs with information in English too.

The ancient Palenque ruins are set right in the middle of the jungle and towards the back of the ruins, you feel like you are right in the midst of it especially when the howler monkeys start to screech in the near distance and you can hear their cries echoed right throughout the site – they actually sound like dinosaurs, very Jurassic Park! You can climb most of the ruins and get a spectacular view right across the site filled with exquisite Maya architecture.

The name Palenque is Spanish for palisade, but the city’s ancient name may have been Lakamha (Big Water). It was first occupied around 100 BC and rose to prominence under the ruler Pakal (who reigned from 630-740 AD). Palenque stands at the exact point where the first hills rise out of the Gulf coast and hundreds of ruined buildings are spread over 15 sq km.

As you enter, a line of temples greets you on the right, and the Templo de las Inscripciones is the tallest of all of Palenque’s buildings and home to the tomb of Pakal. Across from this building, El Palacio is a huge structure divided into four main courtyards, a maze of steps and corridors. Further along the site, you come across the Grupo de las Cruces, three pyramid type buildings including the Templo del Sol and the Templo de la Cruz. Further along you can go deeper into a denser forest jungle area with more ruins and a beautiful waterfall by crossing a wooden footbridge.

After about three or four hours exploring the site and the Museum, I caught a colectivo back to downtown Palenque where I whiled away a few hours before my bus was due to arrive to take me to San Cristobal.  Unfortunately, there was a delay so the bus was about an hour late (I found out later that there was an accident and a little girl had been knocked down by the bus and killed on the way to Palenque which later resulted in the locals protesting against the bus company), but eventually we were on our way to San Cristobal. About an hour and a half into the journey, however, the bus stopped and soon enough we realised that a huge lorry had broken down right on the corner of the windy mountain road. I have to say, having heard a few horror stories about bandidos on this road at night, I was slightly anxious! A few others on the bus were eager to leave as they, rightly, thought that the situation was not going to improve for some time and that we would be better off catching a colectivo as they at least could pass by the broken down lorry. True enough, the bus driver told me that it would probably be at least four hours before the lorry was moved and the bus would be able to continue on. Cutting my losses, I grabbed my bag and took off with the others, an American guy, Mexican guy and English girl, taking the last spot in a shuttle bus crammed with people.

After a very eventful journey, which went at breakneck speed winding up the mountain on roads that were at best crumbling, where I had to sit in the last seat available right beside the driver, with no seatbelt, of course – I actually did think ‘So this is how I’m going to die..!’ (obviously being slightly overdramatic here).To make things worse, the Mexican guy was really carsick and managed to vomit all over the back of the bus, nice! Anyway, for better or worse, we arrived at a small town called Ocosingo, about 2 or 3 hours outside San Cristobal. The driver said he wasn’t going any further and a taxi would cost about 400 pesos, so we decided it would be best to find a hotel there and make our way onwards in the morning. It was interesting to stop off in a small town but also reassuring to be there with a Mexican who could tell us that it was a safe place and where was good to sleep for the night! Ocosingo rose to prominence during the Zapatista uprising of 1994 when it was occupied by the EZLN along with several other towns in Chiapas (including San Cristóbal). The EZLN retreated from most towns before the arrival of the Mexican army but not in Ocosingo. Because of this the town saw several days of intense fighting, leaving dozens of rebels, soldiers and civilians dead. There are not that many tourists here at all and the people here are quite closed to outsiders, understandably enough. I can’t recall the hotel we stayed in but it was just off the main square with an indoor courtyard and was pretty safe and clean.

The next morning, the American guy Louis helped me find the bus station and I got on a bus that was leaving within the hour for San Cristobal, the first detour of many I’m sure!


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