Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Sweating to the pre-hispanic oldies.

Tours are a bit of a crap shoot. The price tells you nothing – the most expensive can be mediocre and the cheapest the best. Or the exact opposite. Often it’s the guide that makes all the difference. For example our tour in Oaxaca was only good because of the great guide at the Mitla site and because we met folks like Ana and Simon. With this one, I hoped for the best but prepared for the worst as we set out at 8am.

This tour was neither the best nor the worst. Our first stop was the Palenque ruins. But that was it for the tour part as we were let off at the gate just down the road from El Panchan and told to be back at the van at 12:30. But that was almost 4 hours to explore the site and take in the museum. Guides offered their services at the gate but at $50 US that was way beyond our budget. And no guide was necessary as all the entire site was signposted in English as well as Spanish and Mayan. What was necessary was a lot of water and a towel because it was hot. But the ruins were still pretty awesome.

Set on the top of a hill in the Chiapas jungle,
Palenque was once home to the kingdom of Pakal. It was abandoned around 900 and hidden by the jungle until 1773. And now it’s home to many tour groups being led by multilingual guides holding umbrellas. This attracts lots of souvenir sellers but compared to the gauntlet at Teotihuacan it was rather tame with just a sprinkling of selling the usual Made in Taiwan masks and rugs. They were not however, selling bottled water which would probably be a best seller because it is hot there. Sweltering, sticky, covered in sweat in 2 minutes jungle hot – that I dubbed sweating to the oldies.

The first site was a long tall temple where a Pakal’s tomb had been unearthed a few years back and now off limits. But just beyond it was the complex known as El Palacio. It had lots of passage ways, columns, an observatory tower, and a center courtyard with inscribed tablets featuring portraits of revered warriors. Just beyond that was the Cruces Groupo, named for the temples that supposedly at one time had crosses on top but were unrecognizable to us. After that we headed into the real jungle part of the ruins which reminded me a lot of Angkor Wat’s Ta Promh in Cambodia. It was almost as overgrown and covered in tree roots. It reminded Adrian a lot of Raiders of the Lost Ark. After listening to him hum the tune for about 15 minutes, I finally let him pose Indiana Jones style. Holding his belt like a whip he recited the first tomb scene from memory. I’m sure people thought he was mental. But what else is new.

Then it was time to walk down the mountain which was almost as stunning as the ruins. The path took us past waterfalls and streams over suspension bridges and through mossy greenery, before finally meeting up with the main road. We took advantage of some shade and a soft crossbreeze to guzzle some water. Then went around the bend into the Museo. It was slightly air conditioned meaning not much but enough to help us avoid heat stroke. Inside there were some of the relics and artifacts gathered from the various ruins with the majority being housed in the main archeology museum in Mexico City. The display ended with Pakal’s tomb on display – no mummy but everything else that they found inside. And it was dimly lit to add to the Indiana Jones feel of it.

It was time to get to the meeting point which was more like a waiting point. So we waited and waited and waited some more with the other members of our group. Someone pointed out that it was April Fool’s Day and I wondered if perhaps the joke was on us as we sat there waiting. Just then our driver pulled up, but rather than loading us up into our van, we were divided into two groups and shoved into already full vans. I got the passenger seat but poor Adrian sat where the stick shift should have been his knees touching the dashboard. The driver (not a guide) was rather cranky with him for brushing up against his stereo. “Well you shouldn’t have jammed us all in here then?” and equally cranky Adrian replied shutting him up. Our “tour” was now heading into the not so good category. Especially as the driver hurtled through the twisty mountain road sending us flat up against the window. I was lucky I had a seat belt. Adrian and the other 14 didn’t. But we could all smell the sweat dripping off each other. Grossed out yet?

An hour later we were deposited at Misol Ha, a pretty waterfall that would have been a great place to jump in and cool off if we had been there for more than half an hour. The walk down took up half the time but some people jumped right in off the rocks (made me a little nervous) and had just enough time to climb back up before we were off. At least it helped with the stinky sweat smell in the van.

Another hour of twisty roads and we arrived at Agua Azul, a series of blue waterfalls over red rocks that formed a bunch of clear pools for swimming in. It was also a popular spot with locals. Unfortunately there was no place to stash our belongings so Adrian and I took turns going into the water and staying with our stuff. We spent a couple of hours there enjoying the refreshing water. It helped alleviate the constant sweating and make the tour worth it.

The ride back was better after we dumped some people off at a bus stop which meant Adrian and I could move to the back allowing the driver access to his stereo and the air conditioning to circulate. Arriving back at El Panchan we realized just how beat we were when we barely finished dinner and had to go to bed before the first band went on at 8pm. But first a cool shower helped to get rid of the sweat that even Agua Azul couldn’t wash off.

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