Tuesday, March 31, 2009

There is no internet in the jungle.

Today was the first day we were winging it with our accommodations. We were headed to Palenque, a good-sized city in the middle of the Chiapas jungle, without a reservation. This is a big thing for me. I have previously admitted before that I like to plan. But I also hate stepping off a long bus ride with heavy packs, running the gauntlet of touts and taxi drivers trying to sell you a mouldy room at an inflated price. Thanks to the wonders of the internet we’ve avoided much of that. But heading to Palenque our virtual luck ran out. Supposedly the place to stay in the city is actually outside of the city. It's called El Panchan. It’s not a hostel, rather it’s a grouping of cabanas in the jungle by the ruins. They even have a website but no way to make reservations. All you’re supposed to do is show up and hope they have space for you. And that’s what we did.

Stepping off the air conditioned early morning bus in the tiny station, we were hit with a wall of humidity and heat. And dressed in our long pants and sweatshirts to keep warm on the bus we were soon drenched with sweat. Rather than try to carry our packs to the collectivos we quickly jumped in a taxi. The driver asked El Panchan before we did so off we went.

The one thing the guidebooks, websites and bulletin boards don’t mention is that El Panchan is rabbit warren of cabanas in the jungle, of varying quality, all owned by different people, off different paths (picture above). So you sorta need to know which cabana you want to stay at – kinda hard if you can’t contact anyone to ask about them. As the driver called out the names of the different cabanas asking us which one, I repeated the only one I could remember, Margarita and Ed’s. Luckily they had one room left and it was a good one, clean spacious and free swan towels. When it came time to negotiate the price, the woman, Margarita perhaps, kept asking me one night or two, even when I said three. After three times, she understood and booked us in.

A shower got rid of the bus grime and jungle sweat, until we were human enough to explore El Panchan. It felt a bit like camp with the various cabanas scattered around like competing groups. But this place was a camp run by hippies who sold handmade friendship bracelets, beaded necklaces, books, tattoos and body piercings to pay their rent. Dogs and cats roamed freely. And oddly enough, there were travel agency booths around every turn all offering the same 4 tours. At the centre of El Panchan was Don Mucho’s – the restaurant where live music was played nightly and, as Mika had already let us know, served the best wood oven pizza. It had everything but wifi. The blog was about to officially turn into the blob.

We had a snack at Don Mucho’s where thankfully the hippie influence meant the prices were reasonable despite being the only game in town. It gave us a good chance to people watch and that’s when I noticed that there was a lot of grey in some of the beards and dreadlocks. One guys even got around on a medical scooter. And of course everyone knew everyone. So it was like Cheers but instead of Sam, Cliff and Norm there was Rainbow, Moonbeam and Jose. But there were just as many gap years, flashpackers and even families with young kids.

However, there wasn’t much else to see. So we stopped by one of the travel agency booths. It was a bit confusing there were two waterfall packages both for the same price one with a trip to the ruins and one without. Other than that they were exactly the same. We would have comparison shopped with the other booths but there was no need. Every booth was owned by the same company. Seems like a no-brainer. So we booked the tour that was twice as long.

We walked around the woods, erm jungle a bit then ended up back at Don Mucho’s. Tour groups began pulling up and the place was full. After weeks of Mexican food, perhaps they too wanted something different. It was pizzas all around and it was pretty darn tasty. So tasty that the mooching dogs and cats got nothing from anyone. Soon the band came on and we tried to keep our eyes open but it was a lost cause. The heat, humidity and all early bus had claimed us.

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