Ah, the mountains. In the Yucatan Peninsula I knew I was missing something, and once I got off the bus at Palenque I realised what it was: topography! The peninsula is extremely flat, with nothing more than an 80m hill in sight, and even that's a rarity. So when I laid my eyes on the green mountains of Chiapas, a smile emerged on my face, as if by itself.
Palenque is a small city renowned for the big archaeological site that's 10 km away. The site is one of the biggest and most important known Mayan sites, since it is here that the ancient Mayan writing was finally deciphered; it was proven to have phonetic meaning, after years in which it was thought to be only hieroglyphic. Well, maybe deciphered is not entirely accurate, since as far as I understand it still isn't completely understood, and there are ongoing debates. Anyway... I had a funny visit to the site, since I unknowingly entered through the exit, so for the first 45 minutes all I saw were very mossy and utterly unimpressive structures. This was a residential area, and what little had survived the ravages of time was quite small and ordinary. The jungle and streams in the area were much prettier, and I couldn't help thinking "that's it?". I guess that's what happens when you avoid seeing pictures of places you will be going to in advance. But I had to wonder why the site was so popular.
I soon stood corrected, as I got to the city center. Mayan cities, and Mesoamerican cities in general, were built around big administrative and religious centers, where the monumental stone buildings were. This area housed the elites, the clergy, governors and warriors, and the big temples and palaces that we still see and are impressed by today. But that was just a small part of town, which was surrounded by the regular town, where the "common folk" lived, and in which structures were mostly made out of wood, leaves, mud and other perishable material, that has long since decayed and all but disappeared. So when I finally got to this area, I... let's just say that the main area of Palenque is very impressive. There are several large pyramids (truncated, of course...), a big building they call "the palace", and lots of stellas with carvings and writing on them. It's common for the stellas to depict a historical event, and they usually include figures in profile with representations of gods or kings in their ceremonial clothing and decorations. This, along with writing that explains the scene, and a date based on the Mayan calendar. And all this is set in a jungly, mountainous area. There are monkeys in the trees, you're told to keep alert because there are snakes and poisonous spiders, it's the real deal. Plus the site has a really good "companion" museum, something that was lacking in sites I'd visited earlier. The explanations there really helped form a better picture for me. Surrounding the ruins is a small national park, where you can get lost in some jungle paths among the streams, or take a guide for an organized jungle tour (guess which option I chose...).
I slept in the mythological backpacker hangout of Panchan. It's a series of cabin and hammock sites just outside the national park. I chose the half-priced hammock option, and I didn't regret it. The hammock area consists of a central pole surrounded by a circle of smaller poles, with one hook on each. In each pole there's room for about 10 hammocks, and each of the hostel/cabin places had at least one. It's a good deal for both sides- cheap for the owners, cheap for the travelers. And the hammock people were really fun and interesting, plus sleeping in that arrangement really encourages socializing. I heard some great travel stories there, and we had a couple of good nights just hanging out. There was a great vibe, and it was a joy to just look up in the shower at all the surrounding green: trees, flowers and birds everywhere, plus the occasional fist-sized spider. The shower itself was a slow drip of freezing water surrounded by green tarp, but that's besides the point. I loved it. There were some people that stay there for a couple of weeks, and I can understand why, but I couldn't really afford it, time wise.
Palenque is also where my pants saga started. I had a zipper and a tear to fix, so I took it to a clothes repair place, and when I came back a day later, on my way out of town, the guy hadn't touched it, because he didn't find the right size of zipper. Doesn't sound like a saga? Wait for San Cristobal.
From Palenque I went on to the Agua Azul waterfalls, which is probably one of the most beautiful places in Mexico. It is a series of waterfalls formed by a pretty wide river flowing down a not-too-steep slope, creating small areas of fast whitewater flow in the midst of stretches of perfect-hued turquoise water where you can either swim or just sit awe-struck. The place was quite packed, and I really wanted to experience it quietly, so I stayed a night camping there, which was a great decision. I'm not sure if it's really an official option, but I asked the guard and he said "sure", charged me 1.5$ and pointed me to a wall-less hut that I could put up my hammock under. I watched the sunset over the water, walked on the river banks at night, and in the morning did a round-trip hike upriver to the canyon, where the river goes through a fairly small break in the rock and the water is very turbulent. I should say that besides the beautiful nature there are also countless stands trying to sell you food, fruit, artesanias, zapatista Tshirts, etc. Actually, I don't know why I feel the need to mention that... but it was a big part of the way you experience the place. If you visit and have the option, definitely sleep there - experiencing the place when it's closed, it's night and day! (pun intended...).
I didn't really do much in San Cristobal, but somehow stayed for 6 nights. I spent one day sick to the stomach (that's what I get for buying 2 peso tacos. That's less than 20 cents...), I went to the amber museum and the Mayan medicine museum, I walked around in the city a lot, saw some street shows, took some pictures, watched a movie in a tea house/cultural center (there are a lot of cultural centers in San Cristobal - I love the concept, and spending time in them is one of my favorite things to do while traveling in Mexico), and went to the market and cooked. The market is, at the fear of sounding cliche, a real assault on the senses. The strong smells of rot, meat and spices, the shouting of prices and products by the indigenous people in traditional clothing sitting outside and trying to sell just about anything, the many colours of faces, clothes, fruits, and cars, and the pirate CD stores in front with speakers blaring 4 different songs at the same time (so you hear carribean cumbia lyrics on top of gregorian chants) are almost too much to handle. Add to that the everexisting fear to be pickpocketed, and you've got yourself an interesting outing. I loved it.
The mix between tourists, hippies and other alternative people, with the resident Mexicans and especially the indigenous people is a very interesting one. Sometimes too interesting, and somewhat uncomfortable. For example, walking on a random street, just being my white self, and having a small boy ask me if I can give him five pesos from behind his yard's fence. Or the many indigenous people (I keep saying indigenous people because there are about 9 different communities and languages in town, the two main ones being tzotzil and tzeltal. They're all of Mayan origin, but are now culturally different. About one third of the population in Chiapas is indigenous) around town trying to sell you things, sometimes on the verge of begging you to buy them. Or the contrast between the traditional clothes they wear and the shanty clothes and many tattoos and piercings of most foreigners.
I meant to go to one of the zapatista controlled villages (more on the zapatistas soon), but that was the day I got sick. I did venture out of town once, to see the Sumidero Canyon and the town festival in the town of Chiapa De Corzo. The canyon is a 32km stretch of river that goes between two rock cliffs, as high as 1000m at one point. You visit it by speed boat (you can also walk on the cliffs, but that would've taken a loooong time), and besides the rock walls and trees, you get to see some crocodiles and some cool birds. The town of Chiapa De Corzo is right next to the canyon, and luckily it was having its town festival this week. Each town in Mexico has its town saint, and its very own town festival to honour that saint. In Chiapa De Corzo's case, the festival consists of a fair in the town zocalo (the main park in the center of town) with lots of unhealthy food and things to look at but not buy (at least in my case), and from 8 o'clock the men of the town go out dressed as women, and there's a sort of unorganized parade through the town's streets, making noise and "dancing". I had talked to some local guys earlier, and they'd told me I can't go back to San Cris and I have to stay until night. So I did, and when they recognized me they started shouting "güero! güero!" and motioning me to come into the horde, where they proceded to shout things like "Arriba Bush!" (I politely told them it should be Olmert) and "Dolares! Dolares!". It was quite fun, but I didn't understand half of what they said. I later found out I had missed the last bus to San Cristobal, so I ended up camping in the fairground with some guys I met, who were there selling artesanias and doing fire-juggling tricks.
And now it's finally time for the rest of the pants saga (admit it, that's the only reason you've kept reading so far). On my second day in town I left the same pair of pants with a tailor, who assured me they would be ready by that evening, or maybe the next morning. From that day on, for four days I never found his business open, and not for lack of trying. Nobody knew how to contact him, and a note I left him on the door was left unopened. So he's got my 60 pesos and, more importantly, my pants, and I've got... nothing, I guess. Besides an Israeli that said he'd take them and give them back to me back home and a Uruguayan girl that said she could take them and give them to me in the Oaxacan coast, if we meet there. Of course, these two scenarios assume that the guy didn't skip town with my pants...
Oh, yeah, the zapatistas. I think this will be the last subject for today. The zapatistas are a Chiapas-based revolutionary group that forcefully took control (without killing anybody, as far as I understand) of a couple of towns and seized government buildings in the state- including San Cristobal- for a couple of days in 1994, right after the signing of NAFTA. They demanded more democracy in Mexico, autonomy and rights for the indigenous population of Chiapas, and keeping the profit from local natural resources in the state, so that it would benefit the residents. These demands were met with military force and repression, and it all resulted in a short and localized civil war, which the zapatistas lost in less than two weeks. They are currently mostly in the jungles and in five towns called the caracoles. Their ideology is anti-capitalist and anti-globalization, and they fight (well, mostly they talk and protest and raise awareness. They haven't done many violent revolutionary actions since 1994) to stop the treatment of indigenous people as second class citizens. They also reject the Mexican government, and they have a lot of supporters in Chiapas. In the hostel there was a girl from the US who was writing her thesis on them, so even though I didn't get to go to Oventick (the caracol I was supposed to go to) and speak to actual zapatistas, I had some good conversations about them.