2010-2011 News Archive
Every day we get numerous e-mails with questions related to travel in Chiapas. While a great number of inquiries are concerned with security and travel conditions, many of our readers are also interested in knowing about where to go and where to stay. To those inquiring about travel conditions we direct them to the Department of State’s official page on Mexico: http://travel.state.gov/travel/cis_pa_tw/cis/cis_970.html. However, to those inquiring about tourist sites, our responses usually vary. Interestingly, we noticed that most travelers to Chiapas are focused on two distinct “tourism corridors,” either the Tuxla-San Cristobal-Comitan in the center of the state, or the Palenque to Yaxchilan route alongside the Guatemalan border. Given that people are more familiar with the first route, we decided that it would be helpful to include some information about the latter. We hope that you find this information useful!
Remember the thrills you felt when you first watched Indiana Jones? Those scenes with pyramids and palaces embedded in the jungle and preserved almost pristinely? That is exactly what you will see when you visit this part of Chiapas.
Palenque, Yaxchilan, Bonampak, and several other archeological remains in the area form part of a once thriving civilization and network of Mayan cities that ran mostly from the eastern part of Honduras to the mid-section of present day Mexico. Running close or alongside the Usumacinta River, these cities were known as trade, learning, and political centers. Although these sites vary in size and importance – for example, Yaxchilan was powerful enough to rival awesome Tikal, whereas Bonampak was a small tributary city state – all of them contain wonderfully preserved architecture, stellas, sculptures, and carvings. The remote location of some of these sites and the several hidden attractions on the way make the trek to Mexico’s southern border even more attractive.
How to Get There
Most travelers will concur in that the easiest way to get to the Palenque to Yaxchilan route is by flying to Villahermosa. Once in Villahermosa you can easily find buses, guided tours with transportation, and rental car agencies. The international airport of the Tabascan capital (code: VSA) has direct flights to select US destinations and several flights that connect through Mexico City. Another option is found by flying to the airport in Tuxla-Gutierrez (code: TGZ) and driving inland through San Cristobal de las Casas and the mountainous interior. Palenque is about two hours from Villahermosa by car. From Palenque to Frontera Corozal it is about a four hour drive.
Soon after landing in Villahermosa from Mexico City, we made our way to our hotel in the town center. Rising over the city and with a view of the entire plain, we could see through our window the contours of the metropolitan area and where the flickering lights would slowly fade into the horizon. It was a quiet night. The streets were for the most part empty and only the most distant tune of music could be heard intermittently moving through the air. We decided to call it a night, but not before quickly revising our next day’s route, which included a stop in Palenque on our way to Frontera Corozal.
We woke up to a refreshing 90 degree morning and to a marvelous breakfast. Although unorthodox for some, breakfast in Tabasco does not tend to be your regular continental fare. Holding unto their Caribbean heritage, we quickly noticed that Tabasqueños have quite an appreciation for plantains, black beans, eggs, and pork dishes for breakfast. A local favorite was a pastry with a consistency between that of a tamale and a pancake stuffed with pork rinds. After a quite filling breakfast and some coffee we left the hotel go to the car rental agency. Once at the car agency we found out that the car selection process was actually quite easy, especially when the only options were between a brand new Mercedes Benz SUV and a manual, beetle-sized car with no power steering. As you probably guessed, we took the beetle. The drive from Villahermosa to Palenque took about two hours. The drive was pleasant, the air was clean, and the road was full of children selling fried plantain snacks, bananas, and other kinds of fruit.
Entering the city of Palenque was straightforward, as was arriving to the archeological complex. Inside the complex, we found ample parking, refreshments, and a wide array of shops selling everything from lucha libre (Mexican wrestling) masks to carved onyx sculptures. English guides were also in no short supply, and thus we proceeded to arrange for a tour. Before going to the main pyramids, our guide took us behind the complex towards a series of remains that although exposed, were never formally excavated. It was really eye opening to see that in fact the sections opened to the public were nothing but a scratch on the surface. According to our guide, there are countless archeological remains around Palenque. However, they are too expensive to excavate and maintain and thus they remain covered with vegetation.
On our way to the main buildings our guide began to recount stories about the history of Palenque. All of it was captivating. We learned for example that one of the main pyramids is actually the tomb of Pacal the Great – considered to be Palenque’s most successful ruler – and that it was built in the late 600s. We learned about the system of alliances between the city states around the Usumacinta and about the cultural traditions of the Mayan elite. The buildings themselves were all carefully planned and constructed. The architecture creative, always balancing engineering needs with their aesthetic and astronomic sensibilities. The view from the ruins impressive.
It was time to begin our drive to Frontera Corozal. We filled our gas tank – be advised that there are no gas stations after Palenque – bought a few snacks, and proceeded to complete the four hour drive. Whereas the road from Villahermosa to Palenque was a highway, this road was small, curvy, and animated by the changing landscapes. It was almost like being in a parade, with the car being static while explosions of color, human soap operas, and a hundred shades of green passed us by. However, our voyeuristic fascination with the inaudible stories told by the road where constantly interrupted by the “topes,” or speed bumps in English. Of course, they were more of a hindrance to our driver who instead of enjoying the ride, was looking intently into the road in his attempt to keep the car from flying off unexpectedly from an unseen bump. We quickly realized that there were no sign for the topes, and that they were not covered with yellow paint.
A few hours later we arrived in Frontera Corozal. The town was somewhat chaotic. Small stores sold everything from buckets of gasoline, to crafts, to quesadillas. The road into town was dirt, and at the end of the dirt road we found our “eco-lodge.” The eco-lodge, a spartan quiet conglomerate of cabins close to the Usumacinta was covered by the shade of enormous trees. In the trees we could see numerous spider and howler monkeys. Playful and rustling through the branches the monkeys were quite amusing. They were somewhat less amusing when they started howling right outside of our cabin at three in the morning. But, we just guessed that they were trying really hard to create the right jungle ambiance for us.
We woke up at five in the morning with the howler monkeys, the gobbling turkeys, and the singing roosters. After grabbing a quick coffee, we met the local guide who would take us up the river to Yaxchilan. We walked about five minutes and made it to the brim of the river where multiple motor boats were lined up in the water. Descending thirty or some steps down the stairs we made our way to the boats. But it was hard to focus. The backdrop was a palette of dark shades of green with the sun slowly rising. The river current moved forcefully as the mist hovered on top of the water, around us, and slowly dissipating into the sky. We jumped into the boat and began to plow through the chilly mist towards Yaxchilan. Resisting our path, the river would expel frigid droplets of water. The river was also bustling with activity. Back and forth between the Guatemalan and the Mexican borders you would see people and goods moving freely. Far from the image of a militarized or intensely surveilled border, the area was just vast wilderness.
Yaxchilan appeared out of nowhere. High above the river we could see the template of the city through the vegetation. We walked up the stairs and made our way in. The howler monkeys seemed to have followed us there giving us a loud welcome. Our first reaction was that of awe. The ruins were beautifully preserved and the place was completely deserted. The building stones were covered with green and branches would spring upward out of some of the cracks. Some of the buildings were massive with inscriptions and engravings. Others wore intricate frescoes. The air was chilly and the grounds were wet. We were at the Great Plaza, which with the Grand and Small Acropolis are the three major complexes that compose Yaxchilan. The Grand Acropolis towered over the Plaza. At the bottom there was a huge stela, up above, the main building of the Acropolis was showcasing shamelessly its ornate roof comb. After climbing up the stairs we got a great view of the Plaza below and could not but imagine what it would have been like to be here 1,200 years ago… The tour of the complex took us about two to three hours. Once done we headed for the river banks where our boat was already waiting for us. We made it back to Frontera Corozal quite easily.
Our journey was close to the end. We had enjoyed the wonderful ruins of Palenque and Yaxchilan. We had gotten a snapshot of life in rural Chiapas and we had seen the dynamics in this part of Mexico’s southern border. It had been a truly magical trip thus far. However, we still had the ruins of Bonampak and the waterfall of Misol Ha to see. And in the way back to Palenque, many many more topes…