Agua Azul, Misol Ha, and Palenque

So on Wednesday morning, Adam and I are having breakfast and I mentioned that the one thing we really needed to decide was if we wanted to try and get to Palenque after San Cristobal, while we were in San Cristobal, or skip it altogether.  Palenque is a town between Merida and San Cristobal (closer to San Cristobal) with ruins and some waterfalls nearby, and we kept hearing pretty good things about it, but it wasn't a priority the way San Cristobal was.  A German traveler, Pascal, was also having breakfast and mentioned that he had rented a car for the week was was going to drive up there on Thursday, spend the night, and drive back on Friday.  We talked about it and decided, why not?  If we did the day trip from San Cristobal, it left by 4:30am and didn't get back until 10:30pm, and you're sitting in a shuttle on very windy roads all day.  This way, we were in a car, got to stop at the waterfalls along the way, and could stop when we needed to, not just when we were told to.

A Dutch traveler, Jesse, decided to join us as well, and on Thursday morning, we headed up to Palenque.  The roads are extraordinarily windy and there are topes (speed bumps of different sizes) seemingly every 50 feet, as well as some construction going on closer to Palenque.  All this combined made the ride pretty terrible, and I was cursing myself after about an hour into the trip.  I had put on my motion sickness patch that morning, but it was not working at all.  I switched seats with Adam so I was sitting in the front; while that helped, I still felt pretty awful for most of the 6 hours spent as a passenger in the car.

Adam's Note: This drive was hellish. The roads could have been in worse condition, and no doubt we'll encounter worse in Guatemala or Nicaragua, but you need to understand that the distance is 136 miles, it took us six hours, and you basically never even reach the speed limit because by the time you get close it's time to hit the brakes for a tope or pothole or dangerous curve (curva peligrosa). Imagine six hours of constantly speeding up then immediately slowing down to 3 mph.

Pine tree as we leave San Cristobal and 2000 meter elevation

There are very few towns on the way to Palenque, only many very small poblados.
At least if you need gas you can buy it from a jug at an abarrote in one of the poblados.

We did get amazing views for most of the ride, mist covered mountains in the distance and sweeping valleys.
Unfortunately it's hard to time when the vegetation is going to open up and give you a view for photos.

The first stop is about 4 hours or so from San Cristobal, and that was Agua Azul, literally translated as Blue Water.  Because this is the rainy season and it has been raining a lot, there was no azul and it should've been called Agua Marron, or Brown Water.  The photos you see from Agua Azul are nothing like what we got to see, and I'm very thankful that we did not drive four hours just for that.

"Agua Azul"

You can imagine how this would be nice in the dryer season.

We're glad this isn't the reason we came up here.

After leaving Agua Azul, we drove up to Misol Ha - this stretch was AWFUL with construction!  Misol Ha was about 1.5 hrs closer to Palenque and is a really beautiful waterfall that you can walk behind - think Cave of the Winds if you've ever been to Niagara Falls.  The water volume was incredible because of all the recent rains, and we got SOAKED.  You also have to be incredibly careful because it's really slippery, and even though there are steps and paths that have been carved to make walking easily, it's easy to slip and fall.  There was also a cave that had a ladder and path up to, but it wasn't possible with the volume of water pouring out of it on our visit.  When we walked to the waterfall, we left the GoPro in the car but took our waterproof wallet and Adam's phone; after getting drenched and playing around, the four of us walked back to the car and got the GoPro.  I decided to hang back by the car and watch all our stuff that we put on the roof to dry while the three guys went back for some videos and pictures. While I'm guarding the rental car, a van with a group of people parked nearby and headed to the waterfalls with purses, shoes, phones, etc.  One of them spoke English, and I told her they would get soaked and not to bring anything.  She replied and said she thought some of them had been there before so they knew what to expect, but I reiterated what I said and they listened - when they returned from the waterfall, they were laughing and very grateful they had listened to me.  It's really a situation like Agua Azul - the photos you typically see are nothing like what we saw, except our experience was way cooler this time.

A reasonable dry-season picture of the Misol Ha falls (NOT OURS), cave to the left.

This is what we found in the wet season. Cave is not visible in the mist here

That white triangle that looks like a smaller waterfall to the right is the cave entrance. It was not accessible.

We had a drink (well, Jesse and Adam did) at the restaurant at Misol Ha so that we could dry off a bit before finishing the trip.  Due to the last minute-ness of our trip, we stayed in three different hotels and hostels.  Pascal dropped us off at our hotel, where we tried to dry our clothes a bit (there was a hair dryer in our room!).  We met up with everyone for dinner, then headed back to the hotel.

Adam's Note: we signed up for Palenque and didn't think much about the waterfalls. I was paranoid about packing for this one night trip and yet somehow forgot my swim suit. I also did not bring a change of clothes--any clothes--so I was in my soaked cotton shorts for the duration of the trip.

The sky cleared up as the day went on and we lost altitude.

Thankfully, our clothes had dried by morning.  We got to the ruins in Palenque right as they opened at 8:00 am (we're getting better at that).  While we were parking, we were approached by a group of three European travelers who wanted to hire a tour guide for the ruins and had been quoted a price of $190 USD, and were we interested in splitting it with them?  Our replies were all the same - are you nuts????  $190 US dollars?  In Mexico?  I wouldn't pay more that $150 pesos, or $8 US dollars, if I were them.  The four of us went on our own, which was definitely the right call (we did run into the other group while in the ruins and they said they ended up paying $750 pesos, which is better but still too much in my opinion).  We split up when we got into the Archaeological Zone, and Adam and I had a great morning climbing ruins and wandering through the jungle.  Palenque gets HOT, and we were sweating more than we had at any point over the last month, which is saying a lot.  But, the views were awesome.  Ruins all kind of run together after awhile (this was the fourth one we'd been to in Mexico), but these were pretty unique and big, and we were glad we went.

Adam takes over here to elaborate on Palenque

We have heard that you can see great wildlife in Palenque (about 95% of the ruins are literally in the jungle) but I think we saw fewer animals here than any of them so far. None of the howler monkeys, toucans, parrots or small mammals that other travelers had talked about. Oh well, we saw a lot on the canyon tour.

Some of the lesser known or visited ruins allow you to not only climb on them but also go inside certain structures. There are at least a few in Palenque that you can enter, two of which were very notable and were some of the biggest buildings there.

The covered part is the entrance to the Tomb of the Red Queen

Inside the temple

The first was Temple XIII, which housed the Tomb of the Red Queen. A placard outside explained that this was an unknown but likely important noblewoman, named the red queen because when they unearthed her tomb she was sprinkled with powdered cinnabar. Bold colors were hard to obtain in ancient times, and cinnabar is mercury sulfide, which is quite poisonous, so her fancy burial may have meant the death of some common men.

What they found in the Tomb of the Red Queen, source

The available inside area here was small, but it's really cool to finally get inside one of these stone buildings that we've been touring for almost a month now! You could see the room that the red queen was buried in, but not enter it. There was a short, branched hallway that was small with low ceilings, probably due to the difficulty of building with the tools the Mayans had at this time and perhaps the size of the people back then. We could stand up straight in them though.

Approaching the Palace, in shadows

Melissa checks out a hallway

The tower

Inside some of the ruined rooms

Melissa explores a balcony.

Looking back on the Temple of the Inscriptions (I think) and the Tomb of the Red Queen temple on the right.

Looking out a doorway in the Palace. Those structures on top are rather unique to Palenque, "corbeled roofs."

The second ruin that we went in was The Palace (not El Castillo!!!), which is quite notable because it was the center of the city and was a functioning palace housing the nobility, rather than a temple as at most sites. There were a few hallways or rooms that were still covered, much more spacious than the hallway leading to the red queen. Most of this building has crumbled away enough that you're walking through old rooms that are open to the outside now. One very impressive exception is the four story tower in the middle of the palace, with an internal stairway. Visitors aren't allowed to go inside this tower, but after seeing a few ruins it stands out, you just don't see levels going straight up like that!

A few of the other unique things about Palenque are its location in the jungle (a bit moreso than the others, they all kind of are in the jungle), the way the buildings take advantage of the hilly land there, the different architecture, and the excellent museum on site, literally The Sitio Museum. It's also a ruin that you can camp in overnight (as in tents and animal noises), we met one traveler who's done that, but our adventure in the Jamaican bush was enough for us for a while.

I really liked this building, looks like a cozy house.

Melissa climbs a tall one while Adam is at the cozy house.

A tree had small avocados falling from it.
We have a video of Melissa tasting it, hard and bitter but definitely avocado.

One of the pok ta pok ball courts there

We walked most of the trails in Palenque, coming out on the road into the parking lot and took that a couple hundred meters to this museum. It was really cool because many of the artifacts here were well preserved and moved to this museum, and some of the placards in the ruins explain that what you're seeing in the jungle is a reproduction and you can see the original in the museum. So being able to tie those together and get a sense of the original art and monuments that were here really adds to the experience in a way that the other ruins didn't have.

Undoubtedly the best part of the museum is the sarcophagus of one of Palenque's kings, Lord Pakal The Great, K'inich Janaab' Pakal. This was found after four years of painstaking excavation by the champion of Palenque archeology, Alberto Ruz Lhuillier. Like the pyramids in Egypt, a lot of the buildings and monuments in Palenque were created by rulers to try to one up each other for history and showcase their power in the present. This sarcophagus is one of those monuments and it was amazing.

The sarcophagus with Melissa for scale;
the angle is misleading, it's very big.

Detail of the lid, source

It's really hard to convey a sense of its size with our pictures, there were no great angles on the ground and it's surrounded with a large buffer of dead space and a thick plastic wall. It was massive though, only slightly smaller than a box that you'd build to hold a small car, like our Dodge Attitude. One source says the lid is 3.8m x 2.2m, or 12x7 feet.

The sides and lid are decorated with amazingly preserved (or restored) carvings that apparently tell the story of this ruler's birth, life, death and divinity. We're glad that the sarcophagus room explained these images because while they are clear and fascinating, archaeologists have drawn dramatically more sophisticated interpretations of the scenes than we ever could. The sides showed this king's ancestors emerging from trees in the ground (ok) and the lid showed him emerging atop an open mouthed monster, in the traditional fetal position of the gods when they are born, surrounded by deities and snakes? That's my memory of what it said and the real text was certainly weirder. I've since learned that this lid is the subject of a lot of ancient astronaut theories, as though the Mayans somehow communicated with extraterrestrials.

After a quick lunch, we headed back to San Cristobal right around noon.  The ride back was much better for me - I think my patch had kicked in and pretty effective.  We didn't stop once, and we made it back right around 6:00pm.  We were all exhausted after a whirlwind 34 hours.  Adam and I went into town, got dinner, and went to sleep.

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