Our travels over the past few weeks have provided a rich feast of the senses. Vistas across high mountain roads and through thick jungles, huge ornate flowers, ancient Mayan temples, and native locals with their beautiful colorful wares have filled our eyes, accompanied by the sounds and smells of the jungle – ripe and rotting mangoes, howler monkeys, bird and insect orchestras, thunderstorms, the scent of soil and greenery after the rain. We have tasted fresh mangoes, lychees, several varieties of bananas, fresh local coffee and chocolate, countless numbers of coconut popsicles, and of course copious varieties of tacos and empanadas. Our skin has been variously soothed, assaulted, and subjected to fresh cool rain, intense heat and humidity, scratching and poking by thick jungle foliage, and innumerable insect bites, covering our legs and feet with polka dot patterns. This is Chiapas.
Our first night in the state was at Hogar Infantil, a children’s home founded by an American expat near the town of Ocozocautla. This place is incredible. It houses over 50 children at any one time and provides a very nourishing environment and the education and tools needed for the children to build lives better than those that they came from. With about 37 acres, the center has a large agricultural focus, growing and raising much of own food. They also operate a free RV park consisting of four nice cement parking spaces with water and electric hookups and even wireless internet. As soon as we pulled in we were visited by curious chickens and sheep, while a flock of ducks circled around us more cautiously.
We spent the next several days in San Cristóbal de las Casas. This lovely mountain town sits at over 2000 m in the beautiful Chiapas highlands. It is well known as the center of the Zapatista movement, which started in the mid 1990s and is still ongoing today, which we have seen evidence of throughout Chiapas.
San Cristóbal is also an important cultural hub for many of the native communities all throughout the highlands. On the breath-taking drive up yet another winding mountain highway in the clouds we passed through several small villages where we saw women (as well as occasional men and children) in their colorful, skillfully embroidered skirts and blouses. San Cristóbal is full of these women selling their amazing handicrafts along the streets and in the bustling market, as well as all varieties of locally grown fruits, vegetables and coffee.
We read that since tourism is so popular both in San Cristóbal and the surrounding villages the locals have been photographed extensively and often very rudely, and not surprisingly can be shy and angry about being photographed more, so we respected their privacy. We did however take many photographs of the narrow cobbled streets of San Cristóbal, lined with colorful houses and graffiti art.
When we managed to break ourselves away from the charming spell of San Cristóbal we headed southeast to explore Lago Montebello National Park. This area is like the northern Minnesota of Mexico, full of lakes and greenery, with the major differences of orchids and bromeliads growing in the pines, tropical birds flitting around, oh and the cenotes. After deciding not to venture up to the Yucatán, for the sake of avoiding the skin-melting heat, Emily was a little disappointed by not being about to see the cenotes there. Then we managed to stumble across two cenotes anyway. Granted they weren’t nearly as impressive as those in the Yucatán, but they were awesome none-the-less.
We decided that it would be fun to try to hike around the above cenote, so we headed off on a well-worn path. A couple hundred meters later the path petered out a bit and continued on a less-worn path, then before long there was no path and suddenly we (all three of us) were bushwhacking through the jungle with no machete and no idea if forest would suddenly give way to the steep cliffs surrounding the cenote. We didn’t make it far before we reached a point that might have been passable with some sketchy scrambling by the humans, but there was no way that Hobie was making up the cliff face, despite his impressive mountain dog abilities. So we turned around and retraced our steps, safely making it back to the van with a few scratches and several mosquito bites.
As we continued our journey east along the border of Guatemala the towns became fewer and further between, replaced by ejidos, or small community agricultural collectives. Having no other camping options that we considered safe, one evening we drove into an ejido called Peña Blanca to see if we could find a place to park for the night. There we met Maricelo and his family, who invited us to pull the van right up onto his lawn. It turns out that Maricelo was the leader of the ejido and an incredibly kind and generous man, bringing us lychees from the tree out back and making sure that we were comfortable. The ejido turned out to be a magical place on the edge of the jungle. As the sun set we walked around with Hobie and stopped to watch a soccer match. Everyone we passed smiled and waved. The few streets running through the community were clean, not a sign of garbage anywhere, which was a first for us in Mexico. After the sun set the fireflies started to light up in the field across from the van and soon enough the whole night was full of their twinkles.
In the morning one of Maricelo’s relatives brought us coffee and fresh tortillas, and we briefly considered giving up the Pan American adventure and settling down right there. But alas, the highway was beckoning.
Our next stop was at Frontera Corozal, where we camped right on the bank of the Usumacinta River, looking across the Guatemala on the other side. This is where Hobie had his first encounter with howler monkeys. For those that haven’t experienced a howler monkey, you generally hear them before you see them, but what you hear sounds like it should be coming from a giant fire-breathing monster with a big barrel chest. Then when you see one, the reaction is almost universally “oh how cute!”, as they are in fact undeniably adorable primates. Hobie didn’t think they were cute, as they got closer and closer in the trees overhead he only saw barrel-chested monsters. They also didn’t think Hobie was cute and after he barked at them the big male in the family started up a long, loud chorus of howling directly at our poor terrified puppy.
Our real reason for stopping in Frontera Corozal was not to scare Hobie with monkeys, but to visit the ancient Mayan ruins of Yaxchilan (yeah, we can’t pronounce it either). The ruins are located on a huge oxbow in the river, a strategic location, which is only accessible by boat. Given the heat we opted to arrange the boat ride for early in the morning and were treated to gorgeous vistas of the foggy jungle, and had the ruins to ourselves.
After a lovely stop at the beautiful waterfalls of Agua Azul, we continued on our Chiapas tour to Palenque, one of the most famous of the ancient Mayan sites in Mexico. The temples were indeed very impressive and we were lucky to be able to see them without too many other “tourons” (as we fondly call gringo looky-loos, ourselves included) around.
We found a great spot to camp within walking distance to the ruins and have been enjoying slowing down a bit to complete projects and plan our next steps.
Mexico has treated us very well over the past two months and we have greatly enjoyed its natural beauty and cultural wealth. In the next few days we will head for the Guatemalan border and say a fond “Adiós Mexico, y gracias por todos los tacos!”