Walking through the thousand doorways in my cluttered mind to find what room I put my thoughts about Palenque is quite tricky considering the ground that has been covered since. We are currently amidst another beautiful Belizean thunderstorm in a private casita in Placencia two countries away from where I left off. Traveling and writing is often impossible at times, especially if you want to find yourself in the moment where your mind and body currently are. It can often be a frustrating waste of time to grab your pen and write just because you finally have a moment only to realize that the words are just out of reach like a fly ball destined to be a home run no matter how high you jump. Thoughts typically come out as if someone else was writing them for you to an audience you don’t know. This paragraph is a perfect example of avoiding the task at hand. I’ll let this tropical thunderstorm charge this coastal stretch while I shake the dust of the layers of moments captured and stacked frantically in my brain until they all fall into a tangible and legible place.
Ahem. I remember the route to Palenque very well. Our bus moaned and groaned through the mountains and valleys of Chiapas breaching through the cover of the thick, pine highland forests and surfacing into lush, light green jungle flora. Banana trees emerged in huge swaths while our bus climbed up along ridges in the heart of this indigenous region. I remained firmly planted at the window catching glimpses of little villages between narrow mountain roads that looked like they had been precariously sutured onto the side of the cliffs. This was Zapatista country and evidence of their influence was seen by the various schools established with political signage tattooed onto these buildings and even some homes. The thousands of vantage points dotted along this asphalt strip flew by too quickly, mainly because my vision was constricted by about 2 feet of window space. Along windy, mellow turns inside the concave shell of mountain ridges panoramas of the wet wilderness passed by my wide-eyed gaze. The sun eventually broke through the dark grey rainclouds and boasted its yellow underbelly onto the farmlands below. Turquoise colored streams cut lazily through the valley floor while figurine sized farmers raked, tilled, and planted their fields. This was coffee country and it was easy to see why the fresh java treat tasted so good here.
We stepped off in Palenque and were hit with a wall of some of the thickest humidity I’ve ever been in. We split a cab with a Canadian couple we met as we exited the bus and head off for El Panchan. Palenque didn’t have anything we were remotely interested in seeing and our camping village destination was situated right inside the jungle and in very close proximity to the Mayan ruins. When we stepped out of the cab the tropical forest greeted us with its fanfare of insects, birds, singing frogs, and gigantic green leafy trees. A local named Margarita set us up in our own screened protected thatched-roofed cabanas, a must for any jungle experience in my opinion. Without mosquito netting and screens we would have been fish in a barrel for those twisted flying vampires. We immediately scorpion-proofed our door and took cold showers to combat the heat. At around 3AM sleep ended abruptly due to the intensely graphic sound of the devil himself. Howler monkeys were practicing witchcraft in the trees with their deep, throaty bellows that sound oddly familiar to the soothing vocals of Slayer. This was my first experience hearing these little black creatures. “Jesus what’s that?!” came out instinctively when I opened my eyes in mild state of panic. I naturally woke Elissa up who was not very interested in hearing the monkeys and a bit more focused on the reason she was awake at 3 in the morning (whoops).
I spoke with Margarita for quite a while about the jungle and her little business housing travelers here. Trees here grow at a rate of about 1 meter a year to compete with all the other plants for the delicious sunlight that feeds the system. The astoundingly high rain fall this region further drives the growth of the flora and gives life the shelter and resources it needs to flourish. They had satellite internet here for about two years but the trees soon reclaimed their wilderness by blocking out the signal. The soil in the jungle is about 1-1.5 feet of forest mat and organic material sitting on top of thick, impermeable clay. The roots of the trees grow down into the organic soil layer and run along the clay, thus creating a very fragile tree root system susceptible to violent weather systems. A common threat in the jungle is the wind that powerful thunderstorms can bring. Very heavy trees fall down easily because of their unstable foundations. She has a 70 foot tree looming over her house that no one will cut down no matter how much money she offers because the sheer size of the beast. Jungle problems.
The heat that was ubiquitous here helped guide us to our decision to visit Agua Azul for some cool blue waters on our first incredibly hot morning. After an hour of windy mountain roads our mini-tour dropped us off at Misol-Ha falls. I’d like to say at this juncture that I am not a fan of tours. They are a little too structured for me but the only real and affordable way to experience natural features in this part of the world sometimes. We had 45 minutes to take in the massive waterfalls and the life around it. The temperature dropped a little in the shade behind the falls and was teeming with small bright green plants that clung onto the hanging bedrock wall. There was also a small cave with a river coming out creating its own fresh little waterfall straight from the heart of the mountains. After soaking in the falls we filed back into the van and sped towards Agua Azul. Agua Azul is comprised of probably several dozen cascades that are all mountain fed tributaries joining into larger streams and rivers. The platforms that create the various sized waterfalls are eroded limestone sequences that are smooth and can be very slippery. One slip into a deeper than expected pool almost saw the untimely death of my camera. The water itself is the primary attraction and when caught in the right season is an aqua teal color that is hard to forget. The mineral content of the water is thought to be healing and consists mainly of calcium carbonate (eroded limestone) and magnesium hydroxide. The mineral rich water absorbs the entire color spectrum with the exception of blue creating the deeply saturated turquoise shade. All four of us welcomed the cool, crisp mountain water as our new best friends as we cooled our overheated bodies playing and exploring the pools around us. A nice Mexican family gave Damien and Marianka some barbecue pork ribs and limes for us to share in this beautiful natural park.
The following day was spent at the ruins of Palenque. Having seen quite a few ruin sites by now we were glad that Palenque had some fresh new twists on old things. This ancient Mayan city was decidedly built right in the middle of a vast jungle territory. Pyramid-like castles rose from the ground with green banana tree backdrops accompanied by the constant hum of nature’s orchestra tuning it’s instruments. A majority of Palenque’s buildings are structurally sound and in good condition for an active archeological site. Visitors are allowed to walk, climb, and explore just about every feature here. There are teams of archeologists actively uncovering, researching, and drawing their finds throughout the site. The trail leads you through various parts of the ruins and then into the jungle where other buildings and structures are peppered throughout. Gigantic moss covered trees were always in eyesight, stretching sky high towards the sun. We came across two waterfalls within the site and one was paired with a small footbridge affording a straight on view. After getting ruined we decided swimming was the only logical thing to do. The only problem (other than the complete disregard for cleaning the water) with the free pool was it was almost the exact temperature of the air thus defeating the purpose of the pool. Since it was free there was no reason to be anything but content.
One more night in our cabana in the jungle and one more night of live music and great but slightly pricey food at Don Mucho’s (the only happening bar in our community). We bee-lined it for the coast hoping that the salty air might have some sort of delicious breeze to cool our heat soaked skins. Another day in the jungle might have been it for me, just enough to push me over the edge and into any air conditioned box with a bed in a glorious retreat from backpacking.