After a night of the truck swaying in the strong winds, we headed up into the mountains. San Cristóbel de las Casas is a town nestled in a highland valley surrounded by pine trees. As we headed up the winding road behind slow, slow trucks grinding their way upwards, we were thankful we took the “cuota” road, rather than the free “libre”, so we could pass them at points. In Mexico the major roads often have tolls, they are usually better quality, less busy and if you breakdown they can help get you back on the road. By law the cuotas roads must have an equivalent libre road between the same points. We’ve taken a mixture of cuotas and libres depending on which would get us between places better. Although we are a truck our speed uphill is far faster than your average Mexican fully laden truck and we are usually a bit slower downhill. The trucks thunder down at alarming rates to gain momentum for the next uphill section. Steve prefers the safer and engine saving option of a slower decent.
Rather than trying to squeeze through the narrow and picturesque streets of San Cristóbel de las Casas we took a back route to the campsite from the ring road and then down a short but steep, twisting dirt track. It worked absolutely fine but was another good test of Steve’s driving.
San Cristóbel de las Casas was busy with many of the indigenous people that live nearby. The women were dressed in traditional outfits of long dark skirts, white blouses and shawls all covered with the most beautiful embroidery. There was a bustling market and busy streets. Unfortunately it was rather cold, grey and drizzly the two days we were there, which never shows the place at its best. It was interesting to wander around the town and breathe in the fresh mountain air. We couldn’t believe the weather changes over three days from humid sweltering heat at the coast, huge winds in the foot hills and freezing drizzle in the highlands.
The road from San Cristóbel de las Casas to Palenque is just 220Km. However it traverses 2 mountain ranges and so many topes we lost count, so it took 6 hours. Topes, speed bumps, sleeping policemen….whatever you might call the bloody things are truly testing. Found scattered liberally on all libre roads in Mexico, often near villages, which make total sense, but they can be found in the most unlikely places. Occasionally they are signed or painted yellow so you can see them. Frequently there is little warning and they are big. Large enough to bounce you out of your seat if you weren’t strapped in and all your belonging everywhere in the back, if you are not careful. The road to Palenque, I think wins the prize (so far) for the most topes on it. It took two sets of alert eyes to spot them and even then there were a few we bumped badly over. The road also passed through the area that the Zapatistas were active in. This left wing militant group supporting indigenous rights took on the Mexican government 20 years ago. Although things have quietened down a lot since then, it is still an area that has periodic flare ups. We were a little concerned of reports of groups of villagers putting up unofficial road blocks and demanding a toll with menaces, if you didn’t pay. We were pleased to find that apart from a military checkpoint we sailed through, a couple of people collecting money for a religious festival in a few days, and a few ladies putting strings across the roads to stop cars to buy their fruit we sailed through. In many ways it was a glorious drive dropping down into the foot hills covered with thick jungle, Tzotzil ladies dressed up to the nines in their beautiful embroidered outfits ready for the Saturday market and small farmsteads right next to the road.
Palenque is a Mayan City that was built between 100BC and 800AD but it particularly flourished between 640-740AD and was abandoned by about 900AD. As it is in the middle of a jungle it was soon grown over and almost forgotten about.
The ruins were in a wonderful setting nestled right in the jungle. Periodically we could hear howler monkeys roaring from far away across the jungle adding an extra level to jungle noise along with the insects and amphibians incessantly calling. The most impressive tombs and palaces have been uncovered and excavated to find a wealth of artefacts. There are still many ruins further out in the jungle that still haven’t been fully explored. We were really impressed with them, there was lots to see and the girls ran around pretending to be Mayan princesses. They have been studying about Mesoamerican civilisations and Alisha has picked up lots of other gruesome details from her Horrible History book about the Aztecs and Mayans, which she was happy to share with her sister, so they had a great time.