An exciting day of adventure today. As usual, up early, packed, breakfasted and checked out by 8:30 as we were meeting our guide, Carol Karasik at the entrance gates to the Palenque ruins. Left our luggage at the hotel and walked to the roadside where we caught a combi, minivan buses that stop wherever flagged for pick up and drop off; very handy.
Met Carol and expected that we would have a very good and interesting day, a prediction that was absolutely fulfilled. Carol is an author and a staff member at the Mayan Exploration Center. Erudite, charming and interesting, she spent the day walking us through the Mayan ruins and the museum attached to the site. She was recommended to us by Betsy McNair of My Mexican Tours. We met Betsy on our first trip to Mexico in 2002 when she ran a very interesting and quirky inn in Guanajuato where we stayed. We have stayed in touch periodically ever since and since we knew how much she liked Chiapas and how much time she had spent there, we asked if she would help us plan our trip. I recommend her unadvisedly if anyone is interested in seeing more of Mexico than beaches and resorts. She is extremely knowledgeable, has a vast network of friends/guides who are published experts in their fields and above all else is also great fun to know.
The ruins themselves are fascinating and with Carol's help we got a real insight into the latest theories of Mayan culture and history; could have spent days wandering and talking to her. Highly recommended.
Because we had a hotel reservation in San Cristobal that night, we needed to find a way to get from Palenque to San Cristobal; not an easy journey even though the distance is only about 190 kilometres. I had originally wanted to rent a car at the airport at Villahermosa when we arrived, but I had been warned that it was too dangerous to travel at night between Palenque and San Cristobal because of zapatistas and bandits who sometimes stop cars on the road. We had therefore planned to take one of the large, relatively luxurious and comfortable buses that travel the route but when we arrived at the bus station with Carol at about 15:00 we were told that the next bus was not until 17:00 and, with an armed escort, would not arrive until 22:30. We did not fancy sitting around the main street of a dusty town for 2 hours and then facing a 5 hour bus ride with no dinner.
Our options it appeared were to wait, to rent a private car and driver for 2500 pesos, about $200 or to take a colectivo. Colectivos are much like combis, minivans with 12 seats stuffed in, which provide the only affordable trans-town transportation for the working population. Unfortunately there is no direct route but only a colectivo that stops and turns around at a town about 110 kilometres along the road, where we were given to understand we could then hire a taxi to take us the rest of the way. There was one leaving immediately and because of the demographics of its passengers, colectivos are rarely troubled by bandit problems on the road after dark. Seemed like a no-brainer, so we paid for 3 seats so we could have a little elbow room, (very cheesy I know), our luggage was tied to the roof and off we went. The passengers were, for the most part, Mayan indians from villages, many of whom were dropped off on route, who presumably had been in town for the day to buy supplies or sell their handicrafts.
A stunning drive from the lowlands of the Palenque plain, as we climbed through and over hills and mountains to reach the upland plateau at a height of 2500 metres. The sun was setting as we drove and the views through small Maya villages and across wide, forested valleys scarlet in the light of the setting sun was magic. Bumping along in a creaky minivan was a small price to pay. Arrived at Ocosingo, the town where the colectivo turned around, we quickly discovered that taxis would not drive that long way to San Cristobal and that in fact, the only way to get to our destination was the colectivo leaving only moments later. This one was packed to the gunwales and we could only be accommodated by me sitting next to the driver with V sitting between us perched on the bump that housed the gear shift. There was much milling, and organizing as 14 people tried to sort themselves out and get their boxes and bags stowed. We were to discover later the outcome of the milling and bumping.
I ran into the shed's WC to discover that you have not lived until you have peed in the loo of a local colectivo station. This dubious privilege cost me 2 pesos and the foundations for a lifetime of nightmares. Back on the bus we set off into the night. The first leg had taken us almost 3 hours and in my fumbling Spanish I learned that this next leg would take 2 hours more. You should know that the reason for the amount of time required to cover what is after all only a relatively short distance is not the state of the road or the density of the traffic, but the unending and continuing presence of Topes. What are they you ask? Mexico loves sleeping policemen and they construct them at the slightest excuse. And these are not small bumps in the road that you can speed over with a bump, but great, high mounds that require any vehicle, and most especially an over-loaded colectivo to virtually stop and gingerly scale them. Additionally they erect them in clusters so that you are required to bump across 3 or 4 of them each time. The trip could be undertaken in at least half the time but every 5 or 6 minutes, and sometimes much more frequently than that, a roadside sign would appear to warn us of "Zona Topes 300m", and we would have to go from 80km and hour to practically zero as we tried to mount them without taking out our undercarriage.
At last we arrived in San Cristobal at the total cost for both of us for a 5 hour drive of 160 pesos or about $5 each. Again much milling around as we unloaded and grabbed a taxi to take us to our hotel. As I reached for my wallet, preparatory to paying the taxi driver I realized that I no longer had a wallet and as V reached into her bag to get her wallet, she realized that she no longer had a camera. Not going to blame anyone, we could have dropped them/lost them anywhere but V had taken a picture just before we boarded and I had paid for tickets so I'm guessing that in one of the organizing melees they were taken. Just plain dumb and if we'd taken better care the problem would not have arisen. As it turned out, an unnecessarily expensive trip.