Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Unofficial Palenque

My first day in Palenque I'd planned on spending an hour in the ruins, but ended up spending most of the day wandering around the jungle and the ruins both. So I thought I'd seen most of what there was to see - but with a little bit of luck involved, I ended up getting to hear the unofficial side of things as well.

After I got back from a long day of wandering around and a huge, piping hot bowl of meat, beans, and veggies, I went back to my little hut by the stream, put on some music, and sat back and rested. It wasn't long before I heard a bit of a giggle from what sounded like right outside my window...

Sure enough, it was the Italians again. They'd arrived in Palenque after a grueling day on the bus that included a five hour standstill for a protest, but we agreed to meet up in a bit for some dinner at the restaurant. When I went over to get them at their room, they were sitting and chatting with two American, bald, motorcycle riders who were heading down the Pan American highway as well.

Gene and Evan had taken off from Albuquerque and headed down on a similar route to mine. I'm honestly pretty surprised we hadn't run into each other before Palenque given how similar our routes were, but they were spending a bit more time in each place but seeing a few less places. They were both on KLR's, one green and one orange (jealous), so we sat and traded stories for a bit before heading to the restaurant.

The restaurant was a little on the full side when we got there, so the hostess aimed to seat us off to the side - but the Italians were having none of that, and had them set up a new table in the back of the main area so we could be closer to the band and the music. That turned out to be fortuitous, as it put us right next to a little craft shop. The woman who made the crafts was from Quebec, so we traded a few French words, and I talked a little bit with her daughter.

Super cute, and she loved seeing herself on the screen.
After a while I was glancing around at the store, and I noticed a sign...

But first, a step back. When I was in Puerto Escondido and first met the Italians, we were out partying and ran into an Australian bachelor party. While I was talking to the Australians, one of the guys told me to ask around at "the bar" ("I don't remember which one, but it's the main one") in Palenque for the special tour, and then gave me two names. They're brothers, he said, and they do an amazing tour of the jungle. I wrote it down knowing I'd never remember otherwise, and then forgot about it until I got to Palenque. When I realized I wasn't going to actually be in Palenque proper at all, only at the El Panchan, I kind of gave up on trying to find these guys since I clearly wasn't going to be at "the bar."

So we're sitting at dinner, at this table they set up specifically for us, and I look over and see a sign. "Jungle tours" it says, and down at the bottom are the same two names that the Australian gave me.

I'll say I probably got a bit more excited than I should have, but I quickly tried to explain in Spanish to the Italians about it, and then in English to the Americans. As I was gesturing excitedly at the sign, a man walked up and said hi - it was one of the brothers. We chatted for a bit about the tour, and within a few minutes all five of us had decided we wanted to go.
Side note: I'm avoiding using the names for Google reasons. I think they'd probably be okay with it, but we talked about it some and it seemed like, while he didn't mind it being on the internet, he preferred word of mouth advertisement. If you're headed that way, I'll definitely give you the info. For now I'll refer to our guide as G.
After we made our plans, I ended up leaving the restaurant kind of early (10pm) to walk over to a nearby hotel and meet up with a Dutch couchsurfer to chat for a while. She had been traveling for the past 3 years, and was working at the hotel there for a while in exchange for housing and food, affording her lots of opportunities to explore and enjoy Palenque. We talked for a bit, drank a few drinks, waited out a pretty hard rain, and pretty soon I looked at the time and it had gotten to be 4am without me noticing! So I called a cab (the half-hour walk over there was bad enough at 10pm) and crawled back into bed.

Morning went a little slowly after that late of a night, so my first thing on the schedule was to meet up for the tour at 1pm. While we were waiting for G to prepare everything, we ran into the hotel's resident monkey, and the staff even gave us a banana to feed him.

He had some cookies for dessert too.

Stuffing his face.
Got to say hi to this girl again before going on the hike, she even paused her hula-hooping attempts to take a quick picture.
Eventually we got on our way with the Italians and three bald guys, and G. But I should tell you a little about G first... G has been living around the ruins his whole life, exploring the jungle. His father did tours, and once they were old enough, he and his brother started doing them too. He's a little on the shorter side, but exudes positivity and energy in a way that he seems much larger than he is. He has Mayan heritage, and his rounded cheekbones and the crinkles around his eyes give the impression that he's always smiling - and in fact, when he's in the jungle at least, he usually is.

Our tour began by entering the same marked path that I'd started down the day before, outside the official ruins but still within the protected park. But that's where the similarity to the day before ended: about 20 feet down the path, G looked around, and then made a sharp right down an embankment and took off through the brush.

And off we went. We went down to a waterfall and rubbed a particular mud on us that helps keep mosquito bites from swelling up, then rinsed it off while swimming into the cave under the waterfall. We matched G's footsteps carefully to avoid stepping on the leaves with little spikes on them, as we'd all joined G in being barefoot to better feel the jungle. We watched a trail of leaf-cutter ants almost 30 feet long parade their little pieces of leaves down into their nest to farm the algae that they eat and only grows on those leaves. We looked into a dark cave with a river coming out of it, and then pulled out some lights and hiked up our pants to wade into the cave which turned into a Mayan aqueduct as you went farther back in.

Into the cave we go.

And up out the other side - just to the left is where the aqueduct feeds into the cave.

Looking down into the cave.
The whole time, G was giving us little pieces of information about anything and everything around us - the animals, the plants, the ruins, everything. He'd pause for a moment in the middle of the trail and look off to the left, and then point out a bird, or a native banana tree, or a the remnants of a thousand-year old Mayan house sticking out from underneath the roots of a gigantic tree. You could tell by the way he walked through there that he felt at home in the jungle, and knew it very well.

He'd give us a few warnings here or there too (like with the spiky leaves). He showed us a tree, and pointed out the ants crawling on it - fire ants, he said, and they live in symbiosis with the tree, protecting it from harm ("like from us"). He then put a finger on the tree, and immediately every ant in the vicinity made a bee-line for his finger. He pulled it away before they got there, and they all went back to what they were doing. Tommy didn't believe his eyes and had to try too - sure enough, they all bolted for his finger and then went back to work as he hurriedly pulled it away. That, along with a tree trunk covered in spikes, was one of our lessons: "Before you touch, watch!"

Eventually we got to a clearing next to a stream heading downhill, and rested for a while. For a good half hour or so, we just wandered, explored, and asked G any questions we had. Gene and G had some really interesting discussions about how the official history of the Mayan empire didn't give the whole picture, and G talked about how he thought it had happened.

Talking, enjoying, relaxing.

Italians in the jungle.
One of the more interesting things for me was to look at the rivers and waterfalls in the jungle. They're all very rounded, smooth, almost an organic look to them. When I asked G about them, he told me that they're (relatively) new and are still being built. He reached down and rubbed one of the rocks in the river we were hiking up, and showed me the sediment that was settling. "This is how these are being formed, right now, growing little by little."

G walking up one of the waterfalls - this one had a number of petrified trees embedded in it too.
Another river where you can see a few levels of this one.
And the source of all that sediment? The Mayan ruins. It's limestone from the building materials that the Mayans used, washing down and off the ruins and into the stream, and then being deposited and forming these waterfalls. "So it's kind of because of humans that these are here?" I asked. G looked thoughtful and then said "Well, first by nature, then by humans, then by nature again."

Eventually we wound our way back out of the jungle following G's lead (I had no idea where we were or how to get back out) and made our way back to El Panchan, where we all loaded up on a hearty dinner and a few beers while we enjoyed the entertainment.

Every night El Panchan seems to have something interesting, and that night it was unicycle jugglers.
Palenque was the first place that I (voluntarily - San Ignacio doesn't count) stayed more than two nights in the same place, and I didn't even get to Misol-Ha like I planned. It was by far one of the most interesting stops I've made, both in the people I met and the things I did. But, with three days there, it was time to turn and book for Playa del Carmen, with a few quick stops on the way.

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