Saturday, February 07, 2009

Chiapas - Part I


I'm starting-off with the discourse of my latest and probably the last vacation in Mexico. I'm gonna split the whole word-and-picture-bundle into five parts - Chiapas - Part I dealing with Palenque, Cascadas de Agua Azul, Yaxchilan, Bonampak and Usumacinta river, Chiapas - Part II will be all about San Cristobal de las Casas, Chamula, Zinacantan and Canyon del Sumidero, Guatemala will talk about Flores, Tikal and things about Guatemala, National Anthropology Museum about one of the finest museums I've ever visited in Mexico and finally Distrito Federal is a bit about the capital Mexico city, not necessarily in order.

One last place I ever wanted to see before my stint in Mexico would get over was the mystical state of Chiapas. Supposedly Chiapas is the poorest state in Mexico, but historically this was the state of Mayas known for their sublime splendour. Naturally, Chiapas is a very rich state with oil, water and forest resources, just that Chiapanecos are poor. Geographically Chiapas is the southern most state of Mexico bordered by Oaxaca in the west, Veracruz and Tabasco in the north and Guatemala and Belize in the east and south. With Tuxtla Gutiérrez as it's capital, this state boasts innumerable indigenous tribes like Tzotzils, Titzols etc. who are mostly descendants of the great Mayas.

From Mexico city we took bus to Palenque, which is about 13 hours drive (subject to variations based on climatic conditions). We traversed through 5 different states, Mexico-Puebla-Veracruz-Tabasco-Chiapas before reaching our destination, Palenque at about 8 in the morning. Mayabell, our place of stay, was very close to the ruins. A taxi from Palenque busstation to Maybell cost us 50 pesos, with an additional 20 pesos per person to be paid as a maintenance toll to the forest authorities.

Mayabell is an amazing resort catering to both sorts - backpackers and the rest. You can rent out hammocks and swing it in any of the unoccupied palapas (open hut) or spread out your tents anywhere on the lush green lawns or sleep in cozy rooms. There is a nice swimming pool to beat the tropical heat, toilets are without toilet-seats and water is luke-warm...but what more can you expect from a place where you can spend a night for just 40 pesos. We spread our tent, did the morning jobs, had breakfast of huevos rancheros (sunny-side-up eggs) and huevos mexicana (scrambled eggs) and set out to the ruins.

Mayabell is located about a kilometer away from the ruins, they're infact juxtaposed. We started walking towards the ruins and there was collectivo (collective taxi) honking from behind, asking for a ride. To save time, we took that paying 10 pesos per person and alighted at the ticket counter of Palenque. Entrance tickets cost 48 pesos per person without any guide service included. Palenque ruins are located amidst dense tropical selva, with paved path leading to all ruins. The first edifice that one encounters after entering is "Templo de Calavera", the attraction of which is the skull shaped stucco relief. Most ruins in Palenque are high and needs considerable number of stone steps to be climbed. Next to "Templo de Calavera" are some tombs located inside a structure.

The landmark building which is shown in most of search results or posters of Palenque, "Templo de las Inscripciones" is the next imposing edifice. It's the most beautiful structure among the ruins of Palenque. Climbing atop this structure was, unfortunately, prohibited when we went. It bears such a name (Temple of Inscriptions) due to the presence of hieroglyphic inscriptions on it's limestone panels. It also has the sarcophagus of the great Pakal, who ruled Palenque from 615 to 683AD. It's probably the tallest structure in Palenque with steep steps leading to the hall on top and the whole structure has a step-like architecture.

"El Palacio", located right in front of "Templo de las Inscripciones", comprises of complex group of buildings, open spaces, corridors, underground galleries, drainge ducts and most importantly a tower. We saw many princely reliefs on the walls on the outside of the palace and many smudged ones on walls of "Patio de los Jefes Guerreros" (Hall of the Warrior Chiefs). The palace requires considerably longer time to explore every nook and corner of it. The underground passages, led by arches and stairs, are faintly lit and are cold. The tower, probably used as an astronomical observatory, stands tall in the center of the palace.

From palace, we head to "Grupo de las Cruces", the group of the crosses. This was built during Kan B`alam II's (Pakal's son) epoch and it was the religious center consisting of three major temples: Templo del Sol, Templo de la Cruz and Templo de la Cruz Foliada. Templo del Sol has a well preserved roof-comb and inside it has a a panel depicting Kan B'alam II's ascension of the throne in front of his deceased father. Templo de la Cruz, the tallest among the group has steep steps that leads to the temple atop which has a stone tablet showing smoking of tobacco.

We then head to Juego de Pelota (Ball court), which was much smaller than it's counterparts in Oaxaca. The Grupo Norte (North group) had Templo del Conde, which has steep steps that led to hall where Count Waldek stayed during 19th century. We then followed the directions that led to museum through the lower exit. Enroute we happened to see Group B, located between two waterfalls (one of them is called Bano de la Reina, the queen's bath), which were purely residential sites.

The Museo de Sitio (site museum) is just outside the lower exit and costs nothing. It's definitely worth visiting, it has got fabulous finds of Palenque archeological site like censers, bas-reliefs of Pakal, masks and hieroglyphs. The museum remains closed on Monday.

We walked back to Mayabell, took a dip in the pool, hit the shower and got ready for dinner. We killed time on delicious home brewed beer till the live music started at 8:30 and then had some delicious enchiladas and tacos for dinner. The first group of musicians played some eclectic music of guitars and pipes, the second group played flamenco, a really pretty Spanish lady set the stage on fire. The night was chill, a group of stoned hippies at the neighbouring tent kept playing some traditional Veracruz music with Jaranas and guitars which was very welcoming.


Next day, we had an early start to Cascadas de Agua Azul (Blue Waterfalls). A collectivo dropped us in front of Maya Kukulcan, the travel agency that's located just a few steps from ADO bus-station on Av. Juarez. The tour included Cascadas de Agua Azul, Misol Ha and Agua Clara and it cost us 120 pesos per person (extra 35 pesos per person for entry fee). We picked up some rich tourists at posh hotels, before we hit Highway 199. After half hour journey among the lush green selvas, we reached Misol Ha waterfall. It's a tall lean cascade falling from about 35 meters precipice and ending up in a small lake. There are numerous streams flowing out of foliated wet rocks in the background and there is a small cave too. Overall Misol Ha is an OK kind of place, which could safely be ignored.

Another 40 minutes journey, brought us to Cascadas de Agua Azul. This place lived up to it's name to the fullest, the water here is the bluest I've ever seen in my life. It's a huge river with many white water cascades falling into crystal clear deep blue pools, most of which are swimmable. Just remember not to goto this place after rains, for the water becomes muddy and it's no more blue. The area near parking is quite crowded, but you can walk up the pavement along the river to get some amazing views of the river at different vantage points. There are certain places where swimming is barred due to strong currents, but most places are pacific for swimming. There are restaurants along the river and peddlers selling artistic sundries.

The higher you go, the lesser is the crowd. I walked up quite a distance, before I was stopped by a couple of security guards. They told me that it was dangerous to go any further without their escorting, for they said few tourists with cameras like mine had been mugged by forest tribes. I thought it wasn't a good idea to proceed and I turned around 180 degrees and started walking down. At mid point, there were a plank and a rope both for landing yourself into water and I didn't take much time to strip and jump into that fresh, crystal clear, ice cold water. It was one of the cleanest pools I've ever swam in. We just had 3 hours in cascadas, which I felt was very less for place of such picturesque beauty.

We returned to Palenque city and had coffee at Cafe Yara, a decent coffee house which serves delicious local coffee. We loitered around the city center searching for a travel agent to book the tour to Yaxchilan and Bonampak ruins. After inquiring with couple of travel agents, we reached the same travel agency, Maya Kukulkan. After much contemplation and calculations, we agreed for a two days tour, which included not just Yaxchilan and Bonampak, but all the way upto Flores in Guatemala.

This tour was a very reasonable one costing us 1000 pesos per person. It included whole lotta things...pickup from hotel at 6, breakfast en route, entrance tickets and boat to (and from) Yaxchilan ruins from Frontera Corozal, lunch at Frontera Corozal, entrance tickets to Bonampak, dinner and stay at one of the jungle resorts at Lacandona selva, breakfast at resort, boat to Guatemala, transportation to Tikal. If you ever plan to do this on your own, I bet you would have to shell out more money and lot more time.

We had a mouth watering pollo rostizado (Roasted chicken) at Yashalum II restaurant, just a few steps from Maya Kukulkan travel agency. I highly recommend this place for both savour and savings it offers. Post dinner, we retired to Mayabell, showered and slept.


At 6 on the dot, we were waiting outside Mayabell, at 10 minutes past 6 our vehicle arrived. After an hour long journey, at about 7:15 we stopped in a small village for breakfast. Breakfast was a buffet both Mexican and gringo style, served at small yet tidy restaurant. It had huevos a la Mexicana (egg scrambled with onions and tomatoes), huevos con jamon (egg scramble with ham), tortillas, varieties of bread, butter, jam, fruits, coffee, fruit juice and water. We had half hour to hog, before we continued towards Frontera Corozal. It was another two and half hours long journey.

We had to pay a community fee of 15 pesos per person on arrival at Frontera Corozal. The chauffeur handed over a notebook to us mark our lunch preferences, while doing so, he said, "After we see Yaxchilan ruins, we're gonna have lunch. The choices are fresh crocodiles from Usumacinta river, howling monkeys or snakes. And for vegetarians, sandwich of marijuana." Everybody shouted unanimously, "I'm a veggie!!! I'm a veggie!!!". While the choices really contained carne asada (beef bbq), pollo a la mexicana (spicy chicken sautéed with onions and tomatoes), pollo empanizado (deep fried chicken coated with bread crumbles), vegetarian.

Frontera Corozal, is a small town on the banks of Rio Usumacinta which serves as an approach to Yaxchilan ruins. It's got ticket counter for Yaxchilan ruins, an immigration office, an embarkment to board the launches, restaurants and ecotours and Guatemala just across the river. We followed our chauffeur to the embankment, he handed us the entrance tickets, directed us to the launch and told us that we had two hours to explore the ruins.

The boat journey was about 40 minutes on the great Usumacinta river banked on the left bank by Mexico and right by Guatemala. The day was cloudy, all I did in the boat was seeing the landscape and praying for the sun, I was very thrilled by the fact that I was sailing on a river which separates North America from Central America. The river had a dirty-green tint and I was told that it housed crocodiles. On Mexican side, it was only forest while on Guatemalan side there were sparse habitation and agriculture. We also saw few kids and ladies bathing and washing clothes in the river, without the slightest scare of the crocodiles.

We climbed the steep embankment to enter Yaxchilan ruins, whereafter our tickets were checked. We started exploring the ruins starting with Small Acropolis which is a group of 13 buildings, located on the hill top, 166 ft above the Gran Plaza. It requires a panting steep climb, lasting for 5 minutes or less. It has two large patios, each surrounded by many buildings. There are certain lintels with brilliant ceremonial carvings dating back to 8th century AD.

From Small Acropolis, we head to Gran Plaza. Gran Plaza, or the great central plaza forms the architectural core of Yaxchilan ruins. We entered the Gran Plaza through Edificio 19 a.k.a Labyrinth, supposedly the most complicated structure in Yaxchilan. The Gran Plaza has got a ball court, sweat house, temples and stelaes which takes time to explore. Edificio 33 is the most brilliant structure among all, with it's roof comb still very well preserved. To reach this structure, it requires a steep climb of 133 feet from Gran Plaza. Outside Edificio 33, there is a display of some lintels with magnificent bas reliefs that was found in Edificio 33. There is one broken stelae in the corner of Gran Plaza, courtesy smart archaeologists; they broke it in an attempt to move it to a museum in Mexico city. There are some best preserved stelaes in Yaxchilan and few structures have still retained their artistic lintels. It was time for us to hit the boat, we had already spent two hours. We rushed to the boat and drove back to Frontera Corozal.

We saw some howling monkeys on the banks of Usumacinta and heard their loud howls from the Guatemalan side. While we were having lunch (Carne Asada, Pollo a la Mexicana and Quesadillas) at the designated restaurant, the rain Gods made their appearance and poured profusely. We boarded our bus and head straight to the village of San Javier, where we had to change to another bus to reach the ruins of Bonampak. Everybody who wants to reach Bonampak ruins, had to take this bus at San Javier, which is operated by the local community. It's about 10 minutes journey from San Javier to the entrance of Bonampak ruins.

After seeing Yaxchilan, Bonampak seems to be an OK kinda ruins. The gran plaza consists of structures built on an elevated platform which has could be reached by climbing extremely steep steps. The main attraction, however, of Bonampak are the murals. It requires about an hour to explore Bonampak ruins and the murals leisurely. There are three halls which house the murals of the great Mayas. It seems the murals in the first hall depicts the life of Mayans before the battle, the second hall murals depict the battle and the one in third is about celebration of victory. The murals contain deep saturated hues of red, green and it's shades. The colours have faded greatly and it's banned to photograph with flash. I didn't know that we would be seeing the reproduction of the very same murals at National Anthropolgy Museum in Distrito Federal during the same vacation. We came back to San Javier by one of the community run buses and were taken to one of the resorts in Lacanjá Chansayab.

People in Lacanjá Chansayab and surrounding areas, belong tot Chol Maya hey are normally attired in plain white tunics and lead a simple life. They have distinctive facial features and most of them still live in primitive ways in forest. The resort we lived in was very basic but it was maintained neat and tidy. Our idea of bonfire and drinking was rained off, we had dinner and hit the sac early for the next day's journey to Guatemala.

Guatemala be continued...

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