Wednesday, June 3, 2009

The Road to Palenque

After four days in San Cristobal de las Casas it was time to get back on the road. I was enjoying my time in the "troubled son" state of Chiapis, the poorest in Mexico. Up until now (with a brief stint into central Mexico) I had been hugging the Pacific coastline from (almost) Canada to the end of North America. The change in scenery and climate was welcomed.

The further south I went the drier the air seemed to get - even though I was right next to the ocean. I had started lining my nasal passages with a saline gel product to keep the inside of nose from drying out, and stopping about twice a day to rinse my eyes out with bottled water. In addition to the dry air (at 80 mph), people often had controlled brush fires along the sides of the road, or my favorite - a roadside trash dump set ablaze. After driving through a few of these toxic smoke gauntlets, my eyes would be on "fire" and need a rinse. In contrast to all of this, the air in and around San Cristobal was sweet and rich. No doubt, due to all the lush flora pumping more oxygen into the atmosphere than any Vegas casino could ever wish. Even at an altitude of just under 7,000 ft, the air was sweet and nourishing to the lungs.

There was so much to like about San Cristobal; the wide clean streets, the amazing afternoon light, the Chamala indians. The Chamala people would come into the town everyday to sell their crafts. They were absolutely beautiful, stunning actually, the women always in their long black skirts and dark embroidered tops. I was intrigued. Looking at the map and asking a few questions, I had decided to take a smaller, less traveled, road north on my way to the the ruins in Palenque, traveling through some of the Chamala villages, rather than the two lane "highway". Taking the main road would get me to where I wanted to go in about three easy hours.

Leaving at about 8:00 in the morning, I had a taxi take me to the start of "this road". There were no signs or designated numbers for it on any of the maps - I just asked for the road to Tenejapa (Tenny-hapa). The cabbie stopped at the edge of town, pointed further up the road, and announced, "Tenejapa". When I told him I was going to Palenque, he offered what sounded like a pretty strong opinion about my choice. What I could understand was something about "loco" and "ocho horas". Now, I knew that at one point about 2/3's into the trip that I would have to jog over to the main road for the remaining 1/3, and there was the presence of a road on the map to do so. This must be what he was talking about, right?

The road was beautiful, I was getting deeper and deeper into the green hills. Then mountains. I was enjoying myself thoroughly. Putting along at 30-mph taking it all in; women walking along the road with bundles balanced atop their heads, little girls walking behind like miniature versions in their matching outfits. Men collecting firewood on their backs or on donkeys. I turned heads as I rode through makeshift markets. Waves were always returned. I came across a bizarre cemetery where the prominent grave mounds all had large wooden planks balanced on top, sometimes actual doors - even I could grasp the symbolism. The presence of the dirt mounds made all the graves look fresh, like something horrible had just passed through here, and the tall spindly crosses mixed within the grove of spindly trees made the whole place feel a bit ominous - which for a cemetery I can respect.

There were no road signs of any kind, anywhere, so every once in awhile I would stop and ask,
"Tenejapa?" to people walking along the street (where are they going? where did they come from?) and point up the road, to get some sort of conformation that I was going in the right direction. Then the asphalt stopped. I welcomed the idea of a dirt road and kept going. The road worsened. There was sudden increase in the number of "Y's" in the road, which meant asking every person I came across, "Tenejapa?", but at the same time was seeing less-and-less people. I started thinking, "either I am choosing correctly every time, or these people are very agreeable". Are these people were just telling me what I want to hear?

At the next Y in the road, I picked left - it look more traveled. A few minutes into it, the road started up, way up. There were a lot of ruts and potholes in the road but I managed to creep up in first gear. As I got to the top, to what I thought was a switchback to the right, was actually a dead-end. If that little surprise wasn't enough, I was shocked to see about ten kids at the road's end digging and picking into the side of the mountain. In the absolute middle of nowhere! Apparently, this road was built to access this "quarry", for, I what am guessing, was sand for cement.

I was surprised, but not as surprised as these kids were when they saw this beast of a bike with an astronaut looking fellow atop driving up right behind them. I circled around, waved and started back down the mountain. Now, my bike has enough power and torque to climb up the side of an office building, but when all that weight is transferred to the front wheel while going downhill on a dirt road things get a little dicey. I turned off the ABS brakes and feathered both front and rear brakes making sure not to lock up either tire, which would start an uncontrollable skid. I was going as slow as possible, trying to navigate around the larger ruts when the inevitable happened. The front tire lost it's hold on the gravel and washed out from under me, and when she goes, she goes fast and hard. Damnit!

I picked myself up, hit the engine kill switch, and turned around to look up the mountain. About 100 yards up, at the crest of the road stood 10 kids standing and watching silently. I quickly thrust both fists high above my head in "celebratory defeat". There was an instant burst of laughter and shouts from my audience of 10, as their arms also pumped high into the air. I laughed, and waved for them to come done. Waved again, and they all rushed down towards me. I was happy to find out that a couple of the "kids" were actually small-statured men. They helped me pick up the bike and hold it while I got back on. We all did it again about another 50' down the hill.

I don't want to pat myself on the back too much, but I am guessing I gave those kids (and men) something to talk about at the dinner table later that night(?)

Enough was enough, I backtracked from which I came to a place in the road where I could cut over to the main road. I rolled into Palenque almost exactly eight hours after I left the taxi driver. The next day I enjoyed the ruins... almost as much as I enjoyed getting there.

(Palenque is one the three most significant Mayan city sites. The other two being Tikal (Guatemala) and Copan in (Honduras))


  1. Cool photos Mike - I hope this finds you and travel doing well! Continue to keep up the updates - it's fantastic seeing and reading about your experiences. Talk to you soon!

  2. Hey Mike -

    Great photos, too bad seeing the bike on its side. I'd love to read that story. Write around the world is a wonderful site. I liked reading about what is happening in Guatemala.

    Stay safe

    Paul & Christine

  3. LOL! Dude, you should have taken me up on those trials lessons.

  4. Love the picture of the crew around your bike! The bike looks enormous..more monster than machine. Good that you laughed at yourself and encouraged others to laugh with you. I'm sure you WERE talked about at a few dinner tables!