Well, we had our first mishap with the van, in route from San Cristobal de Las Casas to Palenque. The road was narrow, hilly, curvy, and infested with topes and semi-trucks. Semiremolques, as they state in Spanish on their rear doors. Slow going in other words. I must’ve passed dozens of, or at least a few, semiremloques — even some doble semiremloques — in route. Then came the one after a few.
The road straightened. Briefly. I saw my shot. And I took it, pushed the pedal to the carpet. Pushed it real good. The van accelerated with the gumption of a lawnmower. I had almost passed the semiremolque when, in my periphery, I saw an indigenous Mayan (presumably) mother grab the back of her son’s camisa, to prevent him from dashing in front of our van (presumably).
I flinched. Swiveled a meter. The steel bolts that jutted a few inches from the semiremolque’s wheel shredded our van’s rim and tire. It was like that famous chariot scene in Ben Hur. Except no one was injured or killed.
We arrived a few hours and one cuss word later (Andrea said it was only the second time she’s heard me cuss; I wonder what the first time was…). Not to the ruins but to the campground. Maya Belle. A welcome reprieve after a fairly stressful van ride. A jungle oasis replete with a pool, blended drinks, tezmecal (sort of a Mayan sauna), and tropical birds and animals. Tent campers, van dwellers, and cabana crashers all share the facilities, which sowed seamlessly into the surrounding jungle canopy. My favorite campsite to date. One of my favorite locales overall.
Lizards and Toucans and Monkeys, Oh My!
We’d played a few YouTubes of howler monkeys before we arrived. We didn’t want our kids — especially Everett, who is going through a bit of a “everything in the world is out to kill me” phase — to be scared. Or at least not frightened. I don’t mind scared. But I’m also not winning any Father Of The Year awards.
Howler monkeys project one of, if not the (depends on what scientist you ask), loudest vocalizations of any animal on the planet. And unlike, say, a lion, which roars infrequently, howler monkeys howl frequently. Like they’re just yelling their conversations at each other. Normal stuff. Like how to eat that bug or where to toss that poop and what not. It’s loud. Louder than the video below. And it’s frightening, err, fun to hear the volume crescendo as the troop nears — they can be heard up to three miles away.
We also saw a handful of scarlet macaws, dozens of lizards and iguanas, and one keel-billed toucan during our visit. I followed the toucan, which looks like a flying banana from the ground, from tree to tree, but unfortunately, as I learned, it will not lead you to the fruity taste that shows….
Palenque will summon your inner Indiana. Thick, like baseball bat thick, vines gnarl down from the cedar, mahogany, and sapodilla treetops to the moss- and fern-covered floor. Loud (sound-wise) monkeys and loud (color-wise) macaws fly between the vines and trees. Iguanas roam the grounds. Candles glow from skulls. Arrows shoot from walls! Evil cult warriors chase you through the jungle to steal back that emerald statue you stole (which they stole from the nearby village first)! You will have those fantasies while here. You just hope they don’t distract you from learning about the site.
Palenque rose to power between 600 and 800 AD, becoming one of the most prominent Mayan cities, alongside Calakmul, Tikal, Chichen Itza (where we visited a couple days later). It’s glory didn’t last long, however. It, like the Mayan civilization in general, declined in the late 800s and early 900s. The jungle reclaimed the territory shortly thereafter. The Spanish conquistadors never discovered it. It was rediscovered in the late 1700s, but it wasn’t until the mid-1900s when Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) began vast excavations.
Archeologists have restored a lot here — included Pakal’s tomb, one of the most significant archeological finds of the 20th century, the American equivalent of King Tut’s tomb — yet they estimate only 25% has been uncovered (some say as little as 10%). The jungle has engulfed the rest. Thus, there’s still treasure to be found, still time to summon your inner Indiana! You can even buy fedoras (but no whips) at the entrance.