It was hard to believe this place wasn’t on the “gringo trail”, it looked like a still frame from Disney’s Jungle Book fairytale where Balu might start singing at any moment. But, before reading about it on iOverlander, we’d never heard of it before. At the end of our long drive into the state of Chiapas, which turned out to be an all day affair, we were chasing the sun and praying the gate wouldn’t be locked over an hour past closing time.
As you guessed, we got lucky and even caught the last bits of daylight in the canyon of El Aguacero. Best of all, we had the place all to ourselves because of it! We walked up the cool, shallow stream, coaxing Wyatt to dip his paws in, too. After a little persuading he realized it was a whole lot of fun and started racing around in the water, chasing us and the golden leaves he found floating on top. The water slipped out of the jungle above, cascading down the rocks and onto our heads as we climbed up to see more. We all splashed and played under the waterfalls as we walked along the stream and then worked our way back up the 700+ steps out of the canyon. As we climbed up the stairs, the sounds from the jungle grew louder and louder, crickets and insects so noisy you couldn’t keep a conversation and nearly had to cover your ears! Thankfully they didn’t go on for too long and we rested, free of insect noises and dogs barking, alone in the park.
The following day we woke up early to challenge the stairs back into the canyon once more and at 9am we were already on the road, pulling up to our first toll booth of the day. Typically the tolled highways are known as the “safer routes” but we usually avoided them, opting instead for the free, more scenic highways and we’d never run into any trouble. This time as we approached a set of toll booths hundreds of people were gathered around while a few police cars were parked in the distance. We slowed down as we approached, trying to decipher what was going on, but before we knew it our van was surrounded by rioters. The actual booth had been taken over, as well, and it was crammed full of people. From within, one angry woman barked at us the new price of the toll: double the posted amount. As we rifled to find enough money to pay the fee and get the heck outta there people began rocking the van side to side, while others hit wooden sticks into the palms of their hand. We barked back telling them to keep their hands off our vehicle and paid the fee. Dane revved the engine a bit and those in front slowly dispersed, some holding their threatening stares, some still smacking their sticks, others laughing. Thankfully this was our only negative experience with upset indigenous peoples trying to capture the attention of their government. In many areas they are still fighting for their land or retribution and for decades have been taken advantage of or neglected by their country.
By afternoon we arrived in San Cristobal de las Casas, a town famous for its colourful colonial houses, in the hills of Chiapas. As we walked up the main street to the church that overlooks the town we passed by boutiques, restaurants and cafes. Signs for chocolate, espresso and vegetarian fare were all around and so were several other vans! Our senses were on overload with all the delicious scents in the air, but we had a lot of ground to cover and before the espresso and chocolate shops wooed us any further we were back in the van, headed for the countryside.
We spent the evening at Tonina Kayab, nestled in between their rustic cabanas, making dinner over a fire while their horses and cattle grazed nearby. At the farm next door, Wyatt found himself a friend, another young hound and they wrestled until the daylight was gone and we called him inside.
A little known and little visited ruins site, Tonina rests in farm country on a hill overlooking the valleys surrounding it. Even though it is not as beautifully preserved, it was incredibly impressive and we got to explore more of it than most other sites, with fewer people around, too! We rambled through its eerie labyrinth, the Palace of the Underworld, which lies within a cold, dark stone structure. We climbed up the steep, shallow steps of the highest temple-pyramid, trying not to look down for fear of tumbling to our deaths, and took in the view of the surrounding valley that once belonged to this people. We toured their houses, walked through their pelota (ball) court and winced at the thought of all the sacrifices made there. The people of Tonina were a pretty fierce bunch and took over many other settlements, including the much more well-known site of Palenque.
By the time the afternoon heat was setting in, we’d already left the ruins and driven up the dusty road to Agua Azul. We walked up the boardwalk with the tourist shops on one side selling handicrafts and t-shirts, and the aqua blue river on the other, with its series of cascading waterfalls and swimming pools. We started at a small pool complete with our own private waterfall, then moved on to the big pool, swimming across just so we could jump out from behind the falls. It was so refreshing.
On our way to our campsite we squeezed in a stop in at Misol-Ha, where the water pours out of the jungle 30 meters overhead.
Then we hustled over to our camp site nestled in the jungle beside Palenque. Noises erupted: howler monkeys, crickets, neighboring dogs. But it’s the quiet things that someone with a young pup worries about most, so we kept Wyatt close for fear of big cats, poisonous insects, frogs, spiders…
In the morning we were up when the sun broke through the trees and were parking our van as the staff were still arriving. We entered the site with the first rush of tourists, including a Swiss couple we had met the evening before at Misol-Ha. We quickly explored the beautifully excavated areas with manicured lawns and roped off zones, the tombs inside and then the less-excavated areas within the jungle where the regular-folk once lived. We wondered out loud what the grounds might have looked like back then. We stood in awe watching the trees grow out of what used to be a family’s home.
In one week we had been busy chasing waterfalls and ruins. We’d been to three sites: Monte Alban on the “white mountain”, Tonina atop a hill in the countryside and now Palenque nestled in the jungle. All three amazed us with their unique beauty and left us in wonder over their very mysterious traditions. We hiked through El Aguacero, cooled down at Agua Azul and met new friends at Misol-Ha. Although exhausted from this push, we still had to get out of the jungle and exit Mexico within a few days and we still had all of the Yucatan Peninsula to see… This would mean lots of kilometres for Diego the van and lunches prepared from the back on the straight stretches!