We arrive in Palenque at 8am and immediately notice a difference. More travellers in a confined space than we have seen since we got to Mexico. We are on the well travelled tourist route now.
After standing around looking dazed for 10 minutes we make out way to the Collectivo- the minibus that runs back and forth from Palenque to the ruins, stopping on the way at El Panchan. There is a mix of camping and cabanas there and it seems to be the place to go.
It is a little disappointing at first. It is low season and the place looks run down and jaded. We walk our way round the site looking for somewhere that stands out and end up, at the end of a long trail, talking to an american woman who rather pointedly sends us back the way we came. We discover she came here for 3 days and ended up staying for 6 years. There is a glint in her eye that I suspect comes from her being a bit crazy. We agree that it is probably not a good idea to stay in Palenque for too long!
We end up in an unoccupied shelter with a roof, some where to sling our hammocks and a locker that is just about still on its hinges. The place needs a coat of paint and a little love but for 25 pesos a night I am not complaining.
In Tanzania I got into the habit of sweeping up every morning. It is amazing how quickly dust, leaves and bits of food accumulate and you don´t want anything that´s going to attract the ants. I make a brush from some ferns and get to work.
In Coatapec I saw the biggest spiders I had ever seen but they are barely half the size of the black monster that scurries out of the wood pile. I jump 2 feet in the air and then reach for my camera. So its not just the ants we need to sweep away!!
El Pancha is right on the edge of a National park and we´re basically staying in Equatorial rain forest. Ok so we have cold showers and there is a mexican-italian restaurant 2 minutes walk away. Turn right at the toilets, straight past the hammock shelter by the swimming pool (if only! its full of leaves), take another left at the bamboo thicket. Or is it right then left. Is that the path or is it this one. In the dark it takes us a couple of attempts to find our way back.
We sling our hammocks and I get to work converting what looks like an old milk pail into a stove we can cook up dinner on. I have brought some metal grill with me for just this purpose. The stove works great but I have not reckoned on the humidity and the dampness of the wood we can collect. We struggle to get the fire going and in the end I decide a little help is needed. A quick trip to town to pick up food supplies and a plastic bottle of petrol. Yep nothing´s going to stop me getting that fire going! While I´m at it I torch the ants nest currently under construction in the middle of the shelter. (Kids! Remember petrol ignites explosively! Don´t try this at home unless you know what you´re doing or your with someone who does and always proceed with caution.)
By nightfall we have our camp nicely laid out, we´ve eaten our first meal and drunk enough tequila to take the edge off. My Hennessey Hammock hangs in the air like an alien spaceship with a stealth shield. I´ve road tested it in Africa and the UK and its comfortable self contained biosphere is a welcoming and comfortable home, safe from ants, insects and the cold just before dawn.
Martin has the perfect hammock for hanging out on the beach but unfortunately its a bit thin for comfortable sleeping and he ends up in one of the cabanas with a bit of a bruised head.
The next day we walk through the National Park to the site of the ruins. The reason everyone comes to Palenque. They are worth the visit but even at 8am there are coach loads of amercian and german tourists walking around the site and when we find a path that seems to head up into the forest we take the opportunity to get away from the crowds.
Wasps as big as your thumb. Small ants, big ants, strange insects, lizards, fungi, fruiting trees. We walk up hill for maybe two and half hours. The path is well trodden and there is plenty of evidence of human traffic- coke cans and plastic bottles mainly, but for the entire time we see no one else. This is what we came for and we make the most of the isolation and the exotica and at the top of the hill we break out of the park into a mixed plantation of corn, coffee, sugar cane, banana and coconut and are rewarded with a stunning view over rolling green hills, forests and a small village. Six Kites- some kind of raptor anyway- soar and swoop over head and we disturb a long green snake that runs for cover as soon as we approach. We stop and eat our lunch, pleased with ourselves for making this off road excursion.
It only takes us half an hour to get back to the ruins and we spend the rest of the afternoon wandering around, taking pictures and discussing the pros and cons of the restoration project underway. Some of the temples have been cleaned with water jets and the terraces have been reconstructed and the main site is now cleared of jungle and replaced with a plant that serves the same function as lawn grass. In other parts of the site the jungle still wraps its roots and tendrils around the stone and you feel that perhaps this is a little bit more like the place would have looked when the first europeans visited it.
WE visit the museum– which is worth it just to see the amazing sarcophagous that they dug out of one of the temples- then we head back to the campsite. At the entrance to the park we cross a bridge and underneath we are amazed to see hundreds of cat fish taking cover from the heat of the sun.
We are joined in our little compound in the evening by a couple of americans. GT owns a hotel in Costa Rica and John is travelling down with him to take over the running of the restaurant. He´s a baker by trade and has all his equipment with him. We are wary at first but a shared tequila and a smoke put us all at ease. We go up a meal and then head to Don Mucho´s, the mexican-italian restaurant that is the center of night life in El Pancha. Make that the only night life. It´s a bit weird. A band play Bueno vista social club covers and other music that´s obviously popular with the tourists and one hundred candle lit tables cater for the crowds. It´s low season but the place looks pretty full. There´s little mingling though. Everyone seems isolated in their own little bubble and we do the English thing and lean on the bar, in our own little bubble.
After breakfast the next day we swallow our pride and book a tour of the waterfalls. It seems the easiest way to go and its hot and hard to think. Aqua Nazul is well worth it. On the way in we pass through a EZLN, Zapatista checkpoint. The waterfall and the route to the top are lined with restaurants and market stalls catering for the tourista but the falls themselves are spectacular. Cascades of white water wash into blue lagoons and we strip off and jump in. It´s a lot more fun than it looks from out of the water. The currents are strong and you can stick your head under a cascade and get your back massaged.
After 45 minutes of paddling around we sit in relaxed and comfortable silence. We´re both thinking the same thing. We want more swimming and more beach. We decide its time to take the plunge and head over to Tulum so back in Palenque we book our tickets before heading to camp for the night. We eat at Don Mucho´s and then finish off the tequila with our American friends.
In the morning while we make breakfast we get a rare treat. The Howler monkeys that have been singing to each other every night we´ve been here show up for a feast in one of the near by trees. Four of them make there way from tree to tree while a gang of us look up and try to take pictures.
Next stop Tulum.