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Plans seem to change daily on this trip. Maybe its not so much that plans change but that they aren’t really plans, more a rough outline of what you expect you are going to do. Back in Palenque we met some very cool Canadians from New Brunswick that were on a similar, albeit longer (jealous), sojourn. Ryan and Janelle have the first rig that I’ve envied on the road. Generally speaking I wouldn’t trade the van for anything else we’ve seen so far even considering the electrical problems. But I have to admit, they have a bitchin setup with their roof top, fold away tent that transforms their somewhat normal looking 4-Runner into a camping machine.

Straight from the Cazadores label

We first chatted with them after returning from the ruins and over a cocktail later on. The next day we compared battle vehicles and talked about stops so far and the next one down the road. We were heading to Mahahual or maybe Laguna Bacalar while they were going to fang it straight to Belize. Our 2:30 departure made it impossible to even make it to the state of Quintana Roo, much less to the Mexican Riveria coastline. We spent the night at a campground near Escarcega. It turned out to be an excellent stop as the owner showed up sometime around 10:30 a took us on a jungle hike to see “cat-monkeys”, throngs of deer, including one that was more mascot than wild animal, and the rest of the property. He and I climbed the tallest and rickety-est deer stand ever constructed. It was incredibly unnerving as the whole thing swayed in the wind with our 350lb~ish combined weight gave its 35 feet of Mexican engineering all it could handle.

The next morning we rolled out at the reasonable hour of 11:30 only to be derailed in Chetumal by the need to track down some groceries, supplies and most importantly propane refills. By the time we had managed all the errands it was pushing dark-thirty again and we opted to track down the campground just north of Chetumal. Over an uninspiring and relatively expensive platter of not-really-paella, Ryan and Janelle rolled into the campground, so at least we aren’t the only ones who can’t go more than a couple hours a day. We camped next door and set up a massive combined kitchen, tranquillo-ness and general laziness caused a one night stopover to turn into a two night stay and Emilie made us all crepes the second morning. We left Emilie in Chetumal and finally slogged it to Mahahual where we met our dive instructor and set up the full, proper, camp for the first time since the Pacific Coast.

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Palenque

The ruins at Palenque are incredible, not better or worse than Tonina, but definitely larger in land mass and quantity of structures, although Tonina is far more imposing especially from a distance. Hidden amongst the dense trees and vines, Palenque is composed of several groups of progressively larger complexes and structures ascending up the jungle hillside. The incessant wail of the howler monkeys gives the place an eerie haunted feeling as if the Mayan gods have been disturbed and are watching your every step, ready to release some mythical horror conjured up to keep their civilization in line and then regurgitated and twisted by the Hollywood machine. In Palenque you can see amazing examples of the way the Mayans redirected and channeled water, mastering the rivers and streams to protect their settlements and feed their agriculture. They incredible visages of ancient efforts and technology considering it was 1500 years prior; modern day Mexico still seems to struggle with controlling water and protecting their civilizations. Incredibly, the guidebook suggests that just a fraction of Palenque has been excavated. Unfortunately it doesn’t expand on the statement; it is possible that it just means the existing ruin complexes, since it is obvious that much of the visible ruins still lay under jungle and earth. But it is easy to imagine considerably more ruin structures snaking their way up the jungle ridglines, buried beneath hundreds of years of growth. Here, like at Tonina it is hard to fathom the reason for abandoning such sophisticated structures in favor of the wood thatch and dirt floor confines that the Mayans retreated to. While western civilization and archaeological academia were unaware of Palenque and for a longer period Tonina, the local indigenous cultures knew of their existence, it is thought continually since their abandonment. Why not return to an ancestral home and rebuild rather than toil in less modern housing that provides little more than daily sustenance? I can only surmise that religion played some massive role in this decision: most likely, some faulty superstition that would be replaced centuries later by the equally faulty religious superstitions of the Judeo Christian control complex of the conquistadors.

I am wondering if we will get “ruined-out,” since we are planning on visiting Tulum, Coba, Chichen Itza, Uxmal, and Xcalak, but we are going to take a break for some diving first. As always there are a few more pics from Palenque over on Flickr.

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We finally got some rain. You would think after 3+ months in a tropical locale that we would have been rained on at least once. We’ve driven through spots that obviously had rain moments before we got there and we have heard stories of downpours the night before but in our whole adventure not so much as a drop had touched La Bestia, the van’s new name, gracias para Emilie.

The Mayabel, Palenque is the perfect mix of hostel, cabañas, restaurant, bar, pool, hotel and  RV Park inside the gates of Palenque. It was a fabulous place to stay outside of the super grumpy order taker woman in the restaurant, let’s just say that she and I did not see eye to eye on customer service. Emilie has taken to camping in her tent under or near the awning in order to partake in movie night or to cook and kick it with her super cool new Americano amigos. After a good night of meeting some new international friends from Mexico, Belgique, and Canada we retired to bed eager to explore the Palenque ruins.

Sometime in the middle of the night the howler monkeys ceased their monstrous moaning   and drops of rain started pinging the metal casing of the van. It was slow at first but the frequency of the sound of water against the tin echo intensified. I finally willed myself awake; fighting off the night’s libations to run through the checklist of possible problems that rain might cause us that were flashing through my mind. All the boxes were closed and locked, we were parked level so that the water wouldn’t come pouring through the new air conditioning as it had last time we washed her, the various tables and chairs that make up our camp were securely locked beneath the awning.  Only Emilie’s tent crossed my mind as a possible issue, she had staked out a square plot a few meters from the van and probably would be better off under the awning but I figured that she could take care of herself and if she needed to move to stay dry there was no sense in both of us getting wet.

About 5:30 in the morning we jolted awake to a loud pop, both a physical and audible collision. Something had just hit the van. The side door, previously closed and locked, had come slightly unhinged; sucking in the cool humid air. I scrambled to find some clothes so I could manage some sense out of the situation, still groggy and nowhere near cognative. Emilie, in her thick French accent started calling my name. I wrestled the door open to see just her head peering out of her tent under a mess of metal, plastic-canvas tarp, and the remnants of our camp. We had neglected to lower one side of the awning resulting in the nights accumulation of water festering in the awning until the weight of it became too much and the awning exploded sending the water cascading onto Emilie’s tent and pieces of the wreckage everywhere.

Natalie yelled for Emile to climb in the van and the three of us spent the next couple hours pretending to sleep in our cramped quarters, totally preoccupied with fixing our newest travesty. In the morning everything was soaked and the rain continued to come. Emilie and Natalie spent the day hanging out our sundries under the various unoccupied palapas while I repaired the awning. An incredible amount of white duct tape later and amazingly the awning is fully functional. We spent the rest of the day gathering semi-dry wood and meticulously maintaining a smoldering fire until we used a little gasoline to hasten the matter. The awning isn’t exactly good as new but I’m betting that it makes back to San Diego.

Oddly the position of the center rack supports jumped about four inches, out of the eight, only two moved. The sliding door, which has become progressively more difficult to open and close, suddenly opens and closes with a lot more ease, meaning that there was a tremendous amount of torque on the van that was somehow related to the awning. Weird.

The trip has been hard on the van. The old girl has all kinds of new issues; most of them created by the various topes, potholes and hazards of Mexican roads. I’m struggling with what I want to do with her when we get home. Right now, I’m focused on purchasing a mid-90s diesel sprinter, converting it to 4X4 and pillaging the van for the stuff that is still usefull and building a new adventure-mobile from scratch… but that changes daily.

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Aqua Azul & Misol Ha

Cascada Misol-Ha

Advertised mostly as day trips for those in San Cristobal or Palenque who have exhausted or tired of the local sites, the waterfalls of Agua Azul and Misol Ha make fabulous overnight excursions for those of us with our own transportation and accommodations. Agua Azul is a several kilometer complex of continually cascading falls that originate in a spectacular and inaccessible canyon – so inaccessible that it was virtually impossible to get a good photo of it – you’ll just have to take my word for it. Conversely, Misol Ha is a single 35-meter drop with a trail that wraps behind it and a rear-view cave that is eerily similar to Silver Falls in Oregon.

Agua Azul Falls

We stayed the night in a somewhat exposed and seemingly sketchy parking lot at Agua Azul with Emilie camped beneath the awning. Sadly, sometime between Tonina and here we had our first non-breakdown problem of the trip, our tarp was stolen from the roof, most likely in the Bodega parking lot as we re-supplied and Emilie shopped for her Kinder Bueno fix.

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At least that is the way the guidebook starts off its description. Tonina is one of those mystical Mayan ruin sites that no one ever sees. If it were four more hours from Palenque it would be a national monument and a mainstay on the tourist circuit. The Lonely Planet devotes little more than a page to one of the more imposing and impressive monuments of Mayan civilization. The archaeology guides tell another story, one of vastly more historically significant artifacts and importance to the rise and fall of the Mayan empire. We got our first sight of the pyramid complex the night before from the back window of a roadside comedor that didn’t have any food but let us use their sanitarios. I’m not going to make a judgment either way, Tonina really being my first exposure to true prehistoric

civilization ruins, but if Palenque is more impressive than we are even more stoked than I thought. We spent the rest of the day exploring the ruins and taking pictures with a Mayan group that was running the road between for the Virgin de Guadalupe, Emilie is a big hit with the locals. You can check out the rest of the pictures over on Flickr.

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Emilie’s Mexico guidebook is the 1994, edition number 7, version of the Lonely Planet. Her version details many more camping locales than our more recent addition, version 10. Version 11 came out in October of this year. The construction of a more comfortable Mexican tourist infrastructure has the Lonely Plant team replacing the lower dollar camping spots and hostels with hotels and ecotourism complexes. Rancho San Nicholas in San Cristobal de las Casas made it into the 94 edition but was no where to be found 15 years later. Its hospitality towards the RV scene warranted its inclusion in the Mexico Camping book, which was the sole reason we ended up there.

You can’t travel through Chiapas without seeing the EZLN signs announcing the autonomy of Zapatista sympathetic villagers claiming autonomy from the federal Mexican government. For those of you unfamiliar with the Zapatista rebellion, read up here, and for the latest from EZLN and Subcomandante Marcos check this out. While it is not uncommon to pass through rebel communities the tourist track rarely enters the heart of the guerilla territory. The 1994 occupation of San Cristobal and the surrounding towns most likely altered many lives and changed the course of Chiapas forever. Two such victims were most likely an American couple that had purchased a ranch half way between the Mayan ruins of Tonina and Mexico highway 199. The Americans had selected this particular plot of fertile Chiapan valley as the perfect climate for the Macadamia plantation that they had always dreamed of. The picturesque valley ranch, named Esmeralda, employed many local townspeople and laborers from nearby Ocosingo (whom we met and gave rides to) while providing supplemental income through camping and cabañas for self styled amateur archaeologists.

The reason that Rancho Esmeralda wasn’t in our guidebook isn’t because Lonely Planet is abandoning the camping and hostel circuit. The real reason is that Rancho Esmeralda has been closed for at least 10 years; the owners either scared off or run off by the Zapatista uprising. Either way our venture down a dirt road to the now rebel encampment was met by more than a few curious stares from local villagers who haven’t seen a rig like ours in a decade, if ever.

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