Archive for August, 2008

Road Trip to Palenque

Sunday, August 17th, 2008

Wednesday, July 30, we left on a road trip to Palenque with LA and Susan, some friends of ours from S/V Genesis. The four of us ferried over to Cancun and rented a car, then drove to Campeche. The hotels in the historical downtown part of Campeche were full, so we wound up staying at one just outside of the historical district, but still within walking distance. In the very center of the city is a large square, dominated by a magnificent cathedral on the north side and flanked by colonial-era buildings. Campeche was founded by the Spanish in 1540 atop the already existing Mayan city of Ahk’iin Pech, of which little evidence remains (Ahk’iin Pech is reported to have had 3000 or more houses and various monuments before the arrival of the Spanish). We had a nice dinner at La Vieha de Los Arcos, overlooking the square. The following morning we had breakfast and toured around town taking pictures before heading on down the road to Villahermosa.

Campeche is on the Gulf, or western side of the Yucatan peninsula, so we took a road the followed the coast, passing through interesting towns and scenic waterfront along the way. One of the most memorable towns we passed through was Champoton. Once we passed through Ciudad Del Carmen the road left the coast and entered the state of Tabasco, of which Villahermosa is the capital. Villahermosa is a very large, modern and busy city. An interesting factiod is that Villahermosa was captured and occupied by U.S. forces after the Battle of Tabasco during the Mexican-American War. The main attraction for us at Villahermosa was the Parque La Venta, where there are many artifacts from the Olmec culture. The Olmec civilization is currently recognized as the oldest on the American continent, flourishing between 1400 and 400 B.C. Little is known about them, but there is evidence that they were using the magnetic compass prior to 1000 B.C. and there is evidence of a writing system dates to at least 900 B.C. Other evidence suggests the Olmec may have originated the Mesoamerican Long Count calendar and the concept of zero, and this was passed on to the Mayans, who are most often credited with their origination (this is still under a good bit of debate). The most well-known Olmec artifacts are the colossal stone heads, some of which are almost 11 feet tall and weigh more than 20 tons. Parque La Venta has several of these heads, as well as many other stone, jade and clay artifacts from the Olmec site called La Venta. The more delicate of the artifacts are displayed in the park’s museum, but all of the larger stone artifacts are situated within an outdoor jungle area of the park. This was a very interesting stop.

From Villahermosa we travelled to San Cristobal de Las Casas, which is in the state of Chiapas. The city is in the mountains and has an elevation of 6890 feet above sea level. The region around San Cristobal has been occupied by ancestors of the present-day Tzotzil and Tzeltal peoples for thousands of years and the Spanish founded a settlement here in 1528, which grew to become the present city of San Cristobal de Las Casas. Our drive from Villahermosa to San Cristobal was very interesting, as we ascended from near sea level into the Sierra Madre de Chiapas mountains. The highest point in the Sierra Madre range is 13,845 feet, though I expect we never got much above 8000 feet on our route. This area of Mexico is basically alpine forest and closely resembles parts of the Rocky Mountains in the U.S. San Cristobal is a very pretty city with a population of around 140,000. It is a major tourism destination for Europeans and Mexicans, but doesn’t seem to be too popular with Americans. LA and Susan weren’t quite up to speed our first day there due to the altitude, so we spent an extra night. This was the first time I’ve been cold since we got to the Bahamas in January. At this altitude the days are pleasantly warm, but the nights are rather cool.

From San Cristobal we drove to Palenque, one of the most spectacular Mayan archeological sites in Mexico. There is a town named Palenque which is a few miles from the archeological site and several rustic resorts along the road to the ruins. We stayed at a very charming resort named the Maya Bell. On the way from San Cristobal the road dropped from 7000 feet to around 2000 feet and the mountainsides changed from alpine forest to rain forest jungle. It was a very spectacular drive and we stopped at some beautiful waterfalls named Agua Azul (blue water).

The Mayan site of Palenque was abandoned by the Maya for several centuries prior to the arrival of the Spanish. Archaeologists estimate that only about 5% of the site has been uncovered, but the part that has been uncovered is quite vast. There is a very large central area that contains the palace and major temples and there are trails leading off through the jungle to other temples and buildings that have yet to be excavated and reconstructed. I found the ruins out in the jungle to be the most fascinating. After we toured the ruins, we drove to the water falls at Misol-Ha, which are about 90 feet high. While we were at the resort, we saw a camping trailer pull in. It was pulled by a Dodge pickup with Alabama plates, so we stopped by for a chat. His name is Robert and his wife’s name is Jeanie. He is originally from West Point, Mississippi and we spent quite a bit of time chatting. It was like a Mississippi ex-pat reunion since Nancy and I, as well as LA and Susan all hail from Mississippi.

We had originally planned to drive from Palenque across the southern part of the Yucatan to Chetumal, but Robert came to Palenque
that way and said we would have more than 100 miles of road construction. We opted for plan B which was to return to Campeche for a night and then back to Cancun via the same road we had traveled on the way out. When we arrived back in Campeche there was a large stage set up next to the cathedral on the central square and crowds of people were listening to big-band jazz. One of the shopkeepers told me it was some kind of televised special. We had dinner at the Iguana Azul (Blue Lizard) and listened to the music on our way back to the hotel.

All in all, it was a very wonderful trip. We traveled through the states of Quintana Roo, Yucatan, Campeche, Tabasco and Chiapas. We really liked the diversity of scenery between the Caribbean coast, the Gulf coast, the alpine highlands and the rainforest lowlands. We have lots of pictures to put in the Picture Gallery page, so be sure to check them out. They should be posted within a couple of days from this log entry.