The trip to Palenque was about the most miserable of my life. Ivan warned us that it was nine hours on a bus on the windiest, bumpiest roads in Mexico, and so we upgraded to a tour that included stops at two waterfalls – and transport in a van.
Sounds good, right? A van over a public bus?
I repeat: no.
The van was packed full. There were no seatbelts, no AC, and it set out at 6am. Ivan once tried to count the speedbumps between San Cristobal and Palenque, but got bored at 300. And that’s not including the potholes, the tight corners, and the altitude.
I was sitting between Ian and Brenda and we’d all taken Dramamine to stop ourselves getting motion sickness, especially since Brenda, Ivan and I may have been a tad hungover after two buckets of margarita and two glasses of wine at dinner the night before. Also, Ian had asked Ivan to wake him up at five – and his room was between mine and Brenda’s. And he’d prepared himself for his 5am wakeup. I know this, because I was already awake and listening to him banging around and making his Ian noises when I heard Ivan knock on his door at five.
So we were hungover, sleepy and drug-induced drowsy, but we were playing an involuntary game of corners that was only interrupted by the frequent speedbumps, popping in our ears as we gained or lost altitude, and dips into potholes. It took all our energy just to stay upright and on our seats. FOR THREE HOURS AT SIX AM. Our first stop was at the weirdest breakfast buffet ever: an open-air tent where all the servers wore surgical masks. It’s also worth mentioning that my stomach had finally got REALLY, REALLY sick of me abusing it, and was kicking off a revolt that would last several days. So I watched, hungry but knowing I couldn’t eat, as Ian polished off plate after plate of breakfast with his long-nailed, fluttery hands.
When we got to the first waterfall, I was hungry, shitty, tired and nauseous. I couldn’t have cared less. It was pretty – so what? I’ve seen pretty waterfalls before. I was prepared to enjoy nothing but getting 45 minutes away from that fucking van.
And then there was the snake.
I’d had a wander and taken a few pictures of the falls, and was preparing to park myself in the café by Ivan and clutch my stomach until we left. My diet at this point was down to unflavoured chips and flat coke (again), and, oddly, even that wasn’t doing me any favours. Mexico as a country is not a fan of vegetables unless they’re firey hot or ground into tortillas. I don’t think you’d want to be a vegetarian here.
I was walking back from the unused swimming hole to the café when I saw a little boy crouched beside what I initially thought must be a really big toy snake (like 3 metres of toy snake? What was I thinking!). It was a green that couldn’t possibly be real… and a snake couldn’t possibly be curled in the bole of a tree that had a SOUVENIER STAND on the other side of it.
And then the snake moved.
It was eating a frog. Because of the way it was screaming, I thought it was a bird until I looked at my photos. The frog-bird disappeared slowly down that yawning green throat, and I was transfixed. The little kid and I stood there, me taking photos and him just staring, until the frog was swallowed up. By this point a crowd of locals had gathered. The snake swallowed, paused, and then shot across the grass. The crowd screamed in unison, and people ran like startled birds, fleeing in all directions. The snake, quicker than I would’ve thought possible, slid over the grass and twined itself up a tree.
The other waterfall was cool – you could walk behind it, blah blah. The van never stopped sucking. After a millennia of awfulness we arrived in Palenque – and I realized our “hotel” was a hippie jungle commune of awesome.
Hotel Panchan would be more at home on a Pacific island than in Mexico. It’s a serious of random, independent buildings dotted throughout the jungle and criss-crossed by a stream. There’s an open-air restaurant, nothing has windows, and about ten different dogs amble around at all times. There’s a body-modifier on-site, live music every night, and the biggest collection of unwashed hippies you’re likely to see outside of Burning Man. It’s the kind of place that’s already preparing for its December 21st end-of-the-world party.
So, basically, for normal humans it was loud, and hot, and humid. And amazing. The howler monkeys screamed all night over the strains of Eminem, and a water pump outside my room sounded like someone vacuuming in the next room ALL NIGHT LONG. Combined with the mosquito-netting windows, it really made for a restful sleep. Also not helping was Ivan’s caution to check our blankets because of that one time someone found a scorpion IN THEIR BED.
It was so humid that I woke up in the middle of the night and my pillow was damp with my own sweat. We were sticky the whole time we were there. The jungle is amazing, but there’s only so much I’m willing to do while sticky.
The ruins at Palenque, however, were definitely my ancient highlight – far better than Chichen Itza, in my opinion. They’re set deep in a clearing in the jungle, and there are far fewer tourists. You can also go inside one of the main structures, and walk around in ancient stone bedrooms (with ancient stone beds and ancient stone toilets), while listening to the howler monkeys growl in the jungle, sounding more like a dozen jaguars fighting than anything to do with a monkey.
Because of my stomach, this was the hardest day physically. After my chips in the van, I’d managed a small dinner and gone straight to bed at 6pm the night before, and that dinner had spent the night making itself felt. I figured I could go to the ruins because there was literally nothing that could possibly be left inside me, but two days without food doesn’t marry well with three hours climbing ruins in the blazing hot sun. I walked slower that day than I’ve ever walked in my life. I also knew the heat and humidity would be dehydrating me, but I was too scared to drink much water in case my body decided it had something to eject.
Still, I’m glad I did it – and glad I made the effort (with a couple of stops to sit down (although I still made it up faster than Ian, who was puffing and blowing and mopping sweat from hmself all day)) to climb the temple of the cross and look out across the jungle. The view was incredible.
Luckily the next day we were on a bus for nine hours (has anyone ever felt lucky for a nine hour bus ride before?) so I could sit still, watch Camp Rock 2 in Spanish for the second time (oh, Joe Jones… I hate that I love you), and drink my hoarded supply of Vitamin Water.