The Crossing from Guatemala
One balmy night I found myself in a speedboat across the Rio Dulce at 2:30 am to catch a bus to the Mexican border. I’d been staying in a rustic hotel with wood detail and colorful Mexican décor in an indigenous Mayan jungle village. I had just spent a few days meditating and doing yoga on their docks surrounded by lily pads and lush jungle (and chatting, eating excellent food and going on waterfall excursions – I’m a social yogi!). The boat driver was making a special late night trip for the fiery Mexican woman who owned the hotel; she was meeting her son and granddaughter at the border of Mexico, and I was happy to have a sharp-witted bossy lady hold me hand a bit with the crossing logistics – and the good tips! She recommended I stop in Chiapas and enjoy Palenque for a bit, and for that reason alone I could never forget her.
“We have an agreement with the locals – we return the water to them at night, and this reduces the chance that some hotel boat will hurt anyone who might be swimming,” her husband and business partner had told me in his Australian accent. “But my wife is special, she needs to catch a 3am bus, so there’s a ride for ya.” As we road on through the silent and dark body of water, I felt like a contraband product being smuggled across borders; Mexico, I’d been waiting a long time to meet you. It had to be dramatic, didn’t it?
Mexico was the ultimate stop on what ended up being a giant loop within Central America; it started in Guatemala, got as far south as Costa Rica and back up again. My lower back was inflamed and it sucked to carry a travel backpack. I figured I’d do some pyramid gazing and mosquito shooing in Chiapas before heading off to the beaches of Oaxaca. Sometimes in life it feels so good to be wrong.
I had come very close to just returning to the airport in Guatemala City, cashing in my chips and returning to the States to handle various matters I call “adulting.” But something convinced me to push onward to the land of the Mayas, despite reality. I was thinking what you’re probably thinking; I must be crazy. But didn’t the quirkiness begin when I took a road trip with a near stranger across Nicaragua and through Honduras just to get here? If continuing made me crazy, stopping now would render me a lunatic. And since we were a few days short of the full moon I figured I’d hold off on lunacy.
I’ll say one thing about Mexico -the line of separation between foreigners and natives is more like a translucent veil than an impenetrable wall. Even more so then bonds I felt in other countries, the Mexicans I met truly felt like neighbors – weaving, painting, laughing, singing and emotionally honest brothers and sisters. Falling in love with the land below was an unveiling and beautiful experience.
Palenque, Sonic Jungle
Let’s circle back to my strange late night odyssey. I landed in the ‘magic town’ of Palenque and rinsed off my overnight travel and heated wild goose chase for a functioning ATM machine with a nice private cabin in a community called Pachan, close the infamous Mayan ruins. These first few days in Mexico can be defined as every musical and artistic fantasy you’ve ever had about Latin America. There was a restaurant pumping with live salsa music every night, followed by fire spinning performers. There wasn’t a corner left unpainted in this lush outdoor setting, with Mayan hieroglyphic inspired graffiti and “Ojo de Dios” hanging about (eye of God, similar to a dream catchers).
One particular afternoon in this rural region of Chiapas found me at the gorgeous waterfalls of Roberto Barrio with an Argentinian artist who shared some of his beautiful, spiritual music as we welcomed the full moon. Later our attention was summoned by the sounds of local children playing instruments and singing “Las Mananitas,” the traditional Mexican Happy Birthday song -dressed just as if they were going to perform a recital on a country road that lead to waterfalls. Their serenade concluded and was immediately followed up by the sound of a stereo coming from another direction, pumping more contemporary Latin top 40 tunes. You can hear Mexico, in every possible sound combination and setting.
The Ruins: Palenque is a gorgeous mixture of pyramids and temples, shady walks through stony interiors and sun-blasted climbs up ancient forms of the stair master. I learned two valuable lessons; don’t go midday during peak heat season and don’t try to walk there from the cabin – although it was a nice detour and I tried my first Orchato, a sweet drink made with corn or rice. Palenque is a part of an inhabited jungle reserve, and when you enter the area you get a $2 bracelet that’s good for five days and offers access to hiking trails, a museum and apparently hidden ruins that only certain locals know about. There’s a cluster of cabin resorts even a yoga and medicine community within the confines of this ancient relic and natural reserve.
A Mixed Crowd: One day, I found an even smaller, hidden community within Panchan. This was a gated area being overseen by two nice 30-year-old Mexican guys and attracted its share of artists, hippies, and travelers on enough of a budget to look beyond what can be found with the naked eye. I stayed there for several days – socializing, teaching yoga and exchanging holistic treatments with my hosts and some visitors. One evening we all went to see one of them play music in a reggae band downtown. My hosts were taking us on adventures for the fun of it, no financial incentive – they were from Mexico City and just as eager to explore the area for themselves as a New Yorker suddenly finding herself in Sedona, Arizona. This ritual of experiencing Mexico alongside nationals and Latin American travelers would repeat itself later in San Cristobal de las Casas. One day the guys took us on a river hike in search of one of those rumored hidden temples – which we never found – but we did get lost in the middle of the jungle before an imminent downpour. We made it home, gobbling tamales from street vendors and I remember being incredibly thankful that I was back in North America where the days were getting long enough to not render me lost among the night creatures of the Palenque jungle. Although that would be a great blog post!
A piece of my heart is still lingering around the forest playground that is Palenque, Mexico. San Cristobal de las Cases was my next stop. Stay tuned…..