The trip further south from Palenque was the real adventure. First it is winding 2 lane road, second it was amazing to be driving in forest again. I miss the forests of Washington State and the color green…South of Palenque is the Cascadas de Agua Azul. Because of the minerals in the rocks the river runs over the water is brilliant turquoise. We spent the night in the “hotel” there on the grounds and Lee braved a swim in the cold morning waters. The tribe which owns and runs the park are doing a great job updating the area with new cabins being built and others being updated, Lots of picnic benches for riverside fun and a large area of bars, restaurants and souvenir shop. The area is not free to enter and as we learned leaving sometimes it is not free to exit. This is our first scary turn. It was early but the local young men were starting to stop cars leaving. With wood strips with long nails sticking up, stopping was an easy decision. The men with machetes were starting to argue amongst themselves and Lee decided we needed to leave quickly and negotiated a bribe for safe passage. I think it was $10. Down the road a bit we started getting stopped by women and kids holding strings across the road. They wanted to sell their goods and the strings slowed cars enough to show the wares, or the kids came to the windows begging for money. It was dangerous for them and for us. Some resorted to strips of nailed wood across the lane of traffic. The highway blockades by the teachers union had supposedly ended just days before we started our trip. The news of the open roads was not quite accurate, but we were moving. Gas stations are nonexistent except for a couple of the larger towns. Card board signs outside of a house or hut saying gasolina were scattered throughout the drive to San Christobal de Las Casas. At these the owner would come out carrying everything from Milk jugs to 5 gallon cans filled with fuel. (People the world over see a need and fill it.) While we did not need the services of these household gas stops, I was relieved to see them. I do have the habit of running out of gas in the furthest point from a station. Our sights were set on reaching San Christobal before dark and we barely made it.
The Ciudad of San Christobal de las Casas has been declared a Pueblos Magicos, or magical city by UNESCO. And it was. We treated ourselves to a higher end hotel with really nice comfortable beds. No air mattress needed there. We parked the car and walked or rode the trolley. There are 15 temples/churches scattered throughout the city. Beautiful old architecture dating back I believe to the 1500 and 1600’s. The large cathedral is surrounded by vendors selling handmade clothes, leather goods clothing and tons of other stuff. Inside the courtyards or squares are people from many nations resting after crossing into Mexico from Guatemala. Central and South Americans, Cubans and Africans all took refuge at the churches and cathedral. So the crowds were intense for me. We toured the main centro area over many days. Discovering that San Christobal has two french pastry shops. The one a block away became our late night stroll to place. restaurants from all over the world, serving up heaping plates of wonderful food. The evenings were magical. Street musicians playing everything from american rock classics to marimba and steel drums. Throw in some mariachi for fun. Many playing guitars and marimba’s that were homemade, we enjoyed talking with them learning about how they chose the specific design or woods to make the distinct sounds.
There are dozens of museums to wander through if a quick rainstorm or the heat gets to you, (though it is definitely cooler here than in most of Mexico). We enjoyed the artesian co-ops, again spending time talking to the artists about their crafts. Tennis shoes that have been hand sewn with needle point butterfly’s and flowers. I would never have considered doing this to my shoes but this woman did and was very successful, selling worldwide. Silver copper and goldsmiths and jade jewelry designs, woodwind musical instruments made from exotic woods and silver, cloth that has been woven by hand in the boldest brightest colors, and toys, handmade toys of the most intricate design. The large art museum was closed for renovation as was the school of music, so we missed out there. Chocolate is huge here. And I really enjoyed the chocolate shops, my waistline says I enjoyed them too much.
One day we took a tour bus to Canon del Sumidero, or Mexico’s southern grand canyon. The sides are as high or higher in places and about 4 times longer than the grand canyon in the United States. The difference being; these walls are covered in green trees and bushes. Home to pelicans, herons ,monkeys and crocodiles. We took a boat down the river exploring the wildlife and well just seeing the sights. It would have been wonderful to jump in for a cooling swim but I don’t think I could out swim the gators. The country has done a wonderful job cleaning up the river and preserving the pristine feel to the canyon. Yes there are tour boats and a couple of small fishing canoes on the water, what you don’t see are tons of houses lining the shores or canyon ledges or speed boats pulling skiers and rafts.
The boat ride over, we toured the town of Chiapa de Corzo. It a very small town geared to the tour boat crowds. They did have a quaint church where inside the chapel is a statue of Christ on a donkey.
I know there is a great story about this statue, just no one was around to ask about it. The shops were full of mostly clothes made by the indigenous people. Their ceremonial costumes were a big hit. And out on the side-walk was this older man playing his marimba that was made with no nails,about 100 years ago. The sounds he was able to bring out of those wooden keys was so clear and clean. I never heard anything quite so perfect before. A fun fact the favored music of this region is the marimba music of the Caribbean islands. The locals consider this their native music. Even though the shop keepers hear this man play every day, I noticed when they thought no one was paying attention, they couldn’t help but dance a bit. It was hard not to put a rhythm to my steps. The town has built a large brick gazebos in the central square. A nice bit of shade in the heat of the day. And at night I can see it being a gathering place to talk and laugh. I was amused to see a cadre of police officers doing their run around the square. Reminded me of the unit runs in the army. In step with a call/response type cadence song, smiles and looks at the tourist making sure we were impressed. I guess some things are the world over.
On the way out to the canyon and on the way back were large protest blockades. Protests about the teacher’s strike. They nicely allowed passage by the tour buses because apparently the head office donates to the cause. Many large buses touring the Yucatan were held hostage. Every rider expected to pay as well as the bus company. Many a bus sat for hours while negotiations were held. Some protestors emptied the buses and then took off in them to some secret location until the company bought them back, or they were used to transport teachers to different sites and not returned. BTW the teachers in order to keep their jobs had to man the protest sites, if they did not show every day, the union would fire them selling their position to someone new; trained and educated or not. Teaching was a job that the position was bought and sold or handed down. The blockades were done by an offshoot teachers union, fighting the new reforms. We also stopped in at Misol-Ha falls on the way north. If one is mobile you can enjoy a swim. Or stand behind the falls cooling off from the drive and roadblocks. This roadblock pictured we were probably a mile back. They were letting no one through for hours at a time, bribe or no. We lucked out and only sat for an hour.
We spent quite a bit of time exploring this region. Mainly it was because of the cooler weather and the trees. It’s a different world from what we experience in Guadalajara. For one there are more indigenous people,many living is abject poverty. Second is the feeling that for so many it is a friendly rest stop, on their way to Estadas Unidos . It is a deeply religious area, where mass is a daily occurence (sometimes twice a day). There are a two ex-convents in the city. Apparently it was once a city for the clergy to spend their retreats at and then to retire. One convent is now a museum and we never knowingly found the second. It very well could have been pointed out on our tram tours, but being I don’t understand much more than Buenos dias, I can’t say we saw it. Pluses for this city are its accessible by foot, its diverse, there are hotels and hostels at all price ranges. Restaurants cover the globe for cuisine. Many shops and stores have maps in english to help you find your way. And according to Lee…Two top-tiered French Bakeries. Bon appetite and I hope we inspired your own trip through the Yucatan.