San Cristobal to Palenque – le Tour de Chiapas

(Go on, read the whole lot, click here)

So here I am in Valladolid, Yucatan, trying to avoid the rivulets of sweat that are beading down my temples from gracing this keyboard. Yes, it’s still hot… Tomorrow I should be in Tulum, where the delights of Caribbean white sand beaches await, and (just maybe) a refreshing sea breeze. In the meantime, here’s some more catching up on the blog front…

As I’ve come to realise, there’s a lot to be said for unearthing the road less travelled in Mexico.

For instance, the most direct route from San Cristobal de las Casas to Palenque is via Ocosingo, a small settlement in the heart of rugged central Chiapas; very much Zapatista territory. Unfortunately, it also means travelling a hilly, narrow and busy main road, and from what I’d heard, negotiating kamakaze bus and collectivo drivers – not ideal riding conditions.

Instead, the Frenchman Romain and I headed out via the colonial town of Comitan to loop around the multicoloured Lagunas de Montebello, skirting the very edge of the Guatemalan border to the bejungled Mayan ruins of Bonampak, and onto Palenque. Although this route adds several hundred kilometres to the distance tally, the all-but-empty roads, waterfalls, ruins, mangos, monkeys and blissful riverside camping ensured it a definite place amongst the best of Mexico’s rides so far…

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Just half a day’s ride away from San Christobal de las Casas lies Comitan – a little like a backwater version of my Hall of Fame Favourite Mexican city, without the international vibe.

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Riding to Palenque via the Lagunas de Montebello means you get to swim in waters like these…

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And experience all-but-empty jungle roads like these… Definitely quiet enough to hear the cantankerous howler monkeys screeching out from the treetops.

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... and stop in remote indigenous villages and gorge on watermelons like this… We polished this one off between us, then collapsed, much to local mirth.

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Of course, the ride culminates in the sight of some truly dramatic ruins. The ancient city of Palenque is considered one of the best of the Mayan remains in Mexico.

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Anyway, back to Comitan. On the way, we met this group of four European jugglers/musicians. They’d bought second hand $50 clunkers in San Christobal and were planning to peddle them all the way to Panama. I love seeing people inspired by the idea of cycling, and not getting hung up on the whys and wherefores of bikes and kit.

Not a giant razordblade, but a car windscreen cleaner. The shoestring group planned to perform and work their way southwards.

I, on the other hand, am a self confessed kit head. I’ve streamlined my setup for this loop. Gone are the panniers with my netbook and surplus electronic niknaks – I’ll be collecting these later. Scott’s (aka Porcelain Rocket) new extra roomy framebag and expandable seat pack offers loads of stowage space. It amply fits my Tarptent Rainbow, a sleeping bag, spare tyre, Lumix GF1 with three lenses, and everything to keep me self supported on the road. I've rationed myself to only one pair of boxer shorts though…

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In keeping with the lightweight spirit, I’ve chopped down my toothbrush, and bought an extra small tube of toothpaste. It's all in the detail, so they say.

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Meanwhile, Romain wasn’t having too much luck with his steed. The gears were playing up and finally it seemed time to change his front tyre – a trusty Schwalbe Marathon XR that had been on for his entire trip, some 20 000kms.

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Most of the riding on this loop was paved, with dirt interludes leading down to the lakes themselves.

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This is one of the Cinco Lagunas – five lakes – that can be seen from a single viewpoint. We spent the day ferreting out as many as we could - fifteen from a collection of fifty.

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This lake, Esmeralda, was clean enough to drink from. My favourite was Laguna Pojoj, so clear you could sip the water as you swam…

Although there’s more swoopy descents than grunty climbs in this direction of the loop, the terrain is still rugged and mountainous. Up and down, up and down... You’ll feel it in your legs at the end of the day. Still, life was a lot easier thanks to my slimline setup; Romain was always playing catch up. Carrying less weight really makes a big difference to how much you enjoy the actual riding, as well as saving a lot of wear and tear on components.

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It wasn't hard to imagine Zapotista revolutionaries hiding out in these parts. Early in the morning, the jungle was shrouded in a blanket of atmopheric mist, out of which poked the occasional tree.

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This is banana territory, and everyone’s back garden was bountiful with bananas and papayas - seems more exotic somehow than growing potatoes and carrots. These ones were stacked up high and ready to be loaded up for market.

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Chorizo seemed to be a local delicacy too. We bought a string of them in the bustling market of Nuevo San Juan de Chamula, and cooked them up with pasta at the end of the day. Delicious.

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Clear, icy cold rivers provided a chance to cool off, and made for great camping sites.

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We swam in this river at the end of a long and hot day in the saddle. At dusk, howler monkeys did just as their name suggests, and insects that mimicked a chorus of electric toothbrushes hummed into life. In the morning, half a dozen monkeys were scrambling overhead, swaggering around and dangling nonchalantly from their tails as they reached for the most succulent leaves.

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Spindley trees, a blaze of yellow amongst a rich palette of greens.

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Unfortunately, closer to the Guatemalan border, much of the old growth forest has been cut back.

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We were expecting some dirt on the short cut to Benemerito de las Americas, but the road has recently been paved. Still, it was hot and steep enough that I wasn’t grumbling too much… Looks like this area is next on the list for development, with a string of 'eco-villages' being set up for tourism.

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Of course, when I saw stuff like this, I hankered to ride it...

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Hitting the 15 000km mark!

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We stopped off and camped at San Juan, to visit Bonampak, which can be reached via a 10km dirt track.

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The ruins are famous for their murals, dating back to 700AD. Three rooms portray different scenes -the robing of priests and dignitaries, a war tale (complete with prisoners with bleeding fingernails, a popular form of torture back in the day) and dancers having needles stuck into their tongues for more bloodletting...

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After dropping out of the mountains, the border road is more forgiving – just gentle rollers to contend with. At some points, it skirts just 50 metres from the frontier with Guatemala. We were stopped frequently at military check points – generally, the guards just wanted an excuse to break up the tedium of the day. I even got chatted up by an immigration official; a towering Mexican lady, whose jet black hair was pulled tight back into submission, and whose ample uniform struggled to contain her voluminous body. 'Where are you staying in Palenque?' she asked playfully. 'Er, my tent,' I replied hesitantly. 'A tent is enough room for love' quipped her friend, to general amusement.

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It’s a hot, humid ride. Secluded waterfalls like this one helped temper the heat…

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Just outside the gates of the Palenque, in the thick of the jungle, we camped out at Rakshita’s, a hippy hangout home to firedancers, drummers, artisans and travellers.

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There were hammocks everywhere. Hippy kids ran amok in the forest.

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It was a crazy, rundown, wild, beatnik place, awash with esotetic murals and dilapidated buildings that vied for space amongst the jungle canope.

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There, we bumped into Frank from Lousiana, aka Jungle Man Frank, as we so named him on account of his jungle wanderings. Most people could only hack a night in Palenque, swamped by the overwhelming heat and humidity. Frank had been there 10 days, and was quite a character. A former restauranteur, he carried massive bags of cajun spices, porridge oats (for homemade power bars), and an impressive array of vitamins. ‘I thought about carrying the minimum,’ he said. ‘But it’s hard to know what the minimum is.’ As it was, he had about 150 lbs in his panniers – his old steel framed Jamis was so loaded up I couldn’t even lift the tyres off the ground.

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Yep, that heat and humidity was quite something. Stay still, and you might last a few minutes. Lift your finger and your forehead beads with sweat. Eat your dinner and you’re drenched. It was exhausting just hanging out, so we spent a good deal of time in this jungle pool, home to frogs and tiny, flesh-biting fish, simply soaking away the hours...

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... before summoning up the energy to explore the ruins themselves, scrambling up the timeworn steps, as the Mayans had over a thousand years before us, to gaze out at the jungle.

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Palenque was one of the great cities of the Classic Maya period – between AD250 and AD900. It fell into decline thanks to high population densities, and overploiatation of resources. A lesson that doesn’t seem to have been learned, so it would seem…

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Chiapas sure is hilly. Next stop, the pancake flat Yukatan peninsula!

8 thoughts on “San Cristobal to Palenque – le Tour de Chiapas

  1. otbiking Post author

    Awesome looking trip Rob!

    I like the GF1 a lot, it’s an impressive little camera that’s pretty much ideal for bike touring. Which doesn’t mean I don’t miss my Nikon too…

    Image quality wise, it’s definitely a compromise – as you’d expect given its size – especially in low light. But I was coming from a Nikon D300 with a 17-55 2.8 lens, which is a lovely setup, albeit a heavy one.

    However, it also opens up a lot of different opportunities too. I carry it around a lot more, and feel less obtrusive when I take pictures with it. That counts for a lot.

    It’s proved itself to be pretty tough; so far no major reliability issues. I mainly use the pancake and the 14-45 lenses, both are really good. I recently invested in the 45-200. I was really surprised by how nice a lens this is too, though I tend to only really use it when I’m travelling with other riders and want to get a sense of scale and place – I love the way long lenses compress the background.

    Battery life has been good. A viewfinder is useful for bright light, and to stabilise the camera with the 45-200. Another extra that adds to the cost, and increases the overall size. But what I like about the GF1 is how modular it is. If I want to go minimal again, I can always strip it down to just the pancake lens. I’ve camouflaged mine with black electrical tape, so no one bats an eyelid when they see it.

    I expect the new Olympus models are just as good, if not better, though from what I hear, Panasonic still have the best lenses.

    Reply
  2. Nicholas Gault

    Hi Cass, great post, looks awesome! I wish I had time to do the Yucatan but my Mexico visa is nearly expired. Do you remember if you can cross the border on the loop you did that skirts the Guatemalan border (road 307 after lagunas de montebello). I was hoping to enter Guatemala in the north so I can see tikal and the northern part of guat looks interesting? There’s a small town I can see on google maps called Benemérito de Las Américas right next to the border but I can’t see a road actually crossing it.
    Cheers, Nick

    Reply
  3. Nicholas Gault

    Hi Cass, thanks for the quick reply! For some reason I didn’t get an email notification of your message but found it just now checking your site.
    Useful info, appreciated: so you crossed at Frontera Corozal (mex) / Bethel (guat). Looks like a cool trip? Sounds like doing it solo would be ok (friendly locals)? In the raining season?
    Future readers of this post can find border crossings here (not yet sure how to tell if they’re open or not): http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Guatemala%E2%80%93Mexico_border
    Thanks again Cass. Your website is in danger of becoming a blue print for my journey!
    Hope all is well with you.
    Nick

    Reply
  4. Cass Gilbert Post author

    Yes, a friendly border crossing for the most part. As I mentioned, some tourers I met were hit with a dubious entry tax, but we escaped unscathed. I was there in the rainy season (at least, it rained a lot in Mexico) but then we hit a dry patch at the border. I imagine it would be fine though. Just a bit muddy (-;

    Reply

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