It was difficult to leave Zipolite and Oaxaca yet it was time to continue our journey in Mexico towards San Cristobal de las Casas, a picturesque colonial town next to an important Maya archeological site called Palenque.
We left behind a relaxing beach scene to venture up in the mountains of Chiapas state. We knew it would be different, but we could not imagine the large dosage of adrenalin we were about to experience. On our way out from Oaxaca’s coastline we faced scary gusts of wind around ‘La Ventosa’ which almost tipped over our truck. After San Cristobal we had a near miss with the Zapatistas in a road block and the howler monkeys would not let us sleep in Palenque.
Our experience in Chiapas was rather challenging, but we had a lot of fun too! How did we manage without incidents? Well, planning ahead, mitigating the risks and taking one step at a time.
The road to San Cristobal de las Casas
We left Zipolite with our hearts broken, saying goodbye to our friends and to that perfect beach spot that offered us unforgettable moments.
We departed relaxed that day and hopeful for a smooth road trip to San Cristobal. We had no idea what we would be facing...
It was almost the end of a driving day when JP realized the road started to be relatively empty. Then we crossed some toll booths which were not charging… people at the toll booth were looking at us as we were from a different planet. Then we passed some road workers who waved and cheered as we advanced through. We realized it started to be very windy, but we had no idea they had closed the road because of it. Soon we were driving next to lines of trucks looking for shelter under bridges. It became more and more difficult to drive the truck, and eventually JP started to fear for the possibility of Brutus being tipped over by the super strong gusts of wind. When we saw a big truck overturned by the wind next to several trucks which were parked facing the wind, we decided to stop by the next gas station and think what to do.
We were wondering: Can we continue? Is it dangerous for us to continue? Is it safe to stay? We asked some locals what was going on seeking some advice. Most of them told us to stop, that was not safe to continue. We were only 30km away from our planned camping spot. It was late in the afternoon, so we had not much sunlight left. We realized we could be trapped in that gas station parked next to a dozen of other trucks for the night, questioning if it would be safe, and if we should continue or stay.
Even when parked, I could barely open the door. Brutus was swinging with the wind. As soon I got out my sunglasses were blown away at least a hundred meters in a few seconds. That was when I realized what could happen to us. I had never experienced such powerful winds. It was a wild scene and I was scared.
We didn’t know what to do: if we should stay in the gas station and wait the wind to calm down or to continue. No one cold estimate how long it would last, or if it would become worst than that. There was no guarantee our truck would not tip over while parked either. The place was dodgy, did not feel safe, and we could not imagine sleeping inside the truck while the cabin would be shaking this way. We wouldn’t be able to rest for sure.
We waited, talked to some more people, until a local with a similar size truck stopped next to us. He was just coming from the direction where we wanted to go. JP asked if we would manage and he encouraged us. We jumped in, prayed a bit and left in agony, hoping all would be fine.
Sweaty hands, tensed muscles, silence in the driving cabin… our eyes were wide open, and our attention was at the maximum level. The truck swung dangerously every time we crossed other trucks. For just over half an hour we continued fearing for the worst. At the end, we managed to reach our destination, and nothing happened to us. Those 30 km crossing the strong winds felt like 300km to us.
We felt blessed and truly lucky when we reached the next gas station and soon after our overnight spot. When we saw the hotel where we were about to overnight fenced with concrete walls, protected from the winds we felt safe. We were relieved to arrive in one piece. We needed to calm down over a warm dinner. So we did.
San Cristobal de las Casas
We had a good night sleep and in the morning we felt ready for another day driving up the mountains towards San Cristobal de las Casas. With no incidents and a pretty smooth drive we were in town by the end of the day. Narrow streets were a complicating factor yet eventually we managed our way into the campground.
We camped in between pine trees, within a different and high altitude vegetation than what we had on the coastline back in the south. As soon as we were ready we were on our way to town to see what the cultural capital of Chiapas had to offer. We heard so many beautiful things about this charming little town surrounded by mountains.
It was lovely to walk in the streets admiring the refurbished colonial houses with their cozy and welcoming patios, some now transformed into restaurants, boutiques and shops of textiles, handcraft and coffee.
We had dinner in a restaurant with a very nice patio, listened to live Chiapas music and enjoyed the bohemian vibe of San Cristobal de las Casas.
To my delight I discovered many places selling croissants and pastries, something I was craving dearly. I decided to dedicate the following day to have a coffee latte with as many croissants I could possibly eat :)) I was looking forward to that. Sometimes this is all you need, no museums, no more information, no more history or cultural lessons, just some coffee time with croissant while blogging. What a day!
Whilst San Cristobal de las Casas has a lot to offer, we decided to crack on and continue to our next stop, Palenque. At the campground we were informed by fellow campers about the Zapatista roadblock on the way to Palenque. There were some scary stories about the violent approach of the locals towards foreigners, even one story when one guy got beaten up with a baseball stick. The information available on iOverlander was the same lines, thus we were a bit apprehensive.
For those who are not aware, the Chiapas conflict between the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (ELZN) and the government started in the 90’s and even though a truce has been formally agreed the tensions between the indigenous population and subsistence farmers and the Federal Government of Mexico continues to the present day.
The information we had was that this time the disagreement between locals and the Federal Government was regarding school funding, and that for this reason the indigenous people were blocking the road as a form of protest.
Considering the current political context we decided to reroute, taking a detour which would add 100km to our trip but would allow us to avoid the road block. Unfortunately, because the road conditions were bad the detour took us 4 hours more. We left early, charged with all the energy we needed and hoped for the best that day.
It was an exotic journey through the mountains, the jungle and the villages of Chiapas. Beautiful scenery. It was like going back in time. But seeing the hardship people in these isolated places must endure to make a living it didn’t surprise me there are so many disputes in Chiapas.
The communities have a very simple lifestyle based on substantial small-scale agriculture and farming. The roads are primitive, full of potholes, speed humps or topes, wash outs, curves and dangerous drivers with no respect for basic traffic rules.
We were driving for hours and just before we reached a major intersection out of the detour back to the main road towards Palenque, out of the blue, the EDC warning sign of our engine started flashing. Ohhh noooo… not now! This happened to us before in Vegas, but it could not happen here. It was not the right moment, not the right area. There was a registry in the iOverlander about a fellow traveler being beaten by locals in that area just a week earlier for taking pictures. We didn’t feel safe to stop there for any car troubles.
JP stopped the engine, opened the bonnet to fix the issue while I was keeping an eye on the surroundings. JP knew what to do and detached the Turbo Solenoid Valve Actuator and cleaned the connections and tried the engine again. The engine started, but the bip bip sound continued twice. JP turned on and off the engine and voila, no problem. My heart was pumping. We both felt relieved and continued our trip.
Reaching the main road we had one more challenge to overcome, another road block created by the indigenous people who were asking the travelers money to cross the area. Not that we did not want to pay the 5$ they demanded, but the hassle of dealing with them when they are gathered and inflamed in a wide group of activists can become an issue. We slowed down and approached the gathering.
In front of us a crowd of people stopping the cars: that was it! one of the road blocks of the Zapatistas. We were ready to hand out 50 pesos, the amount they generally ask. When we slowly approached the rope they had been blocking the road with, from the opposite direction, a passenger approached the roadblock faster. Then all the people ran to the van, demanding money, and dropped the rope. Since the road was opened JP didn’t stop the truck and continued advancing slowly through the crowd. Some people shouted: “parate, parate”, but we pretended not to hear, waving and smiling at the crowd as we advanced driving over the rope. So at the end we just drove through it without stopping… lol
It was funny. We believe they got confused with the way our truck looks like, maybe they thought it was a military vehicle or maybe they were just wondering at the graphics of our vehicle. We were gone. That was it. We crossed and didn’t pay any fees. We laughed 🙂 It was a funny one.
Continuing our journey, we encountered a few other roadblocks, but this time made by children, including little girls who would pull up thin ropes across the road to make us stop to buy some fruits from them. We were tired, as we had been driving for over 7 hours without taking any meaningful breaks. So we bought some fried plantain from the little daring vendors and it was an excellent snack.
There was a mix of feelings about this local habit practiced even by the youngest. On one hand I felt emphatic with their struggles and the poverty they must handle. On the other hand, I found very bad that children grow up learning from a young age to extort and block other people’s ways to sell their merchandise or to demand money for passage. For them it was simply normal, it became a culture. Pity!
After 8 hours we finally reached Palenque, safe and sound. Without the detour the 200km from San Cristobal de las Casas would have taken 4 hours.
We arrived exhausted physically and mentally to our destination, Nututun campground, just 10 km away of the archeological site. We parked in a nice spot, there was a lovely river passing through the estate. JP threw himself right away into the fresh waters to recharge, while I was preparing him a well-deserved dinner. It was a tough day, but we passed the worst. We were happy we made it there.
Life happens when you stop
Being so exhausted after this road trip, we decided to spend another day at Nututun campground before visiting Palenque site. And it was the best idea we could have. We started the day refreshing by the pool and the river passing in front of us. We have a wording: “things happen when we stop”: an iguana the size of a big reptile was climbing up the palm tree in front of us. We heard the noise of the falling brunches and when we looked up, we saw this gorgeous orange reptile, looking almost like a prehistoric animal, trying to find its comfortable seat in the coconut tree. We were amazed. What an exotic appearance! It was the first time we were seeing such a huge iguana of this coloring.
While I was preparing lunch, some strange sounds came from the forest. It seemed like a beast was approaching from the jungle, some sort of scary sound that makes you think you are into the wild. We were like…. what… is that?? JP went quickly outside to check out the tall trees. It was a black colored medium sized howler monkey shouting to his mates, probably to mark its territory. JP managed to get some good shots of the monkey and we were happy to witness such fauna diversity of the jungle.
We spent the afternoon swimming in the river, jumped from its banks into the deep waters that were passing by downstream. I was really afraid for that jump, but JP did it, it looked fun, so I said: what the heck? I will do it too! And it was excellent. So refreshing and energizing. It was a beautiful and calm day with lots of surprises, one of those moments when you say: life happens when you stop.
What was fascinating during the day it became a nightmare during the night. The same howler monkeys came couple of times waking us up with their terrifying noise. It was extremely disturbing to wake up three times during that night with that kind of noise. I just wished those monkeys would go away.
Palenque archeological site
Being the first Maya site located in the jungle we were visiting the expectations were high. As always, every time we have high expectations we end up slightly disappointed.
Starting with the entrance we were discouraged by the way it was (dis)organized in terms of parking and site management. We didn’t know where to park, there were no indications, plus we were welcomed by a wave of people hustling us to be our tour guides. We received no map of the place or any kind of information from the ticketing office to present what we were about to see. It was really mismanaged for a world class archeological site.
The Maya ruins of Palenque impressed indeed, a piece of heaven inside the jungle. We crossed through a rain forest, passed through a suspended bridge and a lovely waterfall to arrive at the ruins.
As soon as we got out of the forest, we encountered the majestic ruins layered on a meadow surrounded by the tropical forest. A unique and mystic scenery.
We walked around for a while, climb up to the top of the ruins and took some lovely pictures. Like in every archeological site we have been in Mexico there is a certain peace and good vibe to it, up to the point when it gets crushed by the loads of people visiting it. Once the site was crowded we were ready to leave. We wanted to push the road trip to Campeche, the next state on our way to Yucatan.
It was 6pm when we caught a beautiful sunset in Champotón, Campeche. We finally reached the other side of the peninsula and the shores of Gulf of Mexico. What a great feeling! We were so happy for this milestone. We passed through our biggest journey challenges in Mexico: strong winds, curvy and damaged roads full of potholes, topes, Zapatistas, howler monkey sounds in the middle of the night. All those things were behind us, and we were taking only the good memories. We were back on the highway, in straight line, watching a beautiful sunset and the calm waters of Gulf of Mexico.
The road always offered us surprises, good and bad. We were just welcoming them all, trying to adapt to each situation, minimizing the risks and taking one step at a time.
We were simply happy. We made it!