We heard several things about the road from San Cristobal to Palenque – none of them that it was an easy drive. That the road was long and winding was no surprise - it was many moons ago that I anointed Mexico the most mountainous country I’ve driven. We also heard that the number of topes was extreme – two tope towns become four and five tope towns with no discernible difference in economic or scholastic opportunities.
Finally, and most concerning, was that we could encounter road blocks along the way that could hold us up for hours if we weren’t willing to pay the “toll” - something like 50 to 200 pesos, depending on how well one can negotiate. Chiapas state has the highest population of indigenous peoples in Mexico and therefore, has the highest population of disenfranchised peoples. As we drive around we point out to Coconut and J all the old men and boys clearing the fields and tending the animals and the women and girls selling fruit, corn, and trinkets on the street, and they know how lucky we are for being born into the circumstances that we were.
The thing is, even though the people are breaking their backs in the fields, they aren’t seeing all of the fruits of their labors because they don’t own the land. It’s the story of how the rich get richer and the poor get more bent over. So, every once in a while the poor will set up a road block on the main road to Palenque to stop traffic – primarily trucks hauling freight – to protest their condition. I don’t know if anyone in charge who can change their plight notices this and wants to fight for them, but a side benefit is that by stopping traffic, tourists like us who have nothing to do with anything, can pay a toll to move along.
Coconut was actually excited to be stopped like this, but after all the build-up and anticipation – it’s one of the first topics of conversation among overlanders coming from or going to Palenque – we didn’t encounter a road block. I was a bit disappointed as well, because depending on where the road block was set up, I thought we might be able to get an oil change for Wesley while we waited.
A few times during our drive a mom and her dirty and sweaty kids would string up a line as we approached and try to sell us fried plantains or sugar cane for a few pesos. When we didn’t buy any of their stuff, we would hand out a few toys from the bag of junk that we brought with us for this purpose – matchbox cars, erasers in cute shapes, super balls, colored pencils, and the like.
There are a few stopping points along the road to Palenque and the first night we camped at Agua Azul, a series of waterfalls tumbling over rock crevices into pools perfect for a refreshing dip. We’d been in the highlands for the better part of two months so the jungle setting of the falls was a reminder that heat and humidity suck, but at one point after splashing around in the water on a rope swing, J was shivering and we said we would remember that feeling later that day when we were sweating again.
The camping at Agua Azul was pretty basic – no showers and toilets without seats that were closed after dark when all the restaurants and vendors hawking artsy-fartsy stuff went home. A bunch of people drinking beer pulled in right next to us and R was pretty annoyed so went to bed around 7 p.m. but Coconut and J decided that with the sound of the falls, we could hardly hear their noise. After a few hours the police came and chased the party away – the most effective bit of police work that I’ve seen in Mexico.
The next day – Wednesday – we stopped at Misol Ha, another waterfall with some caves behind it that we paid ten pesos each to enter to see the bat cave and underground waterfall. It was pretty cool. Then R and J and I swam in the pool in front of the main falls for a while before driving on to Palenque and the Maya Bell campground where there are still no toilet seats on the bowls.
There are biting ants, however, and when Coconut and J are not in the pool or scanning the tree tops for howler monkeys, they are holed up in Wesley. J has become super sensitive to bugs and when he and I were leaving the bathroom, he spotted a cockroach so I started singing – la cucaracha, la cucaracha. He asked me who sang the song, but I didn’t know; I said that it was just a folksy song and not a song written by a band that made records. He raised his fist and said, “Yeah, I bet people didn’t sit around at Beatles concerts going, 'yeah, play La Cucaracha, man!'”