The Scene: Palenque

A bit more cerebral than Tulum, Palenque sits in an upland  basin at the edge of the primeval Lacondon rainforest with the Usumacinta valley far below. Cooler and wetter than the coast, the village of Palenque was an emerging destination with just enough basic bar/comedors and lodgings (Posada Alicia, AKA Alice’s Restaurant, was the gringo hostel of choice) to cater to the tastes of travellers.

The ruins themselves are seven kms from town, bordering the jungle. My campground, Mayabel, was located about five kms from the village on the road to the ruins. Indeed, there were tracks through jungle from Mayabel, along a rushing stream and waterfalls, up into the Parque Arqueológico. It was a great place for a little R and R after a strenuous 500 km ride. Plus it was cheap, 10 pesos a night.

It rained for the first few days so I just hung out at Mayabel, talking to other travellers, getting high, exchanging information and organising my gear. My palapa-mates were well-attuned to jungle living…we cooked over an open fire and used candles at night. Insects, oddly enough, weren’t much of an issue. Black howler monkeys swinging from their tails in the trees kept us entertained. And watchful. We’d heard they like to steal food, hats and cameras.

The palapas stayed dry in spite of the dampness and rain. Made entirely of mahogany cleared from the site, the palapas were lashed together with vines and featured an amazingly symmetrical lattice of intertwined saplings that supported the palm frond roof. A series of stout poles, polished to a rich patina, held up the roof framework and provided support for hammocks. The design was easily a thousand years old. In the firelight, at night, with the jungle noises just beyond, the patterns in the ceiling danced and flickered. It was timeless.

Mayan imagery. From a handmade silkscreen card purchased from the Galeria, Panahachel, 1976.

We ate well. It was easy for me to get into town and back with my bike so I would buzz in to hit the market for fresh food. Huevos, queso, arroz, frijoles and fruit. We even made up some granola and pan de platino.

Palenque’s main drawcard was the incredible Mayan ruins… acres and acres of 1000-year-old limestone temples, plazas, towers, frescos and bas reliefs. There were a couple of tracks up to the ruins from Mayabel’s. I’d walk up in the rain. My impression of the main plaza was rather brooding in the gloomy, dripping atmosphere. After all, they are but the well-picked bones of a once vibrant entity. Reminded me of a university campus. Some of the stucco reliefs looked like a teacher-student relationship and the glyphs give me the impression of didactic motives. Perhaps monumental textbooks? Or charts of important concepts in their educational process? Intriguing, to say the least.

Once it cleared up I explored a bit more through the jungles up towards the main ruins, along some nice pools and a waterfall. On the way the hillside was honeycombed with corbeled arch passageways that sometimes connected and sometimes dove deep behind the jungle. Spent the better part of the day just poking around, drinking in the atmosphere and trying to imagine how it all would have looked at it’s height of power and wealth. Lots of good material for thought.

Carving on Stela H, Copan. From a handmade silkscreen card purchased from the Galeria, Panahachel, 1976.

After four days of camping out, relaxing and exploring the ruins I was ready to move on. I’d heard about Posada Alicia, the hip hostel in the pueblo and decided to stay there for a night to clean up and get ready for the next leg over the Chiapas Highlands to San Cristobal de Las Casas.

I packed my gear and rode the quick seven kms into town, arriving around noon. Alicia’s is a step up from Mayabel: Beautiful old whitewashed adobe building, a tiled central courtyard, private rooms, a kitchen and communal showers. Plus electricity. Luxury for 30 pesos a night. Alicia’s was a real social scene, filled with travellers from around the world.

Got settled into my room at Alice’s and then took a leisurely stroll into town to check out the Domingo afternoon crowd. Bought some food. Nice relaxing afternoon. Sat in the zocolo and ate popsicles, a great way to spend Domingo. Went back to the hotel, relaxed, wrote and read.

As I was cooking some rice for supper I heard “Hi Phil”. Turned around to see Angie, fit-looking lady whom I had met briefly in Tulum. She was staying here at Alice’s in a shared dorm room. At Tulum, we were just faces in the crowd. Here it was different. We’d both had more experiences since then, had travelled further and were more confidence in our journeys. She asked about my bike. I added more rice to the pot, sliced more veggies. She spun tales of her travels around the Yucatan. I bought some beers.

One thing led to another and soon we were back in my room relaxing. It didn’t take long for the hands to roam and the clothes to come off. We tried to keep it quiet. The walls were paper thin and the ceiling was open. But anyone listening could tell what was going on.

Later, as we took a breather, we could hear the couple making love in the next room over. Very sexy.

Published by Phil Parent

Phil Parent is a geographer residing in Queenstown New Zealand.

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