When I entered Chiapas, we had already begun some steady climbing. The road wound up through the mountains and eventually took us into Tuxtla Gutierrez, a large city of 600,000, the capital of Chiapas. There was nothing much to experience here besides big city amenities. I met with a Servas host, but we couldnít arrange a much more than a brief encounter in the day. We moved on the next day and had 2 half days of cycling up to 7600 ft in the grueling mountains. During this time we passed many small indigenous agricultural villages. I marveled at the site of corn fields on steep hillsides, and women in traditional dress carrying heavy loads of firewood and drinking water by a head strap. These people seemed generally shy but curious, turning around to get a second look at the fair skinned stranger on bike, no matter how heavy a load they were carrying. We spend a night high up overlooking clouds and saw a beautiful sunset. We descended into San Cristobal de las Casas and settled in to a nice colorful hostel on the recommendation of the local bike rental and tour guides. San Cristobal center has a nice colonial look, cobblestone streets, one story buildings, and well preserved churches. It reminds me a lot of Antigua, Guatemala. There is a nice pedestrian strip, a big outdoor produce market, and a colorful handicrafts market that sells clothing, leather goods, amber jewelry, and other regionally made goods. There are more indigenous people here than anywhere else I have been in Mexico. Apparently, something like 33 different groups are represented in this region. Many come down from their small villages to work in the markets and streets selling goods during the day. It is common to see children from 8 to 13 years old selling handmade belts, sweaters and hats or gum, candy and cigarettes. In some villages, you can see how the Mayan people have mixed catholic traditions with their own. During my stay in San Cristobal, gunpowder blasts from shooting fireworks could be heard at all hours of the day, usually about 5 times a day. Apparently, they are set off to celebrate the days of certain saints, and Iíve even heard they are supposed to ward off evil spirits.
I felt great about this city, rich in culture and inexpensive to live. At night, I enjoyed the lively music scene. Reggae music has a very strong showing here. Musicians, jewelry makers, and street performers stayed at the same hostel so it was pretty easy to find the action at night. I could visit the city with a fellow traveler or just chill out and soak up the sun and cool breezes. I spoke to a few people about a side trip bike ride to the Mayan ruins of Palenque, a descent that takes you almost to sea level with some nice sites on the way. I was warned by the bike tour guides about some robberies that have occurred in the last stretch of road to Palenque. Adrian opted to take a bus down and avoid the risk. Something told me that I should take the side trip, that the experience would be rich and worthwhile. I decided to take the ride and left behind some things to lighten the load. I figured if I got my bike stolen, it would be a good excuse to spend more time in this cool city. I was surprised to encounter some decent uphills on the way out of town, but I was put at ease with the peaceful atmosphere and fresh pine smell of the surrounding forests. I passed through small corn farms on the roadside, wound my way through expansive valleys and caught great views along the way. On my second day, near the town of Ocosingo, I biked out to the ruins of Tonina and spent a few hours checking out some ancient stone temples from a civilization that lived here from 300 to 900 AD. My third day had some major descents and I had a nice stop in Agua Azul, where a huge waterfall comes down in levels from up in the mountains. The rushing water smoothes down the rock and forms nice inviting natural swimming pools. I swam around in the refreshing water, dove in from swing ropes, and took lots of pictures before making the final ride to Palenque. This was the area I was warned about and I struggled to look at each person I saw on the road as a friend and not as a possible thief. Despite my bias, I wasnít robbed or mistreated. The ride to Palenque ended up being a wonderful and scenic side trip. I arrived out of the mountains and the land completely flattened. My legs were tired from the ride. I secured accommodations at a cool campground very close to the ruins, cleaned up, and tried to acclimate to the humidity of the lowlands once again. Being up in the mountains in San Cristobal, I was getting used to the nice sunny days and cool nights, spoiled even. I ventured out to the Palenque Ruins the next day and explored the historic area nestled in the jungle. I walked through the rainforest where some buildings had been taken over by huge buttressed trees whose roots spread over the stones and down the terraced landscape. After just a little bit of walking, my clothes were damp with sweat and the surrounding humidity. I enjoyed the views from the tall pyramids in the main plaza of the ancient city. The area seemed to be in a constant state of maintenance, restoration, and busyness from visiting tourists and hopeful vendors. Palenque was one of the most densely populated cities during its time. These remnants provided clues to the history of a civilization that I found it hard to imagine what it would have been like to live in. I tried taking a couple small jungle trails and retreated quickly with strange bites, and dirtier clothes. I took a stroll through the museum and picked up some information and saw some very cool artwork and crafts that had been salvaged from the ruins.
After returning from the ruins, I had a nice conversation with a French traveler and I felt this was a great day to end my Palenque side trip experience. I decided to head out and bus it back to San Cristobal later that day. The bus ride was a 4 and a half hour journey that may have been comfortable if taken at speeds that would have made it a 7 hour journey. There were many curves! It felt good to be back in San Cristobal. I set up camp on my 3rd story patio perch, with a nice view of the surrounding mountains and city and sky and prepared to reflect on my past week and a half through cycling through Chiapas.
Enjoy the photos. I know I enjoyed being there!
Peace and Love,