Discovering the Soul of Mexico in Palenque, Chiapas

Palenque Ruins

Palenque is about 9 hours from the sunny coast of Quintana Roo, nestled in the jungle on the north eastern edge of the Mexican state of Chiapas. Mexico is a huge country, and the climate and culture varies drastically from place to place. You might think you know Mexico from your trips to Cancun, Cabo San Lucas, and Tijuana – but you’re wrong. The beaches and border towns of Mexico seem to define this country for many gringos, but there’s a lot more to it than just package holidays and underage drinking. If you want to discover the soul of Mexico, you’ve got to dig a little deeper. You’ve got to go to the jungle.

Palenque is surrounded by real jungle. They’ve got howler monkeys, the occasional Jaguar, and bugs the size of a grown man’s fist.  It’s a far cry from the palatial holiday homes in Cancun and Playa del Carmen. This is real Mexico, and I was happy for the change of pace after spending over a month in the gringo-ridden, touristic booze-fest of Playa del Carmen. Not that living in a pristine beach town didn’t have it’s charms. There’s never a dull moment when you know that every day thousands of new tequila-crazed maniacs will storm the playa, looking for baracho debauchery, but it was time for me to move on.

That first day in Palenque, Karine and Deborah and I all but tumbled out of the bus, still groggy and unstable from the over-the-counter Mexican Valium long bus ride and fitful sleep. The sun was bright and the town was alive with the general chaos of any Mexican town. The ticket hawkers barked their destinations at passing travelers and the indigenous women selling fruits, vegetables, and hand-made dulces sat slouched and stationary on the ground, legs akimbo, as if they were dropped there by some unseen deity, and there they would stay forever. Taxi drivers shouted at us from across the street. We’d heard that the actual city of Palenque didn’t have much to offer, so we negotiated a good price (50 Pesos is standard) to Panchan, a small hippie / backpacker community in the jungle.

View of the jungle from near Panchan

Panchan is a bit of a trap – in good ways and bad. It’s an oasis of travelers, weird and interesting artists, jugglers, fire performers, musicians, and misfits. The accommodation ranges from budget to super budget, but none of the hostels or hotels seem to have a kitchen, so everyone heads to the restaurant, Don Mucho’s for their meals. Mucho’s is in the center of the network of hostels that make up Panchan – and rumor has it, that the whole place is owned by factions of one family, often at odds with each other, sometimes to the point of gunfire. Mucho’s serves everything from traditional Mexican food, to decent American cheeseburgers, to fantastic Italian food, complete with garlic bread and fresh, home-made pasta. Venders set up tables in a corner on the edge of the restaurant, where they sell macramé bracelets and necklaces, precious stones, and other handmade crafts. Most of the venders are gringo expats or other travelers passing through town. Every night, there is live music, and it’s usually fantastic. And at a 11PM, there is a nightly fire show, where poi spinners, fire staff twirlers, and jugglers perform amazing, acts en fuego, while a team of drummers provide lively beats.

There is another small restaurant and bar, called Mono Blanco that sells caguamas (liter bottles of beer) and some food. It’s much smaller and less popular than Mucho’s, which makes it an ideal place to chill out if you’re looking for a break from the party.

The only real problem with Panchan is that it’s a bit expensive. The accommodation is cheap, but that’s how they reel you in. If you’re hungry, or you want a cold beer, you’re going to end up at Don Mucho’s – and the prices are a bit higher than similar bars and restaurants in town. So, unless you want to catch a colectivo (shared taxi-vans, they also call them combis here) into Palenque town, you don’t have many options.

You have to pass through Zapatista loyalist territory to get to some of the waterfalls near Palenque - they have their own laws.

When we first arrived in Palenque, I thought I’d stay there maybe 3 days. Chill out, see the ruins (the ruins at Palenque are famous for having some of the best architecture and sculptures in the Mayan world) maybe party a bit with the Panchan hippies, and then get the hell outta dodge.

I ended up staying for a week.

I’m not sure what it is about the place that makes people want to stay forever. Maybe it’s the isolation. You’re only a 10 minute drive from the civilization of Palenque, but when you’re out there in the jungle, and you hear the werewolf-like howls of the monkeys as you sit on the side of the little arroyo that snakes through the encampmento, it’s hard to imagine that anything outside of Panchan even exists. There’s no news, no TV, and nothing to do but chill out, hike to the waterfalls or the ruins, and go to Don Mucho’s for great food, drinks, and music. Add a couple fire shows and some fun travelers into the mix and you can easily say goodbye to a week of your life.

Panchan is located on the road to the Palenque Ruins, and on the edge of a protected ecological area. Normally, you have to pay a fee to get into the reserve, and then another entrance fee when you get to the ruins, just a 25 minute walk up the road. But if you’re in-the-know, you take the secret jungle path from the back of Panchan, through the jungle, and to the main road, bypassing the guarded entrance. Then you can either walk, or hail a combi van to take you to the top of the hill at the ruin site. There are lots of small waterfalls in the area, and a few hidden, magical spots that are well worth finding. Just before the hill that ascends to the Palenque Ruins site, you’ll find a small trail that leads you to the Mystic Three Falls, a great place to hide out for the afternoon, especially if you’re sampling some of the locally grown hongos (magic mushrooms) that can be found being sold just about everywhere. Higher up the hill are a few spectacular waterfalls, but they are protected, so you aren’t allowed to swim in the pools.

Posing at waterfall with Karine and Deborah.

I spent a day at the ruins, and while it’s not my favorite Mexican Ruin site (I recommend Muyil, near Tulum, in Quintana Roo), it’s still worth spending a day there. Other than that, I didn’t do much in Palenque. We spent entire days playing guitar and swinging in the hammock on the porch of the little bungalow that Karine, Deborah, and I shared. Nights were usually spent drinking Victoria beer at Don Muchos, and then sharing a bottle of something more potent with the fire performers and drummers and other travelers, accompanied by clouds of Mexican jungle weed smoke.

A local Mayan Mestizo who goes by the name of Jaguar and is covered in tribal piercings and tattoos lives in an amazing jungle compound just up the road. He’s an incredibly interesting and amiable guy, and if you get the chance to chat with him, you’ll find his worldly experience and his knowledge of Mayan traditions and history to be an endless source of entertainment and enlightenment. He also hosts occasional psychedelic trance parties on the weekends. If his party is happening, you’ll hear about it. The best way to get there is to use that secret jungle bypass hike, which at night, turns into a perilous, pitch-black path – always an interesting stumble, especially on the way home, without flashlights.

If you’re traveling through Chiapas, you should definitely make a stop in Palenque. Even if you’re not in to the hippie backpacker scene of Panchan, Don Muchos is still worth a visit, especially on a Saturday night. The jungle is beautiful, the waterfalls are spectacular, and the ruins are historically significant.

If you’ve got the time, I recommend a day trip to Agua Azul and Misol-ha, two breathtaking waterfalls just outside of Palenque.  And if you want a real Jungle experience, look into visiting the Selva Lacandona, a dense jungle a few hours from Palenque, on the edge of the Usumacinta river that separates Guatemala and Mexico. There is an amazing Mayan ruin site there called Yaxchilan (which means Green Stone in the indigenous tongue), and it’s only accessible via a 45 minute boat ride along the river. An amazing adventure.

After Palenque, I headed to San Cristobal de las Casas and immediately fell in love with the city – both places are major reasons why Chiapas is my favorite state in Mexico.

Check out this slideshow from my time in Palenque!

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