MEXICO, 6th-16th February 2019
Once we were out on the flat coastal plains of southeast Mexico our options for taking small roads dried up, and we were forced to ride on the toll road for several days. On the plus side this made for some fast progress, hours being whiled away listening to music and podcasts as our legs monotonously powered us along the flat, well-paved shoulder. On the down side, absolutely nothing of any interest happened.
300 kilometres later and we exited the highway, desperate for something other than air-conditioned gas stations to excite us. Immediately it felt right to be back among villages, people, animals, life, again. But we were now forced to pass, albeit briefly, through the state of Chiapas, one of Mexico’s most dangerous. It was difficult to feel scared, however, riding on the quietest of roads through rolling countryside, floppy-eared cows staring at us from behind fences made of trees, the blue sky above us as bright as the lush green fields, the drug cartels and armed gangs seemingly somewhere else. Our blissful countryside sojourn through Chiapas was only interrupted by having to pass through the town of Reforma. Lots of people took an interest in us here, and we were soon surrounded, though not, I’m pleased to say, by anyone with bad intentions. No, it was hordes of schoolkids wanting to practise their English and pose for photos with Ciaran, and the occasional smiling local that wanted to help us with directions, and frankly Chiapas was seeming like the best of Mexico, not the worst.
Chiapas also brought us the opportunity to visit the ancient Mayan ruins at Palenque. We rode out there to the edge of the ruins and rented cabins. It was a very cool place to stay, with parrots in the trees and the sound of howler monkeys grunting from the canopy above, the most amazing jungle trees and vines creeping up to the edges of the cabins, but also with dreadlocked backpackers wandering around everywhere, and pizza and veggie burgers on sale in the restaurant.
The next morning we rode our unloaded bicycles the few kilometres from the park entrance up to the entrance to the actual ruins. Here we were told to lock our bicycles in a car park outside of a museum and as we were doing this we were approached by a very old tour guide, his smart t-shirt and ID badge making his profession clear enough. But he wasn’t interested in selling us a tour, for he was simply passing the time until his group arrived, and the information he imparted to us was all free of charge. He began with a very interesting fact: “There’s no such thing as the Mayas,” he told us, immediately shaking up the history books. “When the Europeans landed here they asked the local people what they were called, and they said ‘mayacal’ which in their language means “I don’t know” and the Europeans just took the word. There’s no such thing as Maya. Everyone here is ‘Maya this, Maya that’ but they don’t know what they’re talking about.”
Certainly Victor, the guide, had the air of someone who most certainly did know what he was talking about. He told us he’d been working here as a guide since 1965, and all that experience, encompassed by his balding head, his frail body, his calm enthusiasm, surely meant that we could trust every word that came from his mouth. “Most of the information around here isn’t true,” he informed us. “For example, people say Colombus was the first one here. He wasn’t, he was the last one here. You know who was here before him? The Egyptians, look.” And with that he pulled out a book on Palenque and flipped it open to show us images of the ruins. He pointed at pictures of the restored pyramids and asked us where it was on Earth you saw pyramids like that. And of course the only other place was Egypt. “And look at this,” he said, flipping to a picture of some old script from Palenque that looked somewhat like hieroglyphics. “Egyptian,” he said proudly. “Egyptian,” he repeated, pointing at a picture of an Egyptian-looking carving. And it did start to make sense. The parallels with Egypt really were there, and I wondered how everyone else apart from Victor could have missed this for so long. “And the Chinese were here too,” he added, pointing now at a stone carving of someone that looked a bit Chinese, and pushing the boundaries of his credibility somewhat.
Next the old man opened the book up on an image of a large stone tablet, the most famous of those found at Palenque, in which a Mayan king is receiving a crown. “Look at the way he is sitting, what does that remind you of?” And Dea replied that the cross-legged position looked a bit Hindu. “Exactly,” Victor said excitedly, “Hindu, the Hindus were here too.”
It all now seemed a little far-fetched, and yet Victor spoke in such a convincing way that it was hard to not believe him. Certainly he was convinced by these things himself, even if all of the collected efforts of thousands of highly qualified archaeologists and historians disagreed with him, there was no doubting the conviction in his voice. “How do you know all of these things?” Dea asked him, keen to know how he’d uncovered the secrets hidden from the scientific record. “I see it all in my dreams,” he replied, without blinking, and I began to feel relieved we hadn’t paid him for a guided tour. “These scientists from the United States, they go on the internet and they read things, and they think it’s true, they think they know, but then I have another one of my dreams, and I know they’re wrong.”
We thanked Victor and left him to reveal the secrets of Palenque in more detail to his paying guests, while we wandered in to see the ruins by ourselves. The first of them were perhaps the best, less well-restored and surrounded by interesting jungle plants. Further on we came out to the bigger buildings and pyramids and wandering among them was a pleasant enough way to spend a morning. Here are some pictures, for your viewing pleasure, maybe you’ll see what Victor was on about.
That evening, back at our jungle cabins, we met and had dinner with a couple from Montreal, Ben and Joelle, who had cycled down from Canada. Their trip was coming to an end and they would fly home in a few days, but it was a nice evening, sharing beer and stories. But they hadn’t enjoyed Mexico as much as we had, having mostly ridden only on the main roads, and I’d wished I’d met them a couple of months earlier. Our decision to switch onto the small back roads had completely altered our experience of this country, and it was one we had ultimately enjoyed very much, thanks to the quiet roads and friendly locals.
And Mexico had one last surprise in store for us as we left Palenque and rode towards the Guatemalan border. It was a tough day on a bad gravel road with lots of steep ups and downs and river crossings that left my feet wet. At the end of the day we passed a turn for an ecotourist resort, not the sort of place we would ever usually stop at, and yet something, not sure what it was, probably exhaustion, drew us into checking this one out. We rode a kilometre down a dirt track and came to a locked gate. Luckily for us a young Canadian couple were at that moment going out of the gate for a walk, and they let us in, telling us to carry on straight to find the owners. This we did, and we were soon informed by a friendly old woman that we could pitch our tents and camp for the very reasonable price of five dollars each. This was especially reasonable as it included access to the river that was flowing right past the property. No ordinary river was this, however, for it was broken up by a series of mini-waterfalls and circular pools of turquoise water that it was a hard push to believe were natural. It was almost dark, but lowering ourselves into the water to cool off was just about the best thing I could imagine at the end of a long, hot, sweaty day.
The following morning the full awesomeness of our location became apparent. Firstly there was the excitement of the volleyball court, Dea and I partaking in one of our most closely-fought contests. It was so intensely contested that when the husband of the old woman came out to tell us something, we really did have to finish the game first, with me eventually saving three match points to win 18-16 in the third. Then we followed his pointing hand, and saw monkeys up in the trees. They were howler monkeys, with dark fur and puggy gorilla-like faces, but swinging with great agility through the trees, hanging by their tails and munching on the leaves. They were not very far above us and we watched in wonder for quite a while, only stopping when one of the more domesticated animals – the cute dogs, the chickens, the peacocks, the cats, the green parrots – stole our attention.
We decided to go for another swim in the amazing river, and it really was a spectacular place, and as if diving off waterfalls and bathing in natural pools wasn’t already cool enough, I looked up and saw more howler monkeys in the trees right above where we were. It really was an unbelievably perfect place, so pretty and so special.
The monkeys moved on and soon it felt like time for us to do the same. We went back to land, packed our bikes, and prepared to go. But then the old man returned, and invited us to join a private river tour with the other guests, a friendly band of six or so backpackers and travellers. We made time for it, and it was certainly a good idea to do so, as he led us along with his cane and his wellies, downstream a little way. Here we soon found bigger and more spectacular waterfalls, that he encouraged us to walk under. It was an invigorating experience to stand beneath the spray, a hard and wet massage for the back. We swam a little more, climbed over some rocks, and admired the incredible beauty of the jungle. It was a wonderful way to round off our more than three months in Mexico, a country that had provided us with a host of memories, from deserts to mountains, and now to jungle. “I think this is the best place I’ve ever been,” Ciaran said, as we carefully stepped back through the rockpools, and it was difficult to disagree with that.