Mexico: San Cristobal, Tonina, and Palenque
Chiapas is a highlight of many travelers in Mexico, so I was looking forward to seeing what this place was all about. This is all new territory for me, now that I have passed Oaxaca my previous trips ending point, it feels like the trip is officially starting. Turns out, I was not disappointed with what I found.
1 US dollar = 13.1899 Mexican pesos
San Cristobal, Chiapas:
While I spent the 3-4 weeks at the beach previously I borrowed a book from the Aussie, titled “The War Against Oblivion: the Zapatista Chronicles”. Now that I am delusional enough to think I am an expert, let me drop some knowledge on you. Aside from listening to what Zach De La Rocha of Rage Against the Machine wrote about the Zapatistas back in the day, I didn’t have much previous knowledge of the E.Z.L.N. Lyrics from songs like war within a breath now make a lot more sense, as the chorus repeats “Everything can change on a new years day”. The Mexican Government had been controlled by what many consider a “dictatorship” known as the PRI which held power for 71 years, and with this control many people of Mexico, especially the American Indian descendants of the Mayans, have suffered. The typical story of the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer, they had finally had enough. On January 1st 1994, the same day the NAFTA agreement went into effect which also played a part in the loss of their land, a group of rebels known as the Zapatistas, also known as the E.Z.L.N, took over the four largest cities of Chiapas, the most famous being San Cristobal, where they announced to the world that they were here, and would not take it anymore, demanding freedom, liberty, and justice. In total 145 people were killed in the uprising, and after several days they were finally forced out by the military, but the damage had been done. This political army demanded food, land, education, and free and fair elections. This group of indigenous tribes had banded together and presented their list of demands, which became known as the San Andres Accords. While many meetings were held over the years working towards reaching an agreement, the Mexican government would inevitably end up ignoring any promises they had made. The Zapatistas for the most part used the poetry of one of their leaders, “Marcos”, as well as the internet, to capture both Mexico, and the worlds attention. They themselves made many mistakes which would also hinder any progress towards reaching an agreement, but with this world wide attention they were somewhat protected, though att he same time always in danger, as the government continually supplied upwards of 70,000 troops to the jungle closing the noose. Sadly this world support was not enough protection, throughout the years the military raided villages looking for rebels or weapons, burning houses, destroying corn crops as a means to use starvation as an indirect attack, as well as raping and killing many innocent people, despite the outcry of world human rights groups. Just one example of the horrific acts was when 46 unarmed Tzotzil Indian peasants were shot while praying in a Church near the town of San Christobal de Las Casas, shot with Ak-37’s and cut up with machetes. I wish I had read the book sooner, I had partied with a group of 20 or so kids from Mexico City at the beach until 2 am one night back at the beach. One of them had brought up the PRI and E.Z.L.N. when talking about the current elections, though typical gringo I didnt know much of it. Funny side comment to lighten the mood after this depressing info, I was with the Aussies when the mexicans invited us to join them, I immediately jumped in and sat down eager to do a little fiestaing mexican style, while the Aussies bounced instantly as they were either intimidated by their lack of Spanish, or by the Spanish chicas, im not sure which. They certainly missed out on a good party.
I finally broke away from the Aussies, and headed to San Cristobal. San Cristobal is another city built up in the mountains, as always a relief to the heat the lower altitude areas provide. The mountains are covered with pine forests, which are both beautiful and provide clean, refreshingly cool air. The weather was great while I was there with chilly nights, though I have read it gets very cold in the winters. San Cristobal is one of the favorites for travelers due to the large amount of indigenous people in the area. There are many different tribes in and around San Cristobal, who speak their own dialects, each with different styles of clothing, all extremely beautiful. It is also amazing to note how pristine their clothes are for a group coming from such extreme poverty. Once outside the city I would see women with their elegant clothing walking into their tiny, run down shacks, which at least in the 1990’s did not even have power or water. I saw people washing clothes and bathing in creeks, so I assume this lack of resources is still the case today for many of them.
Within San Cristobal itself it is mainly the women who still wear their traditional clothing, especially those selling these clothes and fabrics, the men tend to wear normal clothes you or I would wear, jeans, t-shirts, etc. As soon as you get outside of San Cristobal this changes, and a majority of the men are seen wearing their traditional styles as well.
Due to the time of year this is another city that has things going on, but at the same time feels a bit empty. There are a fair amount of Europeans who visit here, though not many Americans. It is not necessarily easy for Americans to get here, but at the same time, there are Europeans, come on, there is nothing easy about that. After talking with other travelers, as well as having driven a fair amount of Mexico, it seems in general aside from places like Cabo, Cancun, Playa del Carmen, or certain parts of the big cities there is not much of a night life in Mexico. I had trouble finding places to eat that were full or busy in the evenings, usually there were three or four people to a restaurant, if that. I even eventually succumbed and eat at what was clearly a travelers restaurant, though it had a great atmosphere and was full of non-mexicans, one of 3 places I was able to find that had a crowd in a week or so in the city.
Even though I had never been in or near a cave in my life before Mexico, I visited my second of this trip, Las Grutas, which is just outside of the city. I grabbed the collectivos for the short ride, so round trip for collectivos along with the entrance fee to the cave totaled just under 4 USD. Not bad, but the trip itself is really only good if your looking to kill an hour or two, which I was. You can walk to the end of the sidewalk they built in the cave and return in about 10, maybe 20 minutes, it wasnt really good or bad, just kind of eh…but a large cave regardless. Another morning I headed out to San Juan Chamula, a tourist destination also just outside, if not part of San Cristobal. Known as a fiercely independent tribe, just about everyone here wears their traditional clothing, which is part of the tourists allure. Sunday mornings they have a huge market in the centro plaza, selling their clothing, cowboy boots and hats, foods, shampoos, more plastic crap, you name it, I got there early as they close down the market early in the day, as it is not geared towards the tourists. The vendors in and around San Cristobal are great, they dont hassle you like Cabo, so when I bash vendors its really just the ones who wont take no for an answer.
I have grown to enjoy it though, many times they dont give up after a simple no thanks, and keep spitting their game to me in rapid fire spanish like I may suddenly need that little wooden jaguar probably made in taiwan. I have started answering them in rapid fire english as retaliation, dropping an occasional spanish word or 2, then back to english, and then abruptly turning and walking away. Nothing like getting their hopes up only to crush their spirit. Again, its just for the ones who are dicks. This did not happen here at all to me, which is a nice change of pace, though I already know its coming as I head for the Yucatan. I forgot to mention but I snagged a pic back in Oaxaca of women in traditional clothing preparing their “authentic” merchandise, which consisted of ripping the price tags off the merchadise that was probably bought from China. This is the reason why i dont like “vendors”, the ones who push their crap taking advantage of unsuspecting tourists. I also had a guy try and sell me an “authentic, straight from the ground” artifact at Monte Alban, only 20 pesos, which is probably a buck fifty! This ancient carved animal was a extremely great condition for such an ancient artifact, so I told him that was amazing and I couldnt possibly take it, as it belonged in the hands of the people of Mexican in a Museum due to its historical value. He was not amused.
San Juan Chamula is also known for its unique church practices. I dont go in many churches as I feel weird that places which are obviously important to peoples religious beliefs become “tourist attractions”, but it is also a good way for the community to receive money, as you must pay a small entrance fee. Cameras are strictly forbidden inside, but they let you know before going in so you dont have to face gods wrath for unknowingly taking a picture, though I provided one below from the internet that some sinner took. There are no seats and the floors are covered in fresh green pine needles, and there are hundreds of candles, both on the tables, alters, and the floor. The people will place and light a bunch of candles on the floor in front of them as part of their practice, kneeling and placing their heads on or near the floor and chanting in their native tongue. There were several men and women both young and old with tears in their eyes, which made it quite evident that this was an extremely important and emotional part of their lives. I did not spend too much time inside as I did not want to overstay my welcome, though it was clear that they are used to tourists inside and did not have any problem with me in there.
I then headed north to the Mayan ruins of Palenque. Going back to the E.Z.L.N, while the accords never reached an agreement, there was a bit of a silver lining. These events helped unite and open the eyes of the Mexican people, and eventually led to the PRI loosing power for the 1st time ever. Unfortunately with the 2012 elections they are now back in charge though allegations of vote buying could lead to the recounting of votes from tens of thousands of polling places according to a NYTimes article. Many of the students I have met who have been traveling from Mexico city have told me they do not believe that they should have won, and are not happy with the outcome. Today the indigenous communities are still extremely poor, and fighting to keep their land, and for obvious reasons nervous with the PRI back in charge. While driving north to Palenque I would drive though many of these villages, built on the mountain sides covered with beautiful pine forest, tiny corn fields grown anywhere they can be grown, and people living in extremely tiny, basic, wooden shacks. About half way from San Cristobal to Palenque you go through Ocosingo, where in 1994 or 1995 the Military allegedly went in and destroyed buildings, tourtured many people, and executed somewhere between 5-10 civilians whos hands had been tied behind their backs. Many others were forced to flee and hide in the mountains, though actual facts from the incident seem to be non existent. This was a message to anyone who sided with the E.Z.L.N. There are many sides to the story as far as who did what, some blamed the military, others blamed the paramilitary who many believe was funded by both the Mexican Govt with Clintons help, others say it didnt happen, and to this day no one has been held accountable. Sadly to this day their is a large military complex on the outskirts of town, a constant reminder to those who lived through the nightmare.
A few hours further Palenque is located at the base of the mountains, surrounded by jungle, and due to this currently less than 5% of the ruins are excavated. There are something like 1400 sites within the ruins, most of them overgrown by trees and other jungle plants. My expectations for this site were probably too high, along with not being in the mood for ruins, I was not very impressed and did not take very good pictures, plus it is HOT. I then returned back to San Cristobal as a jump off point to Guatemala, as I had decided after my month on the beaches it was time to hit Central America. While both the Yucatan and Belize have plenty of amazing things to see, they are not high on my list, so I decided to skip them as I was already falling behind my already slow schedule.
After returning and spending a bit more time in San Cristobal trying to absorb as much of the cool weather as possible, I came to my senses. Theres no way I am skipping things, that was my rule from day one. Unfortunately that means backtracking back to palenque, as it is the most direct path up into the Yucatan. Well I told you I was flying by the seat of my pants, sometimes that means poor planning. I figured I should make the return trip count, so this time around I stopped briefly in Ocosingo to visit Tonina, another set of ruins located just a few miles outside the city. I had no idea what to expect, but knew if I left San Cristobal early I could visit it in an hour or two and then continue to Palenque in the same day. It didn’t add much extra time to my trip, and as most ruins in mexico, was also under 5 USD dollars so worth the gamble. Tonina is a must see that I almost didn’t. It consist of mainly one large complex, but it is huge, and you can climb all over it, always a plus in my book.
Tonina also played an important part in Palenques history. They spent many years at war against each other, and they eventually captured, and killed Palenques king. With the height and steepness of Toninas building, I am pretty sure their warriors were ripped killing machines as climbing all over it was a bit tiring. Agua Azul and Mis-ho falls are two more popular destinations on the way to Palenque, though I opted to skip these as the agua is not very azul during rain season, it is rather brown this time of year.
Since I was in Palenque again…I decided to pay 5 more dollars and get a few better pics. After you pass the 1sttoll booth entering the park, but before arriving at the gate where you purchase your ticket, there is an entrance to a hiking trail in the jungle off to the right, so I wandered around in there. There were some cascades, obviously all kinds of plant life, and some sort of pig like creatures running around that I was not quick enough to get pics of. I did not see any howler monkeys, but heard what was obviously speakers setup in the jungle to trick tourist into thinking they were around somewhere. I then bought an entrance ticket but sat down for a drink to relax before going in as it was very humid. While seated some guy offered me a jungle tour but I declined since I just did my own. Then a few minutes later another guy who was obviously a guide sat to rest and ended up chatting with me. He didnt speak english but his spanish was somewhat easy to understand as he works with torists every day. He told me about Palenque, the large amount of ruins in the jungle unexcavated, the plant and animal life, etc. Well, I like when people earn their work, so he sold me. He wanted 600 pesos (45 USD!) which is a bit much for a jungle tour, so I offered less than what he wanted but it was slow so he jumped on it.
We went into the jungle where he pointed out the various trees, including the tree of life which was important to the mayan civilization. He also pointed out other medicinal plants, my favorite being one which is used for hangovers…where was that back in my college days? He imitated birds to get them to start singing back, made some howler monkey sounds to no avail, but then suddenly stopped, and whispered that he “smelled” them. Not seeing any we continued on, but 5 minutes later we found 10 or so climbing around in the tree above, of course I only had my point and shoot camera as it was too hot to lug my nicer one. I am pretty sure the monkeys live in that tree and the “I smell them” was part of his spiel, but who knows, at least we saw some damn monkeys. He also took me to a small amount of unexcavated ruins, which are mostly just rock structures with trees growing out of them. It was a good time, and I love those chances were I am forced to speak spanish so it was probably worth the money, though the trails I was on are part of the same network we took, and I could have walked them on my own for free had I known where I was going.
I also met up with some guys from england, and some girls from New Zeland and Australia while staying in Palenque. They talked me into joining them in a temazcal, which is regarded by the indians as an important cleansing practice to rid oneself of sickness and evil spirits. They were a good fun group who I enjoyed hanging out with, so while I was not sure if it would be a tourist trap, I jumped on board. These guys were normal, had similar interests, were not weird hippies, so I figured it would be a good idea….though I am pretty sure its very popular with the hippies, a group of people I struggle to understand. Again I am trying to do things important to the locals, be one with the people or some shit like that, so since it is an important spiritual thing I decided it would be a good experience. Of course it costs 200 pesos which takes away from some of that spirituality thing, but that seems pretty cheap for some sort of exorcism. I will admit, I may have gotten in over my head on this one. There was a mix of us, some locals, and of course a couple hippies. I think there were 12 people or so who did it. Basically its a small, stone dome structure representing the womb of the earth, with a fire pit in the center. I may have misunderstood parts as things were translated roughly for us, so bear with me. One is supposed to emerge reborn I think, though I am pretty sure I am still me, I still sound like a dick on here. Lava rocks area heated outside in a fire so they are glowing red and obviously hot, and are supposed to represent the bones of their ancestors, which are summoned to guide us with their knowledge. The mind and heart are supposed to merge as one, kind of a meditation thing they said. We had to have them pass smoke around us individually before entering, which was important, though I wasnt sure why, I just stood their and let them do it cause everyone else did, they didnt really explain that part. One of the guys who was not with us, though was kind of a local and knew the deal, entered without doing this and was scolded. Everyone strips down to their boxers, bikinis, possibly just a towel if your an english dude though luckily it is dark in there so I cannot confirm that one. Everyone sits in a circle around the fire pit, and was it ever cramped in this tiny structure. They put the rocks into the fire pit using deer antlers, traditional, though dangerous as they often slipped out almost burning the girl in charge a few times. The door is closed, and you sit inside in darkness aside from the glowing rocks as there is chanting, singing, and drumming in some native language. They splash water on the rocks ever so often which due to the heat sends hot water on everyone as it explodes off the rocks, and eventually leads to complete darkness. They also use giant palm leaves to send water throughout the hut, so you end up getting soaking wet. Now I assumed I would be covered in sweat, but there was water everywhere, the floor, the roof, in my ears. I have stood in rainstorms and stayed drier. We did 3 doors, which means we were trapped in this thing for just over an hour. I think the 1st door was for air and invoking the “grandmother”, an ancient spirit. Then the door is opened to get more rocks and give everyone a slight break, though the heat didnt really escape. Then its closed again, repeated with different chants and songs they sing, this time giving thanks to water. I dont remember what the 3rd door represented, as I was approaching my limit and just trying to make it to the end, possibly earth and fire, as it was some sort of combo since we were only doing 3. Did I mention it was hot, and I kind of wanted out, but I was ok so just stuck with it. They said they do 4 doors sometimes, and I am pretty sure I could not have handled 4. Turns out I was not alone, and the others I was with also wanted out around round 3 or sooner. I was oblivious to this, but one of the english guys couldnt stop laughing in the beginning, though he tried, everyone sitting by him said they could feel his body as he fought the laughing fit and heard him suppressing his laughter. One of the women made a comment about breathing deeply which I assumed was just helpful advice for everyone, but they agreed it was directed at him, as she wasn’t really happy with him. Turns out he couldnt get the image of his english buddy in a towel sitting there cross legged out of his head. The next day I still had a cough that has been lingering, so I can only hope it got rid of my demons, otherwise I was scammed. We all agreed it wasn’t something we would be doing again anytime soon. At the end I asked one of the girls running it how often she did it, and she said whenever they get enough paying customers, maybe tomorrow. Yeah, I was thinking she would say once a month, or maybe a couple times a year. I just googled it and it seems many different groups from the mayas, aztecs, to the american indians have their own form, but it might just be on full moons, which we happened to do it on, so maybe I misunderstood her and its just a few days at this time of the month, not sure. Google also said those who partake are considered warriors for having the courage to face their demons, so im a warrior…..fuck yeah!