45. Palenque, Mexico - The Jungle Mayan Ruins

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May 28, 2007

As soon as we crossed the state line into Chiapas, the number and intensity of the military/police highway checkpoints increased ten-fold.

At the junction of Highways 186 and 199 – the turnoff to Palenque – there were probably 30 or 40 police officers in Swat team gear checking each vehicle.

Further on, as we approached the town of Palenque, we had to weave between dozens and dozens of heavily armed soldiers who were conducting an aggressive, door-to-door search of a residential street, while a helicopter circled low above.

The hospital, and several other buildings in the centre of town, were heavily guarded.

Chiapas was, of course, the site of the Zapatista uprising in the early 1990s and it seems like the government is determined not to let it happen again.

And while this small glimpse of what is must be like in Iraq was all a little intimidating, we were continually assured by the police, soldiers and gas station attendants that the road and town were safe.

History says that Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés missed the Palenque ruins all together when he was crisscrossing the country in the 16th century exterminating the indigenous population. Given its remote, jungle location in the Chiapas foothills, it’s not hard to see why.

We had camped just a few kilometers down from the Mayan ruins at Mayabell Campground that had a cool, traveller’ish feel, a good-vibe restaurant with live music and, thank goodness because of the blazing heat, a small pool.

As we tossed and turned in the van throughout the night trying to find some respite from the sweltering heat, we could hear the howler monkeys howling.

Staying at Mayabell allowed us to arrive at the site early the next morning, and the ruins were one of the highlights of the road trip thus far.

Like the Teotihuacan ruins north of Mexico City, visitors are allowed to climb all over Palenque’s famous structures and wander through its dank low-ceilinged tunnels.

But unlike the Teotihuacan ruins - which are situated in an stark, open valley - the Palenque ruins are nestled in a small, remote and lush location.

As we sat atop the Temple of the Cross - the temple that offered the best view of the entire site – and looked out at the Temple of the Inscriptions, the Royal Palace, the Temple of the Sun, and the other majestic buildings, we could once again hear the loud growls of the howler monkeys reverberating from the thick jungle.

Key Facts & Figures:

-Mayabell Campground: $12/night
-Palenque: $2/person