Ocer the next couple of weeks we took roads that we had been on years before. But somehow, this time, the journey was taxing.
Even on flat highway 190, the wind was so strong that we thought the van might blow over. Even some wind turbines along the highway had stopped due to the extreme wind speed.
Finally we were out of one poor state, Oaxaca, and into an even poorer state, Chiapas.
But if it wasn’t one thing, it was another. You can never let your guard down here.
We returned to Chiapa de Corzo. This pueblo (nos a “Pueblo Mágico”) is next to the Grijalva river. You can take a boat trip down the river through the Cañon del Sumidero, a national park.
In 2011 we never did a boat tour! So that’s what we did this time around.
The tour lasted two hours. When the boat pulled to the entrance, all of the passengers had to raise our fists to show our entrance bracelets to the park rangers to prove that the tour operators hadn’t pocketed the money.
It was an overcast day and the clouds obscured the top of the rock cliffs. But it was a nice boat ride and we saw plenty of wildlife!
Later, on the way to the city of San Cristóbal we drove through the whitest of mountain fogs. With visibility of about 20 feet, the bridges were terrifying.
We stayed for six days in San Cristóbal, a must-do destination for the alternative tourist. We already expected the multitudes of young backpackers, donning either 90s-era windbreakers or locally-knit woollen ponchos.
But we had forgotten that the disparity between the tourists and the indigenous Maya is enough to wear you out.
We sat at the outdoor tables at Vino de La Baccá, enjoying our wine and tiny tapas. Meanwhile, the Tzotzil-speaking children begged tourists to buy felt dolls and a shoeshine. Grandma, normally no taller than four and a half feet, swayed with the weight of sweaters and scarves on all her sides.
We had our brakes fixed one day. A spring inside the wheel drum had broken, just two weeks after we’d had them changed in Oaxaca.
Outside the restaurant next to the mechanic’s, a woman in a long embroidered skirt had strung up sausages and strips of beef over a wood fire. We ate there while we waited for the repairs. Then we colored with the lady’s three-year-old son.
Besides mechanics and roadside restaurants, the periférico, or the outer ring road, seems to be where the literal periphery of society have established their places of worship. We passed more than a few churches with long names like “Advent of the Holy Cross of Sinai Bible Pentecostal”. And then we saw a brand new mosque with a tall white minaret.
We had just read an article in the Independent about Islam coming to Chiapas, but hadn’t expected to actually come across it! We were both fascinated.
The guard on duty told us there was no one there to answer all our questions, like who had paid for its construction. I’m still curious.
Then night, I was a non-stop puke machine. And Edd followed suit the next day (could it have been the smoked meat?) So one day, we stayed at the campground. We kept the heater on and watched episodes of The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.
We also had a furry friend to cheer us up: a lovely grey cat who we lured into our camper with a little ham.
After recovering in San Cristóbal, we started the drive up curvy Highway 199. When we traveled this road before, the transportation unions had blocked the road near Ocosingo, only allowing cars to pass every two hours.
Now the protesters have changed strategies. At the entrance to the village of Oxchuc, several men had cordoned off the road. You had to pay to pass.
They asked us for 100 pesos. We wanted to see what would happen if told them we didn’t have it. We offered them 50 instead, which is how much they asked of the Mexicans.
That didn’t work. The mob started to bang on the back of the van and yell together. A “city policeman” (without a badge or uniform) came and told us to pay up or turn around. We complied and got out of there.
It was comforting to arrive at countryside Camping Kaynab, next to the ruins of the old Mayan city of Toniná, just outside Ocosingo.
As we pulled up, the owner came by and said, “You’re just in time for my walk. Would you like to come with me and get a good view of the ruins?”
His name was Adolfo and he said his 2018 resolution was to walk off a little weight. We were happy to walk off the stress of the road block debacle.
We hiked up the dirt road on his property until a large pyramid came into view between the trees. Adolfo asked us to rate the view on a scale from 1 to 10. (It was a 10 of course).
On the walk back to the campsite, we saw Adolfo’s sons ahead of us. Adolfo whistled like a bird. Mexican men, from our observations, always whistle at each other. He was amused when I asked him why.
“It’s how we greet each other. When I arrive at my brother’s house, I let him know like this:” He whistled four or five notes. “Then he whistles back like this:” He whistled a different melody.
We thanked him very much for being so kind to us. After being robbed by aggravated men in Oxchuc, it restored our faith in people.
When we walked to the entrance of Toniná the next morning, big surprise. Something was awry with the ticket booth and museum run by the National Institute of Archaeology. They were open, but empty. The employees were on strike. A guide suggested we donate a few pesos into a plastic bucket.
After getting temporarily lost because we didn’t know where to go, we spent a few hours climbing up the pyramid’s many steep platforms and inside its dark tunnels. We counted 10 other tourists there that day.
On our way out, a Swiss couple warned us that the “transportation mafia” had set up another roadblock on the way to Palenque. They had come from the north and their bus wasn’t allowed to pass. All of the passengers had to get off and find their own transportation the rest of the way.
But first we camped the night at the popular swimming spot Agua Azul. We parked next to Tony, Colin and Chris, three Californians whose separate paths had just crossed.
Tony was evading expensive L.A. living, had maxxed out his credit cards, and was on his way to buy land in Belize. He and Colin had just bought some mushrooms up the road in Palenque, which they had placed in a jar of honey for sweet-tasting “microsdoses”.
Chris was in her 40s and left the states when she was laid off from her job and couldn’t trust the man anymore. That night the conversations were conspiracy theory-filled but also funny.
The next morning we went swimming in the green-blue river. The series of crashing waterfalls made the scene spectacular. This made Edd think of Chiapas as the Arkansas of Mexico: poor, but with waterfalls out of a fantasy novel.
We used a government-made map to walk up a path to the other swimming areas, but we were stopped by three teenage boys in T-shirts that said “Police”. They told us we needed a guide to go farther.
They cautioned that the villagers up the path have a history of being dangerous. I don’t know what the truth is anymore, just that there was no actual authority here.
This half-assed takeovers were getting annoying. The protesters never had concrete demands. The government doesn’t give concrete solutions. Tourists are left in limbo!
Later we drove and arrived at the next road block, this time sustained by wooden planks laden with nails. Someone was holding up the traffic, but this time it wasn’t us! A German couple in a rental car had tried to speed through without paying, and now they had a flat tire!
The local men watched and laughed as a very nervous blonde dude in Chinos tried to jack up his wheel. A woman in the passenger seat looked humiliated. So when we got through (we just handed the men 100 pesos), we stopped and Edd helped the guy change their tire.
Everything was ok after that. On the sides of the road, coffee beans dried on tarps. The wood smoke in the villages was sometimes so thick that it stung our eyes. Women and men lugged timber up and down in sacks on their back, secured by a forehead strap.
(I’m generously trying to exempt from this memory the sharp, jaw-breaking speedbumps, “topes”, as those are a given on any Mexican road that’s not a toll road. This road is rife with them.)
The ending to this post is happy. We stopped in campground O’ Tulum, across from the Misol Ha waterfalls. In 2011, Edd took a picture of me with a few local kids, and I wanted to pass it on to the owner, Emilio.
A group of school kids saw us park, and did exactly what most parents tell their kids not to do: they came up to the van and wanted to see the inside. They chatted to each other in Tzeltal. Edd gave the boys a frisbee and I gave the girls bracelets.
Then the older kids came out. When they saw themselves in the old picture, they looked a little bit embarrassed (they’re teenagers now!)
We stayed in a campground near the ruins of Palenque that night, lulled to sleep by the zombie-like snarls of howler monkeys. In the morning we were drove out of Chiapas, through Tabasco, and into Campeche.
Local grievances with the government can make it a frustrating time for travelers to be Chiapas, but it’s good to experience a part of Mexico so geographically, politically, and socially removed from the capital. And it was more beautiful than we had remembered.