Wednesday, December 18, 2019

From Chiapas to Palenque and Villahermosa

The bus ride from the highlands of San Cristóbol to the lower elevation of Palenque could have been long and boring and, considering the winding mountain road, car sick-causing. Fortunately, it was well-planned,  and the many pilgrimages for the Virgin Of Guadalupe added lots of road-side interest.

The pilgrimages gave Jaime, our wonderful tour guide, plenty of opportunity to explain the story of the Virgin and her importance to the people of Mexico. The Virgin of Guadalupe is a manifestation of the Virgin Mary, but she is said to have presented herself here in Mexico with brown skin like the local indigenous people. There are many versions of her all over Mexico. The Virgin of Zapopan comes to visit and bless Lake Chapala every year. It is a different version of her, but she’s still Mary, the mother of Jesus. She is the most revered figure in all of Mexico, and December 12th is her day.

Our tour began on December 3, so for the entire trip we were surrounded by celebrations leading up to her day. There were multiple parades every day we were in San Cristóbol. But once we got out into the countryside and the mountain villages, it was as if the people felt that they needed to try harder to show their devotion to the Virgin. I would guess that we easily saw hundreds of pilgrimages consisting of a person, usually a teen or young man, carrying a torch and running or jogging along the side of the very narrow road while being followed by a truck decorated with images of the Virgin and flashing lights and loudspeakers and relief runners. Usually one person ran while the others rested in the back of the truck. Almost all of these pilgrimages were headed uphill. Was that to make their show of devotion more difficult and therefore stronger? I have no idea. I was always worried that they would be run down.

About half way between San Cristóbol and Palenque, we stopped for lunch at Cascadas Agua Azul. I have no idea where the water for these falls comes from, but they are just amazingly beautiful.

There is something about the water or the ground it travels over that makes the pools under the falls a wonderful turquoise color. Jaime told us that a few years back, there was an earthquake (the same one that messed up the churches in San Cristóbol area?) that caused the flow of water to be blocked and there was nothing coming over the falls. No waterfalls meant no visitors.

 The government decided to do studies to see how the situation could be fixed, and they came up with a plan that would cost millions of pesos and take a long time to implement. The people of the area had come to depend on visitors to the falls to eat at the restaurants and shop with the many vendors.

By the time the government actually got around to fixing the problem, they would have died of hunger. So the entire community went up-river with whatever tools they could get their hands on, and before the government officials could even decide how they would divide up the millions of pesos they could skim off the project, the locals had chopped and dug their way through the obstruction and had the water flowing again.

I don’t think anyone was anxious to get back on the bus, but we still had another couple of hours before we would arrive in Palenque. It wasn’t long before we finally got out of the mountains and into flatter jungle.

Our hotel was a resort near the Palenque Mayan ruins, but we would have to wait until the next morning to visit them. But by this time we had developed the happy habit of five o’clock wine and goodies time. We all rounded up the stashes we’d bought before we left the big city and headed for the seating area near the outdoor lobby. Before a single cork was popped, the guy at the desk was on the phone to management. Another guy came to tell us that they would require a corkage fee. We said okay, no problem, how much? He said $200 pesos per bottle. I (acting as translator for the group) pointed out that our wine averaged $100 pesos per bottle, but all I got was a sympathetic shrug.

So we picked up our bottles and goodies and headed back toward our rooms, which were in another building. Fortunately, we trouble-makers happened to all be in a one building of the many on the property. We all went into our rooms and hauled out our very heavy metal chairs and our water glasses and went on with our party, well within site of the front desk. We were ready to go into one of the rooms, if necessary, but the evening was too nice to go inside. In just a little while, Jaime came by to tell us that he had received a call from management and, although we would not be permitted to drink our own wine (without a ridiculous charge) in the common area, they would look the other way if we stayed by our rooms. A good time was had by all.

The next morning was spent at the Palenque Mayan ruins. Apparently, these ruins were originally set in the middle of a bustling city with many, many buildings and lots of people. Now, Palenque ruins are in a beautiful park with lots of huge shade trees and gravel paths through manicured lawns. I can’t remember ever seeing a more beautiful ruins setting.
The most interesting building was one that is still undergoing restoration, mostly because we could wander all around it.

We had a local guide who was very knowledgeable about the ruins to explain it all to us - at least as much as has been figured out. There is lots of info online, so I’m not even going to try to explain it all.

We had planned to visit the Palenque museum but found out that it was closed on Mondays, so Jaime made a slight change in our schedule so that we could make a quick stop the next morning before we left the area.

Our final stop was in Villahermosa, which must have been a beautiful village at some point in it’s history but is now a big, bustling oil town. West of Villahermosa and into the state of Veracruz is the location of the ceremonial centers of the Olmecs,  considered the “mother” civilization of Mexico. I was hoping we would go to the original La Venta, an important ceremonial center that I’ve never visited before, but we were told that it is now the center of an oil field, so we would visit the La Venta that is now a park in Villahermosa.

Although not much is known about the Olmec people, they are famous for the giant stone heads that have been found all around the area. The geography of the area proves that the stone from which these heads are carved had to be somehow transported quite a long distance. But as these people had not discovered the wheel, no one knows how they did it.

The park had many interesting smaller stone carvings, but I kept waiting to see the giant heads. I have seen quite a few in the state of Veracruz, and I was looking  forward to seeing more here. I was disappointed to learn that they only had two. Scientists expect to uncover many more as they continued to explore in the area of the original La Venta ceremonial center.

Really, the highlight of the park was to discover that the jungle between the walkways was full of coati mundi. I spotted the first one, and then the park guide showed us how he could make them come running by making plastic crackle like a potato chip bag. They seemed to be quite tame.

Unfortunately, their coloring gives them excellent camouflage in the jungle, so it doesn’t show up very well in my photos. They look like a cross between a opossum and a raccoon but with a long ringed tail that they hold straight up in the air.

We had one final night in a nice hotel in an uninspiring area before our very early flight back to Guadalajara in the morning. As always, the vacation was great but it was nice to return home, at least for a few days. The day after tomorrow, I will again be at the Guadalajara airport, setting out on another adventure. See you then!

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