Palenque and Agua Azul – Discovering the unspoilt beauty of Chiapas


There was only one night bus going from Oaxaca to Palenque in the southernmost region of Chiapas, bordering Guatemala. Fortunately, the local ADO bus company provided great comfort. That was exactly what was needed for a 15-hour long ride, by night, on the bendy, mountainous roads of Chiapas. I couldn’t expect much less and the length of the trip didn’t bother me.

Yet, the woman who stepped inside the bus with a camera on her wrist and started filming every passenger’s face right before we would hit the road was slightly more troubling. As it turned out, she was filming us in case of an accident, so that we’d be easier to recognize. We definitely were off to a good start!

Trying to forget that my life was on the line at every turn, I chose to focus on the landscape unfolding before my eyes. As we were entering Chiapas, the landscape got greener. At the same time, the roads got narrower and steeper. We stopped every once in a while in a small town to get some more passengers on board in the darkest of night and drove across mountain villages at dawn, where locals were settling on the side of the road to start selling some fruits while chicken were running freely on unpaved roads. The more we progressed into Chiapas, the more colourful and embroidered the dresses on local women looked, even in the most remote of villages.

Eventually, my friends and I arrived in one piece at the Palenque bus station. The city of Palenque looked exactly like all the other small towns we had seen so far but we weren’t there to go grocery shopping at an OXXO. Rather, we had come all this way to discover one of the most beautiful Mayan cities in Mexico.
Formerly known as Lakamha, “Big Water”, the ancient city of Palenque stood on the verge of the current city, right in the middle of a dense jungle. It had flourished during the 7th century before declining during the 8th century. Nowadays, less than 10% of the actual city was excavated, leaving hundreds of structures undiscovered, hidden among the jungle.

We had to negotiate transportation to get us to our hotel and then to the site. Our lodging was near the side of the main road but it felt completely secluded. There was no Wi-Fi whatsoever but it wasn’t needed as we could hear the sound of nature from our bungalow, birds singing and monkeys playing in the thick foliage above our heads.

The same sounds were ringing in our ears as we arrived at the entrance of the Palenque site when suddenly a loud, ominous scream shrilled everyone. It seemed like a ferocious beast was fighting somewhere close, ready to jump right at us. I thought of all the legends I had heard about jaguars wandering the Chiapas jungle. When I looked around though, no one was batting an eye. A ruckus in nearby trees caught my attention and that’s when I saw why no one was scared. That strange scream was just that of a very quirky kind of monkeys, the howler monkeys, whose growling supposedly made them the noisiest of land animals.

Howler monkeys seemed to be at home in Palenque as their guttural cries popped out every now and then throughout our visit. Nature was reigning supreme on the site. The first thing that stunned me was how green the site looked, how some of its main monuments had been buried under an ocean of lush greenery. It almost seemed too green, as if a filter had been applied to the site to make it pop. The grey facades of the ancient Mayan city’s compounds, scattered around the jungle, made the contrast even starker.

Palenque wasn’t the biggest Mayan city of all but it commanded to be explored in its every detail, summoning a feeling of adventure. The Temple of the Inscriptions, the first monument to be seen upon entry, was off limits but countless smaller-scaled buildings could be climbed at will. I sometime was all alone on top of a monument, my only companion being a lazy iguana taking a nap under the burning sun.

The Palace, a complex of adjacent buildings and courtyards in the middle of the site, showcased some of the best preserved bas-reliefs in all Mayan sites across Central America. Its unusual architecture stood out from every standpoint and most notably, its four-storied Observation Tower, unlike anything I had ever seen in a pre-hispanic site. Bas-reliefs could also be seen on other structures such as the Temple of the Skull and the Temple of the Jaguar, so aptly named that a local vendor was selling there a jaguar whistle imitating the sound of a snarling jaguar. Or maybe was it the sound of a howler monkey…

We then walked towards the Palenque museum, through a seemingly unspoilt part of the ancient city whose ruins were entirely covered in trees, looking from afar like some long-forgotten burial mounds. These tumuli-shaped remnants of the city seemed separate from the centre of the site, entirely outgrown by forest, a small river winding between the buildings, providing water for the numerous species who had taken over Palenque.

The next day would show us that Chiapas still had a lot of wonders up its sleeves. It had been hard to leave Palenque, although a rather dull museum had concluded our visit and made it easier to bid farewell to the site. However, there was still a lot of exploring for us to do before reaching our next destination, the colonial city of San Cristobal de las Casas. Our first stop would be the Misol-Ha waterfalls.

We got there in less than an hour and it took a bit of climbing to get to the falls, even though the path had been adapted to the many tourists stopping over. The falls themselves were beautiful but what stood out was the symphony of colours on the site, bright green and ochre moss, so vivid they could have been painted in the morning.

Our next stop was even more surreal. I could have sworn the Agua Azul waterfalls had come out of a dream. Nestled beyond a deep jungle appeared natural swimming pools so turquoise that I could have thought I was somewhere in the Caribbean for a while. Except that Agua Azul was spanning far and deep into the jungle, like splashes of intense blue paint.

Contrary to the Caribbean, water was freezing cold too but the humid heat in the air helped me enjoy the harsh cold. There were pools of all sizes and some were inaccessible due to strong currents, their access barred by ropes. Current was strong near the waterfalls as well but they were more photogenic from afar anyway and a wooden platform had been built in front of the falls, where tourists could take some selfies or just enjoy the backdrop.

We arrived late in San Cristobal de las Casas, our heads full of the mesmerizing beauty of the Chiapas scenery and its unspoilt historic heritage. The region’s touristy and essential landmarks were so breath-taking that I clearly would have to come back in the future and stray off the beaten path some more.


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03.07.2019 15:21
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03.07.2019 16:01
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