Losing yourself in the Mexican rainforest

The ruins at Palenque are within a national park in the state of Chiapas.

The ruins at Palenque are within a national park in the state of Chiapas.

I’m sitting on a balcony watching a small stream trickle through the lush greenery of the Mexican rainforest, while wildlife rustles around on its banks and in the treetops. The air is thick with the sounds of birds singing and, in the distance, howler monkeys letting off their distinct dinosaur-sounding call. The temperature is brisk in the morning, but by lunchtime the humidity is heavy; there’s no relief from it until the sun goes down at 7:30PM.

This is Palenque. The best way to describe the overall experience is Mexican ecotourism at its best. Palenque is a Mayan ruins’ site in the state of Chiapas. Although ruins are a dime a dozen in Mexico, this one is a little different because it is situated in the heart of the rainforest a few hundred kilometres north of the Guatemalan border.

My brother Thomas and I arrived in the town of Palenque on a Sunday afternoon. We took a ‘collectivo’ to a place called Panchan, just outside the gate to the national park where the ruins are. Panchan is a series of five sets of cabanas in the rainforest. All of them are reasonably priced, clean, and most are fairly secure. All the cabanas neighbour each other, so the experience of waking up to the howler monkeys is one that everyone can share. Thomas and I chose a high set cabana in ‘Jungle Palace’ with a balcony that backed onto the rainforest.

Panchan is a quiet little community. Besides the people that run the cabanas, there are a number of hippies who seem like they have been here forever. There are no shops, just two restaurants. One of them, strangely enough, is an Italian restaurant serving giant helpings of pasta dishes, pizza, salads, and a couple of Mexican dishes. The other is a more economical and traditional restaurant just around the corner. It would be hard to miss if you didn’t keep your eyes peeled, there’s no signage and the only indication that it is a restaurant is a Mexican lady cooking behind a high counter. Don’t be fooled by how understated it is, though; Thomas and I had a delicious meal there. He had chorizo, chicken, vegetables, rice, and beans while I had a similar dish but without the meat.

Pictures really don't do this place justice.

Pictures really don’t do this place justice.

During the day people staying at Panchan either visit the Palenque ruins or participate in one of the many ecotours available. The ruins are about 3kms from the entry to the national park; ‘collectivo’s’ to the top run regularly or you can walk. The ruins themselves will take your breath away immediately. You can climb the steep stairs to the top of the ancient Mayan cathedrals and look over the rainforest, get lost in the intricacies of the entertainment centre, or just sit in the shade and marvel at the ability of the Mayans. Guided tours around the site are offered in English or Spanish, although we opted to just walk around ourselves so we had time to take photos. There are explanatory plaques beneath each ruin so you know what it is. There are three separate major sites and it took us around three hours to see it all. The exit is also beautiful. The path leads you through the bush where you can see the ruins of what used to be living quarters, plus some small but picturesque waterfalls with water as clear as glass.

Other ecotours that are available from Panchan include: guided rainforest walks, horseback riding through the rainforest, and transport to the nearby Cascada Roberto Barrios. Thomas and I organised to do the latter with a couple of German girls, Nancy and Katrina, on our third day. A ‘collectivo’ dropped us in a small Zapatista village about an hour away. Four men were sitting under a makeshift shade collecting the MXN$20 entry fee (around AUD$1.50). After paying, one of the men jumped up and guided us down into the rainforest, the sound of rushing water getting louder and louder. Suddenly we could see a beautiful lagoon full of the clearest and bluest water I have ever seen. Two small waterfalls were rushing into the lagoon and a wooden bridge stretched over the body of water. About 20 metres over the bridge and down a set of stairs is a larger lagoon with slightly bigger waterfalls – this is the place to set yourself up for the day.

Scattered on the shore of the lagoon are chairs made from tree stumps where you can leave your belongings. If you jump in the water and swim to the far edge of the waterfall you will be able to see a set of footholds which can be used as stairs to climb up and down the waterfall. You read that correctly – you and climb up and down the waterfall. Unlike Chiapas’ famous waterfalls, Aqua Azul, Cascada Roberto Barrios is not a well known place and few people visit the area. The town also has a reputation which puts a lot of people off visiting. We were told not to take anything with us and always stay alert. Although, like most places in Mexico, we found the locals friendly, welcoming, and eager to show us around. It is a bonus for people who make the effort to visit Roberto Cascada, though; you are guaranteed to have the place to yourself or only sharing it with a couple of other people.

After a day packed full of activity people return to Panchan, which comes to life as the sun sets. Those who have been out exploring for the day return, and others who had retired to their cabanas during the hottest part of the day emerge. Most people congregate at the Italian restaurant, where live music features on a nightly basis, or around the corner at a smaller, but cheaper, bar. As we overheard one British guy say: “There’s nothing to do here so everyone just drinks.”

Another option at nighttime is to try out the local mushrooms. Palenque is known for its mushrooms. Locals even seem to take great pride in the reputation with psychedelic murals heavily featuring the fungi, and mushroom lights lining the pathways. Locals sell them along the road to the ruins or it is probably quite easy to find them in Panchan itself – I didn’t ask. Be careful how many you eat, though; you don’t want to be ‘that’ person at the bar unable to talk and looking like you are having a horrible time.

Palenque and its surrounds is a growing tourist area and will only get bigger over the next few years. Already the ruins can become overcrowded. This is only set to get worse as more people read about the place in Lonely Planet or the ever-growing number of travel articles which feature it. Panchan is still very tranquil, although, the construction of what looks like a five-star hotel is underway right next door so, again, how long this will last is uncertain. Balancing this growing tourism with environmental and historical conservation is a common challenge throughout Central America, as natural wonders and inexpensive travel means more people flock to its shores. What steps Mexico takes to deal with is the big question.

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