Ruins and rodeo – Palenque to San Cristobal de las Casas

23 Jan 2020 – 29 Jan 2020

From Catamaco in Tabasco, we travelled further south and into the state of Chiapas to see the Mayan ruins at Palenque.

The journey took us to the most southern point we will go in our Mexico road trip. We stayed at a campsite conveniently close to the ruins, if a little noisy. The howler monkeys kept us awake for part of the night with their unearthly screeches.

We also met a convoy of Canadians – three motorhomes travelling together – and they told us very reassuring tales about the skills of Mexican mechanics. They can fix anything, we were told, and they relayed to us one story of a truck which had snapped in two and had been miraculously welded together. Nice to hear but we hope we never have to test this one.

Our Canadian companions also passed on alarming stories about the route we intended to take the following day to get to San Cristobel de las Casas. We had already read on various blogs and Tripadviser reviews plenty of scare stories about the risks travellers faced on the mountain road there. There were reports of Zapatista bandits barricading the roads and not letting drivers through unless a ransom sum was paid.

Worse than that, the Canadians told us they had heard about a couple who had been held up at gun point and robbed the previous week. But then, they added, this couple had apparently been driving the road at midnight. The one piece of advice we have had drummed in to us from all sources is ‘do not drive at night in Mexico’. In the dark, the risks come from all directions – unseen topes or sleeping policemen, potholes, wandering animals, drunk drivers. Armed bandits are at the end of a long list of risks to be aware of.

We weren’t sure if all the scare stories were true or had grown with the telling. Some of the reviews were a few years old. But they unnerved us sufficiently that we seriously dithered about whether we should avoid taking the mountain road to San Cristobal and, instead, back track to Villahermosa and take the main highway there. It was by all accounts a much longer, less scenic but much safer route. But if we did that, we would have missed out Ocosingo, or more specifically, we would have staying at “Jose’s House”.

We had read on iOverlander – the app we rely on heavily to find safe places to park overnight – that in Ocosingo, local family Jose and his wife Elki offer a warm welcome to passing campervanners and cyclists. Previous travellers waxed lyrical about the warmth of the welcome they received. The opportunity to stay with and meet a Mexican family? It sounded too good to miss. Just to reassure ourselves, we texted Elki at the mobile number given in the app. We wanted to come visit but would it be safe to travel? Her daughter Nina responded with an enthusiastic welcome – their house would be our house. Do come. She added that she was aware the police were patrolling this road because of the risks.

That was the reassurance we needed to hear. Though still very apprehensive, we set off at around 7 am, taking Nina’s advice to travel early in the morning.

Just in case we did meet some barricades, we made sure we had a stash of smaller peso notes at hand, ready to hand over.

It was a long steep climb through the mountains and when the engine started to heat up too much, we pulled up outside a village to wait for it to cool down. Two youngsters approached the campervan. But all they wanted was to sell us some warm empanadas…

…and crispy plantain which were delicious.

We carried on along the mountain road…

…and then we hit the first of the five informal road barricades that day. The first was manned a young girl, no more than eight years old, holding rope across the road to block our way and demanding nothing more from us than to buy some of her goodies. We couldn’t work out what but we waved our bag of plantain at her. She smiled, shrugged and down went her rope. On we drove and so it continued for the rest of the drive to Ocasingo. We met five more makeshift baricades and on each occasion, an apologetic smile and waved bag of plantain gave us a free pass through.

Further along on our road through the mountains, a fleet of police and army trucks came speeding past us and we saw them screech to a halt and assemble around a truck which had been pulled over at the side of the road. Something was kicking off for someone that afternoon but thankfully nothing that involved us.

Afterwards we heard the horrific tale of the gruesome murder of two cyclists – a Polish and a German – on that same route two years ago. The still unsolved murder has led to the setting up on a whatsapp group for solo cyclists in Mexico so they plan their route from one ‘safe’ house to another.

We were very glad we made the trip to Ocasingo and our time there will be one of the highlights of our whole trip I’m sure. Jose, Elki, Elki’s mum and daughter Nina were so warm and hospitable to us.

We were offered a parking spot just outside their house to stay the night …….

….as well as the use of their outdoor kitchen where we dined with Jose and Elki and fellow guest Duvan from Columbia. Here we all are…

And here with Molly, from left, daughter Nina, Elki and Jose.

Jose was very keen for us to stay in Ocasingo longer than one night but we had to press on with our trip. Still, we did take the family’s advice and before we set off for San Cristobel de las Casas, we visited the Mayan ruins at Tonino which, in the Mayan civilization, was once a more powerful city than Palenque.

Unlike Palenque which was busy with other tourists the day we visited, we had Tonino to ourselves which was magical.

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And then Jose tempted us with a further reason to linger on in Ocosingo – there was a chario or rodeo on that afternoon. We should come along for a bit before setting off on our travels again. We weakened…..we couldn’t miss this. Jose and Duvan piled in to the back of the van…

….squashing themselves in around our stuff with what turned out to be all their kit for a clothes and hat stall at the rodeo. All designs by daughter Elki.

We watched the caballeros compete….

….and pray…

…and did some shopping. I’ll take one of Elki’ s hats please.

Then it was time to leave – a slow departure as it turned out as we had timed it just as all the local ranchers arrived in procession, beers in hand, to celebrate the rodeo.

Though only 95km away, it was a long slow climb over the mountains to get to San Cristobal de la Casas. The first person we met when we arrived at the campsite there was Michelle, a cyclist from Dublin. And we discovered just how small the traveller world is in Mexico….we knew of her before she introduced herself. At Ocasingo, Jose had already showed us the snaps he had taken with Michelle. And parked next to us were Hans and Katya, a couple from Holland still in the recovery stage from the shock when their truck camper had snapped in two and had to be welded back together. Yes, they were the couple mentioned to us at Palenque.

Here we are with Michelle…

…..before she set off to complete her cycle from Cancun to Oaxaca.

We spent four days at the campsite in San Cristobal de las Casas. It was great to have some time to do some important stuff for the van…..like attaching the sunflower stickers we’ve carried around with us for months.

….and the plastic ivy that makes us look like intrepid travellers (thanks Regan – an inspired pressie!)…

Our fellow campers Maggie from Michigan and Antonio from Mexico who are heading down the Pan American highway indulged us by looking suitably impressed.

And we met Melisa and Derrin from Vermont…

…who gave us great tips on where to camp once we cross the border into the US.

And, of course, we also spent time wandering around the quaint town of San Cristobal de las Casas.

So as the sun sets over San Cristobel de la Casas (cue final credits) ….

….that’s the end of this part of our journey. Our next post is takes us over the mountains to Oaxaca and onward and, unfortunately, we get the opportunity to see for ourselves just how helpful Mexican mechanics can be. There’s van trouble ahead.

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