Chiapas: San Cristobal to Palenque


Although we loved the beach and were happy to be there, we do have a bit of an agenda these days. We need to make our way to Belize. We have to cancel our temporary vehicle permit for the truck and eventually re-enter Mexico with a fresh 180 day permit for LoJo, and ultimately a new visa for Paula and I. This wasn't in our initial plans for our trip. We planned to exhaust our visa here in Mexico and then move south to Belize, Guatemala, etc.That was before my nephew decided to plan a wedding/reception and not consult with us on the date. I feel he is very selfish to set a date without discussion and then to merely send me an email with said date set in stone - no options, no changes, no consultation with Uncle John. I know, I'm shocked too!

So, given our visa and truck permit were set to expire on May 27th and my nephew's celebration is on May 23rd - and we do REALLY want to be there - we need to do a border run to Belize. As much as it was nice to chill at the beach, we made our way east to San Cristobal de la Casas. San Cristobal is another beautiful colonial city in the state of Chiapas in Southern Mexico at 7,000+ feet. We are here because I wanted to check out the city (Paula has already been here for work) and it is on the way to the ruins of Palenque. Here in San Cristobal, Paula and I had some discussion regarding routes, banditos, and Zapatistas.

Streets of San Cristobal de Las Casas

The reality of driving through Mexico is that bad things do happen here. We try not to focus on the potential of being a victim to some of the violence, but we cannot ignore it completely. We heard a million stories before we left home on why we shouldn't travel through Mexico. Some may have actually been true accounts of a real event, but most were of the, "I heard about a friend of a friend....." However, we have heard directly from folks that have seen actual violence since we have been in Mexico, so we do take it seriously. Paula and I tend to process the news a little differently, though. We aren't sure which way is more right or less wrong, but we have differing opinions. Paula wants to heed the warnings that we hear about, and I see other overlanders not having issues so I just want to press on and drive the same routes. So, in San Cristobal - Chiapas - is where we have a couple of discussions about possible safety issues.

The reason is this: There is a highway, 199, from San Cristobal to Palenque. This road is winding and full of topes (speed bumps), nothing we haven't driven before. However, on this route the locals tend to turn the road into an unofficial toll road at the topes entering their town. You drive to a tope and slow to a stop as the town people, at best, raise rope across the highway and ask for 20 pesos or so, and at worst, place nail spiked boards across the road while the men of town surround your vehicle and demand 200+ pesos. If you don't give them the cash, things get ugly. In some cases very ugly. Two weeks before we were to do the drive another overlanding couple drove through without incident. A little less than a week before we were to drive Hwy 199, a former colleague of Paula's alerted her that two tourist vans were held against their will and ultimately robbed. That event went on for what was described as a 'few hours'. We were advised to steer clear.

Just a smidge of very abbreviated background of the cause of these issues as I understand it: The Zapatistas in Chiapas are tired of getting screwed by the government. They live in poverty on lands that attract a lot of tourists because of the ruins of Palenque, the waterfalls of Agua Azul and other wonderful natural landscapes in the area. And, the government wants to develop these areas in some fashion that is similar to Cancun (a public private arrangement that likely will only benefit the cronies of the government). The locals are pissed and are 1. Extracting some dollars from tourists traveling through their lands and, 2. Using violence and protests to make traveling through there horribly uncomfortable for these tourists in the hope of thwarting the government's plan to develop. (The government will not invest money into the region as long as there is 'unrest').

I am uneducated on these issues, but it seems to me that I would be pissed too if I lived in a shack (most folks in fact live in shacks) and the government wanted to take over the lands that me and my ancestors have lived on for years and not set up a system so that there were sustainable development of this land where all who live on it could benefit. Now maybe this isn't a terribly profitable investment for a developer to take on if they have to carve out some cash flow to the locals and the development doesn't get done, but isn't that better to those that live there than having there lands exploited with no remuneration at all for these communities? I worked in finance in an arena where everyone had the same opportunities to win and lose and I was comfortable with that. These folks have no advocate, no voice, a corrupt government and everything to lose. I would be pissed. That said, their tactics are extreme but I don't know that I wouldn't be as fed up as to press the issue using any method that showed results. None of you reading this (I'm assuming largely as this is on the interweb so anyone could read it) would likely know how it feels to be backed into this corner. We were all pretty fortunate to be born in a developed country. No matter your socioeconomic upbringing, if you are born into a developed country you are a world (two worlds technically) ahead of those born into 'developing' countries (aka Third World).

So I know that I don't know the whole story, but I at least get some of it.

Now back to the issue at hand, how are we going to drive to Palenque. Many overlanders avoid the trouble road and take the longer and more scenic drive around highway 307. This route heads south to the Guatemalan border and then East along it and basically stays along the border until it heads back West again toward Palenque. You miss most of the 199 and drive through some incredible landscapes and visit other more remote ruins. This was a diversion that I really wanted to take but it adds a week and we wanted/needed to get to Belize. We took the other longer, but slightly less scenic drive back through Tuxla Guiteriz then up to Villahermosa and then down to Palenque. Long drive, no issues.

In San Cristobal, we spent a couple of days walking around and checking out the sights - general touristy stuff. The second day we were out and about and found a Castilan cafe - it's a pretty interesting and diverse city. We had lunch there, and after walking around for a while, took refuge there once again when it started to rain. We spent the rest of the afternoon drinking wine and discussing the issues on the 199 and the things that generate fear on this trip. Paula has a normal and (usually) appropriate fear of banditos, bad situations, and scary roads. I have a fear of missing out on seeing and experiencing some of the many places that I have read about during my research for this trip. My fears sound much more trite, I know, but there is a validity to them as well. I don't want to not do something because I am afraid of the boogey man. I know the boogey man is out there occasionally, but I want to play the probabilities. Paula sometimes feels that if the probabilities tip from unlikely to more likely than not, then it may be too much risk (and hassle).

After a long discussion and a few glasses of wine/beer, we decided that we need to find a balance (that word again) and meet somewhere in the middle. It was a difficult discussion for us and it took time to sort through our fears, biases and egos. I can't actually articulate a final resolution that we can add to a mission statement or manifesto for the trip, but I can say that we are more aware now of each other's fears and desires on this voyage, and can now be more respectful of each other's feelings when we debate the next move. I feel we haven't always been pushing ourselves on this trip and I do have FOMO (some good and some bad) but this isn't about checking boxes on what I saw today, its about traveling slowly with my wife and getting to know her and myself again after 23 years of grinding out careers. I think going forward we will find a mutual comfort and accept compromises with less friction.

Cafe in a strange city...refuge from the rain. What better place to discuss hostage situations all afternoon.

There was an organic store next door. Our groceries had no opinion.

This trip has provided a whole new conversation to our lives. Of that, there is no doubt.

On to Palenque - a magnificent Mayan city or another orderly pile of old rocks depending on who you ask.....

I love the ruins. There is something about these old civilizations that fascinates me. I am so curious about how society worked back then, from the sewage systems to the human sacrifices - how did it all work?!? Well, I've been to several and I still don't really have the answers. Anyway, the ruins at Palenque are staggeringly cool. We were there early before the crowds and that gave us the opportunity to really hang out in certain spots and take everything in. They date back to the 3rd century and flourished in the 7th century. It is remarkable what they could build there without steel tools, livestock or the wheel.

We spent a couple of nights at the campground Maya Bell, where they had a pool (so hot again) and a restaurant. This was a great couple of days and we were pleased that we didn't miss Palenque.

From there we had another pretty long day in the truck to Chetumal and the border of Belize.

Tomorrow, a new country.

Yax Ha campground in Chetumal. On the Mexico/Belize border.

#mexico