5 mins

Visting Mexico's 'newest' Mayan ruins

Wander Woman, Marie Javins, drops by some newly-discovered Mayan ruins and recommends chillin' at Yaxchilan

Mayan ruins (Marie Javins)

I hopped off the colectivo from town, where I’d checked my luggage at the bus station after a shuttle journey from Villahermosa airport and a plane journey from Mexico City, then strolled into Palenque on a Friday afternoon. Whoa, was it humid. Sure, I've been in hotter places, like when I lived in Cairo over a summer, but the air here in Chiapas felt thick and damp. I was sweating before I got through the entrance gate.

I paid my entrance fee and wandered up the marked path, which led to a grassy plaza surrounded by ruins. The lawn was a brilliant lime-green, something I would have called 60s-Hulk-green in my former incarnation as a comic book colourist.

Temples, terraces, and a ruin called the palace surrounded the plaza, and I climbed up into the one on the far end, where I rested under a shaded arch. Palenque’s ruins are renowned for their sculpted reliefs, and for the preservation afforded them by being covered by jungle for many years. Even now, the site is barely excavated, but the part on display is well-manicured.

I climbed around until nearly closing time, then hurried to the trail that leads through the jungle down the back exit gate. I’d read the best way to see Palenque was to enter at the main gate and exit via the back gate, since it would be a downhill climb through the jungle that way. As I found my way along the path, past small ruins, waterfalls, and tall trees, I was glad to have found my way here.

There’s a museum near the back gate, so I visited that, then caught a colectivo back to town, where I reclaimed my luggage, then walked up the street, around the corner, and to a charming hotel I’d booked using points. I turned on the air con and headed straight to the shower. The humidity was really something.

The next day, Saturday, was ambitious even by my standards.

The previous morning, I'd left Mexico City via metro to shuttle bus to plane to shuttle bus to Palenque, seen the ruins, and then kind of collapsed.

This wasn't to be a rest day, though. I'd read about Yaxchilan and Bonampak, two less-visited Mayan sites. The former was so hard to get to, you had to take a boat for the last leg. And then I had an overnight bus right after that.

It would be tough to do both of these sites by public transport in a single day, but most travel agents in Palenque offer day tours to both sites. There are day tours to some spectacular waterfalls too, but I had to make choices. And have reasons to come back.

At six in the morning, I left my luggage with hotel reception and stood in front of the hotel gate until a van pulled up for me.

"Marie Javier?" The driver got out and showed me a receipt with something sort of like my name.

"Close enough."

I jumped in the passenger seat. There were three other passengers in the van, but no one greeted me. It was dark and none of us were terribly cheery at that hour.

We picked up another couple, drove an hour and a half into the sunrise, then stopped for breakfast.

Now I could see we had two Mexican couples and one Brooklyn-American-Chinese from Wisconsin. No one was all that alert yet, but we had coffee and eggs, and everyone else had fruits and breads while I nibbled on some tortillas.

We got back in the van and drove on to around ten, when our driver pulled up near a pier and a ticket pavilion.

We boarded boats – other vans with tourists pulled up too and those other tourists joined us –and we headed up (or down?) the river about 20 minutes, and then pulled up to a pier at the bottom of a hill.

Up the hill was Yaxchilan. I walked every excavated inch of it, and was glad I did. This is better than I’d imagined it to be – deep in the jungle, atmospheric, a bit wild. Amazing.

And after we'd all gotten soaking wet from sweat and humidity, and listened with amusement to howler monkeys trying to sound a lot bigger than they are, we boarded the boat again and headed back to the pier to the van to lunch to Bonampak.

Which had lovely murals.

By now, I was utterly beat. But there was still one more thing to do.

To take my sweaty, stinky self to the bus station for the overnight bus to Merida.

Oh, no. The overnight bus from Palenque to Merida was full. And I was so disappointed. The first-class buses I'd been in back in Guanajuato state where I’d stayed for a month had been bright and shiny new coaches with leg rests and free water and those folding wings for your head and neck. They'd have fancy men's AND women's rooms. And WiFi. But this? This wasn't first class. These buses were... well, essentially Greyhound, which is our quite average national bus lines back home.

Good thing I'd purchased my ticket ahead of time, at least. I'd tried repeatedly online, first in Safari, then in Firefox, first with Visa, then with Mastercard... it couldn't be done on a foreign card on the ADO site, though Primera Plus back in Guanajuato had a great online system. I finally called, and never got past the phone tree. Exasperated, I'd marched up to the ADO counter in Mexico City’s bus terminal, the translation of what I was looking for pulled up on my phone. They'd sold me the ticket I was using now.

A tiny woman sat next to me, which was a plus. But when two seats ended up open across from us, I scooted over. I only woke up a few times over the night. Plus, I got to watch Frankenweenie in Spanish. Fortunately, it was pretty easy to figure out the story without having a clue what any of the characters were saying.

The bus pulled into Merida around five. Five on a Sunday morning. I pulled my bag into the terminal and stood perplexed. Now what? I had hours before the town woke up. It dawned on me that scheduling a 5am arrival on a Sunday wasn’t my brightest move. So I walked up to the ADO counter and bought a ticket on the next bus to Chichen Itza, which was only about an hour and a half away. I'll have to visit Merida some other time.

When the ADO bus left me in the parking lot at the Chichen Itza main gate, I was a little surprised no one else was there. But then, it wasn't quite 9am yet.

OK, not no one. Workers were setting up. I put my bag into the free luggage storage and bought my entry ticket, which consisted of two parts acquired from two separate queues.

I headed to a tourist restaurant for breakfast. Because one thing all these years of travel have taught me is to always maintain a regular eating and coffee schedule. And drink water. Even if you eat nuts and Nescafe, even if you are reduced to the worst fast-food burger in your memory, eat.

I also charged my phone while I ate, in case I ran out of camera power on my Lumix and had to switch to my camera-phone. I'd used both cameras all day yesterday at Yaxchilan and Palenque, and there hadn’t been power points on the coach.

Finally, after breakfast, it was time to get in and have a look around before the masses poured into Chichen Itza.

As I walked along the shaded entry path into the central courtyard of Chichen Itza, vendors were setting up along the perimeter of the walkway, across all the spokes around the core of the site. They left me alone this early. No time to sell right now, they seemed to say. They were setting up for the big fish coming in later in the day, the hordes of tour buses from Cancun.

The main shebang, El Castillo, revealed itself as I walked. You can't climb it or go in it and I think that's exactly how it should be. I was a little shocked at how we could climb all over the pyramids in Mexico City. I thought about how it is cool that El Castillo is a calendar, but it's easier to just have one on your phone.

I continued on to the ball court, where the acoustics really are amazing. But I still couldn't hear what the two souvenir sellers in the corner were whispering about.

As the morning turned into the afternoon and the sun started beating down, the site became packed full of visitors. I was glad to have gotten here early.

I left and went to the luggage storage area to pick up my bag. I had booked a hotel by the side entrance to the ruins, and now I realised I couldn't walk to it with my luggage. When I have gone around the world, I've carried rucksacks, and that would have done the trick here over the dirt and rock paths. But the wheelie bag I was using – since I'd mostly been going on a plane to one place – wasn't going to cut it.

"How do I get to the hotels?" A policeman said "Taxi." The taxis cost twice what they should have been been, so I refused to get in one.

"How do I get to the hotels without a taxi?" I now asked.

"Collectivo." He waved me to the bus stop.

But only large coaches bound for cities came by as I waited. Sheepishly, I skulked back to the taxi rank, ready to pay the inflated fare.

I smiled and hoped no one remembered me from before.

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