Not long after driving through the southern foothills of Pico de Orizaba, we dropped down to the expansive sea-level marshlands in the state of Tabasco. The majority of the autopista through these parts was a raised roadbed. We were now hoping to slow down our pace in order to visit some Mayan sites. But before that, we made a quick stop off at Parque Museo La Venta in the town of Villahermosa, Tabasco. This is one of the premier collections of Olmec artifacts, in a lakeside-jungle setting in the heart of the urban city center. From what I learned the Olmecs pre-dated the Mayans, did not construct many large temples/pyramids, but did carve huge stone statues (notably, giant heads).
A modern statue in a fountain at Parque Museo La Venta.
Many of these statues were moved to this museum from surrounding areas, and displayed outdoors along paths through a dense jungle crawling with coati. When deep back on these paths, one would think they were in a remote jungle – were it not for the occasional honking of horns & engine noises coming from the cars on the crowded city streets a few hundred meters away.
Several examples of the huge Olmec stone statues.
Some other artifacts & more delicate statues were on display in a quasi-indoor setting, with huge maps depicting the extent of the Olmec civilization in southern Mexico.
Many of the artifacts housed indoors at the museum in Villahermosa.
Large map depicting many of the discovered Olmec sites in southern Mexico.
In addition to the archaeological aspects of this place, it was also a small zoo for fauna of the region. An aviary housed several macaws & other species. An underground display housed some small nocturnal mammals in cave-like dens where they sleep the day away. Several old or rehabilitated jaguars were in cages. Definitely would not want to come face-to-face with one of these guys out in the wild!
Just a thin fence between me and this beast.
We still had a few hours left to drive for our camping destination – the ancient site of Palenque in the state of Chiapas. Still abiding by our roll-into-camp-at-sunset style of travel, we passed through the modern town of Palenque just a sundown. This required us to leave the beautiful asphalt of the toll road & head south towards to ancient Mayan site of Palenque. We knew of several established camping areas not far from the park’s gates. The one we selected appeared to be recently abandoned and in a state of disrepair, but the seemingly stoned employee had no problem with us parking the 110 to camp for the night.
Primo parking as the only guests at this camping lodge.
Exploring some walking trails around the campground.
Simple breakfast of yerba mate, bread, cheese, and dulce de membrillo.
Palenque is one of three major Mayan sites (along with Tikal & Copán). We entered the park early the next morning in hopes to beat the big tourist rush. Scores of vendors & “guides” were milling around the entrance, as well as inside the grounds of the park. We ascended several of the pyramids, but sadly could not enter the main temple (Templo de las Inscripciones), inside of which is the grand tomb & sarcophagus of Pakal – one of Palenque’s important rulers.
A few of Palenque’s temples, before being overtaken by tourists for the day.
Hiking up the steep & shallow reconstructed temple steps.
Some scholars say that most of this area would have been deforested, back when the city was in use.
A scenic path through the jungles winds by some waterfalls & outlying minor ruins, on the way to the indoor museum. Many beautiful artifacts are housed here, including a scale model of Pakal’s tomb, as well as replicas of his jade mask.
Scenic path to the museum.
Excellent specimens on display inside the museum.
After spending half the day at the Palenque ruins, we grabbed a quick lunch of pollo asado in the modern town of Palenque. We made quick work of an entire grilled chicken, turning it into little corn tortilla street tacos (while of course drinking more mate). A few of the employees there were looking at the strange leafy-green substance and pondering as to what it was. We explained it was just a caffeinated tea, and you should have seen the look on their face when we poured hot water over the top of it!
Our driving destination goal for the end of the day would be the Mayan ruin site of Toniná (which interestingly enough was the city that conquered Palenque many centuries ago). But on the way we decided to stop off at the waterfalls of Misol Ha. [Note: the indigenous tribe that owns the land will charge you a toll to drive on the road there, and then charge you an entrance fee when you get to the falls. Overall just a few bucks per person, but still an annoyance to have to pay twice.] This was a great place to take a dip, and on the backside of the main falls is a path that leads to a small cave. I inquired with one of the staff there as to its size, and he said it only went back about 50 meters. I quickly swam back across the lake to run back to the truck to get a few flashlights & my camera (stored safely inside a Pelican case). We waded back into the darkness to find a few waterfalls rushing in through cave walls, and many bats hanging from the ceiling. A fun little spontaneous spelunking adventure, followed by more relaxing by the main pool of the Misol Ha cascade.
Cyril braving the falls.
Exploring the cave behind Misol Ha waterfall.
From there, the road south to Ocosingo (which is the main town near Toniná) quickly deteriorated. Small landslides & washouts were around dozens of corners, in addition to an endless supply of topes to slow down drivers through every small village. These giant speed bumps will wreak havoc on the vehicle if you don’t slow down in time!
One of the dozens of washouts along this section of road.
We had hoped to arrive at Toniná prior to their closing time of 5 pm in order to camp near the entrance. But the poor state of this winding mountainous road really delayed our southward progress. After some urban navigation & asking directions several times in Ocosingo, we found the rural road heading out to the ruins. Around a corner on this country road the ruins suddenly appeared off in the distance rising up from the jungle, which was quite an impressive sight at sunset. We didn’t get to the park gates until just after 6 pm, and they said we couldn’t camp there but that we probably could at a place just a few hundred meters back down the road. After inquiring there, they said we could park wherever we wanted since we were the only guests. We also paid the señora to cook us up a nice breakfast of chorizo, eggs, beans, & quesadillas.
Camping near Toniná.
Delicious Mexican breakfast!
The ruins of Toniná are a bit off the main tourist routes, so we ended up being two of five visitors that morning. This made for a stark difference in experience compared to the previous day at Palenque. Some of the pyramid steps were a bit sketchy to ascend & descend, and in many places small wooden signs with a yellow footprint were placed to indicate where it was safer to walk.
The indoor museum here was somewhat small, but still had some nice pieces, including some tools & jewelry. From what I learned, Toniná was one of the only Mayan sites to be built on the side of a mountain.
Now done with our morning at this site, we had the pleasure to re-trace our route north from Ocosingo to Palenque on that lovely curvaceous mountain road, riddled with topes and deslaves. As mentioned before, many of the speed bumps are not warned with a sign ahead of time, but thankfully most of the washouts were. Throughout much of this region there are big signs for the Zapatistas. However, we didn’t get to glimpse any actual guerillas in our midst.
Several Zapatista signs that we encountered in Chiapas.
Our goal for the afternoon was to make it to the relatively new border crossing at El Ceibo, in the state of Tabasco. We wanted to get there in time to return the temporary vehicle import sticker, in order to receive the $400 refund. We arrived around 3:30, and were the only people crossing the border – in either direction. If you look at this place on Google Maps, you can see that the Mexican side of the border is quite developed, and the Guatemalan side is not. We witnessed a nice big building to house the Mexico imigración and aduana, but in Guatemala only a small shack with no electricity (just powered by a small generator). When taking care of the paperwork on the Mexico side, there were dozens of employees to attend to these two gringos, and some employees posted up just to open the doors for us. With no lines to wait in, this was one of the least-stressful border crossings ever.