After a bit of research and some hard thinking, we found the most time efficient and interesting way to make our way from San Cristobal to Palenque was to complete a day trip via some natural sites and end our day at the Ruins, to be dropped in Palenque town and so this is exactly what we booked. The trip itself would take several hours, so to see a few more incredible sights and get our transport thrown in too was a great deal and off we headed at 0500 that morning. As mentioned previously (in our San Cristobal de las Casas post), our hostel worker had a real thing for security, so when our van pulled up, not only twenty minutes late, it then took us about another five to ten minutes to solve the locks on the front doors from both inside and out, fumbling around in the dark and telling our driver in broken Spanish that we were sorry and we were coming, we were just incredibly locked in!! We bustled ourselves onto the bus as our huge backpacks slid under the back seats and settled in for the rest of the pick up around town. He was a truly peculiar driver – San Cristobal (along with most Central American cities actually) was filled with tiny little cobblestoned one way streets, so when attempting to pick a group up from a house down one of these said streets, he decided to take a Mexicano short cut. We reversed around ten blocks total, nearly the entirety of the one way street, dodging parked cars and stray dogs in the dark, rather than go the long way around and attempt to come the right way. I have honestly lost track of the amount of times we have said to each other, ‘It’s Central America, anything can happen!’.
Once pick up of the others was complete, off we went to a small place up in the hinterlands, high in the mountains amongst plenty of farm land for a quick breakfast stop (pre-packed in true backpacker fashion!) and I think it honestly came at a great time for us. Blake’s patience with the seemingly useless speed bumps literally every twenty metres down the road was wearing thin and we had driven for kilometres under these crazy, speed hump riddled conditions and had barely travelled all that far for the amount of time it had taken. It was a beautiful break stop, despite the stray dogs everywhere trying to steal your food, and incredible to notice due to our elevation we were actually eating breakfast just above the clouds.
We hit the dodgy roads again and finally came to our first natural stop – Agua Azul. Agua Azul in Spanish literally translates to Blue Water, and to say that the water was blue is actually an incredible understatement. It is a series of natural swimming pools and falls, formed out of a large limestone ridge (the reasoning behind the intense blue colouration of the water), all linked together by the cascading river rushing from the top, flowing down through each level and finally arriving into the riverbed at the very bottom. We arrived at this bottom river point and were told we had over an hour to explore, so we made the most of it and climbed all the way to the very top, making sure to get plenty of snaps along each vantage point before reaching an incredible series of natural swimming pools that were mostly uninhabited – probably due to the need to climb the immensely long staircase in the heat to reach them. We went for a quick swim, jumping off the rocks and into the incredible turquoise waters and before we knew it, it was time to head all the way back down the path and stairs and hop back on the van to our next destination: Misol-Ha.
Misol-Ha was only an hour or so drive away and was only a viewpoint destination meaning our swimmers dried and our walking shoes were back on by the time we pulled up to the car park of the waterfall. Misol-Ha is a thirty five metre waterfall that comes down from over a cliff side into a beautiful, almost perfectly circular, natural pool that is incredibly deep – I don’t blame the patrons for all wearing life jackets to be honest! It had a small cave system behind it (warning: extra entrance fee required which seemed to be taken just from random locals giving unofficial tours with iPhone torch lights) and a walking trail behind the waterfall so you could witness the power and force of the water up close and personal, hearing the loud rush and feeling the water mist over your face. We’re both real suckers for waterfalls and natural sights, so this was a buzz for us and a contrast to the more shallow, but swifter moving falls of Agua Azul.
It was then time for the main event and our entire reasoning for even heading to Palenque – to see the Mayan Ruins and witness the incredible jungle temples first hand. I can’t say this disappointed in the slightest and was well worth our hype. The ruins we had so far visited had been excavated as entire sites and were completely clear of any greenery and devoid of any plant life, bar some grass or a couple of trees, so to see this ancient Mayan city still half surrounded by jungle, in which people can see howler monkeys (we didn’t at this point, but have on our trip!), large green iguanas and multitudes of bird life was truly incredible. The structures were beyond huge, the staircases thin and narrow and before we knew it, we were running up and down them, scaling these temples and undertaking an immense lower body workout without even noticing! Unfortunately our tour was only offered with a Spanish guide so we opted to look at the ruins by ourselves and undergo our own private tour, educating ourselves with the signs written in English and following the popular worn in track in the grass.
At this point in our trip, reflecting on a couple of ruins we had seen so far, Palenque had quickly stolen number one spot. It is incredible to be able to climb the structures here, they were definitely some of the tallest we had ever seen and some you could even enter inside – talk about feeling like Indiana Jones or Lara Croft! Although it felt like we were witnessing an entire city, it is estimated to this date that less than ten percent is explored, and potentially up to a thousand structures lay still buried beneath the forest canopy. The Temple of Inscriptions situated within the complex, contained one of the only crypts ever found to this day in a temple in Mexico – giving it almost Egyptian vibes, with the discovery of crypts and sarcophagus’, jade masks and obsidian knife offerings to the gods and human remains. It was a hot, sweaty humid day amongst the jungle and although we both just about nearly died scaling up the incredible thirteen level Temple of the Cross, the day was over before we know it and we’re sure we could have spent much more time within the incredible complex, exploring the museum and wandering through the structures at a much slower pace, potentially even monkey spotting!
Honestly this day trip was incredible, breaking up our travel day with different stops as it meant we were only travelling for a couple of hours or so at any one time and we were constantly exploring new things that we wouldn’t see otherwise, so would definitely recommend to anyone travelling this route. This tour was also available as a round day trip from San Cristobal itself, but as we were only dropped in Palenque around 6pm and the group still had another six hour drive to get back to where we had started, we probably wouldn’t recommend that one unless you were on an incredibly tight schedule and were desperate to visit the incredible Palenque Ruins.