At about 4:30 AM, Sheena woke me up in a frantic scurry. With firefighter speed she exited the sheets, swung her legs over the edge of the upper bed, and dropped into Nacho’s downstairs living quarters. She was sick in a bad way. As I lay there with my ears plugged, I thought to myself “Poor little lady. And on her birthday of all days.”
Once per year it’s up to me to turn an otherwise mundane day into a fantastic one. Instead of sitting at home in the snow, we go to the deer farm and risk getting Lyme disease while petting the mangy deer. Or we play hooky from work and drive up the hill to the Arizona Snowbowl for a day of skiing. Today was no exception; I had stealthily sneaked to the cake shop in San Cristobal and bought a tres leches cake, and had successfully hidden it from Sheena. I had planned a day of wonder, as I do every year. “Just take some Pepto,” I told her. “Everything will be just fine.”
Once Sheena had composed herself, we converted Nacho from living machine into driving machine and hit the road to the East. Palenque was 130 miles away, so I figured we could make it in a few hours tops. A few kilometers from Palenque we would stop at the Misol-Ha waterfall for Sheena’s birthday celebration. It was to be so grand.
The road out of San Cristobal took us through incredible jagged mountains dotted with tiny Mayan villages, which, given the backdrop, looked like what I imagine one might see in the Nepalese Himalayas. The first half of the drive was through pine forests, while the second half was through jungle. Occasionally we came across short men carrying enormous loads of firewood out of the forest on their backs using slings wrapped around their foreheads. Often men and women would be raking out coffee beans on tarps on the roadside as the beans dried in the sun.
In my driving time calculation I had failed to account for one thing: topes. The ubiquitous Mexican speed bumps were placed approximately every quarter mile on the 130 mile road from San Cristobal to Palenque. And in between the speed bumps the road would mysteriously be missing, fallen off the side of the cliff. Several times we came upon sections of road where literally half of the road had slid off the cliff, leaving a jagged hole. Where the road hadn’t fallen away, it was littered with sink holes in the pavement where it would soon fall off. The 130 mile trip took us 6 hours. But boy was it beautiful!
We arrived at Misol-Ha in the early afternoon and went down by the water for birthday cake. Sheena, being sick, was surprised about the tres leches, but wasn’t exactly in the mood to stuff her face. After a spot of cake we went for a swim. The falls cascaded over the edge of a cliff and fell 100 feet into a large pool. A pathway led around the back of the falls to a subterranean river cave. Or, if you were totally hardcore extreme like Sheena and me, you would swim across the water to the cave. Only if you have enough Red Bull, though.
While we swam in the pool at the base of the waterfall, tour buses made frequent stops at the falls. A line of tourists would file into the area around the pool, then go behind the falls and take a bunch of pictures. After a while we started to notice trends in the tourists’ photos. It seemed that nobody could take a normal photo; rather, the person having their photo taken would spread their arms really wide and make a goofy smile (the most common), or else they would jump in the air (another favorite). Group photos often involved several strange poses, or sometimes everyone in the group would open their arms really wide as if trying to grasp the entire place in their embrace. We became intoxicated with this phenomenon, and eventually decided to take a few of our own, mimicking the poses we’d seen. Here are a few of our favorites.
At Palenque, a few kilometers away, we found a campsite within walking distance of the Mayan archeological site. The area was thick with jungle, and our campsite sat in a small clearing in the trees. As night fell, howler monkeys surrounded us and broke into their ritual noisemaking. As we sat listening to the monkeys, fireflies pulsated in the grass next to us. I took this audio recording of the monkeys; they were so loud that it was nearly impossible to fall asleep.
In the morning we strolled over to the archaeological site. From the depths of the thick jungle a whole ancient Mayan community had been uncovered, including temples, a palace, residential areas, and a canal. We spent the better part of a day exploring. This site, unlike many of the more widely visited sites in Mexico, still allows visitors to climb up the temple stairs, go inside the tombs, and explore at will.
And so the next day, in the way we do, we got back into Nacho and with firefighter speed we made way for the Yucatan peninsula. Our last stop in Mexico.