The best word to describe Palenque? Shrouded. The awesome ruin is shrouded in mystery, in jungle and, now my friend and I believe, in a curse.
We stayed in El Panchan, a group of budget accommodations in the jungle, 2 km from the Palenque archaeological site. There were cabins, restaurants and live music; it was like a resort on a backpacker’s budget. We stayed in a semi-detached cabana set at the back of the grounds, at least 5 minutes from the front.
Palenque is one of the best archaeological ruins I have visited.
It does not have the architectural beauty of Angkor Wat or Machu Picchu, but I felt a tranquility that I did not feel at the others. The spacious site is set in the jungle, so the white of the stones contrasted with the green of the trees. As we walked deeper into the site, the various complexes were less excavated and the path culminated with a beautiful waterfall which rushed into gorgeous green-blue water.
Between the archaeological site and El Panchan was a museum devoted to the history of Palenque and Mayan life. The Mayans are, in my opinion, the most interesting ancient civilization and I absorbed all the information I could. They had an extremely advanced system of mathematics and astronomy and dated all their major events with pinpoint accuracy. Their written system was equally advanced and complex. And their social structure was fascinating. Once believed to be a non-violent civilization, it turned out that they were just the opposite.
In the evening, after dinner with our Argentinian friends from Mexico City, we retired to our rooms. We made the 5 minute trek to our cabin, opened the door and turned on the light. My friend remarked that she didn’t remember the room being so messy. I looked at our beds and saw that our sheets were on the floor and our mattresses were misaligned with the frames. Then we looked at the window and saw that the mesh was cut open. We checked our bags and nothing appeared to be stolen. In my naiveté, I said that it was probably an animal. My friend said it looked like someone tried to break in. We grabbed our stuff and walked to the front reception. Luckily we ran into our Argentinian friend along the way and she served as a translator.
The receptionist sent a man with us to check the room. He looked at the window and the mattresses and called the front desk again to tell her that someone tried to break in. Then two girls in the cabin next door came by and explained that someone had knocked on their door first and when they opened the door, no one was there. A few minutes later they heard someone do the same to our cabin and heard some noises.
Out of nowhere, a short, skinny, hot-tempered lady – a Latina stereotype straight out of the movies – holding a giant flashlight came by. I think she was the hotel manager. She called the police, who we did not want to deal with, and they got lost trying to find the cabin. They arrived in a pickup truck, looking like they had just drunk some beers. A giant rifle dangled off the shoulder of one officer and another kept stroking the gun in his holster. When we explained that we didn’t want to sleep there, they said not to worry, they can stand outside our windows and door all night. Ummmm, no.
The entire El Panchan area was apparently out of accommodation, so the woman said we had two choices: sleep in the same cabin with police protection or go to Palenque city. We asked questions like, “Where in Palenque city can we stay?”, “How far is it from the bus station”, “Can we call a hotel before we go to the city?” – legitimate questions especially considering it was 11:30 at night. But the lady got progressively angrier as we asked questions, to the point she was making me scared of her. We decided to go to Palenque city. We walked to the reception area, with a brief stop so the lady could get a cup of beer. We thought we were going by taxi but when we got to the parking lot, she said, you’re coming in my car. This freaked me out. My friend, a bit of a conspiracy theorist, got me thinking that the entire thing was a setup to rob us.
The lady had a nice, new black sports car. Before she drove, the woman turned to us and apologized for being ill-tempered. She explained that she had driven to San Cristobal the day before and to Villahermosa that day. All I could think was why does a hotel manager need to be driving so far away and how the hell can she afford such a nice car?
The woman drove like a maniac in the darkness of the night, swerving to the opposite side to avoid speed bumps, while sipping her beer. She dropped us off at a hotel, helped us check in and we thanked her. I think we were just grateful that we were safe. We went into our room and it was absolutely filthy. We tried to sleep without touching anything. My friend laid on her backpack and I enveloped myself in a rain poncho. The evening was such a contrast from the tranquility of the morning. We wanted to see Misol-ha and Agua Azul but we decided to go straight to Campeche, rather than risk our luck in Chiapas.
I think my friend and I were really lucky. We did everything wrong. We left our valuables in our room, we rode a car with a stranger and we stayed in a hotel without looking at the rooms. But we came out alive with the memory of an unforgettable night.