Friday, May 13, 2011

Answer my phone? Girl, I live in the jungle! Palenque Part 1

So now for another blog written during our jungle-stay in Palenque, Mexico.  Our new friend Margarita (who rented us our room for our stay here) put it best.  She said a girl arrived to her front door and said "Margarita! Why have you not been answering your phone?!  I must have called fifteen times!" to which Margarita flippantly replied, "Answer my phone, girl?  I live in the jungle!"
The walkway to our jungle abode.

So, as to how we got here...we rode the motorcycle from Veracruz to Coatzacoalcos (one of the hardest cities to pronounce so far) and as soon as we rolled up, we came upon a familiar site.  Our hotel, which was very clean, simple and had a great breakfast buffet, overlooked huge sand dunes and...a Sears.  And not only was there a Sears, but there was an Applebees too! And a mall.   Looking out the window, we could have easily been back in the USA.  We relaxed and ate pizza in the food court in the mall next door, when we realized a difference between the US and here...people were looking at us like we were aliens.  People do not hold back with the is kinda funny at first, but can get old pretty fast.  There are definitely exceptions though.  The men who give Ty the thumbs up, fist pump or macho man sign never get old.  Neither do the kids who smile and wave like crazy when we drive by.  That kind of attention we never get tired of.  The blank stares though...

The next morning we planned to ride to Villahermosa, but were making good time, so we continued all the way on to Palenque (which we never would have even known about if it wouldn't have been for our friend Ryan...Thanks for the great tip, amigo! :) )

As we pulled through the town of Palenque, it looked pretty similar to many of the other small towns we have gone through.  There were a few hotels along the road and we thought about stopping, but instead decided to continue on down the road to see if there was anything closer to the Mayan Ruins located just outside of the city.  As we drove farther into the jungle hillside, we ran into the entrance gate to the ruins which happened to be right next to the "town" of El Panchan, the traveler's hub of Palenque.  We pulled in and found Margarita and Ed's cabanas, an amazing little gem of a hostel in the middle of the jungle about 50 meters from the entrance to the ruins.  It would be easy to miss, as the entire "town" is accessed by a one lane dirt road which, at first glance, appears to go nowhere. About a hundred yards up, though, it opens up into a unique permanent encampment, for lack of a better term. The sounds we heard as we got off the bike were almost deafening...every kind of bird, bug, and even monkeys (although we never spotted one...) surrounded us in the trees above, and certifiable jungle hippies were all around.  Our first shot, "Jungle Palace" looked like quite a scene, but definitely not ours.  Birds, bats bongos and beetles blaring, we settled into one of Margarita's bright and cheerful rooms in her home - as far from the bongos as possible- and followed her upstairs for a chat.  She told us she had owned this place for 14 years, and though her husband had passed away, she was happy meeting the constant stream of visitors to her jungle abode.  She invited us to have dinner with her at Don Muchos, a restaurant serving delicious local fare situated right next door to our hostel (where Margarita eats every night!)  Over a candlelit dinner and real Mexican margaritas, we enjoyed her stories while a band played jungle-themed music with a Mexicana twist late into the night.

The next morning, Ty mentioned a couple of waterfalls he saw on the map that were nearby.  We decided to head out on the bike and check them out.  They were a little farther away than we had originally thought, but were well worth the effort (not to mention the drive was fantastic!).  We arrived to the closer of the two, Misol-ha, to find it basically empty.  It was a very dramatic 35 meter drop, although it looked even higher than that, and a walkway had been built so that visitors could walk all the way around and underneath it.  We came up to a cave after reaching the end where a man was renting flashlights for 10 Pesos in order to see the hidden waterfall inside.  We went in, and it was pretty, although it was pretty dark and difficult to see.  There were bats hanging on the ceiling and they looked bothered by our flashlights, so we headed back outside for a swim.  The water was quite cold, but you got used to it almost immediately.  Other visitors had begun to arrive, and we struck up a conversation with two German guys that were taking professional photos of the waterfall.  They were on motorcyles too, and were headed up to Alaska.  They had recently gone though Central/South America on their bikes, so they offered up some very helpful travel tips, especially concerning crossing the Darien Gap.  They were also headed for Agua Azul Falls, our next waterfall stop, and asked us if we wanted to ride along with them. 
The view from inside the cave.
Misol-ha Falls
 The ride to Agua Azul was absolutely beautiful; winding roads through the jungle with rivers and trees and wildlife all around.  There were also giant fires that the farmers had set in their fields, which gave the sky an eerie glow.  But the drive had nothing on what we were about to see.  Agua Azul was an absolute paradise.  The falls start way up in the hills and cascade down into soft limestone terraced pools until the water reaches the river below.  The water is bright blue and is in stark contrast to the vibrant green jungle surrounding the falls.  Right as we entered, some women were selling fresh cut mango slices, which we couldn't pass up...and there are no words for how good they were!  Afterwards, we walked up to the top, which was quite a ways up, and stopped to swim for awhile in one of the natural pools.  I really do think we could have stayed forever, but it was late afternoon and we had a long drive back to Palenque.  We made a quick stop at the grocery store for $1 ham and cheese tortas (sandwiches) and made our way back into the jungle.

The best mango either of us has EVER had!

These pictures don't even do this place beautiful!
Mayan Ruins in Palenque blog to follow soon...

Catching up in Veracruz

Veracruz central plaza from our balcony at the Hotel Colonial

We got to Veracruz, where Jill had reserved a palatial room in the Hotel Colonial. Marble floors, 10 foot ceilings, monogramed pillows and a balcony overlooking the main square. I was ready to have dinner and call it a night, but as usual, Chip had other plans. We had a great meal at the hotel restaurant, drank some beers and headed out to a local bar/night club. Chip practiced his dancing skills with some local ladies, and Jill and I relaxed and took it all in. The bar system in the club was unlike any I've seen anywhere in the world - you come in and sit down, and a server comes and takes your order. There is no bar to approach, only servers can get your drinks. We ordered our drinks, and when he brought them over the server would not take payment. I started to wonder how they can let everyone in the place run a tab, and when we paid and went to leave I understood. Our receipt from the server was our ticket out; the bouncers who let us in without even checking our ID were only there to keep people from leaving without a ticket from their server.
Another balcony view, she's calling it a night.
The next morning the road was calling Chip onward, so we bid him a fond farewell and promised to meet up again when he is returning to Texas from Panama. (We've stayed in contact and he is making good progress.)
Contrary to what I had imagined (while lying in bed in a heavily guarded hotel) JIll had not been on the beach in Veracruz, so we headed for Boca del Rio to correct that. Our room was great...last time it was renovated - circa 1970. We learned something important checking in - If you walk in and ask the price of a room, and then say that you found it cheaper online, two things will happen:

1. They will tell you that they can't match it, because they can't.
2. They will hate you for booking the same room online (in their lobby, using their WiFi), so if they haven't burned holes in you with their eyes before you complete the online registration they will give you the worst room available. Oh, and kiss the "free ensuite upgrade" goodbye, because the ensuite they tried to sell you five minutes ago is mysteriously no longer available.

Not our hotel, just sort of funny. I guess they somehow built the garage around that tree, as it went up through a hole in the second level.
So, lesson learned. We weren't there much, so it didn't really matter anyway. Around dusk we took a lovely two mile walk down the beach, and promptly hailed a cab home, because the neighborhood looked pretty scary. Just kidding! it was a really lovely area and there were happy people going for walks and eating ice cream everywhere. (really) The sentence should actually read "and promptly hailed a cab home, as the tap water from brushing my teeth caught up with me." (sorry)

Restaurant guide, modern ruins and fresh mangos - Tampico to Veracruz

Hello again! Sorry about the dead air, but we've been in the jungle near Palenque for a few days with no internet - or air conditioning. Or fridge. So I'm writing this post in the jungle in the hopes of publishing it next time we have internet. Did I mention the bugs? I'll give a bug play by play as I type so you can share the jungle experience. Anyway, I guess the last post was about my experiences riding from Reynosa to Tampico with Chip, so I've got a lot to catch up on, as that was a week ago.

(A tiny ant just went down inside the keyboard, and I'm not really sure what should be done about it.)

The next day we woke up in Tampico at about 9am and got out on the road pretty fast. Mileage-wise we had about as far to go as we did the previous day, and we didn't know if there would be any more security checkpoints slowing us down. Luckily there weren't, but everything else you can possibly imagine did slow us down.  We stopped to have an early lunch as we were heading out of town, so we found a suitable roadside restaurant and pulled in. How do you define "suitable" in an unpaved row of dingy shacks with garage doors?  I'm glad you asked, because I asked Chip the same thing. Chip's guide to Mexican roadside food:

1. These mini-restaurants occur in rows along the side of the road, so find the busiest one and you'll find the best price to quality relationship in the area. Even if it's full of serial killers (everyone has giant machetes?) you know that it's a better all around deal than that uppity wooden chair place next door.  Which leads to point number two:
 2. They must have plastic chairs. Plastic chairs show that the prices will be reasonable, and that the food is good enough to bring people in on it's own merits.
Ok, so we pull up to a nice looking shack with a 55 gallon-barrell-chicken grill crackling, and with the dining room almost entirely occupied by a lovely three-generational family with a relavitly low per-capita machete rate. The proprietors had painted the chicken grill to match the building, which was a nice touch - but they had us at the plastic chairs.

Great success!
 (Insect update -"Oh, look at the size of the ant crawling up my leg - great, it flies too!")

As we're pulling up there are guys in the next shop over sneakily eyeing our bikes. (Everyone eyes our bikes, as our loaded down 1000cc is quite a sight in the land of 125cc bikes.) One character, though, gave me a bad vibe. It wasn't the earring, or the Tennessee waterfall flowing down his back - it was the way he looked and pretended he wasn't looking. As we ate he started making concentric circles around the bikes, but always acted like he was looking somewhere else. I figure if he was on the level he would just walk up and have a look like everyone else. So finally he got close enough to set off the alarm, and then proceeded to act like he didn't hear it and casually walked away.

(A spider big enough to turn the light off is walking out of the bathroom.)

The vibe was pretty uncomfortable, and we were done with our delicious shrimp soup, so we figured it was time to move on. The next eight hours were

(There's a bee flying around the light. I slap it with a shoe and it's stunned, so I pick it up and toss it out the door. As I toss it out, a mosquito the size of a bee flies in.)

punctuated by small towns every two to three miles. For 200 miles. My only guess is that a guy lived in a town, got sick of all of the trash and stuff, and moved out of town. Then, one day, he said "It's just a little too far to walk to town, I'm starting my own town. Then a guy moved out of that town. Etc, etc. Probably the most wonderful aspect of these towns is the "topes." Topes are speedbumps designed to keep people from going 80mph through town, and they're only there because people would absolutely go 80mph through town. Most places they don't even post speed limits because no one cares. You go as fast as your vehicle will go, and top speeds range from 7mph to about 100 - on the same pot-holed, two lane road. Back to the topes. These are serious speed bumps - some of them tall enough to scrape the bottom of the bike - and there's no way to speed over them. Every two or three miles, everything on the road slows down to a 3mph crawl over series of topes. Good thing I'm wearing a black jacket and it's 100 degrees, or I would have more energy to be conerned with the massive amounts of diesel smoke and road dust I'm inhaling! Aside from providing great carcenogen exposure, topes also provide a chance for locals to try to sell you everything you can think of. Some make sense, like coconuts full of coconut milk, or pineapples full of frozen pineapple juice, while others border on the ludicrous - I would swear that a guy tried to sell me a tiny mechanical pony that walks around a pole on a lead - but maybe that's just the fumes talking.

(There's an unidentified black insect at the end of the bed, but it's not moving right now.)

200 miles of towns 2-3 miles apart with tope-enforced speed limits of 3mph. Six to ten topes per town, 1-4 salespeople per tope. It was quaint for about 15 minutes, but by hour two Interstate 70 sounded pretty good.

(Jill is proofreading this, and a spider walks down the wall toward her head. I tell her, she apologizes to him, and quickly dispatches him.)

That's probably enough complaining about the ride, it still beat working and stuff, sorry.

(I just looked over at Jill, who is sweating profusely while lying in bed (under our clothesline) at 10pm, and she had a bug strolling across her cheek. This is starting to look like a UNICEF commercial.)

About an hour from Veracruz we were ridng along a great, winding road that followed the coastline, and there was an amazing beach about 100ft off of the road. We stopped to take pictures, and there was some sort of abandoned hotel between the road and the beach, so I decided to have a look around. It had been abandoned so long that only the concrete was left, and every empty shell of a room had a wonderful veiw of a completely empty beach.

View from the top of the abandoned hotel

This sort of property would be worth millions most places, and I really don't know why it was abandoned. While we were walking around taking pictures an old Ford truck came up the hill with steam rolling out from under the hood. It was loaded to the top with fresh mangos, and was barely able to make it up the hill. They parked next to us, popped the hood and started adding water to the radiator. Neither the driver or passenger seemed alarmed, they were actually chatting and seemed to be in good spirits, so I figure that this must be a normal part of the trip for them. While the engine was cooling off the driver brought us a fresh mango, and stood with us eating it and admiring the view for a minute. With a smile he was off, and so were we.
Mango Truck