Travel Stories » ,

The Jungle of Palenque

Life dripped off every leaf and it was as though we could hear the jungle breathing around us. Sunlight began to filter through the dewy vegetation and we walked like in a dream. Beneath our feet lay a stone walkway to our cabin, the only dry path in the moist terrain lying to either side.

Bob walked ahead of me and it was such a magical early morning that i was glad to have someone to share it with. We’d met at the bus station where we’d been dropped off in the early hours and by now we’d fallen into the natural camaraderie that exits between travellers whose paths meet by chance. Being something of a difficult eccentric, I usually travel alone but Bob was an artist too and so we shared a common spirit.

We were on the Mayan trail at the location of the Palenque ruins. Here long forgotten civilisations thrived and built astounding pyramids of stone that were only recently recognised as the wonders of the past that they are. We were on a pilgrimage through the intimate humidity of the Mexican jungle, seeking out ancient Mayan Temples shrouded in mystery, lost in time.

That is until the Mexican Government woke up to their economic potential a few years ago and slapped up entrance booths to fleece the steady flow of neo-hippies of their tourist dollars. For the most part the Government’s attention at all the Mayan sites has been rather disastrous; crude attempts to renovate the crumbling arches and stairways have been made somewhat in the spirit of Hollywood’s Jurassic Park. Fresh, straight-edged plaster and concrete now rudely contrast with the relief stone-work that has lasted thousands of years. Next to the old carvings of the Mayan gods, it wouldn’t surprise me if they’re soon joined by depictions of Mickey Mouse.

However, Palenque had by and large escaped such damage and retain a certain majesty. Stepped ledges of stone climbed up into pyramids with sacrificial altars at the top. Here the chosen gods were carved into the central monument and we were particularly enamoured with the sculpture of the old tobacco god. Twin licks of flame spurted out of either side of his pipe and his wizened face and distant eye made him look to be in a world of his own. I only wished I’d grown up in a culture where the gods were this cool.

Somehow though I almost preferred the lumps of stone found at the back of the site that were still half-buried in jungle growth. The trees that grew out of these structures looked almost as old as the stones themselves and were covered in vines as thick as the trunks. We hid out here until the attendants came to throw us out at closing time.

Taking the back route down we passed the Cielago Puente, literally translating as the ‘sky lake’. Cristal white water cascaded down a hundred miniature waterfalls like a hundred voices of Lothlorien. Now we only needed the elves to appear.

An old Mayan lady was packing up her stuff when we came down to the road and we decided to give her a bit of custom. She stood at about 140 cm and her face was covered in as many lines and etchings as the temple stones. We bought a couple of shawls and wondered if we’d get back before the skies opened.

Naturally, the heavy grey clouds above us waited until we’d reached a stretch without cover before unleashing the deluge. With all the wits of jungle explorers we ran for a nearby banana tree and grabbed a couple of leaves to use as impromptu umbrellas. Mother Nature thought of just about everything.

The air hung thick with oxygen and moisture and it felt as though we’d never get dry again. The rain stopped and the flies woke up en masse to eat us. We smoked cigarettes two at a time just to keep them away from our faces and burn up a little of the pervasive dampness.

No one who has never been in a jungle can imagine what everyone in the Vietnam War went through. A psychosis of green pulsing on all sides, closer than your own heart beat, the air too thick to breathe and all horizons lost in a claustrophobia of green… a howler monkey let out an evil, echoing growl from the hills behind us and we jumped behind a tree in fright.

But back at the cabin we recovered our cool. We put on our last dry clothes and even began to enjoy the jungle again. Night was falling outside like a net and the trees took on the dying glow of dusk. The cicadas began their evening prayers and we heard the wake-up call of a distant, confused rooster.

We lit everything that might possibly burn; candles on the window ledge lighting up the mosquito screens, a gas burner heating up green tea and about ten incense sticks on the go at a time. The candles sent shadows dancing around the room and while i wrote this article, Bob settled into his yoga routine.

Happiness seems to come in small doses in this life and often or no good reason at all. Suddenly if felt as though there was nowhere better to be in the entire world. The rain hammered on the roof and lightning flashed images of the jungle through the windows in Morse code.

Whilst monkeys, birds and cicadas passed on the latest gossip of the jungle, Bob and I told old travel stories of our encounters with the wild. I told him about being mobbed by crows at 4000 metres in the Himalayas whilst he told about a grizzly bear that had ripped open the front of his tent in Minnesota – It took one look at my friend curled up in his sleeping bag, turned up its nose and stalked away.

We drank tea out of the only receptacle that we had, a large coconut bowl that Bob had found in an abandoned old shack in the Yucatan jungle.

“The place was all run-down and decrepit but this bowl was hanging up at the back. It was full of dried up chillies and I levered them out with a stick in case there were any spiders hanging around inside. There weren’t any. What actually lay under all the chillies was a big black scorpion, ten inches long.”

I grinned in appreciation and went to stuff old socks under the gaps in the door.

The morning broke like the one before, the plants awaking in a wave of energy that had me on my feet in a moment. I opened up the door and saw red fire ants carrying green leaves five time their size back home. Above me some angry-looking wasps were constructing a new nest of mud and I reckoned they’d win any territorial dispute that might arise.

My clothes were still as wet as ever on the line and as I rinsed out all the rain they’d soaked up in the night, thunder boomed in the distance. All i could see was green and every time I breathed it felt like I was drowning.

I walked back into the cabin, picked up Bob’s guidebook and looked up where to find the nearest desert.

Check out photos of the Mayan Ruins in Palenque