Bunting is not necessarily festive.
We have ignored the emphatic directions of two locals to come to the waterfall, trusting Tripadvisor instead. This is perhaos unwise given the amount of restaurants we have not found using their maps. We bump precariously down a long, rock strewn road passing empty fields and private property signs wondering if we have, indeed, made a mistake. We are sans panniers having left them in our hostel room and I am suddenly aware of what a ludicrous idea motorbikes are. The road seems too close, too present as we crunch in the gravel, sliding occasionally, the bumps knocking the wind out of me.
Shall I get off? Jamie? Shall I? Do you want me to get off? Now really I think I should, there’s a very big drop to our OOPPHH!
Like an antsy pony, the bike throws us on to the road. My fretting may have been responsible for the sudden loss of control, I can be quite distractingly annoying sometimes. Without the panniers the bike has gone right over and we are both sprawled face first in the dirt. Tentatively we pick ourselves up and assess the situation; covered in dust but otherwise unhurt then haul the bike off the ground and continue downhill whispering reassurances to her as we go.
Robin charges in to the mostly empty carpark a few minutes later churning clouds of dust on her wake. There is large tent pitched on the porch of an empty building, 2 cars and a camper van and us. A man appears from the woods to relieve us of 30 pesos and warn us that there were 724 steps down to the waterfall and that we would probably die down there or something to that effect. We set off cheerfully enough past small grottoes hung with broken stalactites and overhanging branches and down, down, down until finally we reached the swift, clear river at the bottom. Jamie steps down like nothing happened, I follow him with legs like 724 steps, quite unable to control my movements. Picking our way around large boulders and through pools of water, losing balance after looking way up at the steep canyon sides, we come to a pebbled beach, two dogs and a pair of Californians.
At first we clamber about under the waterfall unable to believe our luck in finding this place. The water tumbles down the rock face, broken in to thousands of pattering droplets, collecting at the bottom to stream down in to little tiered pools around us. Luscious moss, cakes every surface, clinging to the wet mineral stitched rocks which we poke to watch the water soak out the bottom. We stand under heavier streams feeling the cool water pummel our heads and squint up at the water raining down on us, blinking as it fills our eyes and drips down our faces. The place is beautiful, stunning, soaring rock faces and wheeling birds of prey far above us. We are amazed. But we are also hungry so we descend to the rock upon which we have left a bunch of tiny bananas. I sit in the warm river and Jamie throws them at me two at a time making me scrabble about in the swift water to catch them as they are swept downstream. I am contentedly chewing on one when I hear a voice and realise that the Californians are introducing themselves to Jamie. Wiping banana off my face and emptying several kilos of gravel from my swimming costume I stand up and join them.
We chat for a long time, so long that we sit down in the river to get more comfortable. Toby and Chloe have been on the road with their camper van for two years. They enjoyed it so much that when they got to the bottom of Argentina, they turned round and carried on. Their stately, old dog Tia looks like a small, rotund fox and watches us regally from the banks until Toby interrupts his steady flow of anecdotes to pick her up and bring her back to join us. She looks rather horrified at the prospect and lifts her paws up fastidiously to avoid getting them wet then transfers her mournful gaze away as though mentally excusing herself from the situation and we all laugh.
Toby is a font of knowledge. Such a font in fact that the rest of us barely get a word in edgeways. They are wonderfully enthusiastic about their trip and two years living in a minute space together, so much so that they don’t want to go home, they want to remain as nomads. They tell us about the lovely city of San Cristobal, where we are going next, do loud impressions of monkeys and warn us of a rather extortionate toll in the road on the way to Palenque. After a couple of hours sitting in the river though chatting, we have all started to resemble dried fruits so it’s time to face the steps back up and the mardy motorbike at the top. We haul ourselves from the water, gratefully consume some cheesy pretzels and wave goodbye, see you on Facebook. Goodbyes aren’t what they were.
San Cristobal is a pretty, gringo heavy town in the highlands of Chiapas upon which we descend with trepidation after the glowing report from Chloe and Toby. There are bars, restaurants, pretty squares and a huge population of hippies scudding past in dhoti and hempy shirts at whom I gaze admiringly. They are like a distillation of traveller, concentrated and evaporated until what is left is an acute cloud of incense, ayuvedic yoga and spiritual enlightenment. They are dreadlocked and pierced, tattooed and beaded, many clutch babies having obviously settled here with a fellow billowing wanderer to pass their days buying organic yoghurt and selling handmade jewellery.
We spend three days wandering the streets and admiring the view. We eat fresh ravioli and fettucine for £3 a plate at Madama Do Re, we buy crunchy baguettes and pains aux chocolat at El Horno Magico and an extensive collection of local cheeses and cured meats. We stroll through the gigantic artesan market and fall out the other side clutching embroidered woollen jackets, hand stitched blankets and a small collection of leather goods and fabric animals. There is even a Spanish tapas bar. Each drink is served with a free tapa and we sit with wine swimmy legs listening to the Stones. We watch women pass by dressed in silky, heavily embroidered blouses and wrap around skirts created from monstrous hairy wool fabric, belted at the waist with a hand woven strip of braid. They are selling scarves and friendship bracelets, blouses and necklaces in huge heaps which they heft on their shoulders, stopping at every likely passer by to open a scarf hopeful of a sale. We never see a sale made and the women continue stoically on their way, flicking their ribboned plaits with their free hand.
Another bar with tables outside in a busy, cobbled street and Jamie has ordered a fresh tropical juice mixed with mezcal and is mortified when it arrives in a litre sized vase. I look on smiling with my sophisticated glass of red wine as he blushes and tries to assert his manliness by pushing the vase towards me as if it were me who ordered the girly gringo drink and not him. Crowds swirl past us and from among the forest of striding legs pop small children carrying little baskets over their arms filled with ceramic animals; leopards, chickens, cats, which they place on the table and turn to look at us with big eyes. We shake our heads, no gracias, no gracias, please no more nice stuff. We look away and the children either slip quietly away to find an easier catch or poke out their bottom lips.
I haven’t sold anything today!
Says one little boy.
Please! Some of your Coca Cola then?
Says another. Guiltily we smile and say no, returning awkwardly to our conversation and wincing when they leave. Some of these children are no older than 6 years old, heaving bundles of trinkets with them with sad little faces and grubby t-shirts, work wearied eyes and a trail of guilty tourists behind them.
On the road in to San Cristobal we had encountered little groups of kids along the side of the road. Some are selling fruit from little stalls shouting NANCHES! PLATANOS! at us in big voices copied from adults. Two little girls shout out a fruit based rhyme together to tempt us but dissolve in to giggles when I wave at them. I have already tried a nanche; an evil little yellow fruit that tastes like bad parmesan and am not tempted. Further on two little boys dressed in handmade tunics hold a string up in front of us to stop the bike and crowd in smiling and shaking baskets of change. They are watched by group of adults smiling and talking by the side of the road holding babies and sitting on a wall. We give them 10 pesos each and, puzzled, continue on. Why are those adults letting their little kids stop (barely in time) a large motorbike with a piece of string? What are they collecting for? Is this normal?
Further on, two more boys stop us and sell us a bag of rather unpleasantly astringent oranges, once again watched by their parents. A mile or two on, two lone girls reproachfully let us pass, eventually dropping the string when we convince them that we really, really don’t need any fried plantain chips. This continues all the way down the road, always children, always the string and me shouting be careful!!! when they suddenly raise the string without warning, images of dislocated shoulders and unwelcome humanoid bunting tumbling behind the bike flashing through my mind.
Finally, just as we think there can be no more challenges, we arrive at a long queue in the road passing through a village. Using our relatively small size, we weave to the front to find a large group of people. The group are charging a toll to get through. Toby and Chloe’s warning suddenly lies just in front of us. I am busy hunting through various pockets trying to gather enough cash together when Jamie mutters something like hold on tight. I manage a tight gasp and a wha?! before the bike is revved hard and we whizz through a gap in the crowd. What Jamie hasn’t spotted is the stinger clutched in one mans hands, the one man who has seen us trying to whip through. I watch the large plank stuffed with rusty nails land in the road.
Shit shit shit!
Says Jamie, a relatively common oration by now. But Robin ups the pace a little and we spill through the gap leaving the stinger lying uselessly in the road. I christen Jamie a born again Mexican driver and he laughs a little shakily taking sneaky peaks at the wing mirror to check for angry villagers on the chase. Mercifully, we have been forgotten already and we are free to continue our wending.
The road is steep and incredibly windy leaving me sliding forward on the saddle in to Jamie, hoisting myself back and sliding forwards again for several hours. Jamie is thus very relieved to reach our hotel in Palenque and stow the bike in the courtyard free of tethered children, angry men and most of all, me.
Only about 10% of Palenque has been excavated but what a 10% that is. We arrive early before the swell of crowds has been bussed in and have the place virtually to ourselves. We pass through the ticket office, handing the bemused attendant a great pile of coins having forgotten to find a cash machine and follow a jungly path up to a grassy lawn where suddenly a huge, beautiful pyramid rises from the ground in front of us. It has been exquisitely preserved and we gawp at the gorgeous stones shining in the morning sunlight for a few minutes before following a lone man with a camera through a doorway in the middle of the structure.
Inside it is hot and unpleasantly damp, like standing in a dogs mouth. The walls are beaded rather beautifully with tiny droplets of water and when we look through at the sarcophagus of The Red Queen we are surprised to see that the stone box is completely pasted in green mould which contrasts pleasantly with the rosy interior. Archaeologists didn’t discover the tomb until 1991 and the identity of the woman buried within is still unknown although it has been suggested that she was the wife of Pakal, the king of Palenque. Her bones and the inside of the tomb had been dyed bright red with cinnabar (powered mercury) and some of the colour remains to this day although her skeleton and the large collection of pearls and pieces of jade found with her are nowhere in sight, presumably carted off to a museum elsewhere. So we must be content to stare for a while at the stone coffin and then at the meticulous way in which the v shaped ceilings have been built all without a single metal tool let alone clanging machinery.
We goggle at the finesse of the stone work, unable to understand how it could have been done before finally exiting in to the cooler air outside, breathing sighs of relief. Further pyramids and structures litter the site and we climb the now jumbled staircases to roam through darkened corridors through which tiny bats flit and swoop. Pale stone clads some of the walls festooned with carved reliefs which retain such sharp detail we can’t believe they are original pieces. How was this done? I can’t even imagine how impressive this place must have seemed to outsiders when it had first been built. We sit a top a smaller pyramid staring down at the complicated, sometimes crumbly structures below us at the blackened stone and try to picture the place painted bright red and white as it once would have been, carvings sharp and complete, roof combs in tact and edges squared neatly. The luminous jungle which once almost totally reclaimed the city stretches out shrieking and twittering with animals. Left to their own devices the creeping vines and twisted, insect heavy trees will slowly creep back in and quietly cover everything in sight. The thought makes me shudder unexpectedly.
We follow a path in to the gloomy forest surrounded by the clatter of birds and squeal of cicadas to a completely deserted building skirted by half tumbled steps, grass growing from between the stones. I climb up after Jamie slipping on the time worn surface. At the top we freeze at the sound of dinosaurs emanating from the dense foliage beyond the walls. An echoey growling, roaring, animal sound that raises the hairs on the back of my neck. We stand and look at each other, eyes wide. Tyrannosaurus? It takes several minutes until I realise what the silly, roaring terracotta ocarinas sold at every ruin site have been attempting to copy. Howler monkeys. Somewhere amongst the trees, little black monkeys sit in the branches filling the air with the sound of ancient history. I am rooted to the spot in amazement, squinting in to the gloom to catch sight of the little creatures but can see nothing except the occasional swaying branch.
We have only 8 pesos left. When we present ourselves in front of the water vendors, they look at us with thoughtful expressions that say and your point is? So it is thirst, not boredom that finally drags us away from the ruins. We take the return colectivo back which drops us neatly outside Villa Kim Ha and drives away with a guff of black smoke. We booked the Kim Ha very cheaply online and arrive to discover a holiday village resort from a 1950s postcard. Palm thatched bungalows quietly line the winding paths in front of a swimming pool complete with stumpy slide and a nearby bar where, if one so pleases, one can purchase a beer to drink whilst lounging in the water. Our room is big and comfortable but dim and smells like rivers, it is a little like lodging behind a waterfall which isn’t as bad as it sounds. The guests are, peculiarly, all French and there are so many gallic shrugs and heavily accented calls for margaritas that I find myself accidentally merciing the waiter when he sets my ceviche down in front of me. A small, aged cat heaves her belly around miaowing incessantly for fish while we eat and sits on my feet for much of dinner. We return to our old fashioned, cool, damp room in the dark hopping over great snakes of ants marching enormous pieces of waxy leaf over a huge distance around the sun warmed paths amongst the bungalows. We take fascinated photos for twenty minutes in the quiet company of some other, equally curious guests before slipping in to bed and dreaming of the jungle.
We have no idea, as we languish in our slightly marshy bed that the journey we begin tomorrow will make all our other journeys look like a walk in the park. We are completely unaware that, at some point in the next few days, I will start to laugh to myself as the road throws up one more joke. We don’t know what’s waiting for us and if we did, we probably wouldn’t set off at all. But that is the beauty of hindsight isn’t?