"Being spontaneous takes so much planning!"
Trip Start Feb 13, 2009
1Trip End Feb 15, 2009
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Where I stayed
El Panchan (in a hut!)
"Being spontaneous takes so much planning!"
(Valentine's weekend trip to Mayan ruins in Mexico!)
"Hmmm? It's been over a month: about time to see my 'not girlfriend,' Michele, again. Hey, the Yucatan peninsula is just a short hop across from New Orleans where she's working. I'll surprise her with a weekend getaway to an 'undisclosed exotic location!'"
I'd never taken off on a whim like that before and it sounded like great fun, so why not!?
Well, this little spontaneous brainstorm led to a BIG effort involving a long series of plans and change of plans. In the end though, it went down wonderfully:)...
But first, a brief bit of background info. Michele and I have been "dating" for a number of months now, quite untraditional, though. We live a thousand miles apart! She lives in Massachusetts, works from home, plus periodically in New Orleans. While I live in Florida, but am currently on a world traveling adventure, plus am planning to move abroad and teach English. So, neither of us has time nor are in a position to settle into a regular relationship. Instead, we rendezvous every month or so and occasionally interact in between by email and on Skype IM. I call her my "not girlfriend" and she calls me her "not boyfriend." It works for us:)
"Hey Michele, what do you think about a 'not Valentine's' weekend get-together?... OK then, have your passport ready and I'll see you in New Orleans in a couple weeks..."
I like to create surprises, and she likes to be surprised. She could only guess where we were going and what we'd be doing. I'm pretty sure she loved the carefree spontaneity and the mystery:)
We boarded our flight from the Louis Armstrong International Airport in New Orleans: American Airlines #1755 bound for Mexico. This was Michele's first concrete indication of where we were going, but the "main event" was still hidden, like so many of the Mayan ruins once were. She did make a comment about the tent hanging from my backpack, though.
"Oh, that's for 'just in case'."
This only heightened her curiosity and piqued her imagination.
New Orleans to Dallas, layover; Dallas to Mexico City, layover; Mexico City to Villahermosa.
"OK, now we need to catch a two hour shuttle bus to our final destination."
"Where are you taking me!?"
"Oh, you'll find out when we get there..."
She was lovin' it:)
As the sun was setting, we pulled into our destination: El Panchan in Palenque, Chiapas, Mexico in the jungle on the edge of the Palenque National Park. Unbeknownst to Michele, just a short distance away laid the famous Mayan ruins of Palenque.
Our "short hop" across the Gulf of Mexico took fourteen hours! Sometimes the shortest distance between two points is just not practically possible! Nonetheless, we made it!:)
El Panchan is a little, sprawled out, laid back travelers' community of cabanas, huts, and tents managed by various proprietors - and they don't take reservations! Just show up and hope for availability! In fact, my email inquiry required two tries and was finally returned after several days and simply said, "Please come and we will do everything possible to provide for you."... This time, we did not need the tent.
After dumping our things in our cabana we headed to Restaurante Don Mucho's for a beer and some live, local music. Excellent.
"This place is really great, Swami. Thanks."
"Yeah, it is... and this isn't even the big surprise:)..."
She still had no clue about the ancient ruins palpably nearby where she would be walking just a few short hours later the following morning.
Well, it was impossible to keep secret any longer, so I sprang it on her... "delighted" would be an understatement. Little did I know that she had long had a fascination with Mayan civilization and always wanted to go.
We woke early to a horrendous, ferocious, unidentifiable guttural cacophony of animal sounds emanating from the jungle. Several beasts were emoting full force! If you've ever heard the wild sounds of a Tasmanian Devil, just imagine this times ten and a lot deeper! The natural disturbance went on for quite some time. It was so captivating we had to catch the racket on our camcorders.
So, what the he!! was it?!... Monos aulladores, the infamous howler monkeys. The following morning I was fortunate enough to catch some photos of a group of them. Very cool:)
Adequately stimulated, we caught an 8am shuttle bus to the ruins for a full day of adventure...
At the park, we disembarked with new friends, Eric and Lorenze, from France. I grabbed a little guidebook and we headed in...
Palenque is a medium-sized site noted for some of the finest architecture, sculpture, and bas-relief carvings from all of Mayan civilization. The fully exposed and widely reconstructed site represents only a small fraction of the entire site inhabited by the native peoples over the long history of dynasties spanning from ~300 A.D. to ~900 A.D. Palenque flourished in the 600's under "King Pakal The Great." His temple/tomb known as the "Temple of the Inscriptions" is notable for its extraordinary sample of hieroglyphic text, plus the fact that it's the only Mesoamerican pyramid built as a funerary monument. Other temples include the Temple of the Skull, Temple XII, Temple XIII, Temple XIV, Temple of the Cross, Temple of the Foliated Cross, Temple of the Sun, and Temple of the Count. And arguably, the main attraction is the large "Palace" with its inner courtyards, observation tower, and surrounding attached sub-structures.
I started snapping photos right off, of course!:) In fact, before the day was out I took over a thousand! One reason for the high count was my effort to create a "Photosynth" of Palenque. Photosynth is an awesome free web program that takes a collection of photos and creates a 3D environment. Sophisticated algorithms determine the photos' vantage points and common scene objects then arrange them in the proper orientation to each other... in three dimensions! This is a visual thing, so words fall way short. Just go and see it with your own eyes. You will be amazed, I'm sure. You can find my synths at http://photosynth.net/userprofilepage.aspx?user=swami_worldtraveler. Check back often, there will be more!
Wandering up a path leading into the surrounding jungle, we stumbled onto a little temple not in our guidebook! The Temple of the Beautiful Relief was not as grandiose as the others, but did provide a nice little diversion from the busier edifices. We discovered a stairway inside leading to a dark basement. I beckoned Michele over and encouraged her to descend... then put my Plan into effect! Before leaving The States, Michele had expressed concern (jokingly) that I had some diabolical plan and was going to do away with her. Well, I had indeed made a pact with Camazotz, the half man / half bat Mayan god, and in return for the blood sacrifice of a fair maiden I would receive eternal life, MWAHAHA!!! Fate spared her though, and we headed back to the main site and continued our adventure...
After visiting some other temples and The Palace, and weaving our way through the market of colorful trinkets laid out on blankets along the pathway, we descended a path through forest trees and by a stream with a small waterfall, ultimately leading to the museum and our pickup point to take us to our next destination: the high waterfall and pool at Misol-Ha, followed by the cascading waterfalls of Agua Azul (Blue Water).
Misol-Ha was nice, but the real fun came at Agua Azul. After a long ride up into the mountains, highlighted by an adorable young girl popping her cute face into our van in hopes of selling some local fruit, we arrived at the natural wonder. I took a few shots for a photosynth, then we strolled up the path which hugged the river. The water was indeed blue, a beautiful turquoise blue created by dissolved limestone minerals in the water and on the riverbed.
Along the way a great vantage point called out to me. A fantastic view overlooking a steep waterfall and down towards several other falls awaited. The only catch was access. Between me and the precipice was a side stream to cross. The only way over was a precarious walkway still under construction. A bit treacherous, but I had to see. I had to get a shot. Well, obviously I made it there and back. And yes, I got a great shot!:)
We found a nice secluded spot along the way for a little dip... a little skinny dip, that is:) The water was cool and refreshing (and yes, in the immortal word of George Costanza of 'Seinfeld,' "there was shrinkage!" - haha:) We frolicked for a good while before deciding it was time to head back down. What followed was really a nice, unexpected treat...
"Hey, Swami. Look. It says, 'Cabanas and camping.' Let's check it out."
We wandered between an old, dilapidated, abandoned building and a little restaurant. I don't really remember seeing any cabanas or campsites, but just a short block behind the tourist path was the delightful little town of Agua Azul! There were roosters, pigs, chickens, chick-a-dees, little children, a Presbyterian church, a pre-school, a primary school, a basketball court, and a little general store, plus plenty more we just didn't have time to see. But I was determined to get a "local, non-tourist" experience. In general, I like to travel and mingle. I like to get to know the people, the culture, the music, the art, the language - a more "authentic" experience.
"Hey, Michele. Let's go into this little store and get a snack."
I wasn't really that hungry, but chatting up with the local clerk is always a great in. We looked around, grabbed a refreshing strawberry yogurt drink, and paid "Miguelmente." He was friendly enough and I made some small talk in Mayan... well, OK, it was Spanish, but it sounded more impressive when I said Mayan, didn't it!?(haha). I asked if I could get a photo of the place, and he obliged. In one shot I can be seen sneaking rabbit ears behind a young, very Mayan looking boy while his friends looked on and laughed. Priceless:)
We made it back to our checkpoint one minute before departure time. Perfect!:)
Back at El Panchan we showered up and got ready for our last night in Palenque...
I walked over to Jungle Palace to see if a hut had become available: we needed a downgrade! (haha). Luck would have it that the "CACAO" hut was ours for the taking:) And chance would have it that our French friends, Eric and Lorenze, you remember them, were our next door neighbors in "CAFE."
The "floor plan" was an 8' by 8' square. There was a bed, a table, and a free-standing fan. The room was screened all around. Even the ceiling was screened. Above this could be seen the frond thatched roof. That's it. Oh yeah, and one light bulb overhead. A power cord dangled from hut to hut. Permit, shmermit, who needs a permit!? It was perfect! And at 120 pesos a night (~$8/night), what a bargain!
We met up with Eric and Lorenze, and their friend, Jean, for dinner, drinks, and music at Don Mucho's. Had to try the much talked about pizza. It was quite good, and definitely hit the spot. We enjoyed the evening getting to know our new friends better.
Language was an interesting challenge. None of us spoke a common language fluently. Well, except for the latest addition, Jean. He spoke five languages fluently, and five more to some degree! Eric spoke French, and fairly decent English. Lorenze spoke French, Spanish, and some English. Michele speaks English, and French. And I speak English, and Spanish ("like a four year old" as I always joke:) There were side conversations, and mixed multi-lingual conversations. A worldly bunch, indeed:)
Eric and Lorenze invited me and Michele to the South of France this summer for a big annual music fest. The great thing about staying at low-cost, backpacker/traveler places is that you tend to meet people of similar adventurous and inviting spirit, which often leads to invitations, and before you know it you have new friends and a place to stay in a foreign land!:)
We exchanged contact information, and made our good-byes before midnight.
Woke early to catch a quick breakfast (the food all weekend was delicious:), and caught our shuttle van ride to the Airport in Villahermosa. Fourteen "short" hours later we were back in New Orleans. WHEW! What a weekend; what an adventure!
So, everything went off perfectly. We got there and back. Didn't get lost. Didn't get separated from our luggage. Got great lodging (even slept in a hut!). Enjoyed great food and music. Saw the Mayan ruins. Saw cool waterfalls. Skinny dipped. Had an authentic experience in a little Mexican/Mayan town. Made new international friends. Heard and saw howler monkeys. And the weather was perfect: no rain, mostly sunny, low humidity, low 90's / low 70's, and virtually no mosquitoes or bugs!
Yes indeed, being spontaneous can take so much planning, but when it all comes together, man is it worth it!!!
1) Be sure to check out the accompanying photo album here:
(In addition to photos, a must-see is the video (well, mostly audio) of the howler monkeys, plus there's lots of great captions and links. TravelPod has a decent Flash slideshow viewer, too, so check it out.)
2) Hi-res versions of stitched panoramas can be found on my Flickr site, here:
(Must click 'ALL SIZES' magnifying glass icon above foto)
For best viewing, try the Flash slideshow viewer, here:
(Better yet, hit PAUSE, go to FULL-SCREEN mode, then play w/ keyboard left/right/up/down cursor arrows)
3) DEFINITELY check out the Photosynths, here:
* I've put together a very helpful "Quick Guide to Navigating thru a Photosynth 'Synth'" to get you up and going fast, here: