My obsession with Mexico began long before I ever stepped foot in the country. The earliest date I can pinpoint is 2008, when I was planning a solo visit to the country. Back then, getting from Australia to Mexico required a series of airport connections that would bounce you across the International Date Line and beyond, as well as – yes, I even got a quote from STA Travel – close to three thousand Aussie dollars.
I said thanks but no thanks and went to Japan instead.
When I would think of Mexico, I would picture a variety of vignettes. A mariachi band in the middle of a shady plaza, playing to a packed audience of locals. Stepping out from the surf and digging into some fresh fish tacos. Climbing all over a series of ruins, Lara Croft-style. I was basically imagining a Mexican tourist brochure. But it captured my attention all the same.
Of course, I don’t regret the Japan trip one iota since that’s where I met Paul, and in the years which followed, we got distracted. We went elsewhere on what became our annual January holiday, usually Australia or meeting family halfway in Asia. But we kept talking about Mexico. We’d even planned a hypothetical itinerary.
Eventually, the stars aligned. We somehow managed to sneak in a Mexico trip, sandwiched between two Australia visits. The itinerary was already a done deal: Mexico City, Oaxaca, San Cristobal de las Casas, Campeche, Valladolid, Tulum and Cancun. Three weeks. Overland. We scrubbed up our Spanish, nodded politely at people who told us it was too dangerous and started to get excited.
I’m going to write more about our time in Mexico, but today I’d just like to write about one day in particular. It kind of sums up our time in Mexico quite well and sort of describes why I love travelling.
This day starts early. It’s five in the morning and we’re getting up, bleary eyed and pretty cold in the darkness of San Cristobal de las Casas. We’ve been staying at a lovely little B&B and they’ve left a packed breakfast out for us by the door. We gather our things and head out to the street, waiting for our 6am pickup.
We hadn’t planned this day in advance. We had planned on taking an overnight bus from San Cristobal to Campeche but a few things made us reconsider. First, we’d heard that overnight buses in the Chiapas region didn’t have a glowing safety record, mainly due to armed robberies taking place with worrying regularity. Second, we realised that there were plenty of really cool things between San Cristobal and Campeche, namely the Palenque ruins. We’d gotten quite interested in visiting local ruins sites after checking out Teotihuacan and Monte Alban and were starting to regret not scheduling a stop in Palenque.
But then we found this transfer-slash-tour; a one-way day trip departing San Cristobal in the early hours of the morning, stopping at Agua Azul, Misol-Ha and the Palenque ruins. They’d take our luggage and drop us off at the Palenque ADO bus station around dinnertime, allowing us a few hours in town before catching an overnight bus to Campeche. We were set to arrive in Campeche at around 4am, so we let our hotel know in advance that we weren’t going to be arriving early in the morning anymore, but rather in the middle of the night. They said no worries.
The only glitch in this whole arrangement was that it was now 6.30, and there had been no sign of our pickup.
Paul and I react to these situations differently. I prefer to wait, convinced that the delay is only temporary. Paul paces, sure that there is something wrong and wanting to do something. Usually everything works out, but sometimes it doesn’t, like our cancelled ferry to Phu Quoc and the subsequent complete mess of our day. So back in San Cristobal Paul was pacing and I was starting to doubt the validity of our handwritten tickets. I rang the number printed at the bottom and was promised that the van would be there soon.
At 7am the van arrived. It was packed to the rafters, meaning I was up front with our driver with my knees up to my ears and Paul was somewhere in the back with an extended Guatemalan family. It was like the who’s who of Central America in there, with representatives of not just Mexico and Guatemala but El Salvador, Honduras and Costa Rica too.
We didn’t have to rely on our gringo Spanish however. Everyone was snoozing and stayed that way until Agua Azul.
Paul and I hadn’t planned on visiting Agua Azul, but we were mighty glad we did. A series of waterfalls deep in the jungle; the scenery and climate had definitely changed from what we had experienced that morning in high-altitude chilly San Cristobal. The humidity hit us right away and it put giant grins on both of our faces. With the driver telling me very slowly to be back at “once y media“, we were off.
Up, up, up we went, higher to the tops of the waterfalls and deeper into the jungle. The only thing I can compare Agua Azul to would be Plitvice Lakes in Croatia – a more tropical, crowd-free Plitvice Lakes. The minimal crowds petered out after the first pools and often we we left just by ourselves, admiring the vivid blue of the water against the green of the trees and blue of the sky.
We were giddy with happiness and slowly made our way back, stopping only to scratch our heads at the sight of a dozen or so members of a brass band playing in the water, all dressed in pink.
The only dampners came in the form of regret; that we didn’t think of packing swimwear and that we didn’t take longer. We were definitely on mañana, mañana time and didn’t get back on the road until after twelve.
A short drive took us to another waterfall; Misol-Ha. This was more your sheer-drop, postcard-worthy waterfall and you also got to walk right behind it too. This was also our lunch stop but we made the split-second decision to head right for the waterfall and order lunch after everyone else, which ended up being a stroke of genius. For a good ten minutes we had Misol-Ha entirely to ourselves and our photos prove it.
We were pretty happy at this point, pleased with our change of plans and glad we were having a bit of a nature day after cityscapes for the past week. The fact that our fellow travellers had no concept of time wasn’t bothering us too much either (though we did have words with a couple of them later. I mean seriously!). And we still hadn’t gotten to Palenque yet.
Palenque was probably my favourite ruins site in Mexico. Yep, it beats Teotihuacan, Monte Alban, Chichen Itza and Tulum in my eyes. One reason would be the lack of crowds – getting there in the mid- to late-afternoon also helps – but also because it was totally jungle-y and you could climb all over the ruins. Some looked like Ta Prohm at Angkor in Cambodia. Yes, they were the Lara Croft-esque ruins of my dreams!
Plus, the ruins were good. They’re thirteen hundred years old yet have been abandoned for eleven hundred of those. The jungle quickly took over after the downfall of the city, meaning that we cannot see about ninety five per cent of the Palenque site today, with regular excavation missions only chipping away at that number. It’s got a palace, step pyramids and a ball court. It’s got everything, and I’m so glad we visited.
You’d think that after these three stops, our day was over. Not quite. We still had plenty of time to kill in the town of Palenque as well as an overnight bus ride ahead of us. We got dropped off at the bus station, left our bags in storage and set out. It was stifingly hot and a quick loop of the town made us happy with our decision not to stay the night. We watched the sunset at a rooftop bar, Sols with lime in hand, and wondered of the last time we’d watched both sunrise and sunset in the same day.
We found our way back to the bus station and boarded our bus for the six-hour journey to Campeche. It wasn’t a smooth ride – strangely we got stopped for passport control, on this domestic bus route – and we were a little jumpy when we disembarked in the middle of the night. There was no need – a row of shiny yellow cabs greeted us outside the station and we didn’t even need to haggle with the driver. We were dropped off at our hotel, shown to our rooms by the cheery night receptionist and flopped into bed. It was 4am, a good twenty-three hours after we’d started this marathon day. And you know what? I wouldn’t have changed any of it.
What was so good about this day? I suppose it encapsulated everything I love about travelling. It doesn’t have to be flashy – our roadside food stops and overnight bus prove that – and it isn’t always easy. I spent the day with the man I adore, in a country I’d fantasised about visiting for years, and it hadn’t really been planned at all. It had history, nature, spontaneity, a few cranky moments and even rooftop beers.
Yep, that’s why I love travelling. And in Mexico, I was lucky enough to have plenty of these moments.
You’ve stumbled upon The View from the Office, a collection of travel musings penned by an opinionated Australian living in the Netherlands, working as a cruise director and travelling in between.
She can’t quite believe that this is how her life has turned out.
Writing this blog is part the evidence she’ll need in the future to prove that it was all real.