Mexico: The Jungle Ruins of Palenque (part one)


(part 2 of this story is here)

I arrived at Palenque in the early after an ADO bus trip from Merida. The bus featured several movies highlighting the prominent drug-related violence in the country, including Get the Gringo, which had Mel Gibson speaking Spanish (I assume dubbed), and one based on real life about some prominent public assassination of an anti-drugs campaigner that involved corrupt politicians and led to the deaths of mucho people investigating it. I think around 50-60 people were killed on the trip. It’s a little bit like watching Jaws on your way down to the beach, not that Palenque is anything like the border towns of Ciudad Juarez, though you may come across the odd Zapatista guerilla hanging out in a jungle bar.

There were five British people on board the bus, three women travelling together who were conveniently located about 30 centimetres from the toilet door. I got to chatting to them every time I went for a pee – luckily not needing a number two during the trip.

One of the women was one of the whitest people I have ever laid my eyes upon, appearing even whiter before the background of the  golden brown hues of the beautiful Mexican skin, like snow on a gum tree.

“You are very white”, I couldn’t help remarking to her in the course of our conversation. I mean I knew I probably couldn’t make a similar observation of  say African Americans but I didn’t feel too out of place here being very white myself.

The very white woman’s name was Laura, I don’t recall her friends’ name, but we can leave her for now as I will chat again with her later.

The remaining Brits, apart from Laura’s companions, were a couple, a young man and young woman, who sat in the seat in front of me, in the very front row behind the driver. In between the blood splatters, knifings and explosions occurring on the screen above us we talked about politics, climate change, where we’d travelled and the like, as well as sharing Mexican biscuits bought at the bus stations.

It was good having a fluent conversation in my own tongue after struggling with my very  basic Spanish vocabulary since my time in the country. It took a couple of hours to get from Merida to Palenque so I had a good chat with all the young English speakers.

Arriving in Palenque I had to search for some suitable lodgings. I had for once not succumbed to the bourgeois, techno-age, urge to book a hotel online, so I had to jump in a taxi in Palenque town and headed out on the road to the  Palenque ruinas, eventually settling on a little cabaña in the jungle, right near Don Muchos restaurant, right at the entrance gate to the zona archeogolical, for only 200 pesos.

“Mastercard?” I asked the Mayan looking guy at the reservation desk.

“No”, he said, “only cash”.

“I have no cash on me. Where can I get cash?” I gestured towards the jungle trees outside, not having recalled seeing any with an ATM card slot.

“Palenque town”.

“Ok, I will go get some money. Can I leave my luggage here?”

“Si”. He found the key and I turned and headed to the cabaña, dropped my bags there and headed back to Don Muchos restaurant to get a taxi back into the town.

Being a little bit jungly I got a tinsy bit disorientated and on the way to Don Muchos I discovered a little bar in a clearing, where I grabbed a bottle of water.

palenque cabana

plaenque forest

“Hey”, came a New York accent, “do you want a toke?” The guy with a NY baseball cap handed me a small joint.

“I haven’t smoked for about ten years”. I said contemplating the joint, now in my hand.

“Hey, I don’t want to get you off the wagon”.

“No, it’s cool, one joint a decade won’t hurt me”. I drew deeply loving the feeling of the THC surging into my lungs and holding it in there a second.

“So what are you doing over here?”

“Just travelling around. Solo. Left the wife and kids at home.” I passed the joint back.

“What are you running from?”

“Nothing. Well, I don’t think so anyway, I just wanted to have a break from it all”.

This Mexican stuff wasn’t the strongest I’d ever smoked, by a long way. It was probably some organico stuff some farmer had grown in the hills amongst the corn, beans and turkeys. Still, I recognised that all too familiar feeling of ‘puff headiness’ that had been a regular state of mine for a few years in my twenties. I thought about the dude’s question, exploring myself just to make sure I really wasn’t running from anything that I’d forgotten about.

There’s a lot of pressures in my life. I got to make sure that Fluffy, the Rabbit, gets his rabbit food, and that the fish tank filter in the fish tank is changed every few months so Bubbles, the little catfish, and the other unnamed fish stay alive. (Though, conveniently, when the unnamed fish die Bubbles eats their dead bodies.) Then I have to make sure that the kids get their Nikes and Asic Gels, and their new soccer boots, and pay for all their excursions, and presents for their friends’ parties, and school books and online game memberships so they can play Minecraft and Animal Jam. It was actually a lot, and, like me, they won’t appreciate these things when they are older.

“I don’t mind getting the stuff for the pets and family,” I blurt out to the New York Yank feeling he should have some insight into my internal thought process,  “then there’s what I have to do to get all that stuff, sit for seven-and-a-half hours a day in front of a computer, not being out in the jungle of Palenque with the hope of seeing a toucan.” I took another toke.

Sitting in an office for hours on end is not the most tragic of lives to have. Most people in Mexico, I imagine, would be glad to get the sort of cash I was getting for sitting on my backside all day, and were likely to be satisfied just to put some tacos on the table and get their kids tacos and a pair of no brand shoes, so I should really stop whinging, I think to myself.

I wasn’t running, I was just forgetting it all for a while, enjoying that feeling of being in a place so far away from my normal reality that none could possibly get to me in a hurry.


I chatted with New York Man for a while longer, the guy had come to Mexico about 20 years ago and never left. He’d stopped hiding long ago and was just here now. I suppose I could just stay here a while too, but then where would next season’s soccer boots come from – better to wait till the kids could get their own boots. I wasn’t paying close attention to what the guy was saying, I was kind of lost in the jungle canopy like a little caterpillar inching along the leaves.

It was funny, I always expected the jungle to be different, but now I was here, it just didn’t seem as jungly as I thought it would be. Back with the New York Man I caught a bit about him working at one of the group of cabañas around the place and that he had to dash off and repair something, leaving me with the last quarter of the joint. I had a few more puffs and was getting stoned enough so I didn’t bother finishing the roach. There was some Scandinavian dude at the bar, I asked him for a Victoria beer, a Mexican beer I’d grown fond of, and took a few minutes to drink it, in between puffs, before heading back to the reception area.

“Hello again?” Said the guy in that mellow Mexican way. “You are back now.”

“Oh”, I said, “I still haven’t got any money yet”.

“But I thought you had been gone so long that you had already been into town”.

I didn’t have a watch but I guessed I might have been gone half an hour, three-quarter’s of an hour tops.

“I was just having a look around and got lost. Sorry, I’ll go do that now”.

I was temporarily shaken out of my state of intoxication and noticed that the three British girls that I had met on the bus were there in the same room booking in as well.

“Hey”, I said, “you guys staying here as well”.

“Yeah”, said Laura, the very white girl. I got the sudden urge to kiss her neck. It looked so delicious set against her dark hair. Instead I said, “Oh, well, enjoy, I’m off to get some money, I’ll see you’s around”.

I got the guys at Don Muchos to call me a taxi back down the road into Palenque, my head out the window admiring the sunlight through the leaves on the way, as we shot past. The ATM was at the bus stop, of course. I withdrew a stack of pesos and headed back down the road, paid the guy, had a shower and a lie down on the bed, studying at the inside of grass thatched roof for a while, and then headed to Don Muchos for supper.

I’ve always found with pot, that no matter how little you have, you always end up a bit stoned and you don’t straighten up until you’ve slept it off – unless you’ve overdone it and you end up with a light-headed ‘mull-over’, which is a much more pleasant state than a alcohol hangover.

At Don Muchos I grabbed a limonada – basically like freshly made lemonade, though in Mexico the limes and lemons are hard to distinguish as they are both green. I had already had a conversation about lemons and limes on another part of my journey, when confronted by a green lemon – “limón por favor the amarillo (yellow) one” to which the waiter would roll their eyes and say “Sí señor  limón es verde (green) en México” as though it was as obvious as the sky being blue.

I people-watched for a while, intermittently scanning the trees around Don Muchos for howler monkeys or toucans. I could hear the monkeys but alas no toucans.

After a while the young British couple from the bus showed up.

“Hey”, said the young man waving to me, followed by an awkward gesture at the several vacant chairs around my table “do you mind if we join you?”

“It would be my pleasure”, I said, “I have been waiting for howler monkeys, but I haven’t been able to spot any.” I lent over a little as though telling the young man a secret, “I’ve heard they are in the trees around here”. Then I realise that such information would be common knowledge to these young travelling types with their fancy guide books.

“I didn’t know they had howler monkeys around here.” He said.

We sat and ate and talked and drank beers for hours. I asked whether they had seen any toucans in the wild, they hadn’t. I told them about my close encounter with a crocodile in Cancun, and the flamingoes in some place not far from Merida. The little joint really loosened my lips and I talked for hours, luckily it didn’t seem like shit and everyone seemed to be having a reasonable time. And then the conversation turned to tequila. I had been having a little night cap of the Mexican national drink every evening to try and kill off the bugs in my stomach that seemed to erupt every other day. It didn’t work, I think it just got them all drunk so they thought it was some water slide type thing when then rushed violently into the toilet bowl.

“I have never tried tequila”. said the young man.

“Oh my god”, I said, “You can’t leave Mexico without having a tequila. I have to buy you one so I can remember that I was with you, and where you were, when you had your first tequila”.

I asked for the ‘top shelf’ tequila, some tradicional. His partner, who was a very nice young British lady (I feel old writing that sort of thing as I know it’s the sort of thing grannies write, but it was true) joined us in celebrating the guys’ first tequila, with the lime and the salt and all that. “People do skull it”, I told the young man, but I prefer to sip it.

We squeezed and sucked and sipped until it was all gone and I called for la cuenta and found that I had been there that long that I had around a hundred dockets and that I was too stoned, and a little tipsy, to work out whose was what.

“I’ll just get it all”, I said to the young Brits.

“Oh no, you can’t do that said the young man – the woman did talk by the way I just can’t recall what she said for some reason, and only remember that she was very nice.

“Seriously, when I go out with the family back home I usually spend like triple this, and you have both been very good company, so I insist. Maybe just chuck a tip on, or something”.

And we said adieu and buenas noches, with some notion that we might bump into each other at the famous Palenque ruinas the next day.

When I was the young couple’s age, when I was staying in Byron Bay, I used to get so stoned that it took me half an hour to get one shoe off and the other always seemed like twice the effort. I was able to get my shoes off pretty easily before going to bed this night, so I figured I was only very mildly stoned. I think I was asleep before I hit the pillow. Tomorrow the ruinas

(part 2 of this story is here)

palenque tower from distance