We had to almost sprint with our backpacks to the bus station after being delayed arguing about payment with our sleepy hostel host. We boarded the fancy ADO bus, which was quite empty at this hour, and passed out thanks to our motion sickness pills. We woke up at a random stop and saw an Australian family of 4 get out for breakfast. It was quite amazing to see parents backpacking with young kids. They were about 10 & 12. We watched a Spanish movie and at the very end I realized that it was the daughter who had cancer all along and not the father! I was waiting for him to die and the little 11 year old did. It was heartbreaking and hilarious and all in Spanish! Ollie couldn’t stop laughing at me. As we headed further south, the terrain again changed. We were heading into the jungle.
Palenque was hot and humid and we just walked to the nearest hostel from the bus station in the afternoon sun. Afraid the ruins would shut, we got directions and hurried to the zocalo (main square) of the town. Just as we turned a corner we heard a guy yelling ‘Runas, Runas’. We got into the collectivo (shared vehicle) and waited till it filled up with people. Look at us being like locals. Very proud moment. On our way we dropped and picked up people – vendors, locals and even a tourist guide who was trying to lure us with his English speaking skills to buy an expensive tour from him. We paid the jungle entrance fee and saw signs for cabanas on both sides.
We met another English speaking guide, who wore a red shirt with this company logo and his badge hung around his neck. Believing he was legit we bargained and got a good deal to cross the border to Flores, Guatemala, for the next day. Or so we thought!
The Palenque ruins are a UNESCO site beautifully set in the dense rainforest jungle, with a few sites behind a small waterfall. Not all the ruins have not been completely excavated (only 10% of the 140 documented buildings in fact) adding a mysterious effect which was complete with constant screeching from howler monkeys. We loved the Temple of Inscriptions & The Palace, especially wandering through the different buildings around its courtyard.
Back at the square we picked up some local ice creams to battle the heat. The ice creams were melting faster than we could eat and tasted like kulfis in India. Our next pick was some cold Corona! The heat and humidity were still winning. The town and the zocalo were quite empty without any tourists or culture. I guess the backpackers were all at the jungle cabanas, which were supposed to be quite basic / rustic. We found a taqueria for tacos and turned in early. But the hostel (and bathrooms) was quite bad. The heat, pouring rain, lightning and the distant noise of the howler monkeys made for a very bad night’s sleep.
We were picked up at about 6 am by some fellow in his car and then deposited into s collectivo. I slept at the back of the van and Ollie kept an eye out for our bags as people were being picked up and dropped off on the road. The driver woke us up as he pulled the van over in the middle of nowhere. He then pointed at a small house across the road and said ‘immigracion’. We tried to ask him who was going to take us over the small river and then pick us up on the other side in Guatemala. Tour agencies usually make these arrangements and you just get handed over from one random person to another. But our driver spoke no English and we were left unsure what was happening. The strangeness was just beginning. We were the only two people at the immigration building as we got our exit stamps. A guy on a small bicycle was waiting for us outside and said he could take us in his lancha (boat). We made it to the river and continued to follow our new buddy.
We were a little frazzled that there were absolutely no other tourists around and only a handful of men mending their boats. We got in and enjoyed the breeze on the short ride over. Our young buddy on the mini bike was also our boat driver, or course.
We had to hand him 50 pesos which was not part of the deal with our tour guide yesterday. But who would want to argue with a local on a boat looking at us threateningly and not pulling the boat to the shore until we paid!
We got off, now fully aware something was amiss. It was a small setting on the shore with a few shops seeking snacks, beer and water, but again no foreigners. We met a couple of guys exchanging any currency to Guatemalan quetzals at an exchange rate better than the formal one but nobody spoke English. This was no mans land. We had exited Mexico and Guatemalan border/ immigration office were a bus ride away.
We went up to a hut that said toursitica and spoke to the receptionist. He was trying to ask us for our token to get on the 11 am bus which we didn’t have. We had gained an hour on this side of the river giving us 3 hours to figure it out. We managed to get to a computer with dial up internet connection to look up our guides agency and contact him. No luck. We were just about to go into panic mode when we saw gringos. Excited we walked out and were delighted to see our acquaintances from Oaxaca and San Cristobal.
Chatting with them we realized that a designated person meets you at the river and then hands you a token to get on the bus to the Guatemalan immigration office. In the tourist hut a gentleman, reckoned by the receptionist, came in with his teenaged daughter who was translating for us. He told us that they tried to contact our tour company and had no luck. Everyone here was trying to be helpful, very unlike our tour company. They agreed to let us buy tickets for this bus to the actual Guatemalan border. Phew!
We sat on the shore of the river with the rest of the crew assuring us we would be ok. But we felt cheated! It was not about the money as the damage was only about 10$ but more the feeling of being stranded in between two countries.
The temperature of this sauna was higher than palenque and all the 7 of us were dripping sitting in the shade of a tree by the river. The excitement had not ended for the day. We got the Guatemala entry stamps, again at a house, that seemed like it was in the middle of nowhere.
After that we were on a wide dirt road bouncing us for around three hours. Thank god, the mini bus had big open windows letting in the little breeze as the 7 of us rattled on and snoozed in the morning heat.
When we finally hit the tar we all woke up gave a small applaud and hoped for a smooth rest of the ride. Literally. On to Flores we headed, into the a huge rainstorm typical of each evening in this tropical rainforest region.