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  • Total days on the road: 586
  • Currently in: USA
  • Miles Driven: 36821
  • Countries Visited: 17
  • Days Camping: 389
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From Mountains to Jungle

Written by Jared on December 28, 2011

An iguana in the trees above our campsite.Start: December 20, Tehuantepec
End: December 26, Campeche
Elevation Lost: 7,100 Feet
How High an Iguana Can Bounce: 2 Feet
Humidity Level: 100% Chance of Sweat
Nights Sleep Interrupted by Angry Monkeys: 2

We began this week nearly 7,250 feet up in the highlands of south-central Mexico in the city of San Cristobal de las Casas. Temperatures dropped to 40 degrees at night and the environment was much more like home than we had become accustomed to - mountains, yellowing alder trees and pine cones.

It took us five and a half hours to drive 130 miles down the winding mountain roads to reach the jungle that marks the beginning of the Yucatan Peninsula. We spent two days in Palenque touring our first Mayan ruins, and a couple more days camped near the beach at Isla Aguada for the Christmas holiday. Feliz Navidad!

A wind farm en route to San Cristobal de las Casas.

Two hours outside of Tehuantepec we pass through the La Ventosa region of the state of Oaxaca. This is a relatively flat area on the isthmus of Mexico, the narrowest part of the country between the Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific Ocean. Gigantic wind farms dot the landscape, often with turbines a hundred feet high lining highway.

Jess and Kobus working away at our campsite in San Cristobal de las Casas.

Our destination: San Cristobal de las Casas. Elevation: 7228 feet. It's cold, and our campsite looks more like a Washington State park than a Mexican RV park. Jess and Kobus waste no time checking out the wireless connection and doing a bit of work online.

The main walking street in San Cristobal.

San Cristobal de las Casas is in the state of Chiapas, east of Oaxaca. While it's not the state capital, it is considered to be the cultural capital. On our first day in town we find a cozy cafe balcony where we sip coffee and watch all manner of people stroll the pedestrian street in the center of town.

The cathedral in San Cristobal.

The city is very much an old colonial Spanish town. Narrow cobblestone streets, pastel painted buildings and the ubiquitous zocalo (central square) complete with a Catholic Cathedral and vendors hawking all types of snacks and trinkets.

The Guadalupe Church on the Cerro de Guadalupe.

To the north and south of the city center are two hills, both with small churches perched at their summits. Above is the Guadalupe Church, atop the Cerro de Guadalupe (Guadalupe Hill). Like the city streets, it is fully decorated for the upcoming Christmas holiday.

A view from San Cristobal from the Cerro de Guadalupe.

After climbing the 79 steps we're rewarded with a great view of the city and surrounding hills.

Jessica in our jungle camp after a rainy night in Palenque.

The descent from San Cristobal de las Casas to our next destination, Palenque, took nearly six hours. The road was in poor condition, lanes had been washed away by landslides, and topes (speed bumps) were around every corner.

Although it took half of a day, we'd only gone 130 miles. The changes to the environment were dramatic, from high mountain to low jungle, offering us our first taste of camping in the rainforest. Above, Jessica starts the morning coffee after a night of torrential downpours. We awoke (mostly) dry, although I can't say the same for the Mexican tourists and their Coleman tents.

The ruins of Palenque.

The ruins of the ancient Mayan city of Palenque brought us to this wet, tropical corner of Mexico. Despite the heat and humidity we spend several hours trekking through the ruins and surrounding forests, along with several hundred other tourists, mostly Mexicans on holiday. The Temple of the Inscriptions, pictured above through the fog, is the largest and most impressive building on the site.

The ruins of Palenque.

Palenque was inhabited from 100 BC until 800 AD when it was swallowed by the jungle, to be "rediscovered" by Spanish explorers in the 16th century. Roughly 90% of the complex (1,000 structures) has yet to be explored. Above, the Temple of the Cross is the highest pyramid that visitors are permitted to climb. We make our sweaty ascent, thankful that the sun is still below the tree line.

A panorama from atop the ruins of Palenque.

This panorama is our reward. Click the image for a full sized version. To the left are three temples, burial grounds of ancient rulers. In the background, obscured by trees is the Temple of the Inscriptions, the largest building in the complex. Adjacent to the Temple of the Inscriptions sits the Palace, home to the ruling elite and heart of the Mayan city.

The first iguana we've seen on this trip in Palenque.

While we catch our breath and hide in the shade we see our first of many iguana's. This guy didn't seem particularly happy for our intrusion, but at least he smiled for the camera.

The palace in Palenque.

The grounds around the main complex of the Palace are very well maintained. Shade trees, places to sit and more grass than we've seen in months. A nice opportunity to relax and soak in the jungle ambiance.

A glowing tree in the jungle.

Jessica caught sight of this tree while we were walking the paths between ruins. An orange fungus had grown on the bark giving it a strange glow in the sunshine.

A big tree grows from a ruined wall.

Exactly four years ago the three of us were tromping through an entirely different country, on a mission much the same. We spent a week in the jungles of Cambodia, exploring the ruins of Angkor Wat. This scene, a tree overgrowing an ancient stone wall, is perhaps the most reminiscent of our time spent in Southeast Asia.

The waterfalls in Palenque.

Several walking paths surround the main complex, one of which takes us to a series of cascading waterfalls. Howler monkeys scream overhead, vines as thick as my wrist swing from the trees, plants grow on top of other plants that hang from buttressed mahogany trees surrounding the pools of water. Much to Jessica's chagrin I renew my singing of the The Lion Sleeps the jungle, the mighty jungle...well, you get the idea.

Our campground in Isla Aguada.

From the jungles of eastern Chiapas we head north to the coast on the Gulf of Mexico and our first stop in the Yucatan Peninsula. We're camped on the Laguna de Términos (Terminos Lagoon) where we'll spend Christmas.

Coconuts poised to fall on our campsite.

Our tents are pitched under several palm trees. And given number of coconuts we find in the sand upon our arrival, we decide to take a few extra precautions to avoid a rather unusual Christmas injury - concussion by coconut.

Jessica's warning message drawn in the sand under the coconuts.

Jessica is kind enough to draw a ring around the base of the coconut trees, complete with warnings in Spanish and a stick figure drawing of what may happen if you enter the danger zone.

Another iguana in a tree above our campsite.

Not only are falling coconuts our only concern - there are several rather colorful (and huge - nearly 3 feet long) iguanas in the trees above. We watched as one fell twenty feet from a tree, bounced two feet, and scampered back up the tree again. We were certainly not lacking entertainment this Christmas.

Up next: The colonial city of Campeche and the Mayan ruins of Uxmal.


#1 Jo 2012-01-05 08:19
You guys do such a terrific job of blogging this; It's so entertaining just to "watch" you from here in the living room, where the Christmas tree is still up. I'm going to dig up the atlas so I can follow your journey on a proper map.

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