The next day was the leg we´d been waiting for, and debating, for days: the Carretara Fronteriza. Four hundred kilometers of jungle-skirting two-lane highway, thick with military checkpoints, howler monkeys, and indigenous communities. We waded through dense, bright green jungle yesterday, but now we were cruising past rolling green hills, distant blue mountains, and small farm plots fenced in by trees. Small towns materialized, bordered by rows of abarotes (mom and pop convenience stores) and pick-up truck fruit vendors, as we curved through the fecund landscape.
We stopped for a swim and lunch break at El Chiflón, a huge waterfall that pours turqouise green water into a brisk river. Disapointingly, the zip line that crosses the river just under the waterfall was closed for repairs…I got butterflies just looking at the thin cable stretching across the turbulent water.
Five more hours of driving (with one brief pause to let a monkey cross the road in front of us) brought us to Yaxchilan, one of the least-accesible and infrequently visited Mayan ruins in Mexico. After inadvertently landing the the middle of, and carefully extricating ourselves from, a heated dispute between the local taxi drivers and boat operators, we hopped on a narrow, long lancha and motored off.
We had been flying down the Ucumacinta river for about forty-five minutes, skirting the border between Guatemala and Mexico, before the grandmother (pictured above, first row, left, loving life) of the Mexican family that shared our boat gasped and raised her arm straight out towards the shore. Slowly, swatches of beige stone emerged from the dense green forest. Then crumbling, pocked structures. We passed two nearly-hidden buildings before swinging towards the sandy shore.
Walking into the park was like a weird dream…deadly quiet, except for occasional outburtsts from territorial howler monkeys, and nearly deserted. We hurried ahead of the others from our boat so we could be alone in the ruins. Joking to break the tension and quiet, we tramped along a vague, vine-laden path until a huge, mossy stone box came into view, blocking the path. We sidled up, and found a pitch-dark opening in the box. A doorway, of sorts, with warm, wet-smelling air pouring throught it.
We crept through with baited breath, cringing as we realized that the small squeeks just above our heads were a pair of tiny slumbering bats heads. Soon, the the darkness slowly abated and we emerged on a large platform, with a grassy lawn infront of us, the river bank to our left, and a steep hill on our right.
Crumbling stone structures stretched across the lawn; we recognized pelota courts, temples, houses, and staircases crawled up the hillside to our left. We spent a few hours exploring the ruins, taking side-paths to smaller plazas and structures hidden deeper in the jungle. I felt a deep sense of awe, and also nervous excitement…it felt like we´d stumbled upon a hidden city, whose inhabitants were watching us from the dark recesses of their abandoned buildings. The constant roaring of the howler monkeys only added to the Indiana-Jones feeling. An unforgettable experience.
We left at dusk as the attendants were closing the park, and hoofed it another few hours to Palenque, rolling into town exhausted from the drive and the adrenaline rush. The final score: 400 kilometers, 1 huge waterfall, six full-car searches by Mexican soldiers at checkpoints, one hidden ruins, and too many peanut butter sandwiches to count. The next day we toured touristy, but impressive Palenque. Then goodbyes, an overnight bus to Cancun, and a flight home for Christmas!