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From the Rio Grande to the Rio Usumacinta: Across Mexico by Car
Chiapas roadway

 

            Just weeks before my family was scheduled to fly to Chiapas, Mexico for summer vacation, the serape was pulled out from under our feet when the discount Mexican airline we'd booked was grounded for safety and financial problems.  Hesitant to scrap our vacation after months of planning, we crossed our fingers and decided to drive from our home in El Paso, Texas across Mexico nearly 2000 miles to the Guatemalan border.  It was an adventure we will not soon forget.

            At 6:00 a.m. on a Saturday, my husband, 11-year old daughter, and I loaded our luggage into our 2002 Nissan Altima and crossed into Mexico at Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua, El Paso's violence-ridden sister city.   During our first hour in Mexico, we passed through three Customs or military checkpoints where we were treated courteously while a cursory search was made of our vehicle. 

            A few hours south of Juarez, we got caught in traffic in the busy maze of roads through Chihuahua City.  But soon the urban congestion gave way to straight, flat stretches of divided highway across the wide valleys of the starkly-beautiful Chihuahuan desert.  "Don't sleep, tedious roadway," a sign advised in Spanish along one particularly isolated stretch.  

            South of Gomez Palacio in the State of Durango, Highway 40D passes through a picturesque valley along the Rio Nazas, green fields flanked by rugged mountains with bare cliff faces.    We took a break at the Leon Guzman Toll Plaza, which has ample parking, a well-stocked convenience store, and the most luxurious restrooms of any rest area in Mexico.   Continuing on toward Zacatecas, we left the toll road for Highway 49, a well-maintained but busy two-lane highway where passing is not for the faint of heart. Slower drivers ease onto the wide shoulder giving faster vehicles barely enough room to pass amidst a steady stream of oncoming traffic.  The experience reminded me of the middle "suicide lane" found on some Texas highways.

            An hour before sunset, we arrived at our first-day's destination - Zacatecas, a lovely colonial city high in the cool mountains of the state of the same name.  We found a reasonably-priced hotel with unremarkable rooms and valet parking near the historic city center (Hotel Maria Benita, 753 pesos/night $56, 319 López Velarde
Zacatecas, Zac 98000, Mexico, 011-52-492-922-6645), dropped off our luggage, and walked a few blocks up narrow cobblestone streets to the heart of the old mining capital.  Street performers entertained throngs of families around the Plazuela Francisco Goitia while vendors sold balloons, cotton candy, and other treats.  We made our way to the nearby Café Acropolis, the city's famed eatery, for a dinner of enchiladas and beer then stopped at a bakery down the street to pick up piedras (literally "rocks," a dark pastry that tastes like a chocolate-flavored scone) for the next day's road trip.  As we walked back to the hotel, we caught up with a group of troubadours strolling the narrow cobblestone streets with a clutch of fans trailing behind. We were a world away from the hot and dusty streets of the border.

            Although Zacatecas has numerous attractions - colonial churches, the old mine, the cable car that crosses high above the city, enthralling museums - we had taken in its sights on previous trips so we opted for an early departure the next morning bound for Mexico City.  When I turned the key in the ignition, I was troubled by a slight hesitation but the car seemed fine thereafter.  Besides, I'd had the car thoroughly checked at the dealer back in El Paso.  Surely everything would be fine.  But in the back of my mind I worried about getting stranded with a bad battery, a bum starter, or worse - a fear, it turns out, that was more than idle worry.    Leaving Zacatecas, we opted for the road through San Luis Potosi rather than Aguascalientes and were pleased to find that a new toll highway had recently opened.  If you travel through San Luis Potosi, take the route through downtown rather than the bypass, which gets jammed with tractor trailers.

            Enjoying good roads most of the way, we arrived at my husband's parents' home in Mexico City by early afternoon after navigating the capital city's light Sunday traffic. Rather than park on the street, we opted to park in my in-laws' patio courtyard.  To our dismay, the car was too wide to fit through the doorway designed decades earlier to accommodate the city's ubiquitous Volkswagen Beetles.  We ended up stashing the car in my sister-in-law's carport nearby.

            After a couple days' rest in Mexico City, we planned another long day of driving to the town of Palenque, Chiapas, known for the stunning Mayan archaeological site of the same name.  On the eve of our departure, we heard disturbing reports that a bridge across the Tonala River had just collapsed.  We consulted a map and saw a number of highways across that river but we didn't know whether the road on our route had been affected.  We left early the next morning hoping to make it across the river and to Palenque before nightfall.

Mexico City to Palenque

            Leaving Mexico City toward Puebla, Highway 150 D ascends an alpine pass flanked by tall pines.  In the distance, the snow-capped peaks of famed volcanoes Popocatepetl and Iztaccihuatl popped in and out of view.  At the top of the pass, we stopped for coffee at a roadside stand and shivered in the cold mountain air.

             By late morning, we had arrived in Veracruz, a mountainous coastal state, and began our trek across one of the most scenic highways in North America.   The nopal-dotted mountains of the north had given way to verdant green.  Farmers hawked bags of coffee by the side of the road. Through broad switchbacks, we descended from high in the Sierra Madre Oriental.  On one side, majestic Pico de Orizaba, Mexico's tallest peak, reached skyward.  On the other, the rooftops of villages far below dotted the lush valley like petals.  We stopped at an overlook adjacent to one of several highway tunnels through the mountain and admired the breathtaking view.

            In the next few hours, we left the mountains behind and descended to the coastal plain, an area of oil wells, marshes, and pineapple plantations.  To quench our thirst in the steamy climate, we stopped at a roadside stand selling fresh-squeezed pineapple juice, a chilled nectar befitting the gods.

            The pavement of the divided highway became bumpier along the coast and we encountered numerous crews working on the road at poorly-marked construction zones.   In one remote area, we were surprised to see a sign advising "CRUCE DE AVIONES," or "AIRPLANES CROSSING" only to realize later that pranksters had vandalized a sign that was supposed to read "CRUCE DE CAMIONES" or "TRUCKS CROSSING." As we approached the Tonala River, we were heartened to see oncoming traffic.  Soon enough, we came to the bridge.  But something was amiss.  Warning signs were up and a system had been improvised so the bridge, built to accommodate one-way traffic, could carry traffic in both directions.    As we crossed the broad river, we looked to our left and saw the remains of the westbound bridge.  From one riverbank, the span abruptly ended in mid-air.  At the other bank, it sloped gently into the brown waters that had claimed two lives and several vehicles the day before.  I wondered if the bridge we were on was of identical design and construction.  Subsequent investigations blamed the failure on river currents that had affected the pilings.

            As we continued through the state of Tabasco, we passed through villages crowded with roadside stalls selling freshly-picked bananas.  We easily navigated through the capital of Villahermosa and hit the last stretch of road for Chiapas - a two-lane highway crowded with slow trucks and buses.  We noticed some areas under construction for what appeared to be a planned expansion to four lanes.  My husband eyed the road suspiciously, trying to pinpoint the spot where he'd been in an auto accident 25 years earlier while a passenger in a cargo truck driven by a friend.  Although no one was injured, the truck had flipped and the duo had never made it to Palenque.

            By dinnertime, we had arrived at Mayabell Hotel & Trayler Park (Carretera Palenque-Ruinas km 6 www.mayabell.com.mx, info@mayabell.com.mx),  a jungle camp located on the outskirts of town within walking distance of the famed ruins.  We checked into one of the motel rooms (650 pesos/$50) near a large stream-fed swimming pool surrounded by tall trees and rainbow-hued flowers.  Other guests, including many artists and Europeans, camped in tents or strung hammocks in one of the thatched shelters at the back of the property.  We walked to the open-air restaurant for a dinner of cold beer and quesadillas made with yuca tortillas, cheese, and momo, a big leaf that tastes somewhat like anise.   After dinner, we walked back to our room located in one of several small one-story buildings on the property.  In the middle of the walkway were two of the biggest frogs I have ever laid eyes on, bellowing the evening away.  The amphibious giants weren't nearly as agile as smaller members of their genus whom I've detained over the years so I easily got a hand on one of the slow-moving creatures.  Or, more accurately, two hands, because this frog was as wide as a tortilla and handled like a water balloon.   My husband, a city boy, cringed in revulsion at his wife's method of communing with nature,

            Tired from a long day on the road and drained from the tropical heat, we went to bed early, sleeping on top of our sheets, cooled only by the blades of a plug-in fan.  We woke the next morning, grabbed a quick breakfast at the hotel, and hiked to the ruins on a shaded stone path that ran uphill along the paved roadway.  As we approached the site entrance, we saw cars and buses parked along the road.  We rounded the corner to the ticket booth and found a crowd, some standing in line to buy tickets to enter, others gathering in throngs around their tour guides, some already purchasing souvenirs from the nearby stalls.  We shared a tour guide with a family from Mexico City and entered the spectacular ruins (tickets cost 51 pesos/$4 each, a guide for up to 7 people is 600 pesos/$45, site is open 8 a.m. - 4:45 p.m., 1771 hectares in size) of an economic and political powerhouse that reached its zenith around 600-900 A.D. during the Mayan Classic period. Set on a hillside, Palenque's buildings rise like beacons from the verdant Central American jungle. 

            We climbed El Palacio, with its iconic tower, viewed the Templo de la Calavera (Temple of the Skull) named for its relief of a skull, and looked down on the ball court.  We learned about the Mayans' water and sewage system.  Our guide gave us the highlights then left us on our own to explore the rest of the site.  A Mayan girl about 10 years old offered to sell us stone trinkets bearing symbols from the Mayan calendar.  She asked my daughter her birth date then informed her that her symbol from the Mayan calendar suggests that she is fun and loves music. 

            "Is there a symbol for a man who likes to conquer women?" my husband asked.     "Mayans don't conquer," the girl responded without hesitation, a spunky comeback.

            I bought the trinket from her on the spot. 

            We descended an endless series of stone stairs along a path of tall trees, waterfalls, and unrestored structures until we exited the back entrance to the site and  hooked up with the paved road.  On the walk back we stopped at the archaeological museum (free, 9:00 a.m. - 4:30 p.m., closed Mondays) where we got to see some of the stone and ceramic artifacts found at Palenque.  Out front, we bought a coconut from a local vendor who popped a straw in so my daughter could try fresh coconut milk for the first time.  It was cold and refreshing, sweet but not syrupy like soda pop.

            By mid-day, temperatures were well into the 90s and it seemed there were only two reasonable ways to spend the afternoon - taking a siesta or going for a swim.  We opted for the latter, donned our suits, and headed for the jungleside pool.  With orange, pink, and purple blooms illuminating the nearby vegetation, a toucan flying overhead, and howler monkeys' eerie grunts echoing through the vine-draped treetops, we found a shady spot for our towels but spent most of the time in the water, trying to stay cool and playing Marco Polo in the large, inkspot-shaped pool, fed by a small stream that emerged from the surrounding jungle.  It had the tropical feel that resorts try to recreate with their swimming pools only this was the real deal at a fraction of the price.

            Just before sunset, the howler monkeys seemed to become more active.  We'd been hearing them off and on since our arrival in Palenque but they were well hidden in the dense treetops and we had yet to spot one.  Cameras in hand, my daughter and I went up the road in search of a monkey, hoping they'd be easier to spot along the open roadway than in the dense forest around the Mayabell campground.  We were not disappointed.  We heard two monkeys calling to each other across the road.  As we got closer, we spotted one high in the branches of a tree along the edge of the road, dark gray-black with a lean body about two feet long plus tail.  We moved in to take some pictures.  This provoked an unexpected response from the monkey, who seemed agitated at our presence and began howling louder and faster, more of a ghostly grunt than a true howl.  The monkey jumped to another tree branch and when we again approached, the howling intensified.  It was quite an intimidating show. We strained to snap some photos of the creature dozens of feet above us.  We stayed until the darkness and mosquitoes persuaded us to go back to camp.

            For dinner that evening, we got in the car and drove a couple of miles up the road to an area known as El Panchán, a cluster of camps off the road to the ruins.  We drove a short distance on a dirt track then found a spot to park.  We strolled across a romantic, candlelit wooden footbridge to Don Muchos, a busy restaurant built under a series of thatched palapas.  Remarkably, Don Muchos is known for its Italian food so we feasted on wood-fired pizzas and calzones while sampling the libations from the well-stocked bar.  A white fox terrier belonging to the restaurant's owners calmly walked from table to table checking out the diners but declining any food scraps.  After dinner, the rhythms of live Latin music and a couple of shots of tequila inspired us to take a whirl on the dance floor, enjoying hip-wiggling salsa and fast-twirling cumbias.  Once again I had the sense that this is the tropical paradise that the fancy resorts only imitate.

            Although the jungle and ruins of Palenque are magical, the town itself is rather plain.  We got to see it the next morning when we went to get breakfast and money from the bank ATM.  Surrounded by jungle, the urban part of Palenque has very little green, just simple streets lined with boxy buildings.  There are several motels and restaurants plus a busy retail sector.  We started sweating as soon as the sun rose high enough to clear the early-morning shadows of the buildings.  Once our bellies were full and our wallets restocked, we embarked on the next stage of our journey - the road through Zapatista territory to the Guatemalan border.

From Palenque to Frontera Corozal

            As we drove south from Palenque on Highway 307, a paved two-lane road through scenic agricultural lands, we followed a line of tour buses and combis, vans that serve as public transportation between towns.  After about 20 minutes we reached the turnoff to Cascadas Agua Azul (Blue Water Falls), a popular riverside tourist destination.  We opted to continue south toward more remote lands and traffic thinned considerably.  We passed through a series of pueblos, the highway in each punctuated by a staccato of unmarked speed bumps known as topes.  I followed a combi that seemed to know the road very well, my improvised early warning system for the topes. 

            About halfway to our destination of the border town of Frontera Corozal, we entered lands controlled by the Zapatistas, a group of armed revolutionaries who, under the leadership of Subcomandante Marcos, launched their revolt on New Year's Day 1994.  Although the armed conflict was short-lived, the Zapatistas continue to promote their revolution from their stronghold in Chiapas.  Before making our trip, we were well aware of the ongoing presence of the Zapatistas in Chiapas but our readings had reassured us that their revolutionary activities had transitioned from armed revolt to political activism. Hand painted signs along the road in several towns announced, "You are in Zapatista territory in rebellion."   The signs then extolled the virtues of the revolution.  It was about the time we started seeing Zapatista propaganda that the combis disappeared and we found ourselves alone on the highway.  The landscape had also changed, the flat cleared agricultural lands giving way to mountains and jungle. There was no shoulder on the road but the pavement was in surprisingly good condition.   I felt like we were headed to some mystical place at the edge of human civilization.  It was a premonition that would come true in many ways.

            At a jungle clearing, we came to an intersection and followed the signs to Frontera Corozal.  The road narrowed and verdant branches reached in from both sides.  The pavement was also markedly worse, rough and pocked with potholes.  At the town's entrance, we encountered a booth where the ejido, a type of indigenous collective, charged us an ecotourism fee of about $1/person.   As we drove into town, several men approached us trying to sell us tickets for the boat ride down the Usumacinta River to Yaxchilan, a Mayan archaeological site high on the river's banks.  We drove on until we came to a large parking area and the ticket booth for Yaxchilan (open daily, 49 pesos/$4).  Tickets must be purchased in Frontera Corozal before taking the boat to the site.  Across the street from the ticket booth was a hand-painted sign advertising the exchange rate for the peso, dollar, and Guatemalan quetzal.

            The town's riverfront has a fairly new but simple facility for tourists, with ticket booths for the boat tours, restrooms, and tiny comedores (lunch counters) serving antojitos (typical Mexican tortilla dishes).   We partnered with a middle-aged couple from northern Mexico to hire a lanchero (boatman) from a local cooperative for the round-trip ride to Yaxchilan (800 pesos/$60 per boat).  We walked down the ramp and were helped onto the lancha by the boatman and his assistant, a young boy.  The brightly-painted wooden boat was long and narrow with a 40-horsepower outboard motor and a canvas cover for shade.  We fastened our life vests and headed downriver. 

            The Usumacinta originates in the mountains of Guatemala and forms a portion of the Guatemala-Mexico border along its 600 mile journey to the Gulf of Mexico.  At Frontera Corozal, it is a wide, brown river with steep muddy banks and no sign of commercial shipping.  On the opposite bank, mostly hidden by vegetation, we caught glimpses of buildings in the town of Bethel, Guatemala.  There is no bridge linking the two countries in this remote frontier.

            Our captain sped along at a good clip, passing other boats, and forcing us to hold onto our hats.   The scenery was pleasant but not spectacular, with dense forest and no buildings for most of the way.  We saw a plume of black smoke rising from the thick jungle, presumably a manmade fire set to clear a spot of land big enough to plant a field or construct a building. We arrived at the site in 25 minutes but even then the spectacular pyramids of Yaxchilan, just hundreds of yards away, remained shrouded in the dense cover of the Lacandon Jungle.  We climbed out of the boat and the lanchero promised to wait for us for the return trip. 

            To reach the site's entrance, we ascended a long concrete stairway clinging precariously to the eroded bank.  We showed our tickets to the attendant then took a steep jungle path up to our right.  Direct sunlight scarcely penetrated the canopy above as we climbed to the Acropolis Pequeño, a complex of smallish pyramids, and then crossed to Edificio 33, a pyramid with a white façade of stone lattice perched high atop a broad ancient staircase.  From there, we descended to the Gran Plaza way below and tried to imagine this great city at its zenith nearly a millennium and a half earlier.  When I got to the bottom of the long stairway, I turned and looked back up in awe.  Edificio 33 seemed as impressive to me as any pyramid from the better-known sites.  Yet centuries of isolation and encroaching jungle had left its magnificence cloaked to the outside world.  An armchair fan and one-time student of Meso-American archaeology, I'd visited all of the major sites and a half dozen of the minor ones in the Yucatan peninsula.  Yet I'd barely heard of Yaxchilan.  Its underappreciated treasures caught me by surprise, making it one of the highlights of my Chiapas trip. 

            On the stately plaza, carpeted in verdant grass and shaded by towering trees, we looked upward as we passed through the doorways of ancient stone buildings, observing lintels carved with images of royalty with their iconic Mayan profiles.   We viewed the impressive steles, or carved stones, on the plaza.  In one building, we groped our way through a labyrinth, regretting that we'd left our flashlight in the car.  Before leaving the site, we walked to the edge of the clearing and peered through the jungle, barely catching a glimpse of the wide river below. 

            When we walked back to the boat dock, our lanchero was still waiting as promised and he safely guided us back to Frontera Corozal where we ate a cheap taco lunch at one of the comedores.   On our way out of town, we stopped to take a picture of my grimy Altima and its Texas tags in front of the weathered sign for Frontera Corozal, which, as befitting a jungle outpost, was partially covered by vegetation.   I looked at the odometer.  We'd come almost 2,000 miles.  Yet much adventure still awaited us.

Campamento Lacanjá

           

            From Frontera Corozal we drove a short distance to the contemporary Mayan village of Lacanjá Chansayab and turned down a gravel road to Campamento Río Lacanjá, the ecotourism camp run by a local Mayan entrepreneur.  We had reserved a cabin there by sending a deposit via PayPal,  As best we could tell, the Campamento does not have telephone service.  (We later found a phone number for them in the faraway tourist hub of San Cristobal de las Casas, 011-52-967-674-6660 or try http://www.redroom.com/explora@ecochiapas.com Esta dirección electrónica esta protegida contra spam bots. Necesita activar JavaScript para visualizarla or www.ecochiapas.com)

            We walked down a gravel path through the jungle to our cabin overlooking the small Rio Lacanjá.  The cabin itself had no coverings on the windows and the rough wooden poles of its construction, little more than big sticks, were joined by nails rather than mortar, leaving noticeable gaps in the walls.  My family looked skeptically at our accommodations.  Eventually, the swinging hammocks on the front porch won over my daughter and the comfortable mattresses and thick mosquito netting on the bunks reassured my husband and we settled in for the night.  Just as I was turning off the light, a lizard or large rodent scurried across the floor next to my luggage.  I deemed it best not to mention it to my family until morning.

            Campamento Río Lacanjá has nature trails, interpretive signs, and a refreshing swimming hole in a cool spring that eventually flows into the river.   The spotless restrooms are equipped with running water and showers.  Food in the open-air dining room is simple but tasty.   For its efforts, the camp has earned a certificate of compliance with Mexico's sustainability in ecotourism standards. 

            The next morning we awoke early to go on a rafting trip with another family on the Río Lacanjá.  Our party included two rafts each guided by a young man from the community.   Barely around the first river bend, we came to a two-meter tall waterfall.  Our guide steered us ably over the top and we plunged gently into the foamy water below, enjoying the refreshing waves breaking the bow.  The Río Lacanjá is narrow and rimmed by lush vegetation.  Gentle in spots, it roars to life at the dozen or so cascades that turn a lazy river trip into an exciting whitewater adventure.  After about 90 minutes, we beached the boats and hiked a short distance to a tall waterfall on a tributary.   After frolicking under the falls and splashing in the swimming holes at its base, we hiked about 40 minutes back to camp.

            In the afternoon, we decided to visit Bonampak, (open daily 41 pesos/$3 entrance fee plus 70 pesos/$6 for the bus ride to the site) a nearby archaeological site renowned for its well-preserved paintings and the tallest stele in the Mayan world.  Only in the last decade or so since a paved road was built to the region has Bonampak become more accessible to the public.  We drove to the park entrance where private vehicles are required to park then boarded a rickety bus, really nothing more than a rusty metal shell perched on tires and a motor, for the drive down a dirt road to the entrance to the ruins where we were greeted by Lacandon Mayan men in traditional white tunics who work as guides.  Bonampak remained hidden from westerners until 1946 and it still seems as if only recently hacked clear of the jungle with machetes.  No sooner had we gotten off the bus than the rain god Chac drenched us with a tropical downpour that lasted the rest of our visit.  The black skies dimmed our view of the paintings inside the pyramid but we could still make out the images in brilliant red, blue, and brown.  We took small consolation that we were among the few visitors with ponchos.

            Back at camp, we hung our damp clothes on the covered porch with the wet stuff from the morning's rafting trip, naively thinking they might dry out a bit. The rain moderated to a gentle shower by nightfall and we slept well, which was a good thing given that we were about to face the most challenging driving conditions of the trip.

Lacanjá Chansayab to San Cristobal de las Casas

           

            In the morning the car wheezed when I turned the key and I experienced a momentary jet of stress adrenaline in the short seconds before the engine finally started.  This was about the worst place in North America to have car trouble.  I'd had the battery checked before I left home so I wasn't sure what was behind the mechanical hiccup.  As we drove out of Lacanjá Chansayab, I looked at the gas gauge and had another reason to worry.  I was low on fuel and I hadn't seen a gas station for miles.  We asked around and found out that the nearest gas station was in Río Chancalá, a town some 54miles away.  But if we got in a bind, we were told, some of the smaller towns had vendors who would sell a liter or two at a time from a small container.  I did a quick mental calculation and figured the odds were good we could make it to Río Chancalá.  A word of advice to anyone headed to this part of Chiapas - top off your tank before leaving Palenque.

            Heading up from the Guatemalan border, we hit more frequent military checkpoints.  We were waved through some without stopping.  At others, the young soldiers asked us to open the trunk then barely glanced inside.  It seemed as if every other town was either occupied by Zapatistas or government soldiers but despite the potential conflict in this arrangement, the soldiers appeared relaxed, even downright bored.

            The farther we got from the Guatemalan border, the closer we got to more popular tourist destinations in the state centered around the hubs of Palenque and San Cristobal de las Casas.  By mid-morning, we had made it to the Misol Ha waterfall, a narrow 40-meter jet of water that freefalls off a ridge into a large pool below.  We took a short walk to admire the scenic falls from their base then headed back to the car to continue our journey. 

            Leaving Misol Ha, we soon approached the bigger waterfall of Agua Azul.  Driving along the sinuous two-lane highway, I recalled with some anxiety an automobile accident on this road involving a friend of mine a decade earlier.   As she told it, her pick-up truck slid uncontrollably on a rain-slicked road and plunged down a hillside rolling several times.  The locals told her that the vegetation in the area exudes a slick substance that makes wet roads in the region particularly treacherous.  Following the accident, my friend, a U.S. citizen residing in Mexico, battled the notorious Mexican bureaucracy hopelessly, being charged a fine for damaging plants along the highway but never able to recover her truck. 

            When we finally arrived at Agua Azul, we knew we had rejoined the tourist circuit.  Tour buses and cars from Mexico City filled the crowded parking area.  Hundreds, perhaps thousands of tourists crowded the walkway and overlooks along the broad turquoise Rio Agua Azul as it plunged down a series of falls to a calm swimming hole at the bottom. Along the way, vendors hawked crafts, souvenirs, and food from dozens of stalls.  We waded in the water, checked out the overlooks, and ate a quick lunch of empanadas and Cokes for less than $1 apiece.  It was a pleasant respite from the road.

            From Agua Azul, the highway rises from the tropical lowlands to the state's more populous coffee-growing highlands, zig zagging over mountains and through busy villages, covering just 92 miles in four long hours.   The highway appeared to be the only paved road through many towns, the residents on foot sharing the asphalt with trucks, buses, and cars without benefit of sidewalk.  We drove over literally hundreds of unmarked topes, bottoming out numerous times despite my best efforts to drive slowly.  I anxiously eyed the rear view mirror, checking for signs of any liquids leaking from my battered undercarriage. 

            Perhaps most disturbing of all on this dangerous stretch of road were the unofficial roadblocks.  Women produce vendors dressed in bright hand-embroidered blouses would string a flag-draped rope or cable across the road to stop traffic, hoping to increase sales.  Often, their young children would be the ones holding the line, an activity fueled by economic necessity in this impoverished Mexican state.  On more than one occasion, I had to slam on my brakes to avoid hitting the cable or the car in front of me. 

            Along one stretch of road, an unusual vehicle ahead caught my eye - a pick-up truck loaded with two cows, high metal railings keeping them from falling or jumping out.  Perched precariously on the top and sides of the rails were two bicycles and three men holding on for dear life as the overloaded pick-up pitched and swayed on the uneven pavement.  Clearly, the cows had much better seats than the human hitchhikers.

            As we neared the town of Ocosingo, made famous as the cradle of the Zapatista revolution, we saw their propaganda more frequently, with signs, murals, banners, and graffiti proclaiming support for the EZLN, the initials for the Zapatistas' national liberation movement.

            As we moved higher in elevation, I started to worry more about the lack of a shoulder or guardrails.  Then the weather turned.  Before I knew it, the road was swallowed by blinding fog and a steady rain was coming down.  I held a vice grip on the steering wheel and kept on going.  I was grateful to have stick-shift to help get up the mountains and to control my speed coming down on the rain-slicked road.  As we finally approached San Cristobal de las Casas, we emerged from the fog and rain to be greeted by an organ-pipe of sunshine streaming through the clouds. 

            Unfortunately, I had not seen the last of my driving tribulations for the day.  Navigating the narrow cobblestone streets of the colonial city of San Cristobal would pose a special set of challenges.

San Cristobal de las Casas

            With the sun shining and a good map in hand, we quickly located our hotel in the historic city center (Hotel Posada Jovel, 28 Flavio A. Paniagua Street. 011-52-967-678-1734. www.mundochiapas.com/hotelposadajovel, HOTELJOVEL@hotmail.com).  I pulled up front and parked on the cobblestone street to unload our luggage and check in.  We had barely set our bags in the lobby when a beat-up old pick-up truck loaded down with cargo came lumbering down the narrow one-way street and stopped.  There was no way the driver could get around my vehicle.  I left Sergio and Gloria to check in at the hotel and moved the car down the street, locating a driveway cut into the sidewalk where I could pull over and make room.  Even when pressed almost to the closed garage door, there was barely room for the truck to pass.

            A short time later, a hotel employee came out to direct me to the hotel parking lot a few blocks away.  Once again, I was not prepared for how poorly a street designed for 16th century carriages would handle 21st century cars.  To route traffic through intersections of the narrow one-way streets, San Cristobal de las Casas has a clever protocol.  All drivers slow as they approach the intersection and then they take turns.  One car crosses in one direction and then it's the turn of a driver going the other way.  In this fashion, everyone stays safe without need of stop signs or traffic lights.  After successfully negotiating a couple of intersections, I arrived at the entrance to the parking lot, which required a sharp left turn to enter, not much of a problem if the driver can pull wide to the right before initiating the turn.  But just my luck there was someone parked across from the entrance, making it impossible for me to make the turn at the proper angle.  The hotel worker kindly directed me as I pulled forward and back several times before finally squeezing into the parking lot.  I left the car parked for the rest of our stay in San Cristobal.  I began to understand why Mexican hotels catering to motorists are often located on the highway at the edge of town.

            Back in the hotel room, we hung our damp and now smelly clothing to dry (hope springs eternal) then went out for dinner in a picturesque restaurant in the large courtyard of a restored colonial building.  The wait staff all wore surgical masks, a sign the owners were still taking seriously Mexico's H1N1 flu scare of a few months earlier.

            The next morning the church bells woke us at 6:00 a.m. followed by a loud series of bangs from fireworks, a ritual repeated daily during our stay.  We slept in until we could ignore the noise no longer and soon we were eating whole grain breads and other organic treats in a restaurant set in yet another pleasant patio (we would soon learn that nearly every restaurant in San Cristobal's historic center is set in a scenic colonial courtyard).  Fortified by our jolt of free trade coffee, we spent the rest of the day shopping for artesenias, or local crafts in the market outside the Santo Domingo Church and along the 20 de Noviembre pedestrian mall.

            San Cristobal's artisans excel at textiles -- blouses with brightly-hued hand-embroidered blossoms, tablecloths with Mexico's trademark alcatraz or calla lily,  and cotton shirts for men decorated with masculine geometric designs.  Indigenous women and girls dressed in traditional black wool wraparound skirts, embroidered blouses, and wearing braids worked the crafts stalls and markets.   Those without a stall walked around the streets and plazas selling colorful woven friendship bracelets for about 15 cents apiece.  We did our part in supporting the artisans' economy.     

            The next day we hoped to visit some of the city's museums but then realized we had planned poorly as it was a Monday and most museums were closed.  Instead, we signed up at the last minute for a horseback tour to San Juan Chamula, a nearby Tzotzil community.  Our guide, a middle-aged man named Ismael, met us at the hotel and we walked with him to another hotel where we picked up four other clients, all French (Chiapas had an abundance of Mexican tourists, a good smattering of Europeans, and practically no Americans).  The expanded group then walked to a busy commercial district where we caught a colectivo, a Volkswagen van that provides local bus service.  We all squeezed on board and were soon deposited on the outskirts of town where Ismael left us standing along a dirt road while he rounded up the horses from their nearby corral.

            For the first part of our ride, we crossed a muddy, rutted path through cool pine forest but we soon cut over to a lightly-trafficked paved road, which we followed into town.  Ismael nervously watched the horses every time a car passed; the animals spooked occasionally and parts of the ride had steep drop-offs.   Arriving at the outskirts of San Juan Chamula, we dismounted and Ismael tied up the horses and directed us to walk down the road into town.  Stalls of artesanias lined the roadway but we had already done our shopping in San Cristobal so we headed straight for the office to purchase tickets to enter the town's famous 16th century church.  I have traveled in Mexico for 30 years, having visited nearly every state, yet San Juan Chamula was unlike any other place I've ever known in Mexico.  I felt like I was in a remote village in the highlands of South America rather than a city of more than 50,000 residents in a country I can literally see from my front door. 

            On the outside, the church has a picturesque white façade adorned with bright green and turquoise designs around the windows, door, and bell tower but inside it is truly remarkable.  Like many Catholic churches in colonial Mexico, the interior features a number of altars with images of various saints formed from wood or ceramic in cases lining the walls.  The tables in front of the saints were ablaze with candles.  But to my surprise, there were no pews or chairs on the expansive tile floor. Instead, the floor was covered with a thick carpet of long, fresh pine needles, surely the result of a daily labor of love by members of the parish.  The green carpet was cleared in spots where individual worshipers or family groups had lined up rows of narrow candles on the floor, some no more than a quarter inch in diameter and several inches tall, secured with a bit of melted wax.  They kneeled, prayed, and even chanted before the image of their chosen saint, seemingly lost to the outside world, snippets of their chants and prayers sounding otherworldly as they echoed off the walls.   Some of the women wore traditional sheepskin wraparound skirts that literally looked as if the hide had just been removed from a curly-haired sheep.  Men wore tunics of the same material.  As we quietly moved among the worshipers, respectful of the prohibition on taking photographs, I noticed a man scraping wax from the floor, part of the daily upkeep of this unique house of worship.

            Back out on the plaza, we extricated ourselves from the friendship bracelet sellers and walked among the market stalls, which were mostly filled with produce and cheap household goods for the local population.  One snake oil salesman loudly touted the virtues of his "miracle" skin cream.

            We walked back to the horses and chatted with Ismael while we waited for our French companions to arrive.  Mostly, he complained about the Chamulans for jacking up the ticket price to enter the church, for harassing tourists who take photos, and for charging him thousands of pesos a year for the right to take the horses through their property.  Some of his other remarks were even less charitable, tacit confirmation of the centuries-old tensions between Mexico's mestizos and Indians in this -- one of Mexico's most indigenous states.

            Back in San Cristobal that afternoon, Sergio went to the bank.  Gloria and I waited for him on the street outside, enjoying the people-watching.  Young women in their sheepskin skirts stopped by to use the ATM, an incongruous meeting of tradition and modernity.  A worn cargo truck packed with a dozen dusty men riding in the bed pulled up in front of the bank and one by one they descended and walked inside.   I surmised it was payday on the plantation or in the village where they worked.  Then a pick-up truck with a canvas canopy over its cargo bed parked nearby.   Sitting on a bench under the canopy was a dark-skinned teenage girl in a stunning indigo and violet hand-embroidered skirt and shawl, looking like a Mayan princess, texting away on her cell phone just like an American teen. 

            After, we went to the Café Museo del Café, which has an interesting exhibit about coffee production in Mexico and efforts to organize coffee growers in Chiapas, Mexico's biggest coffee-producing state where most growers are indigenous farmers working small plots.  In recent years, there has been a movement toward fair trade coffee and organic production methods.  We tried a few of the drinks on the extensive menu of coffee products and bought some beans to take home. 

            We spent the rest of the evening along the pedestrian mall.  We found another courtyard restaurant where I tried tascalate a sweet cold drink of roasted corn and cacao, accompanied by sopa de gato, a flavorful soup of pureed beans (not cat soup as the Spanish name implies).  As in many places in San Cristobal, Zapatista-themed artwork and photos decorated the walls.

            After dinner, we walked to the Daniel Zebadúa Theater for a performance of Palenque Rojo (www.palenquerojo.com), a Mayan-themed dance and music show about the rivalry between the cities of Palenque and Toniná.  Male performers with long black hair dressed in loincloths and gigantic headdresses strutted across the stage, shaking spears and grunting to the incessant pounding of drums while incense smoke filled the theater.  It was a performance unlike any I'd ever seen in the United States.

            We walked back to our hotel where the aroma of our recently-purchased organic free-trade coffee had filled the room, replacing the musty stench of our jungle-drenched clothes, which had been nicely laundered by the hotel.  We got a good night's rest before leaving town the next morning for one of Mexico's most breathtaking natural wonders - -Cañon del Sumidero.

Chiapa de Corzo and Tuxtla Gutierrez

            Driving out of San Cristobal de las Casas, the road climbed to the edge of the mountain, revealing an infinite vista of the broad valley below.  I felt like we were on top of the world.  The well-maintained and lightly-traveled toll road swooped down in broad curves hugging the mountain until soon we felt the heat of the lowlands as we approached Chiapa de Corzo, the small city that caters to tourists visiting Cañon del Sumidero (Sumidero Canyon).  As we drove into town, young men working for different tour companies handed us flyers trying to get our business.  We ended up parking at the Santo Domingo Church and walking to the nearby embarcadero (boat dock) where we bought tickets for about $10 each and boarded the 15-passenger open-air boat with outboard motor.  A short while later, we came to the canyon entrance, an iconic image of the country's natural beauty that is depicted on the Seal of the State of Chiapas and featured on the Mexican road atlas we'd purchased at home, a river weaving through vertical canyon walls that soar over 3,000 feet above the Grijalva River.  

            Our captain and tour guide sped along at 25 miles per hour to cover the 52-mile round-trip from the embarcadero to the dam, stopping long enough to point out the highlights.  The birdlife alone was impressive with dozens of vultures cruising on the breeze along the canyon walls while cormorants, egrets, and pelicans plied the lower elevations.   On one sand bar a lone crocodile laid placidly in the sun while we all snapped away with our cameras.  Another highlight is the Christmas Tree Falls where water cascading from high up the cliff has formed a curtain of limestone and clay coated in mossy green plants, giving the formation the appearance of a mammoth Christmas tree velcroed to the canyon wall.

            Sadly, the Rio Grijalva is not pristine. At one spot near the canyon entrance, a thousand plastic bottles and other trash formed a gantlet through which all must pass before entering the wonders beyond.  Elsewhere, the shore showed signs of erosion and at one spot a pipe about a foot in diameter shot a stream of yellow water into the river.  I also observed men in boats picking up the trash and laying rock to stabilize the riverbank.

            Two hours later, back at the embarcadero we perused the open-air restaurants, each with its own marimba band, the famed music of Chiapas.   We ate an inexpensive seafood lunch accompanied by beer and pozol, a thick cold drink of corn and chocolate, then got back in the car and made the short drive to the state capital, Tuxtla Gutierrez.

            We checked into our hotel across from the Marimba Park and went for a stroll downtown but with the oppressive summer heat it was more of a slog.  We happened by the office of the ill-fated Mexican airline and decided to pay a call to request a refund.  However, the doors were locked and a notice was posted in front advising that flights had been suspended (later, we successfully disputed the charges with our credit card company).   Nearby, in a plaza ringed by government offices, a mobile health center was set up to combat the state's recent outbreak of H1N1 influenza.  We slogged back to the hotel, got in the air conditioned car, and drove to the city's botanical garden, a series of brick paths through a blessedly shady forest of tropical vegetation, including monumental bamboo.  After our walk through the garden, we visited the nearby Chiapas State Museum where we learned that Chiapas, which has a history of Indian rebellion, was once an independent state.  I was also intrigued by the historical exhibit about a bishop who got in a dispute with his parishioners after forbidding them from eating during mass.  His prohibition backfired and many townsfolk refused to attend mass.  The dispute escalated for months and the bishop was eventually murdered by poison. 

            After dark, the temperature cools to a tolerable warmth and the Marimba Park is transformed.  Marimba bands pack the bandstand at the center of the park to play for a large crowd of fans, some dancing, others listening from park benches or buying balloons and snacks from the many vendors.  We listened to the music for a short while then turned in early.  We had a long and difficult day of driving ahead.

 

Tuxtla Gutierrez to Mexico City

            We got an early morning start from Tuxtla and soon headed into the cooler mountains of the Selva el Ocote to the northwest of the capital. The two-lane road was under construction so we proceeded with caution.   As we rose higher in elevation, the highway became enveloped in dense early-morning fog, forcing us to slow to a crawl, headlights barely piercing the gloom.  After some time, the fog began to clear and we could begin to appreciate the scenery of these verdant highlands.  By mid-morning, between the turnoffs for Apic-Pac and Amador Hernandez, we looked left and caught a glimpse of a stunning canyon, its ivory cliff face shining like a ship's sail in an emerald ocean.  I looked at the map and guessed that the canyon was carved by the La Venta River.  I wondered if the canyon was accessible or if the tantalizing glimpse from the highway was the best a tourist could hope for.  Before long, we arrived at a large reservoir, Presa Nezahualcoyotl.  A high bridge 1200 meters in length, the Puente Chiapas, spanned one arm of the reservoir, which showed a bathtub ring of red earth. 

            By lunchtime, we were in the State of Veracruz where the Pico de Orizaba's snowcapped summit was visible high in the sky as if suspended in mid-air like the moon.  We stopped in Córdoba for lunch on the balcony at the famous Café de la Parroquia  and enjoyed café con leche served tableside in trademark Parroquia style with the server holding the steaming pot of milk high up while pouring a thin stream into the cup on the table below.  Córdoba seduced me with its magnificent scenery, promises of outdoor recreation, and colonial charm; I vowed to return someday to fully explore its wonders.

            By late afternoon, we had arrived at the outskirts of Mexico City for two days' rest before the last leg of our journey home.  Fortunately, we made it there before the car died.  

Mexico City

           

            Arriving at Sergio's parents' home that evening, we swapped cars with my sister-in-law so she could park my Nissan in her larger carport.  She and her husband returned in my car the next morning and parked in front of the house.  My concuño (the Spanish word for your sister-in-law's husband) informed me that he had trouble getting my car started that morning. He had made numerous attempts and added water to the battery before he finally got it to work and drove to see us.  He had parked the Altima on the street in front of my in-laws' house.  We tried starting the car again to no avail; the battery was toast.    Fortunately, we had a travel emergency kit with jumper cables and brought the vehicle back to life.  Soon we were in the car headed for an auto parts store for a new battery.   Without difficulty, we purchased the correct battery and turned in the old one though it still had years left on its warranty.  Thinking back on the many remote roads and villages we had traversed over the previous two weeks, I counted my blessings that the battery had held out as long as it had. 

            Having lived briefly in Mexico City in the 1980s and made regular trips there ever since, I've visited the major tourist attractions on numerous occasions - the mighty pyramids of Teotihuacan, the Zocalo, the Anthropology Museum, Chapultepec Park.  Nowadays, I always try to seek out something different - a new museum, a neighborhood I've overlooked, an interesting shopping district.   So this trip marked our first visit to the Museo de Arte Popular, a folk art museum downtown (at Independencia between Revillagigedo and  Jose Azueta, just 2 blocks from the Juarez metro station, www.map.df.gob.mx/ 40 pesos/$3, closed Mondays). Opened in 2006, the museum has a fantastical collection of the types of artesanias that typify Mexico, including elaborate ceramic Arboles da la Vida (Trees of Life) the size of real trees, brightly painted wooden animals known as alebrijes, and gigantic paper mache figures.  After taking in the museum's splendors and visiting its well-stocked gift shop, we had a lunch of tortas, or Mexico City's famous sandwiches made of meat and cheese served on a roll, then we went to La Ciudadela, a crafts market near the Balderas metro station where I purchased a new pair of huaraches to replace the ones that had moldered after days in the jungle.

            That night, we gathered at a neighborhood restaurant with my husband's extended family for a dinner of burgers and beer then drove to my sister-in-law's to turn in early in preparation for a long day's drive ahead.

From Mexico City to Ciudad Juarez

            We awoke before dawn to beat Mexico City's morning traffic with the goal of making it to Chihuahua City before nightfall.  We took the advice of my concuño Rene, a taxi driver, and took a bypass known as Circuito Mexiquense through Mexico City's suburbs in the State of Mexico, a convenient route from their neighborhood near the airport.   Rene promised us we'd save an hour and a half in travel time by taking this route to the Queretaro Highway.

            We had a long but largely uneventful day on the road.  In San Luis Potosi, we made the mistake of taking the bypass instead of going through downtown.  The bypass, a poorly-maintained two-lane road, was jam-packed with tractor trailers moving at a crawl.  We were glad to finally leave town on the new highway to Zacatecas.

            When we finally entered the State of Chihuahua later that afternoon, we were stopped at a federal police checkpoint.  This was nothing like the laid-back checkpoints in southern Mexico where half-asleep soldiers and police waved us through without glancing in our direction.  After all, the State of Chihuahua and its largest city, Ciudad Juarez, are the epicenter of the brutal drug war that has wracked Mexico for the last two years.  At this checkpoint in the southern part of the state, police vehicles and officers with flack jackets, black masks, and automatic weapons swarmed along the road.  One officer standing next to our car held his weapon at the ready, eyes darting quickly from side to side.  These officers looked prepared for an artillery attack like those that narcos have launched in various cities, their firepower easily overwhelming the cops.  Nonetheless, we were waved through after being given nothing more than a quick look-over by one of the officers.

            We arrived in Chihuahua City at dinnertime and toyed with the idea of driving all the way home.  But then we were waylaid by the labyrinthine roads of the city.  Signs advise through travelers to follow the Ruta Paisano.  But as best we can tell, much of the Ruta Paisano remains under construction as it zig zags through the city.  We finally found a pleasant business-class hotel (Hotel El Cason, Av. Tecnológico No. 11315 just inside the Periferico de la Juventud Toll-free:  01-800-31CASON  hotelelcason@prodigy.net.mx) where we gratefully kicked back after a very long day on the road.  We knew we were getting close to the United States because it was the only hotel room we'd had on our entire journey with the design and amenities that could have passed for a room anywhere in America.

            The next morning we had a leisurely breakfast in the hotel then got in the car for the final leg of our journey.  Arriving on the outskirts of Ciudad Juarez, we took the bypass to the San Jeronimo, Chihuahua-Santa Teresa, NM port of entry to avoid the 1-2 hour long wait to cross into the United States at the busy international bridges at El Paso, TX-Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua.   As we neared San Jeronimo, we encountered another military checkpoint, this one with a Humvee with a large automatic weapon mounted on back and a soldier ready to fire if needed.  Arriving at the Mexican port facilities 3.5 hours after leaving Chihuahua City, I had my passport stamped and turned in my tourist card and car permit then crossed into the United States with only a short wait in line. 

            I glanced at the American flag then looked at my odometer.  We had covered 3,906 miles since leaving home two weeks earlier.  In many ways, the journey was easier than expected with good roads and light traffic for much of the trip.  Mexico's toll road system, though quite expensive, has certainly made travel easier and safer over the last two decades.  We're planning to visit the in-laws for New Year's this winter, usually a short flight from Ciudad Juarez to Mexico City.  This time, we just might drive.

IF YOU GO

Currency:  Mexico's currency is the peso.  Its value fluctuates, ranging in recent years from 10 to 15 pesos to the dollar.  Dollar costs noted in this article are estimates subject to change with the exchange rate.

Language:  English is widely spoken in major tourist areas in Mexico but a good Spanish phrasebook will come in handy when you get off the beaten path.

Insurance:  Your American auto insurance won't cover you for trips to Mexico's interior.  Many insurance agents in U.S. border cities offer Mexican policies to cover you for the days you will be south of the border.  Mexican auto insurance is also offered at the main Mexican Customs facilities at many ports of entry.   The daily rate depends on the value of your car. 

Customs and Immigration: To take an American auto into the interior of Mexico, you will need to stop at Mexican Customs to get a special permit.  To save time on paperwork at the border, go to http://www.banjercito.com.mx/site/siteBanjer/iitv/instruccionesIITV_ing....

and fill out  the form in advance. The car permit costs 350 pesos/$29.70 charged to your credit card and will allow the vehicle to remain in Mexico for 180 days during a 12-month period.  Your U.S. driver license is valid in Mexico. You will also need a tourist card from Mexican immigration officials.  Bring your passport for proof of citizenship.  (Note that U.S. citizens are now required to have passports to return to the United States from Mexico.)  Before you leave Mexico, you will need to go to a bank and pay 210 pesos/$16.00 for your tourist card (for short trips or those in border states, the fee may be waived).  Be sure to show Mexican immigration officials your receipt when you turn in your tourist card and get your passport stamped at the end of the trip.  For more information, the Mexican government has an online manual in English with detailed discussion of Mexican immigration and customs procedures at:

http://www.sectur.gob.mx/work/sites/secturing/resources/LocalContent/141...

 

Road Conditions:  Mexico's toll roads are generally divided four-lane highways with rest areas, emergency phones, and other services.  The maximum speed is 110 km/hour (68 mph). Toll roads are considered safer than other highways and traffic is often light.  You can expect to pay for the convenience, though.  Tolls vary greatly from region to region but plan on paying around one peso/kilometer or 12 cents/mile.  The Mexican government offers an interactive web page in English where you can enter your starting and ending destination for up-to-date information about tolls, routes, and travel times.  To use this service, go to http://aplicaciones4.sct.gob.mx/sibuac_internet/ServletManager  From the menu on the left, select "Rutas Punto a Punto" and then select the English version.  Even on toll roads, safety remains a concern.  If possible, minimize driving at night.

Fuel:  All of Mexico's gas stations are Pemex, the national oil company.  Magna is regular unleaded, 87 octane, and costs about the same as gas in the United States.   Make sure the pump is reset to zero by the attendant before your car is fueled.

Auto Service:  In major cities, you should have little trouble getting parts and service for most makes of vehicle.  However, if you will be spending time in smaller cities, stick with the major American brands, Volkswagen, or Nissan, which are widely available throughout the country. 

Safety: Drug violence is a problem in some parts of Mexico although American tourists are rarely targeted.  For the latest Mexico travel information for U.S. citizens, consult the State Department web page at http://travel.state.gov/travel/cis_pa_tw/cis/cis_970.html.  Be aware that it is illegal to bring firearms into Mexico.

Other Resources:  Mexico, a guide by Lonely Planet, has an abundance of information for the independent traveler.   Before leaving home we also purchased the Guia Roji Mexico Tourist Road Atlas.  Guia Roji is a well-known map publisher in Mexico.  AAA also provides its members with tour books and TripTiks with helpful highway descriptions, including driving times and tolls.  Some AAA offices also offer Mexican auto insurance.

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Chiapas road trip

For serious independent travelers.