ALSO WONDERFUL: WATERFALLS
If you find yourself in Chiapas on a sunny day with no pressing engagements, we strongly recommend an outing to Misol-Ha and Agua Azul, two breathtaking waterfalls. Be forewarned, however, that in order to get there you might need to find yourself agreeable with tight spaces, serpentine mountain roads, getting cozy with sixteen (or more) strangers and the Mexican equivalent of Mario Andretti behind the wheel …
And so, we were off. Bound for Misol-Ha (the waterfall best known for its supporting role in the film, Predator), followed by a stop at Agua Azul, another celebrated confluence of cascading waters. Our ride through the countryside was smooth, the road out of Palenque being fairly flat. Soon, however, we started to climb. And as our altitude increased, so also did our driver’s love of the accelerator. He gunned his way over topes (speed bumps) and around washed-out sections of road, careening alongside the drop-offs as if he were playing Grand Theft Auto. Whenever we weren’t enduring bile-inducing hairpin curves, however, we shifted our focus to the beautiful scenery. The treeline gradually gave way to the voluptuous contours of deep ravines. Mist drifted over hilltops. Clouds blossomed into robust kernels against a Kahlo-esque sky. The sun arrived on cue, showering the valley with saffron light.
Upon arriving at Misol Ha, we exited the van like so many clowns from a car, gingerly hopping down and unfolding ourselves with equal parts pleasure and relief. We enjoyed the cool, shaded walk to the falls and stood at the overlook, admiring the scene. The stone steps down to the fall’s gruta, or grotto, were steep and slick. A slender ant line of visitors picked their way carefully along this path, stopping periodically to engage in the impressive theater of nature surrounding them. We took our time going down and stopped off to the side. For several moments we simply stood in the cool spray of the falls. Listening. Smelling. Marveling.
Eventually, we made our way to the ledge behind the waterfall, where you can stand and look out through the massive, white cascades as they barrel down with thunderous fury. The air there is blustery and cold. We emerged wide-eyed and damp, thrilled by the power of such an uncompromising force. After walking back up the path, we found many of our traveling companions on a sunny overlook facing the falls, where benches offer a peaceful (and dry) vantage point.
The jungle that surrounds the falls is sun-dappled and mysterious, conjuring scenes from (no, not Predator) The Mission. Or 1492. Something with conquistadors sweating inside armor and swatting mosquitos as they machete their way through vines, the eyes of undetected natives watching their every move…
While we were soaking in this incredible ambience, however, our van was being treated to some on-the-fly maintenance. A small gathering of men undertook a tire change, expertly ignoring us as we stood off to the side, staring and speaking in hushed, question-y tones. The mechanic finally finished up after cranking repeatedly on the lug nuts and our van driver attempted to put us all at ease by kicking the jack aside, slapping the van door and yelling, “Okay, kids!” before motioning us back into its cramped confines like Noah loading the ark.
Our next destination, Agua Azul, was about an hour’s drive from Misol-Ha. Our driver must have been half-starved because as soon as we pulled in he ejected himself from the van and made a beeline for his favorite palapa-roofed eatery, settling into a red plastic Coca Cola chair before the van had even emptied. We left him to his fête of enchiladas suiza and wandered off to explore, choosing one of many restaurants along the main path where we ordered beer and tortas. The waterfalls at Agua Azul were also picturesque. And plentiful. A gradual series of them runs parallel to a long string of restaurants and market stalls selling everything a visitor could desire: woven goods, clothing and decorative items.
While we ate, the local children began to swarm like bees to honey, their plastic bins fill of elephant ear pastries and baggies of raw sugar cane for 10 pesos a piece. We tenderly fought our way out of their hard-to-resist ranks and emerged only 20 pesos lighter, which is impressive, considering their precocious smiles. After lunch, we climbed to the very top of the falls and browsed the bazaar as we meandered back down. We made a stop at an industrious empanada-maker’s stand. "Queso! Puerca! Pollo! Mios son MEJOR!" She had an incredible pair of lungs and knew how to use them to move product. And in turn, we had no problem moving her product directly into our mouths. Yum. Finally, we headed back to the van, and readied ourselves for the two-hour trip back to Palenque.
It was, indeed, a ride to remember. Somehow, through the Magic of No Apparent Reason we ended up with more passengers going back than we originally had on the ride up. As for how that happened? No one seemed to know. Our 18 souls were crammed so tightly that we were practically stacked sideways. I managed to will the spare tire that was my “seat cushion” into submission (or perhaps it was the other way around) as the Argentinian man next to me tried to make polite conversation with the long-limbed Brazilian teen awkwardly taking up residence in his lap. Luckily, he and his wife were catching a night bus to San Cristobal and were dropped off fairly early into the ride, providing us with a few more precious inches of legroom.
We arrived back at our hotel at 6:00 PM, rumpled and achy, slightly sunburned and with a newfound aversion to raw sugar cane (and conversion vans). We collapsed happily in our cool, quiet, blissfully still room at Hotel Nututun. As we stretched out our cramped legs, we took stock of the day and wearily decided that the “cozy” ride aside, the trip had definitely been a good time in more ways than it had not.