México: San Cristobal de las Casas to Lago de Montebello – via Palenque and Benemérito

We left San Cristobal on a cold (yes, really) and overcast morning. It was quite a novelty to wear more than one layer of clothing. As we climbed up out of the mountain valley the sun soon appeared and we were back to normal. We’d thought of heading away from the main road to Ocosingo in order to take a ‘long-cut’ to cut down on traffic. As it turned out we were both enjoying the riding and the traffic wasn’t too bad, so we stuck to the main road. The road, although it had its fair share of undulations was mainly down and satifyingly fast. The next day, having surprised ourselves by doing more than 100km out of San Cristobal, we arrived at the Agua Azul cascadas in time for lunch. We were just thinking of getting going again after lunch and post-swim when Javier and Sylvia arrived. They are a Navarran (Spain) couple who’d started out from Alaska in June and coincided with us in San Cristobal. So, with company we thought we’d have another swim, and leave at 4pm when it would be a bit cooler. A little later, as we were again thinking of leaving, another pair of bicycles arrived and our fate was sealed – we stayed the night! Anita and Mario are a German couple who’d started in Cuba and come from Palenque that day. They plan on spending a bit of time in Oaxaca and some other parts of Mexico before turning south again.

Suddenly there were many bikes :-) About to leave Agua Azul with Javier, Sylvia, Mario and Anita after a great night chatting.
Anita and Mario had cycled through Cuba, the Yukatan and were on their way to San Cristobal from Palenque. Mario had passed his old touring bike onto Anita after it had done 45000km... Still going strong, though without many original parts! We may meet them down the track, but their route takes them further into México before turning south
The area we were cycling through is the stronghold of the Zapatista movement - this sign was one of many.
After the aquamarine brilliance of Agua Azul we stopped by at Misol Ha for lunch. Swimming in all available water has become an entrenched habit in the heat. Misol Ha reminded us strongly of similar falls near Darwin, Northern Australia and was similarly refreshing :-)

Palenque provided a reason for our diversion from the obvious, and more direct route into Guatemala. Our route through México had avoided all the archeological sites of Mayan and Aztec interest. We thought we’d better correct this, so concocted a large ‘almost’ loop taking in Bonampak and the Carretera Fronzial.

Palenque is an extensive Mayan city buried in the Jungle. The main spaces and buildings have been excavated revealing some stunning structures and tombs. We just got there before the tour-bus masses in the dregs of the early morning coolness. It's a verdant, outwardly peaceful place; but everyday life was bathed in blood and violence for those who lived here in it's grandeur.
Stucco frescos such as this are seen throughout the ruins. The head shape isn't stylised - they used wrappings to mold/deform the shape of babies heads as they grew - all in the name of beauty! Maybe in honor of the God of maize, their staple diet and symbol of fertility and renewal.
We met Javier and Sylvia, a Spanish couple cycling the Americas at El Hostilito, the cycle-mad warmshowers hostel in San Cristobal. We were very pleased to catch them up on the road to Palenque and spend a few happy days. They even tolerated our Spanish with smiles. We parted at Palenque - they're heading to Tikal and Flores before turning south. Maybe we'll meet again.
Sarah is good at attracting friendly animals, although maybe it was just a nice shady spot to hang out.

After taking our fill of the stunning ruins at Palenque we headed into the jungle, using the road that follows the Méxican-Guatemalan border. Here we discovered that the greatest enemy of a peaceful camp is the humble ant. Mosquitos have nothing on the horror of accidentally camping next to lots of aggressive small ants with fiery bites. These, combined with very hot, humid days made us feel beset on all sides. We managed some spectacularly early starts to make the most of the few cool hours in the morning. In contrast to the USA where we woke at 7am and after drying the tent got going at 9-9.30am; we managed to start riding at 6.30am! There were some nice rivers to cool down in, and we found a couple of nice campsites next to pools. One of them had a resident population of very (very) loud Howler Monkeys. Sarah feels they should be re-named ‘Groaner’ Monkeys as they sound very distressed and the pitch is much lower than we’d imagined.

The well-paved road along the Méxican side of the Guatemalan border is lush jungle with all the exuberant life you'd expect for a couple of days from Palenque before it deteriorates after Benemérito into cleared ranch-land. This part was nice and fast without much traffic.
Somewhat sporadically, and thankfully blatantly completely ignored by the multitude of locals, were these No Cycling signs. We ignored them, and weren't gobbled up by the nice Federales with their guns - Joy!
One of our camp-spots. We duck down a track just before a bridge and find a flat spot. Sarah goes exploring while Tom pumps water for dinner. Life is pretty hard sometimes! She even manages to pay tribute to the colours on the Méxican flag...
They may not be all that big, but volume is definitely not proportional to size! A Howler Monkey in the trees above our river-side campsite. Thankfully they (mostly) shut-up overnight...
Guacamayas are endangered. Our route onward from Benemérito passed by a reserve. But in our usual fashion we got there at the wrong time of day to stop and look. We were then very happy when 5 Scarlet Macaws (Guacamayas) flew around between some trees just next to the road a little while later. The photo doesn't do them justice - sorry. Basically they're quite big with lots of red and blue.
On our way back up after Ixtán we came across a common sight (and smell) - burning the large heap of rubbish dumped down a hillside just out of a town.

After Ixtán the climbing began, and with ever increasing undulations continued to the Lagunas de Montebello. A measure of our exhaustion was the vision that confronted passing Collectivo (mini-buses) drivers of two cyclists snoozing in a ditch by the road at the top of a particularly long and sweaty climb.

One of our mid-afternoon swim spots - we managed to find a safe pool near the top of this cascada.
Successive hills lead progressively, and very slowly upwards out of the hot and humid jungle

Our relief to be in temperate climate again once at Tziscao and camped among pines by the shore of Lago International was enormous. Our bodies and minds will have to toughen up as we’re heading through central america at a particularly hot time of year. Our initial plan to ‘stay high’ may be our only saviour. Now it’s time to leave México and head into the Western Highlands of Guatemala.

Back in the relative cool of 1700m elevation we just flumphed by Lago International at Tziscao, only 300m from the Guatemalan border. Shame there's no immigration booths there to stamp our passports or we could go straight through this way..

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