Corn, cacao and a ruin rendezvous

History lessons in Palenque and San Cristobal de las Casas

Leo Fisher
Jan 10, 2020 · 9 min read

We arrived in the small city of Palenque at the break of dawn. The town was only just waking up, with uniformed kids dragging their feet on route to school. The heat, even at that time, was unrelenting. The baking pavements seared like the hotplate of an Aga oven. We were relieved to get to the hotel to cool down. After a restless twelve-hour bus journey, a nap was much needed before venturing out. Authentic Mexican food was rightly high on our agenda when we woke. We had already learnt about the overwhelming array of food choices during our first week in Yucatan. Understanding the massive range of tacos, what gringas, gorditas, and tortas all were, was not as straight forward as you’d think. Add in trying to find vegetarian options, and eating out was sometimes a tad more challenging than we’d hoped. It was often a case of trial and error. Fortunately, we could usually make sense of street food specialists. Elotes became a staple snack. Corn on the cob, smothered in lime juice, smeared with mayonnaise and sprinkled with finely grated cheese. Add a couple of splashes of different hot sauce, and you never knew corn could taste so good.

The main square of the town was a hive of activity on our first evening, with school kids selling snacks, and a grandstand full of young girls parading in a beauty pageant. We stayed out until the evening heat forced us to surrender. It was still in the mid-thirties even with the sun out of the sky. Somehow we seemed to be the only ones sweating.

Our next full day in Palenque revolved around seeing the famous ruins. Located in the northwest of the Maya lowlands, the site is one of the most important archaeological areas of Mesoamerica. As with other Maya regions, there was once vigorous development in religious and civil architecture, as well as in art and crafts. The earliest evidence of occupation date from 100 B.C. — when it may have been a small farming village. Throughout the classic period (300–600 A.C.), the city grew steadily, and by the late classic (600–900 A.C.) it had become the power centre that ruled over a large part of what is today Chiapas and Tabasco.

It was a painfully early start for us to see this one time centre of the region. Knowing the daytime temperature would reach highs of forty-four, we knew we had to get out while it was still “cool”. We hitched a ride in a small minibus known as a Collectiv. The driver was playing some lovely Mexican folk music. The woman next to us happily hummed along. I wish I’d ask what the song was.

We arrived at the ruins just before seven to the chirp of birds resonating from the surrounding jungle. The enormity of the site was visible within seconds of walking into the central courtyard. We were free to roam and enter many of the structures. The ruins are rightfully famed for their architectural and sculptural works, in addition to the numerous and well preserved glyphic inscriptions that have provided some invaluable insights to the history and culture of the time. It unquestionably topped our list of all the Mayan sites we had visited.

Come lunchtime we flagged a bus back to Palenque town. Here, we jumped on another bus to visit another, but lesser-known tourist attraction called Roberto Barrios. No, this wasn’t just some Mexican dude, but rather an area full of green pools of freshwater and countless waterfalls — the perfect afternoon destination for the sweltering conditions. After much floating about and some fresh cactus quesadillas, we called it a day. Palenque had been well worth the stop off. Our busy schedule meant we boarded yet another night bus that evening. This time heading towards the cultural capital of Chiapas — San Cristobal de las Casas.

Another morning arrival meant it was too early to check into our room. It had been another exhausting journey, but we decided it best we get out and shake off any weariness. We made it just in time to tag onto a free walking tour of the city. The guide promised a perfect blend of well-known tourist attractions, as well as lesser-known local haunts. After an hour of jaunting through the pretty cobbled streets, admiring the earthy red-topped buildings, we sipped down on a delicious coffee at Libre Café. Table chat centred on the indigenous heritage of the area and our guide provided a top-level overview of the Zapatista movement, which is an integral part of the modern history of the state. Again, there’s far too much to cover on the subject to provide any meaningful overview, but in a nutshell, we learnt Mexico has a vast indigenous population. The largest in Latin America; accounting for 12.7 million people, who speak 62 different languages. Among the 31 states that constitute Mexico, together with the Federal District, Chiapas has the most multicultural and multi-ethnic population of the country. Based on census data it’s believed Chiapas has 1.1 million indigenous people, representing 27.2 per cent of the state’s total population.

Chiapas also happens to be one of the wealthiest states in Mexico in natural resources (with 30 per cent of Mexico’s freshwater supply). Yet, it ranks as the second most marginalised state in the country.

Throughout Mexican history, Chiapas’s indigenous people have been excluded from the governmental decision-making process, as well as from enjoying basic human rights and services such as education and healthcare. Consequently, the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) was formed to represent the rights and aspirations of Chiapas’s indigenous peoples. EZLN demanded that the Mexican Government put an end to indigenous segregation and oppression. This oppression was exacerbated by the enactment of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which was viewed as a threat to indigenous interests. The EZLN considered this as a governmental betrayal by opening opportunities for U.S. and Canadian big agrarian businesses to buy or rent their land. Indigenous agricultural workers in Chiapas feared that international competition would wipe them out of the local markets. The historical marginalisation and abuse of indigenous people in Chiapas together with the NAFTA implementation were the two key factors that sparked the Zapatista uprising on 1 January 1994. A war broke out, and the touristic town of San Cristóbal was at the centre of events.

As a consequence of the Zapatista insurgency in Chiapas, the indigenous peoples in Mexico were granted the constitutional right of self-determination, except for not attempting to destroy Mexico’s sovereignty. In reality, progress hasn’t transpired. We were told that significant inequalities are still present. Healthcare, sanitation and several essential services are still lacking for a number of the neighbouring indigenous towns of San Cristobal.

From coffee, we sampled some pure cacao from a hole in the wall. We couldn’t resist buying a couple of sticks to take with us. We then swung by an alternative clothes and textiles workshop where we learnt about the different indigenous patterns and techniques. Our guide was born and bred in the city. She offered countless insights into the lay of the land, and we finished up in a Pox bar (Pronounced posh). Pox is a liquor commonly used for ceremonial purposes among Mayans. It’s mostly made from corn, with added sugar cane and wheat. Besides its religious significance, it is also, put simply, a popular alcoholic drink in Chiapas. In its native language, Tzotzil, Pox means “medicine, cane liquor, a cure.” We tried a few different samples, and each one was quite quaffable.

Tour over, and we crashed hard. Our remaining time in San Cristóbal was spent mostly walking around and taking in the food scene, from delicious quesadillas to Mexican wine bars. Mexico, surprisingly, has a long history of wine making going back as far as the 17th century, making it the oldest wine producer in the Americas. Introduced by the Spaniards, it did not take long for Mexican wine to outperform the Spanish wine and cause their sales to plummet. This led to a prohibition of wine production outside of the Church and it wasn’t until Mexico’s independence that this rule was lifted and Mexican wine become available to the global market. So we made the most of it. We were living a good life. We squeezed in a trip to a well-curated textiles museum on our final day.

We opened drawer after drawer to reveal eye-catching garments from many Central American regions and different indigenous tribes. Inspecting these artefacts up close made you feel an all-new appreciation for the skill and imagination that went into them.

We boarded our third overnight bus questioning whether we’d made a mistake to move on so soon. There was much more to uncover in San Cristóbal and its surrounding towns, but we had finally booked an onwards flight from Oaxaca to the States. Ultimately, we needed to edge towards that direction.

As we boarded the bus a statement from our walking tour guide popped into my head. She had mentioned in passing that most Westerners get sick in the city. The group all looked at one another a tad startled. One girl in the group gingerly nodded her head. “I can vouch for that”, she said, admitting to only just having recovered herself. You see, those root issues impacting the indigenous people in the neighbouring towns of San Cristóbal previously mentioned, also affect its many visitors. A primary problem facing the city is the lack of potable water and no wastewater treatment, meaning that raw sewage flows directly into local waterways. Rivers are rife with E. coli and other infectious nasties. Even if you are militant about avoiding anything that’s come close to the water, you can still get ill. Heavy rainfall or winds can stir up all that bad stuff. We felt fortunate to come out unscathed, or had we?

Travelling with Leo & Zoe

A travel journal.

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