A ferry ride and two full days of driving will take you from Cozumel to San Cristóbal de las Casas in Chiapas. But, with so much to see along the way, why hurry? We decided to take three days and two nights, which would give us time to see the lesser known Mayan ruins in southern Campeche and in the mountains of Chiapas.
It was time for breakfast when we got to Tulum, so we popped into Don Cafeto’s on the main highway through town. It was just a good guess, but we thought that one plate of chilaquiles would be enough for both of us. The waiter brought a large bowl of vegetables en escabeche to the table. Marinated in a mixture of sugar, vinegar and chiles, the carrots, onion and garlic were sweet, sour and spicy. The perfect pickle!
Chilaquiles, a mix of stale tortillas, sauce (red or green), onions, cheese, and either meat, chicken or eggs all topped with Mexican crema (like creme fraiche), is a favorite breakfast dish of ours. The Don Cafeto version came with thin strips of carne asada and was definitely enough for two.
The first Mayan sites were along the highway about an hour west of Chetumal. I had driven by them two previous times, either not having or not taking the time to stop and see them. We stopped at the charming jungle cabañas called Rio Bec Dreams, about 4.5 hours from Playa del Carmen and got good directions. There were three sites within 10 miles of them: Becán, Chicanná and Xpujil. All are sites that were inhabited around 550 – 1000 AD.
The highlight at Chicanná was the structure with the entrance that had the face of a fanged serpent or dragon. Plus, we had the site to ourselves, something that never happens at Chichen Itza or Tulum.
The next site was Becán, which we had to share with two other people. An amazing 30 meter long covered walkway and a couple of tall temples with intact sculptures kept us busy until the afternoon showers set in for the rest of the afternoon.
A nice greek salad, a glass of Chilean sauvignon blanc and a good sleep under a mosquito net can be had at the Canadian-owned Rio Bec Dreams, just west of Xpujil.
Calakmul was an important Mayan city (250 – 695 AD) that had fought with Tikal in Guatamala for supremacy among the southern lowland Mayans. South of the highway, down a paved, but winding and sometimes potholed road, Calakmul is the only destination at the end. Blue morphos butterflies, wild turkeys, forest rodents and deer crossed the road during the 80 minute trip. Jennifer even spotted red chanterelles along the road.
Once there, you walk for another 20 minutes before arriving at the first structures, sitting in the dense forest. Climbing the tallest structure gives you a view of the area. Although there are dozens of structures, the forest is so thick, we can only see two others from the tallest pyramid. There were ten visitors, including us. We were outnumbered by the colorful wild turkeys.
We didn’t quite make it to Palenque town for the evening, stopping instead at Emiliano Zapata, on the banks of the wide Rio Usumacinta. We had decent tacos al pastor in town and a good rest after a full day of driving and walking.
Breakfast the next morning was at the Cafe de Yarra in Palenque. Good coffee, eggs divorciado and chilequiles are on the menu. This version came with a red sauce and strips of thick, bacon-like pork. It was good, but I could not finish it.
We had nice weather for one of the most scenic drives in Mexico, Palenque to San Cristóbal, winding through small towns in the Chiapas mountains. We arrive in Ocosingo around 11:00 and drove out to Toniná, a town that was a rival to Palenque and that was the site of the final days of many captured rulers from rival towns. That usually meant beheading, and there were several alters still in place where the whacking took place. The structures were notable for the different construction style, since we were no longer in an area with ample amounts of limestone like the cities in southern Campeche. And the pyramids here are steep. Going up is much easier than coming down.
We arrived that afternoon in San Cristóbal during a deluge. And, it has been more rainy than sunny the past few days. All the locals say that December is usually dry and sunny. Let’s hope that comes true.