MEXICO ADVENTURE

Chiapas, Without Reservations

The author spent about $20 in bus fare to traverse the length of the Southern Border Highway, on the Guatemala-Mexico border. The Maya ruins of Palenque, above, are near the highway's northern end.
The author spent about $20 in bus fare to traverse the length of the Southern Border Highway, on the Guatemala-Mexico border. The Maya ruins of Palenque, above, are near the highway's northern end. (By Ben Brazil)

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By Ben Brazil
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, November 26, 2006

"Go! Go like a bullet!" the man yelled as I stepped out of the taxi and into the heavy Mexican air.

This insistently gesticulating stranger had approached as we pulled into a tiny bus stop. I had just asked him about the next bus south, and he'd started yelling and jabbing his finger down the dusty road.

It took a moment to understand: The last bus had just left! Our taxi could still catch it! It was cheaper than a hotel!

I dived back into the cab and told the driver to hit it.

For nearly a week, my new wife, Laura, and I had been traveling Mexico's Carretera Fronteriza del Sur -- the Southern Border Highway -- a 262-mile route that hugs the border between Guatemala and Chiapas, Mexico's southernmost state. We had climbed the Maya pyramids at Palenque, studied the ancient frescoes at Bonampak and taken a sunrise boat to the riverside ruins of Yaxchilan, where howler monkeys roared from the treetops.

Between ruins, we visited a shaman, forded a jungle river and hitched a ride with a cool 43-year-old Mexican hippie and his hot 24-year-old Swedish girlfriend.

Everything had been lovely and serendipitous and surprising. But now we were facing a night in Benemerito de las Américas, where stray dogs sniffed at heaps of old tires and the smell of burning garbage hung in the air. The cool mountain lakes at Lagos de Montebello National Park -- our final destination -- were only a bus ride away.

But to get there that night, our driver now needed to speed. He needed to ignore the maddeningly frequent speed bumps. He needed to recklessly disregard the norms of highway safety. In short, he needed to act like every other cab driver I've had in Mexico.

But we had found the nation's most cautious cabbie for our first car chase as a married couple. When we crested a small rise outside town, there was nothing to see but heat shimmering on the asphalt.

The driver shrugged.

"It's gone," he said dully.

For pretty much its entire length, the Southern Border Highway is a two-lane blacktop, constructed mainly in the 1990s. An upgrade from earlier dirt tracks, it provides easy access to several compelling sights, as well to vast swaths of ugly, deforested jungle and tiny, nowhere villages.


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© 2006 The Washington Post Company


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