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Chiapas, Without Reservations
For a Weird and Wonderful Road Trip, Hop a Bus on the Southern Border Highway

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.

Very Public Transportation

If you just want to see the highlights, scads of tour operators in Palenque and San Cristobal de las Casas -- Chiapas's main tourist hubs -- sell reasonably priced package tours. But we wanted to see the whole highway on an unscripted journey open to chance encounters and random weirdness. As such, we opted to travel on public transportation and eschew reservations, following an itinerary so vague that it verged on impressionist art. We did know we'd stick to Mexico, but that was only because there were few accessible sights on the Guatemalan side.

I loved the do-it-yourself approach, but it's not fast, efficient or even marginally luxurious. Almost no full-size buses serve the remote border area, so travelers rely on combis -- vans and microbuses that comfortably accommodate about 15 passengers. In practice, this means that "full" combis carry up to 25 passengers, and often their poultry. It can get tight.

But travelers face other complications. Most major attractions sit on side roads, not on the highway itself. When taxis weren't available to cover the extra miles, we begged rides with people we met along the way -- or we walked.

And military checkpoints! There are lots of them, especially on the road's desolate southern half, where soldiers search for drugs, firearms and undocumented immigrants passing through Mexico on their way north.

Chiapas is also home to the Zapatista rebels, who staged an armed uprising in 1994. While "rebels" and "drug smugglers" sound scary, they don't normally affect travelers. The Zapatistas are currently more a social movement than a violent rebel group, and the U.S. Embassy has no record of violence against tourists on the highway. An embassy official did stress that the area is very isolated.

What he didn't say is that this isolation breeds a sort of borderland alternate reality -- a world that's unpredictable, quirky and sometimes just plain weird.

I experienced it at our first stop: the Maya ruins of Palenque, near the Border Highway's northern end.

One of the most studied and heavily visited Maya sites, Palenque is an archaeological cover girl. Green, jungle-covered hills frame perfectly proportioned, gray-and-white limestone pyramids. Tourists stream in by the busload.

Along with most of the Maya world's great cities, Palenque collapsed in the ninth century. Our ponytailed, English-speaking guide, Raúl Morelos, offered several possible reasons why: overpopulation, civil strife and the possibility that Palenque's rulers "opened a door to a new dimension and walked right through it."

I hadn't considered the "new dimension" possibility, but I probably should have. We were, after all, camped at El Panchan, a hippie-commune-cum-travelers'-hangout that clearly inhabits a different astral plane.

Set in the dripping jungle between the modern town of Palenque and the ruins themselves, El Panchan has lodging, restaurants and a cross section of the international backpacker scene. Swiss girls with shiny faces and strappy tank tops sit by Italians and Frenchmen with roguish stubble. There are a few older folks, and plenty of pretentious bohemians -- white kids with dreadlocks and neo-gypsy girls with wide headbands and flowing skirts.

We pitched our tent at a campsite called "The Temple," a round wooden platform 10 feet above the jungle floor. Vines with huge leaves spiraled up the support bars, and a sizable tarantula clung to the tin ceiling above. At night, the distant noise of a band drifted through the drumming of rain.

After two nights, though, the Temple attracted small black ants that bit viciously. The signs were clear: It was time to make like the Mayas and find a new dimension, preferably one with fewer stinging things.

A Jaguar in the Jungle

We came to the scorching hot Lacandon Maya village of Lacanja Chansayab after a morning at Bonampak, a small set of ruins about 80 miles south of Palenque. Bonampak's fabulous frescoes, among the best examples of Maya painting anywhere, show wild celebrations, royal heirs and victorious kings (the latter looming over captives dripping blood from yanked-out fingernails).

Lacanja Chansayab seemed decidedly less dramatic. In fact, it was downright ugly. Tin- and thatch-roofed buildings -- as well as a glut of rustic tourist cabins -- were strung along a weedy main road. Otherwise humble houses sprouted satellite dishes. Roadside clear-cutting had obliterated almost all shade.

My clothes were soaked by the time we met 43-year-old Chambor Lastra, a free spirit from the neighboring state of Tabasco. Then night fell and the cosmic landscape started to shift.

Wiry and ponytailed, Chambor was traveling with Anna, his blonde 24-year-old Swedish girlfriend. They had met in Guatemala, where Chambor made a living selling handicrafts and occasionally working as a deejay. I could not help but think that he had done pretty well for himself in the relationship.

The friendly couple was traveling in Chambor's pickup, an ancient Ford F-150 with what amounted to a one-room house built onto the back. Built of mahogany planks, it had a peaked tin roof covering a small but comfy bedroom complete with a bookshelf. Che Guevara looked out from a poster plastered to the back, just above Chambor's e-mail address.

Chambor invited us to tag along on a visit to his friend, the shaman Kayum Yuk Maash. The shaman lived just up a gravel track, and visiting his home felt like entering a movie's dream sequence. Logical thought faded into a series of surreal associations: Kayum with his thick glasses, boots without laces, and off-kilter face, suggestive of a stroke survivor's . . . a dirt-floored lean-to with a dark TV stuck in a corner . . . the shaman explaining that he was also an evangelical Christian who didn't go to church because the people were close-minded.

My brain felt stuck in a gooey spider web well into the next day, when we took a guided hike to a clear, spring-fed waterfall deep in the Lacandon jungle.

Such treks are the main reason to visit Lacanja Chansayab, and our hike took us into a sylvan world shockingly different from the desolate village beside it. We walked beneath the blessed cool of the jungle canopy, once stopping to stare at jaguar tracks that crossed the trail. All around, vines hung in spirals and parabolas.

But nothing surpassed our crossing of the Rio Cedro.

Our guide, 28-year-old Jose Kin, first ventured across the river on a very slick log that ended at least 10 feet short of the far bank. Surely, I thought, we were not crossing the river here. Even Jose's dog was barking in alarm.

But Jose slipped waist-deep into the swift, tannin-colored water and told us to follow. We crossed the rest of the river on submerged tree trunks, balancing on long, vertical sticks that Jose had just jammed into the riverbed. It was a thrill, but I was almost equally excited to catch a ride out of Lacanja Chansayab in the back of Chambor's fabulous gypsy truck.

Of course, the pickup took us only as far as the highway. Chambor and Anna were going to Palenque. We were headed south.

All to Ourselves

Frontera Corozal sits on the banks of the Usumacinta River, whose broad, muddy expanse marks the Guatemalan border. From the crossroads where Chambor had left us, the turnoff for Frontera Corozal was only a 15-mile combi ride away. A cab took us the rest of the way into this drab town, where people cycled slowly along the one paved road and fled the sun in doorways and hammocks.

Visitors here come mainly to catch boats elsewhere, either upstream to Bethel, Guatemala, or downstream to the Maya ruins of Yaxchilan. We were going to the ruins, and we were determined to beat the crowds.

So by 6:45 the next morning, our long, narrow launch was motoring down the river, the outboard humming and the cool morning air flapping our sleeves. Sunrise's soft pinks and yellows lit the water, and mist rose over the rolling jungle that lined it.

Having already seen a number of Maya ruins, I was primed to be bored by Yaxchilan. But then we strapped on our headlamps to pass through the short, dark halls of the Labyrinth, where dozens of bats hung from the vaulted ceiling in creepy, squeaking fur balls. We hit daylight again in the Great Plaza, a grassy opening lined with low stone buildings and carved steles depicting great rulers.

Below was the river. Above, howler monkeys crashed though canopy trees, loosing throaty, murderous shrieks. We climbed a wide stone staircase to a hillside temple, where the decapitated statue of a king looked across the jungle and toward the river.

Nope, I wasn't bored.

And for a while, we had it all to ourselves. But by the time we left, tourists on package trips from Palenque were streaming ashore, their launches lined up three-deep at the dock.

For us, there was no need to hurry. None of the tour vans was going to our next stop, Benemerito de las Americas, where that slow taxi would return us, defeated, to a tiny bus stop.

What Are We Doing Here?

"Gringo! What are you doing here?" asked a resident of Benemerito, in English, as he urinated on the tire of a truck carrying a load of pineapples.

It was good question. South of Frontera Corozal, the Border Highway's only major attraction is Lagos de Montebello National Park -- and even it doesn't come until the very end of the road, 171 miles distant. In fact, most people who visit the park arrive via a different route altogether.

This means that very few travelers pass through Benemerito or the rest of the Border Highway's southern half. It's a desolate stretch marked by badly deforested land, tin-roofed shacks and army checkpoints manned by baby-faced men in camouflage. Road maintenance also lags, with washouts occasionally eating half the road.

It's not an area where I cared to linger, so I was glad when a Benemerito combi driver announced an unscheduled run south. Laura and I tossed our packs on the luggage rack and were off.

Life rolled past. Women washed clothes in a stream, two boys rode bareback on a horse, and gas stations disappeared, replaced by ramshackle homes with signs reading "Gas sold here." At one, the owner used a two-liter Coke bottle to funnel a jug of unleaded into our tank.

It was getting dark by the time the road made a sharp turn west, following the border into the mountains. When the driver finally let us off at a group of cabins just outside the national park, it was night and a light rain was falling.

All I knew about our last stop was that it was wonderfully, blissfully cool.

Hitchhikers' Karma

Lagos de Montebello looked like the Rockies, but with banana trees.

The park comprises 59 sun-flecked lakes strung across piney mountains, about a quarter of them accessible by gravel side roads. These access routes branch off the main highway at long intervals, then forge deeper into the mountains. Seeing the lakes without a car didn't look easy.

By now we knew the game. First, we would hop highway combis between side roads. Then we'd walk to the lakes. Finally, we'd trust to chance.

Of course, not everything went perfectly.

Since banana trees grew everywhere, we'd planned to snack on bananas. Oddly, we couldn't find one for sale anywhere. We stopped at a "vegetariant" restaurant, but its entrees consisted of nothing but meat. Then things looked up.

At shimmering La Cañada Lake, we paid $20 for an hour's ride on a raft made of six logs and three crossbeams, lashed together with rope, Huck Finn-style. Perch swam beneath us; orchids hugged the limestone cliffs overhead.

As we left the lake, we met a Mexican man who wanted to practice his English. He and his wife gave us a ride to the next set of lakes. When we started walking back in the evening, another Mexican family picked us up and ferried us to our cabin. We hadn't even stuck our thumbs out.

Call it luck or karma or grace: The laws of our new dimension were mysterious. We were just glad to roll with them.

Ben Brazil last wrote for Travel on seeing Tokyo on a budget.

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