It’s the eternal travel question, exactly how big a tourist do you want to be. Do you proudly show your Paddy Pallin brand hiking gear with some local guide you screwed down from $3 to $2.80 carrying your gear. Or do you reject the need for nutritious food, hygiene and sleep for the ‘real’ experience? We were faced with this very dilemma in Palenque, a town on our way from San Christobel to Tulum. We needed to stop for a day and the bus schedule pushed us to Palenque. But there’s not much in Palenque except for Mayan ruins. So…
Ditch any illusion of being uber euro-traveller cool and saddle up the binoculars and safari suit to set off into the jungle.
Attempt to push our hostel status ranking one peg higher (and yes, I’m sure there is such a thing) and be the only people too cool to go to Palenque and not get caught in the capitalist exploitation trap.
With one day to spare in Palenque, we of course join the ant line up the mountains to Palenque ruins. It doesn’t hurt that Palenque is so ridiculously hot it’s not funny so we are desperate and hopeful for some sense of relief in the shade of the jungle. We do retain some credit though as we avoid the tours and find our own way up there. And when I say avoid the tours, that’s a geniune effort, in Mexico sometimes, think school of Piranhas on a chicken carcass, these people are ferocius!
With map and history notes in hand we get into the ruins and what do we find? I’m not too cool to say it’s pretty bloody amazing. We went to ruins in Oaxaca and they were awesome but these are so much more. These ruins are massive and stretch on seemingly forever into the jungle with only a small part peeled back and exposed for view. There were no great massed crowds so the sense of exploration was very real. We were there early so we climbed one of the highest temples and simply sat up there, somewhat above the jungle canopy and took it all in,
We mixed this with wandering off into the jungle to the less exposed areas. With nothing but the screech of howler monkeys overhead to break us from feeling like we are one of a select few to have viewed this place, it’s exactly what you do this type of thing for. These ruins in particular are also quite unique in that you can access just about all of it. So climbing through tunnels and passageways in the bowels of these ancient buildings to emerge into steamy daylight at another part of the complex is quite an adventure. Yes I’m sounding like a tourist guidebook right now but this, for us, was far beyond being frog-marched into a cash collection booth and spat back out the other end.
There’s always a trap with doing something ‘touristy’ and we often scoff at the idea. In many ways we travel to discover the unblemished, to find the unherarlded gem. A visit to Palenque isn’t a romanticised or ‘cool’ kind of trip at all. but just sometimes, a thing that is talked about is talked about for a better kind of reason, something more than value-less cash. I have no doubt that in a different frame of mind, and indeed at another time, we would have left Palenque feeling like we wasted our time, in the past we have probably done just that.
I guess what’s different now is that with more time we’re travelling, not on holiday, it’s a subtle but important difference. Tourist is a 4 letter word when applied to a quick crash-and-dash approach to vain attempts to ‘soak up’ culture and history from an armchair. The exact same actions and locations can also describe quite an interesting journey into discovering something new, pushing boundaries and getting a better understanding of our world. It seems pretty clear that the definitive difference lies within the person visiting, not the place being visited.