Head to the Border

Trip Start Sep 07, 2011
Trip End Dec 22, 2011

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Flag of Mexico  , Central Mexico and Gulf Coast,
Thursday, September 29, 2011

What a shame the only Mexico most Americans will ever know is a two for one Cinqo de Mayo drink special at the local Irish pub or the inner confines of some all-inclusive resort should they actually grow a pair and dare head south.  Even sadder the closest many will come to actually interacting with real live Mexicans is the view from their hermetically sealed Mercedes as they whiz on by our brown brothers looking for day work outside a Home Depot.

Yes, I know that burrito at Moe's for lunch lends all sorts of street cred when it comes to understanding our neighbors to the south and that saying "gracias" to the hotel housekeeper gives some satisfaction of cultural awareness.  Look, I even realize that noticing WalMart’s bilingual signage even in Houghton, MI provides an air of political correctness and acceptance of our neighbors, but let me take you up close to a most authentic slice of Mexico beyond all this window dressing.  Of course I will travel to the ends of any country so that you can safely experience the world from your own casa and not have to worry whether some hidden destination is going to eat you alive or spit you out on the other end.

The State of Chiapas is a hidden jewel far removed from the border areas whose violence plastered all over our news gives a wrong impression of the entire country.   A good comparison is judging all of Chicago for gang warfare in Robert Taylor Homes.   Just be smart and know where to go.  This green mountainous state is definitely far from the tourist trail even for Mexicans as my new friend Ruben from Monterrey explained to me.   In a way I am glad Cabo and Cancun suck up the masses and leave a more authentic experience down here in the real Mexico for the rest of us.   Even Ruben was excited to be a tourist in his own country and to explore somewhere his friends and family knew little about.  Not that there is anything wrong with a week in some resort, but why not just save the hassle and go somewhere in the US that is cheaper with drinkable water if you don’t dare get out and mix with the locals?

The area behind Palenque on the way to San Cristobal de las Casas is a scenic wonder with mountains and waterfalls and I couldn’t leave without taking in a few, and cheap organized tours open up otherwise inaccessible areas to us all.  I opted for a 9am departure that takes in Misol-Ha Falls, Agua Azul with bus transfer on to San Cristobal.   Just the waterfalls alone by tour would cost 200 pesos and dump me right back in Palenque or for an extra 100 pesos I could be in San Cristobal by evening.  The bus fare from Palenque into SC is 100 pesos anyhow so why not make this a one day journey and keep on moving south.   My price included admissions as well.

Obviously I never did cross paths with the ruins but I am very much ok with the trail I took.   As I said earlier,  you climb one, you’ve seen them all.  For whatever reason this logic upset a German I hung out with last night and Christoph was just in a state of disbelief that my “American attitude” won’t allow me to explore such archaeological wonders.  To be fair, he wasn’t so excited about waterfalls so it does go to show that traveling is an individual experience.   I don’t know, maybe I am just as bad as someone who orders the 7 Layer Burrito at Taco Bell and then thinks they’ve tasted Mexico since two Mayan Ruins under my belt already make me such an expert.

Lucky for us the current rainy season feeds some nicely flowing falls.   At Misol-Ha a path actually leads down into a cave behind the falls and crashing water thunders inside.   The next stop of Agua Azul is actually a kilometer long walkway that follows a series of smaller cascades up the side of the hill.   Had pouring rain last night not kicked up a lot of sediment, glowing blue water rather than green would have filled the shallows. Tacky shacks selling all sorts of souvenirs line one side of the walkway so avoiding all the kitsch is easier said than done. The setup reminds me a lot of Vietnam's more tourist infested places where locals are keen to separate tourists from their cash.

Ruben introduced me to some great Mexican food in the form of fish steamed in tin foil.   This was the real deal…an entire fish delivered head, scales, bones and tail.  Roll some of that moist meat into a tortilla with a bit of salsa roja for a mouth watering creation.   And dining takes on a new dimension when it’s outdoors just feet from a waterfall.  Take that Taco Bell with your plastic chairs, soda sticky floor and employees sloppily rolling their bad attitudes into every burrito coming down that stainless steel assembly line.

As I finished up this meal I got to thinking that my time in Vietnam certainly has made my food selections a little more adventurous.    Two years ago I doubt I would have ingested anything from some run down outdoor shack with plastic furniture and hand written signs.  Surely these are the very places that breed traveler’s tales of intestinal distress, right?   Hell, I made it across India eating potato chips and cookies out of factory sealed bags to avoid Delhi Belly because I had heard the horror stories of ass water for days on end.   Dirty workers and a lack of crowds can be that first clue that an Immodium cocktail will be the proper dessert.   Today's choice looked legit as far as my Vietnamese standards go (and Mexico is a lot lot cleaner to begin with), and trust me, a wise pick it was.  I am thankful that living in Hanoi has opened up my eyes to local foods I trust Anthony Bourdain would enjoy.

Buen Viaje and Viva Mexico to all those who coast through the Taco Bell drive through at 1am thinking chalupas, nachos bell grande and fire sauce bring about some sort of cultural epiphany!   Indeed, Taco Bell may command us to “head for the border,” but the only La Frontera that plastic bag full of crap will ever cross is a car window’s.   I will keep this amazing corner of the country and fresh food all to myself.

I am now at home in San Cristobal which at the moment is 55 degrees, rainy and perfect.   It's up in the mountains and a great place to cool off.

How I got here:

All day tour to the falls and then first class bus to San Cristobal - 300 pesos ($21.85)
Shared taxi from bus terminal to Las Palomas Hostel - 15 pesos ($1.10) - 5 minutes

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