Mayan Ruins in Chiapas, November 2008

So, for my 2008 birthday ('Rev 36', in the Cassini terminology), Heidi planned a trip to the southern Mexican states of Tabasco and Chiapas, including a trip to the Mayan ruins of Palenque (*). We went there, then drove to SE Mexico (along the Guatemala border) and took a boat to some other Mayan ruins called Yaxchilan, which were misty and inhabited by howler monkeys and bats and venomous snakes and tarantulas and which were suitably amazing. Then we drove back, and checked out a cacao hacienda.

(*) Not to be confused with Polanco, the ritzy district of Mexico City.

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Palenque Ruins

We flew to Villahermosa. (It's in the state of Tabasco, famous for its hot sauce made in Louisiana.) Palenque is marked, there are some waterfalls just S. of it that we went to, and then the ruins of Yaxchilan are on the far border near Guatemala. On the last day before flying out we went to a cacao plantation just to the left of the Villahermosa airport.
Mayan observatory at Palenque. Apparently the Mayan calendar starts when the Sun is directly overhead, which this tower was used to measure. Good thing the ground has stayed more stable here than in Mexico City.
These ruins are quite well known for being heavily jungle-ated... check out the amazing drawings of Frederick Catherwood, made in the 1800s when the ruins were first discovered. Some of the monuments are cleaned off, and others remain in their unrestored state ('natural'? 'original'?). The site goes on for many many hundreds of acres; only the central region is restored.
One of few altars that is still preserved. No trees up there.
A group of native Mayans. They still make up the majority of the population in Tabasco/Chiapas; many don't speak Spanish.
These people don't speak Spanish either. That's because they're all from France.

Just like the rest of Mexico, outside of Cancun there's very few Americans -- many more Europeans. Perhaps Mexico isn't exotic enough?

A building which has been (really!) just power-washed. They did this to remove the moss.
Piper had a bunch of Mexicans around her taking pictures.
Our 'Oficial [sic] Guide.' Well, he showed a laminated license just they all do. Who knows? He was a nice guy though.
We stayed at a place called Chan-Kah, which has a rainforest walk and a big pool about two minutes away from the ruins. No photos of the crab (cangrejo) which was actually seen walking across the bottom of the pool.
The fancy dining room etc. This was the off-season, so there was a total of one other party at dinner.
Heidi and Piper practicing their MAD faces.

Waterfalls: Agua Azul and Misol-Ha

Next day. We cruised down the road to Agua Azul, a river and waterfall. Holy moly! Very blue, very large, very amazing. Please heed the warning signs.
Like everywhere in Mexico, there was no shortage of taco stands, orange juice, gorditas, bananas, and various trinkets.
Piper took a lot of photos today.
Lonely Planet warns, 'Ignore the sign that says, in English, "Dangerous not to swim" -- a fatally unpunctuated translation of Peligro - No Nadar.'
Some houses next to the falls.
The obligatory menu translations (though surprisingly, in 6 months I haven't seen many as good as these). I found the Breaded Heat in Potatoes appealing, while Heidi was more tempted by the Gentle Taco Than Chicken.
On a bet (from guess who?), I try to stuff six bananas in my mouth. Unfortunately, for my second lost bet of the day, I could only manage five.
Piper finds a banana leaf.
Down the road at Misol-Ha. I lost a third bet here, which had to do with remembering where the right turn-off was. But we got there eventually. Here, Heidi is walking underneath the falls.
Air plant suspended in the falls.
'Dangerous / No Swimming With Clothes or Shoes / Water is Deep'
We fail to follow instructions properly.

Chiapas: Frontera Corazala and Yaxchilan Ruins

Driving through Chiapas, to the SE border between Mexico and Guatemala.
I get excited about a pair of pigs crossing the road.
Staying at Escudo Jaguar, in Frontera Corazal, just across the river from Guatemala.
Several more Guatemalans we found near the river.
Piper puts Hospital Bear to sleep on her tooth fairy pillow. (H.B. came about from P's most recent hospital trip, after swinging on 'vines' that happened to be the power cord for a massive AC unit.)
On the Usumacinta River, across from Guatemala. The boats there are what we'll take the next day to visit the Yaxchilan ruins.
Juanita and Bill from Arizona, who'd been driving their Toyota all over Mexico for the last six months.
Escudo Jaguar has a very fancy wakeup system! We were the party with the early wakeup call. ('Please wake up the guests in #18 at 6:00 AM.') The idea is that we'd leave early for the ruins, beating the bus tour groups, which we did.
These are some of the boats we'll take in the AM. The deal is that the ruins are accessible only via an hour-long boat ride (and that after a 3-hr drive from the closest major airport). Wikipedia claims that before the road was built in the 1990s it required a several-hundred mile boat ride to get to the ruins, but I'm skeptical of that.
Our boat driver, taking us down the Usumacinta to Yaxchilan.
Heidi is very cute.
Air plants. There are billions of these here; they grow much better in a real rain forest than they do in Boulder, Colorado.
Holy cow! OK, this is it. We walked up some switchbacks to the top of a little hillock, and then there's ruins right there! Totally totally amazing. They were peeking out from the fog and the most gorgeous thing in the world.

Yaxchilan was a short-lived city, about 680-800 AD. (120 years -- about like Boulder.) This pre-dated regions like Chichen Itza by several hundred years.

There was no one else at the ruins when we showed up. Two hours later, a work crew of Mexicans came to cut away some underbrush and kill venomous snakes. After we'd been there for close to 4 hours, we saw the first tourists. Since it's only accessible via boat, there's not big crowds.
'This is where they kept their horses!,' says Piper upon seeing the pile of grass. Good detective work! However, Jared Diamond ('Collapse') claims that the Mayans had no heavy animals ('Their sole domestic animals were the dog, turkey, Muscovy duck, and a stingless bee yielding honey,' p. 163) -- perhaps part of the reason for their decline.
Monkey! They were howling the night before, and though one might presume this means they were howler monkeys, I was hoping the noise was coming from jaguars.
In case you've always been curious what a howler monkey eats for breakfast, today is indeed your lucky day! Now you know.
Don't stand too long underneath a howler monkey, lest you get special deliveries.
Some of the buildings in the main plaza of Yaxchilan.
Yes -- it's a real Toucan! (And yes, I could see it better than you can. But if you click on the photo a few times, it'll zoom in for you. Also, if you pet its back with your mouse, it'll chirp like a frog.)
A tarantula (dead) approaches the temple.
The fanciest building at Yaxchilan.
The guy up top (see him? Missing his right leg, but otherwise in good shape) is Shield Jaguar IV, who ran Yaxchilan for 20 years and was married to a woman named Fish Fist. This altar is pretty intricate -- even though the city is alleged to be classical ('old') Mayan, much of the carving looks more advanced than I'd have thought. Though, that could be because there's a lot of goods here that are not hauled off to museums, but left on the site.
Some of the panels and carvings are in amazing shape. "Wouldn't they be better in a museum?", asked Heidi after seeing one massive rock that had been nicely cleared off and is now being etched away by bat guano.
Piper demonstrates her love for swinging on vines (a la Diego).
Some kind of crazy bird.
Bats! One of the buildings here is very cool, complete with subterranean tunnels. Apparently the Mayans loved bats, and they live here even after the Mayas have abandoned the site.
Boating back to Frontera Corozal.

Cacao Plantation: Chocolates CACAP, Comalcalco, Tabasco

Cacao! So, we had several hours to kill before flying back. I was almost resigned to visiting the city zoo so we could see some more jaguars in metal cages. Luckily Heidi had a better idea, so I did quick research with a taxista and found a cacao plantation about 90 minutes away (45 minutes if Heidi's driving). Though they nominally closed at 3 PM and we saw all their employees biking away, the owner was hospitable enough to show us around. Here's some old equipment (pre-hispanic, if I understood him properly) for processing the cacao.

The place is Chocolates CACEP, Hacienda Jesus Maria, Comalcalco, Tabasco, Mex. His family (Peralta) has been running it for 4 generations.

They've got 70 hectares (~170 acres) of cacao. Piper's picking one.
Whoa! They are the craziest plants in the world. No visible leaves, stems, or flowers -- just these pods growing straight out of the tree trunks. (They do have leaves up top -- and then the tall cacao trees themselves grow in the shade of other even taller trees.)
Inside the cacao pods. The white flesh is sweet and tutti-frutti like. Sort of like guanabana, which I always got in my bubble tea smoothies at the Vietnamese shopping center in Falls Church, VA when Heidi was learning Spanish.
Beans out to dry. The beans ferment in a hot, goopy sticky mess in a wooden box in the sun for a week or so first. They start to sprout, sweeten, and they they're put out here to dry.
Piper stirs the beans. This plantation grows about 70 tons/year and the harvest just started a few weeks ago (late October).
Factory interior. This place is cool: they grow, harvest, dry, roast, process, and make chocolate, all at the same factory.
Chocolate liquor, which is sans sugar. `Stick your hand in!', he says. So Piper does, and she's a mess.
Squeezer. They press the liquor here. You get massive cakes of cocoa powder, and a big vat of cocoa butter out of this. Why separate them up, if when they're made into chocolate you have to combine everything back together again, which happens on the next machine over? No idea. Maybe it's for year-round production, or so they can sell cocoa powder separately, or because one doesn't always want a 1:1 cocoa:butter ratio?
Big cake (30 lb?) of cocoa powder. It's solid like piece of wood -- not brittle or crumbly.
Piper chomps the cocoa powder cake, at the insistence of the factory owner. No FDA here! And yes, the company indeed claims to be ISO 9001 certified!
The awesome extractor! This is where the cacao butter is squeezed out. (Ground cacao = chocolate liquor = cocoa powder + cocoa butter.)
The high-tech finishing operation. She takes a scoop of melted chocolate, slathers it into molds, and scrapes off all the excess. It's already been tempered, I believe.
Final product (and a few intermediaries: cocoa butter, cocoa powder, etc.)

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Henry Throop

Last modified Fri Nov 21 8:42:21 2008