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  • Writer's pictureMartijn

Viva Mexico 4: Palenque and Cozumel

Among all the sites in the area, we had chosen to visit Palenque because we were told that the more famous Chitzen Itza had become a kind of Disneyland and a local archeology amateur had recommended Palenque instead. Actually, he was the ex-husband of Caroline from Los Angeles, the daughter of the second wife of my ex-husband’s father (are you confused yet?). This string of relationships reminds me of my friend Betina Raimondi who told me about the coaching course she was taking, for which she needed to do an exercise to prove the premises “people love to help” and “you usually need less than eight people to find a solution to any problem”. The task was to go ask for a completely unrelated object in a store, for example a winter hat in the middle of summer in a butcher shop. It works!

Once we were airborne, the 2-hour flight from Oaxaca to Palenque International airport (MMPQ) was almost boring: no storms, no clouds to weave between, not flat tire… apart from the fact that we almost did not get out because of a small glitch in the bureaucratic chain of events. Our flight plan was not accepted because the Palenque airport appeared as closed on the system, but Alex knew it was open for General Aviation flights because he had spoken to the airport staff the day before, so he suggested to call them. Unfortunately, Palenque didn’t answer the phone so he called the nearby Villahermosa airport, thinking it could serve as an alternate destination, at least to get the flight plan approved. Not only did Villahermosa answer the phone, they also knew that Palenque was open to light aircraft and reassured our Oaxaca airport official enough to put a stamp on our itinerary.

A last look at Oaxaca in its valley

Monte Alban from afar

The Palenque airport looked new and modern but was completely empty, except for the airport staff: security, police and the military who always guard Mexican airports. We were told that there was less than one flight a day and there had been no commercial activity since the only company operating there went bankrupt because of Covid. The airport had been built for tourism but for some reason the destination did not work for other airlines, and probably never will because of the new the Mayan railway project which will begin in Palenque in the near future. Due to the low volume of arrivals, the airport security and police were quite excited about our presence and thoroughly checked our papers and all our luggage as if we were the best thing that had happened to them that day 😊

The welcome committee: even the dog was ready!

It was very hot and humid -we were already in the rain forest- so our plan was to visit the pyramids very early the next morning and until then we had booked a hotel by a little river, with Air Conditioning (this was the first filter we had applied when searching!) and a swimming pool (second filter) which turned out to be luke-warm due to the outside temperature. We had had some difficulty in finding a taxi at the airport because there was never anyone to pick up, but we were eventually rewarded with a very talkative driver -they had become one of our main sources of information about Mexico- who explained that the town of Palenque’s economy was very much driven by the nearby border with Guatemala and the corresponding trade and migration, mostly unofficial by boat across the rio Suchiate. Hundreds of people allegedly cross every day, paying around US $1 per crossing, to emigrate or just to buy or sell merchandise on the other side and there would be a perfect organization between passers who work every other day: Mexican boats one day, Guatemalan the next day and so forth. There is also a bridge with a proper border control office but apparently no one uses that, and the officials are said to have a boring job😊

In the morning, we took a different taxi to the site, this driver helped us select a guide among the dozens waiting for clients. Along with our local chaperon, we set out for a wonderful and energetic two-hour visit, aiming to finish before it got too hot outside. The only time we stopped a little longer than usual to take pictures, I was attacked by red ants climbing up my legs inside my trousers, so it was actually not a bad idea to keep moving. The unique thing about Palenque is that you feel you are in the middle of the rainforest when you walk around it, and actually most of the structures have not been uncovered yet because they are buried under the vegetation. Other sites are on top of hills or mesetas, but Palenque has a middle-of-the-jungle feel to it. And then of course there is the fabulous Tomb of King Pakal with its impressive tombstone (except we couldn't enter because of Covid... you can't win 'em all).

Various structures with Mayan built water canal on the right

Our guide

A welcome refreshment in the heat

We went right back to the airport after the tour -still no one around except the staff- and after take-off, the tower let us fly close to the Palenque site for some unique views. Usually, flying so close to national heritage is not allowed but you can always ask for permission and this international airport gave us the VIP treatment!

We had chosen to end our trip Mexico-trip with a little relaxing and diving, so our next destination was Cozumel Island which has the reputation of being a little quieter than the mainland and one of the best diving spots in the country, all year round.

The flight to Cozumel was a little cloudy, especially closer to the Coast, so we had to fly quite low and zig zag a bit to avoid a few low hanging cumulus in order to keep the shore in sight. Despite the clouds, landing next to the water was a pleasure as always.

From Chiapas (where Palenque is) to an island in Quintana Roo

In order to really relax, we chose an all-inclusive hotel. We picked one of the cheapest since its reviews were almost the same as those of the more expensive resorts, basically all people complain about the food, so why pay more for it? We did take the precaution of booking only two nights to begin with, in case we really didn’t like it, but the resort turned out fine and we stayed 5 days in total, one of which was completely wasted on me because I got sick. But I guess that’s just part of a Mexico trip, in this case the culprits were the shrimp at the restaurant but no one else got sick: was I just unlucky or had Moctezuma decided to take his revenge on me this time (after targeting Alex in Baja California)? Being sick in Cozumel is not too bad: I could see the ocean through the window from the bed as well as the many huge cruise ships passing by.

Not too bad a resort!

A room with a view

Feeling better! (The hotel and many other places had body temperature sensors to detect Covid, so I could not have gone out while I was sick because they would have beeped, even if in my case it was only shrimp)

We were so relaxed that we only made one single excursion during our days there, to Playa del Carmen by ferry, in order to visit the Tulum site and to dive in a Cenote (Alex had been in such a flooded cave many years before and was eager to repeat the experience). Both activities were very much worth the trip: Tulum is a beautiful archeological scene overlooking the turquoise blue sea, and diving with flashlights in sweet water through dark caves is definitely a different experience. Our other dives in Cozumel were in the sea, surrounded by coral and multicolored fish, the Cenote dive amongst stalactites and stalagmites was a little creepier…

The ferry station was in Dia de los Muertos costume also!

Alex was very brave to get the tickets

because the area was very dangerous

But he made it to the ferry


Overlooking the ocean

The Cenote seen from the outside

To get back to the ferry at Playa del Carmen, our dive-guide suggested we stand on the side of the road to flag down one of the many mini-van collective taxis. What he hadn’t anticipated was that it was peak hour, so they were all too full to stop. After about 20 minutes of unsuccessful hitchhiking, a taxi who happened to be going home took pity on us: we were saved and took a romantic sunset ferry back.

Hitchhiking close to los cenotes

Back on the ferry with a thunderstorm behind us

After three weeks in Mexico and the past few relaxing days, we felt super ready to continue our journey to Buenos Aires. The next stop was San Salvador’s Ilopango airport (MSSS) where our pilot friend and Central America expert Oscar was waiting to welcome us at his Aeroclub which would be a pleasant change from Cozumel International Airport (MMCZ). It took us over an hour and multiple offices to get out of there but the views from the air were worth it.

Is it here?

Or here?

What time is it anyway?

Finally airborne :)

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