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Tabasco & Chiapas, MX


April 29th

After crossing the border, we found a bank machine on the fourth try in the city of Tenosique, Tabasco that would give us a reasonable amount of pesos – some machines have low limits. We paid the truck owner for Fran’s vehicle mishap at the border and then we went shopping at a large grocery store for supplies. It was now about four in the afternoon; we were hungry, tired, hot and just wanted to get somewhere to chill – crossing borders is always exhausting and a little stressful and having that minor fender bender did not help.

Sidebar: We bank with Charles Schwab in the US. This bank offers us free ATM use and no foreign exchange fees around the world but we don’t like to use this for small amounts. Like most machines in North America, many ATM’s here will tell you what the fee is but not all. Schwab will reimburse us the same day or at the end of the month – this is an awesome perk.

There are no campsites near Tenosique that we are aware of, let alone any that might offer power. We decided to push on to the town of Frontera Corozal (where were had planned to get IF we could have crossed the border at the river yesterday) and we knew that they had power there and, bonus, Wi-Fi. We thought we’d have to take more dirt roads if we took the “shortcut” we saw but opted to do it regardless and we were more than pleasantly surprised that it was all paved.

We made it to the Neuva Alianz Tourist Resort on the Rio Usumacinta in the tiny village of Frontera Corozal by six o’clock GT time, seven Chiapas time  (luckily it was still daylight). What a looooong day this was. We hooked up the power and the AC ran but it was making a terrible racket. As we were losing the daylight and one of the bolts holding the cover down would not come off, we opted to try and sleep through the noise; at least it was not sticky. Rather than cook dinner this late, we went to the restaurant at the resort and enjoyed a lovely meal in the humidity next to the river. Then it was shower time and we headed into the AC for the night. Aren’t we the wussies?!

We were awake early again the next morning, not very well rested due to the air con noise that ear plugs could not completely block out, but not hot and Doug went out to look for any leaking oil (just to be sure all was good and it was), then he climbed up on Tigger to check the AC again. After more than an hour and a half, he finally got out the stubborn bolt, albeit, in pieces and once the cover came off, he saw that the mounts for the AC motor were missing (very reminiscent of the generator issue we had last summer back in Arkansas).  He also found lots of twigs and dust in there. So between Fran’s blow dryer and a small broom, he cleaned it all up. We were going to need some rubber to protect the mounts and after searching the camper, Fran suggested cutting up a tennis ball.  (Yes, we carry rackets and balls but to be honest have only used them a couple of times.) This worked; Doug was able to remount the motor and we are back to regular air conditioner noise levels now. Phew – this could have been SO much worse (for us anyway).

Doug working ACDoug on roof fixing AC

We are going to spend a few days chillin’ here at this resort and take in the local attractions: the ruins at Yaxchilan on a goose neck in the river and the inland jungle ruins of Bonampak. 

The small town we are camped in is really just a village that would not even be this “large” if not for the boats to Yaxchilan and the border crossing (which we have yet to see….). There is one other resort similar to the one we are staying at (with no electricity though) and a couple of restaurants, otherwise the town is typical Mexican rural town: dirt roads with chickens, dogs, pigs, small homes with satellite dishes and open air kitchens. There is one main paved street from the highway which leads to the parking lot at the river where the ticket office for Yaxchilan is also located. There are lots of the usual small tiendas and a few small grocery stores but not much else. Our GPS says there’s a Pemex gas station here, but so far we’ve not see it. There some shops, like in all Mexican small towns, which will sell you gasoline in 5 and 1 gallon plastic jugs. As yet we have not resorted to this type of purchase though as we are leery about watered down gasoline.

We’d been having issues with the aluminum base for the leg of our table again (happened back in Baja last October and we’d had the base repaired in San Felipe) so Doug went looking for a welder. He found a guy that said instead of repairing the base; he’d make a new one out of steel. Sounded great and the price he quote was good.

We want to take a trip to the ruins at Yaxchilan and Bonampak which are both in this area. The first requires a boat (lancha) as there is no road access and the prices we’d been quoted seemed costly but Doug kept asking around and instead of 950P charged by our resort, got a price of 600P but we’d have to pay the park entry fee ourselves; still much cheaper as that is only 65p ea.

Our table leg base was returned to us in the early afternoon and although Doug tested it to make sure the leg fit in, we did not test it with the table on it; mistake! The table is a little wobbly and after spending another hour and a half playing with it, sanding, grinding and trying wedges, we could not make it any better. At least we were inside the rig for this job.  So it’s a little angled but usable; we’ll get a new base in the States in June. Not a great day for Doug chill-wise. We went for a walk along the river where Fran had discovered a small troop of howler monkeys earlier in the day and watched them for a while. We could hear other howlers across the river in Guatemala and further upstream but our little troop, while active, was not vocalizing.

Later that afternoon a few kids showed up and Doug made them balloon animals and they kept wanting to play with him. He showed them how to play dodge ball. After dinner they knocked on our door and gave him drawings of parrots as a thank you – first time that ever happened.

Doug and the kids

The internet here can be hit and miss, fast and slow. Fran was able to do a bit of downloading but using websites is not consistent.

The river is pretty nice but the water level is low at this time of year; people do swim in it. Doug walked in last night before dinner to cool off and although the water is rather tepid, at least he was a little refreshed.  The showers here are not though which is a bonus.

Sunday morning after a very restful cool sleep we awoke to the kids from the day before knocking on our door around 7am! After several attempts they gave up but showed up later in the morning while we sat in reception on the internet.

After a hot afternoon, we took a dip in the river. It could have been colder but it was wet and it stopped the sweating.

Monday morning, we went to buy tickets for Yaxchilan and met the boat owner Doug had spoken with earlier. We left the shore at 7:30 and were at the site in about 40 minutes. It was a nice ride with a welcome cool breeze and our “Captain” spotted some crocodiles on the river bank. The temperatures in the morning here are in the upper 70’sF/mid 20’sC and steamy.   We docked at the parque nacional and climbed up to the office. This is a jungle shrouded site above a horseshoe bend in the river where we heard howlers and lots of birds pretty much the entire visit.

In this pic of our GPS, you can see the horseshoe bend in the river where the ruins are located:

map of how river bends

Although we never saw the howlers they sure added to the ambience. The ruins here are mostly uncovered and well maintained. We spent about an hour and a half touring the north and south acropolis and the Grand Plaza before taking the boat back up river.  One of the best parts of this visit was that we were the ONLY ones there.  You could imagine the Mayans living here 1500 years ago sweltering in the humidity like we were.  These ruins are in a strategic and beautiful spot and the river was most likely much higher and the area would have had more wildlife, including jaguars.

at Grand Acropolis

We did see many spider monkeys back at the entrance on the way out, who were chucking mangoes around us and we also spotted two toucans! On our way back, we encountered nearly a dozen lanchas heading down river to the site.

one of several spider monkeys

Once we got back to Tigger, we decided since it was still rather early in the day, we’d unhook and head over to Bonampak NP for a bit and if the camping there did not offer power, we’d come back here to Frontera Corozal. It was about a 30 km drive to the turnoff and then you pay a “toll” to enter the ejido’s (pronounced “Aheedo” meaning community) property and drive about 3kms to where you park and use their transportation to get to the park which, naturally, you have to pay for. We parked at the Restaurant there and asked about camping and if it had power. The answer was yes to both so we decided we’d stay there rather than drive back. The only thing missing was Wi-Fi and the price here was only 100 pesos not 150. They even had nice hot showers here.

The owner of the place was also a park transportation provider and he took us the 10 kms down the dirt road to the entrance of Bonampak and we arranged for him to return in 90 minutes to pick us up. Now once you are at the grounds you pay yet another fee to enter. Again, like Chichen Itza, it seems that one hand cannot trust the other to allow tourists to pay one fee that covers it all so they each collect their little piece of the pie.

Bonampak is a rather small site known for the murals inside the buildings (one in particular) and was discovered by “gringoes” in 1946; it was never a main Mayan centre but was connected through marriage to Yaxchilan. The main site is a Grand Plaza with many temples on different levels and the first level contains a building with three bedrooms which were painted with lovely fresco murals, much of which remains today, especially in the third room. It was quite impressive how much of them remain although some of it has, of course, been restored.

pan of room 1The hike up the stairs is pretty steep. This place had originally been on our “list” of things to see in Mexico but we had skipped it due to the time restraint of our original six month visa. This dip back into Mexico from Guatemala has given us the chance to visit this site, and a few others we had hoped to see (Las Guaycamas and Las Nubes still to come) as well as a few new ones that had been recommended to us (Yaxchilan and a few lakes and waterfalls coming up). At Bonampak we only had one other family at the site with us and did not see any monkeys and very few birds.

We spent the afternoon after showering, doing Spanish and reading. It’s been so hot lately, our fridge is having a hard time keeping up but we remembered today there’s an adjustment you can make at the back and that seems to be helping now. It’s rough when the beer is not cold enough!

Wednesday morning, we hit the road again after a nice cool night in air conditioned comfort and headed south following the river that is the border between Mexico and Guatemala towards a little tiny town called Las Guacamayas which has a preserve for scarlet macaws. After gassing up in Benemerito de las Americas, we arrived there about 11ish. The site is a tourist attraction with cabanas and a restaurant but does not have camping per se. The lady in the office there (and iOverlander) told us of a spot back on the corner up from the river, where a lady offers camping with bathrooms and showers and a small restaurant. We did not know about power so we asked and she said yes from the bathrooms so we plugged in to see if it was sufficient to run our AC and then paid her 100 pesos for the night. We took a walk around the center and they have four macaws in a large cage you observe and a walking trail through the forest you can take to try and spot them in the wild. We saw some caged deer and some small birds and finally, overhead, we saw a pair of scarlet macaws! They did not stop near us but we hope to see them later when we go for another walk after cooling off.

This little “ejido” has taken on the task of conserving the scarlet macaw. They used to live from northern Mexico all the way to Brazil but now only in small pockets of jungle like this one. The Biosphere National of Montes Azul, which is right across the river, is protected and they seem to feed in this wilderness and this little town has created conditions for them to nest and breed such as planting the types of trees they like and actually building them places to nest. They also have a small aviary for the little ones. Scarlet macaws mate at about 4 years old and stay monogamous their whole lives. They live to be 25-40 years old. They like to travel with their mates so you usually see them flying in pairs. We managed to catch one of the pairs we saw in flight.

flying macaws

After a dip in the river and some Spanish practice, we went to the look out at the restaurant for a beer and to see if we could spot macaws. We saw a several pairs fly overhead and we heard LOTS of howlers and saw some spider monkeys. We also saw three Chinese bird watchers with the BIGGEST zoom lenses we’ve ever seen – they were like telescopes – like 3-4 foot long!

polly want a crackerWe walked out into the forest area again before dinner and Doug spotted a couple in a tree – the only stationary ones we saw outside of the cages. We saw the nests that the community makes for them as well.

DSCN1818 man made place for nesting

It was stinking hot here and we were SO glad the power was sufficient to run our air conditioner. We heard thunder that night and Doug said the power went out very briefly during the night but luckily it came right back on.

Next morning was overcast and after exercising, we hit the road again heading west to a place called Las Nubes. This took us a couple of hours of driving (slowly on dirt then pavement then dirt then cement tracks then dirt). This spot is another “eco tourist” place on a river of a beautiful turquoise colour (like Agua Azul that we’d seen in the northern part of the state of Chiapas). You can camp here but they do not offer power and today it is quite hot again – high 90’sF. So we took the hike here to see the river, the falls and the tunnel. The hike involves climbing a number of stone stairs, walking a path, climbing more stone stairs to the tunnel lookout. This was pretty cool and there are some falls here as well. Then it was on to the mirador where you see the other side of where the water goes from the tunnel; quite stunning. On the way back, you walk through a small cave like opening in the rocks, then, course, more stone steps then through what they called a “labyrinth” but not really. It was a pleasant hike but very steamy. They have a swimming hole near the cabanas and we took advantage of it and cooled of before heading out again. We met a family from Alaska here who were on their way to eastern Guatemala to buy a sailboat to cruise around the Caribbean. Matt and Seskia have two young boys and are travelling in an SUV pulling one of those little teardrop Roo trailers – quite brave of them.

So around 3 we continued down the highway to Lake Tziscao to camp for a night or two as they are supposed to have good wifi (and power!) – so we might spend two nights here to catch up on stuff. As we drove towards Lake Tziscao, we began climbing in elevation and the temperature began dropping. We had hit a high of 99F during the early afternoon outside Las Nubes and by the time we got to the camping spot, an eco lodge, it was 76F – this was in the space of two hours and 1200m of elevation. It was a welcome change and the humidity level had dropped drastically. We checked in, got the power hooked up and accessed the internet but still had no cell reception since Fran put some pesos back on her Mexican phone plan a couple of days ago.

We have been unable to get cell reception since we got back into Mexico (despite TelCel saying they cover the entire country). It has been frustrating. We hope as we get it further inland into Mexico.

We had dinner and heard some thunder and later on it rained for a little bit. We awoke both Thursday and Friday mornings to cloudy skies and fog. The setting here is probably quite lovely when the sun is out; the lake is quite large and it has hills on many parts of the shore. We decided to hang here and it rained on and off, a lot of the day though the sun came out for a bit so it’s not conducive to sightseeing and we didn’t feel so bad about hanging in the rig on the web, watching movies and such.

Lake Tziscao in the fogWe left Lake Tziscao on Saturday morning in the midst of major fog. We thought we might stay another day if the sun came out in the hopes of seeing this Montebello Lake Region at its best, but it was not in the cards. We drove northwest to the closest major center which is Comitan de Dominguez. We wanted to stock up and also decided to get some additional service done on Tigger as we were concerned about getting its 100,000 mile service done in Central America (more for parts than anything else, really). Enroute to this first large city near the Guatemala border this far north, there is a huge Checkpoint – military and Federales. We were directed to a different line than everyone else (only non Mexicans we figure) and there the Police asked to see our vehicle permit papers as well as taking a peek inside the coach. No biggie.

When we arrived in Comitan, we found it much more modern than expected and it seems we came into the city into the automotive district side. There were lots of dealerships: Ford, Chevy, Nissan, Chrysler, Toyota and Volkswagen as well as lots of garages including Bridgestone, Firestone, Continental and many Mexican ones. Since we’d had a good experience at Bridgestone in Flores, we tried it first; Carlos took down on the details of what was needed, recorded the fluid types required and then sent us to follow his man to a different location! We thought maybe we were going to buy parts(?). But he took us to Continental Tiregarage a couple miles down the road towards the city centre (we’re still not sure why but we figure they maybe could handle our size of vehicle better? Who knows?!)   Anyway, we got here around ten in the morning the mechanics here were surprisingly not busy for a Saturday morning and although they had a list of the work required (we figured Carlos called it over), they did not have the fluid requirements. So after a bit of Doug’s ever improving Spanish, it seems they understood what we needed and they proceeded to commence the work. The only things they could not find in Comitan was the coolant that our engine needs and the air filter. Many shops here close around 2:30/3:00 on Saturdays and around 2:30 they advised that they had been unable to locate the coolant or air filter we needed but all the other work was done. We thought the lady told us they had ordered the coolant and air filter from Tuxtla up north about 100 km and it would be here Monday morning if we wanted to come back and get that flush done then. Fair enough – could have been way worse so we paid for the services done to this point and left – it was now 3:30.

We went over to the Flores Mall where there’s a Super Walmart, Sam’s Club and a very modern mall including a movie theatre, and did a big grocery shop as well as picking up some odds and ends we needed. It was an expensive day between Tigger and stocking up. We decided it had been a long day and we opted to park overnight here at the mall at no cost. We checked out the movie theatre here but nothing grabbed out attention and we were pretty sure, nothing was in English anyway. Our Spanish is not quite good enough to follow an entire movie yet!

Right next to the mall is an Auto Zone (we find that they are often near Wal-Marts in Mexico) and Doug went in to ask about where to get a rock chip repaired on our windshield as the garage had been unable to help us and they actually were able to sell us a kit to do it ourselves. Doug took care of that the next morning in the Wal-Mart parking lot and it’s all good.

We saw a car in the parking lot here with Ontario plates so we walked over and it was a Dutch man who’d moved to Canada back in 1980 but was down on his luck financially and came to Mexico to live cheaply. Harry needed car repairs and was waiting for some money for family members. What a hard life living in your car with barely enough money to eat (he told us he’d lost 27kg!) but at least he’s somewhere warm; we wish him the best.

Sunday morning we drove downtown to check out El Centro and were quite impressed. They have preserved the colonial feel nicely and Comitan is also another one of Mexico’s Pueblo Magicos. The town square is lovely and there are lots of nice narrow streets and well maintained buildings/homes.

After a second night at Wal-Mart, we went back to the garage as requested at 8:30 on Monday only to find the woman who told us to return at that time was not working and no one seemed to know anything about the parts she had ordered. We were told that the Chev dealer in town might have them (why they did not check there on Saturday was beyond us) so we drove over there and they did have the correct coolant but not the air filter. We bought what we needed and took it over to the original garage as the dealer’s price to do a coolant flush was outrageous; Continental Tire only charged us 40pesos! (less than $3USD). We did tip the mechanic who had done most of the work as we are sure he doesn’t make the big bucks. A man, who may have been the manager, told us if we were headed to Guatemala we’d have better luck there finding the air filter, as there are more American made cars there. We are not in a huge rush so we’ll wait and check that out; if we can’t find one, we can always pick up one when we go home this summer.

Since today was our 35th anniversary, and although we had already splurged in Belize, Doug found us a five star hotel with a restaurant about 25km away at a super reasonable price. Hotel Parador-Museo Santa Maria is a renovated/restored hacienda with maybe two dozen rooms, a bar, restaurant and a pool area with a hot tub. It was built 140 years ago when it was a coffee plantation. It has wonderful ambience and we were the only guests. The rooms were large, full of big old furniture, with huge bathrooms but smallish beds with canopies and bug screens. The bathroom was bigger than Tigger with a huge sunken tub with shower. The view overlooked the nearby agricultural fields and mountains. We are still at an elevation here of about 1500m/5000ft so it’s not that hot and it cools down at night.

balcony running across front of rooms

We got on the internet for a while, went for a swim and then enjoyed a nice dinner all by ourselves (again) in the outdoor restaurant at the hotel. They make wonderful pina colados.

We headed back to Comitan the next afternoon and just hung out for a while. We want to go to El Chiflón waterfalls but the forecast was not great. We spent another night at the Wal-Mart parking lot as there is NO camping here in this town at all, (it’s really pretty quiet here at night; store/mall closes at 11 and they even turn out the parking lot lights until 6am).

We awoke to partly cloudy skies on Wednesday and decided to head to the falls regardless as they had said thunderstorms last night and it didn’t even sprinkle – guess forecasting the weather is an issue worldwide!

We got to the “tourist centre” at El Chiflón and hiked up to see the five waterfalls. We had no idea it was going to be such a climb; Fran didn’t bring her walking stick and suffered a great deal (her knees). The Rio San Vincente is that lovely turquoise blue we have come to associate with Chiapas waterfalls and although the river seemed a little low, there was a tremendous amount of water coming down the Bridal Veil, the main attraction. This spot is at a much lower elevation than Comitan and you certainly can feel it. It hit 95f by early afternoon and the humidity was high. We took advantage of the showers here before getting back to Tigger and that felt very good as the sweat was pouring off us. To us, this attraction was better than Las Nubes but maybe not as good as Agua Azul (but then the latter was our “first” so we could be biased).

We met a French couple in the parking lot here traveling in a short school bus-come-RV that camped here last night and said it was quite warm for sleeping so we opted to head back to Comitan and spend another cooler night at Wal-Mart before we head for the border in two days. We have one more stop we want to make before that.

Thursday, we drove to Lagos de Colon which had been recommended to us by a couple we’d met back in San Ignacio, Belize. It’s sort of on the way to the border, just a slight detour. Lagos de Colon is at a much lower elevation than Comitan and again we felt it; it was hot. We got there in the late morning and began to debate spending the night there; there was a chance of getting power, but we were not sure it would run the AC so we took the hike around the lake, again that pretty turquoise colour. They have built a nice path (that could use a bit of maintenance, of course) on one side of the lakes that leads to some waterfalls. It was a very pleasant walk as there were lots of trees for shade. The path, naturally, takes you past some restaurants and vendors but we were not hassled much. The falls was nice but too much stuff around it for decent photos. There is a “boardwalk” (several lengths of planks) to walk over across the top. On the return trip we took the other side of the lakes which was not commercialized and was pretty much a dirt path. Right by the parking lot is a turtle sanctuary where we saw a few turtles sunning themselves.

We opted to drive to a spot in the town of Paso Honda where another overlander had stayed, hoping it was at higher elevation for the night. Enroute, we hit a dirt section of the main highway to the border. It was about 2km long and about ¾ of the way down it we suddenly heard something drop and then drag. We thought, oh man, the muffler? Upon investigation, Doug discovered it was the skid plate under the front part of the truck. The mechanics in Comitan had removed it to do the service we wanted done and apparently had not secured it with all the bolts as Doug only found four of the eight needed. We were so thankful it was the back end of the plate that fell not the front as it was have done major damage hitting the ground while driving. So in the 97°F heat, (it hit 100F by the time he was done) Doug went under the truck on a tarp on the gravel and unbolted it and we wrapped it in the tarp and put it inside the coach; if it was any longer, it would have not fit.

DSCN1966 removing the dropped skid plateWe stopped in the next town looking for the correct bolts as unfortunately, we did not have spares of the two types needed. No luck there so we headed to where we might stay as that town looked larger and after asking at three places, we found a guy who did body work and painting that was able to help us; not just with the bolts but reinstalling the plate – Doug was so grateful he did not have to get back underneath. While they were working, Fran went to find the place where we might stay but could not. She found at small hotel that would let us park with power but it was a little pricey. We opted to go get gas to fill up before the border tomorrow and asked about parking in the back of the station. Pemex stations in Mexico often have huge areas for truck parking, especially in smaller towns. We did not have a lot of pesos left (no ATM’s in this area) and the first two stations we went to did not take credit cards (one tried but it wouldn’t go through) but the second one confirmed we could park that and possibly get power. We went to the third station, filled up, paid on Visa (thank you Capital One for no foreign exchange fees) and returned to the second station. It was now dinner time (this day was not supposed to be this looong!) and so we plugged in, got air and had a beer. After dinner, the power quit around 8pm so we turned on the gennie until bedtime and by then the outside temp had cooled off some; using our two fans we slept better than expected.

The state of Chiapas has so much to offer; beaches, mountains, jungle, ruins, wildlife, indigenous peoples, beautiful colonial towns, waterfalls galore and more topes than anyone could ever ask for (but why would they?!) So after 790 miles (mostly in Chiapas), lots of steamy hot jungle sites, some routine maintenance on Tigger, a couple of mishaps, two more ruin sites, many more beautiful waterfalls, we left Mexico for the last time in a long time. We love Mexico and plan to definitely return one day.