The morning started in the Disney World-esque outskirts of Palenque and I sipped on strong coffee at a little cafe’ while devising a plan for the day.
We knew that there was some real beauty to be found in the area from reading about the mountainous state of Chiapas, but didn’t have an exact destination yet.
My guidebook described a village called Naha, which was located deep in the mountains that surrounded Palenque. The exact description from the book reads:
Naha is situated beside a beautiful lake and surrounded by hills covered in lush rainforest. A highlight for many visitors is a meeting and ritual ceremony with Don Antonio, and octogenarian spiritual leader…its possible to canoe on the lake, whose reed-filled shallows and curving tree-shaded banks offer fine bird-watching. Theres also a waterfall within walking distance, and numerous opportunities to see and learn more about the rich rainforest flora, such as medicinal plants.
The book didn’t recommend driving into Naha alone, but said that it was ‘a difficult but not impossible task’ and recommended a truck to navigate the dirt roads.
This sounded perfect to me: away from the city, rivers and lakes to explore, an element of danger, and the opportunity to partake in a spiritual ceremony and sample some medicinal plants was exactly what I was looking to find in mountains in the middle of Mexico.
M agreed, and before we made final plans, we stopped by the local tourist information center to get more information. The lady at the center pointed to a map and showed us Naha. I snapped a photo (the guidebook had a brief description of how to get there, but no map).
A bus driver came in and we asked how long it would take to drive and he said ‘about 4 hours’. Before leaving we checked another tourist information center and the young kid working there told us ‘yes, Naha, very beautiful’ and radiated a smile that instilled a confidence that in a few hours we would be swimming in pristine waterfalls and lakes in the Naha forest.
There was a slightly different map hanging on the wall of this information center, and I noted on some paper that the turn we had to make off the main road and into the forested hills to Naha was in the settlement of Cambio. No major red flags went up, the directions seemed simple enough and I was sure that we would find our new destination without any problems.
We left feeling good, the weather was perfect, and the Mexican radio was playing some great tunes (I prefer Mexican pop-music to American, there is much more variety on their regular radio stations).
About 25 minutes down the road, we passed a large sign that advertised a waterfall and pointed down a long dirt path. I looked at M, we nodded yes to eachother, and I turned the car around and followed the path to the end where a woman collected 50 pesos from us and pointed down a path that led to Misol-ha waterfall.
We spent an hour swimming under the falls, climbing up the rocks behind the waterfall, and enjoying the gorgeous fresh water.
They served breakfast from the small kitchen near the entrance and we enjoyed some eggs before driving off down the road.
I knew we had to turn at Cambio, and when we reached a military checkpoint at an intersection, I asked one of the guards if Cambio was up the road. He shook his head yes and pointed me in the direction I was going and smiled. I took off and we went careening down the Mexican road.
One thing about Mexican roads is that they force you to be on high alert all the time. In order to prevent people from speeding through certain areas, they have installed many speed bumps designed to slow you down. Some of these speed bumps are made by the villagers themselves and are if you go faster than 2mph, you risk destroying your front axle.
Most of the speed bumps have warning signs before them, but some of them (especially the homemade ones) don’t. I drive pretty fast and more than a few times slammed into these bumps of destruction and almost lost control of the car. That combined with M’s screams when we got rocked by the bumps instilled a bit of paranoia and caused me to develop eagle-eyes for speed bumps by the end of the trip.
As we passed through the tiny villages and slowed to an almost stop for the devil bumps, we noticed that at nearly every bump, little kids from 4–12 years old were manning them, waiting for white looking people to slow down. The kids would run up to the drivers side window and scream “Pesos!, Pesos!, Pesos!” and when I just laughed at them and drove off, they would scream at the top of their lungs: “Ahhhhhrrrggggg, PESOS!”
We passed through a number of villages and never saw Cambio, nor any major roads that led into the mountains. We stopped at a few places, but none of the locals could read a map or tell us how to get to Naha. Finally, at one small restaurant we found someone who was map-literate and said that we had missed our turn in Cambio about 50km back.
We headed back the way we had come, past the sleeping pigs, wild packs of dogs, screaming speed bump children, colorful laundry drying in the breeze, and little shacks filled with Mexicans.
M found directions to Naha detailed in another guidebook she had brought and they said that the turn into the mountains was approximately 35km outside of Palenque. So we followed the km markers to number 35 and saw an old, beaten down advertisement for an Eco-retreat and canoe rides up the river.
We followed the sign down a dusty road (thinking it might lead to Naha), passed through another small village and followed the path into the forest. Along the way there was a man who had four young boys with him. They were sitting on the side of the road and playing with big machetes. Each one of them was holding a machete and as we passed they all stared intently at the car driving to the middle of nowhere. The little rental car had a hard time driving down the washed out road and when we came to an intersection that required crossing a river we had to stop. There was no way the car was going to cross the river and I went up the bank to take a piss.
While up on the bank relieving myself, I heard some growling in the bushes. The growls got closer and in the bushes I saw the shape of a hairy, mangy mutt moving towards me in stalking mode. Slowly I reached down and grabbed a big stick while slipping my cock back in my shorts. I took the stick and launched it like a spear at the hairy body moving through the bushes. When the growl turned to a yip and ran in the other direction, I backed down the bank and told M to get in the car. M is terrified of dogs, even little friendly ones, so when she heard the mean beast start to bark loudly at us, she bolted into the car like a scared kitty.
I leapt in as well, threw the car into reverse as the feral dog, now joined with another, screamed at us from the bank. We drove back through the path and the group of males with machetes were walking down the washed out path to the river. A part of me thought they were in cahoots with the dogs and coming to investigate our fate. I stepped on the gas a little harder and the villagers looked at us oddly when we passed back through, more quickly this time, and turned back on to the main road.
We used the guidebook and navigated back to the town with the military guarding the intersection. We should have turned at the intersection and headed into the hills from there instead of listening to the ‘Militarian’ (what M called them in her French accent) because this was Cambio, as indicated by a small sign on the side of the road.
The road winded deep into the mountains and we split off on a dirt path that went even farther inside. After crossing a few bridges made of wobbly wooden planks, we asked the rare locals where the town of Tulija was. Tulija was the next major settlement we should have come across before Naha.
The locals all pointed us back the way we had come and it was back to retracing our steps and getting caught behind a truck loaded with a dozen Mexicans sitting in the bed, sipping mescal, and traveling 5mph through the dust.
Back on the main road, we continued until the next town and almost turned around to head back. The sun was getting lower in the sky and I did not want to be driving around speed bump infested backroads through Chiapas mountains without sunlight. We asked a guy standing on the side of the road where Tulija was and he pointed to the mountains and yelled something in unintelligible English.
We drove on until the road turned to dirt again and winded for miles through thick rainforest. We came across a settlement where men were digging a ditch on the side of the road and one of them was in the midst of smacking a snake on the head with his shovel. When we passed by he through the snake at the car and hissed at us. M rolled her window up and when we passed a guy pushing his bike up the hill, he turned his fingers in the shape of a gun and started to pretend to shoot at us.
I was beginning to feel unwelcome.
At one of the intersections on the dirt path, we came across an old sign that pointed to Metzabok, which was the settlement just before reaching Naha. This was the first good sign on our journey, but what made me question what was going on was that the sign was barely legible through the peeling paint and it looked like it belonged in a nuclear wasteland.
We drove on regardless and at another intersection, paused for a cigarette and tried to determine which way to take. Two Mexicans on a motorcycle were driving by and when I waved, they stopped, and one jumped off and ran towards us. We asked him where Naha was and he angrily pointed down the path to the left and ran away yelling something loudly.
I told M that we would drive for 20 more minutes maximum and then we would turn around, we were not going to be driving around when it got dark in these parts.
As we continued through the thick forest, we started to see signs for Metzabok. This kept us going and we continued until reaching the little village. The road continued on to the river banks and then stopped. There was no where else to go, no other paths or roads that led out of the village, and no signs for anything.
I got out of the car and an old woman came up to me and introduced herself as Maria. I tried to ask her how to get to Naha, but she just kept shaking her head and asking if I needed a room.
The little village didn’t look like it had any electricity, it was on the edges of a small river, and didn’t show any signs of life outside of a few small shacks.
I looked at M and when I told her that there was no such thing as Naha, she believed me right away. I got back in the car and drove as fast as it could possible go over the dirt in order to escape.
The drive back was more of a relief than anything else. We had been driving with no way of knowing where our final destination was or if it even existed for the past 6 hours. At least now we knew that Palenque was real.
We decided that another dip in the waterfall would make it feel like the day had been somewhat of a success, and stopped back by Misol-ha for dip number two.
I stayed under the falls and let them crash down on my head for a long time. There is something so powerful and energizing about a waterfall that it is impossible to recreate. The sound of the roaring water, the stings of the drops hitting your skin so hard it prickles, and the sight of that most beautiful element splashing with tremendous force all around you invigorates the soul like nothing else.
We left the waterfall feeling good even though our day had been a bust. It was dark when we rolled over the speed bumps that greeted you to Palenque and it looked like the tourists were still in full effect.
I wasn’t about to pay another 80 USD for a room that should have been 20, so we checked other places on the outskirts of town.
After getting rejected from two sold-out hotels, we drove a little farther outside of town and found a ‘room’ in a sketchy little building. The ‘room’ was a bunker made of cinder blocks painted red and orange with a bed plopped down in the middle. It made a prison cell look luxurious.
We didn’t give a shit about anything because the non-existence of Naha had messed with our perception of reality and took the shitty room.
After recapping the strange day of wandering and laughing our asses off over a couple of drinks and some dinner in town, we went back to our colorful prison cell to sleep.
Stay tuned for the conclusion where we fly through the air on homemade Mexican ziplines, rediscover comforts of city life, almost kill eachother in a fight, and M dances through the streets while getting cheered on New Years.
If you enjoyed this snippet of one day in Mexico, you would love Go Forth: a Journey South. The book chronicles a life changing adventure and over a month of decadence in the Mexican state of Oaxaca.
*And you can also check out my travelogue (packed with photos of girls) of my trip to Montreal: Montreal, J’taime.