Blog 5: Palenque & Panchan

Blog 5 :  Palenque &  Panchán                                                          12/12/1212


Haight Ashbury and Harvard Square in the mid-60s. Rishikesh and Katmandu in the ‘70s. Berlin and Prague in the early ‘90s after the Wall came down, Barcelona at the millennium. Panchán in 2102.

Five kilometers from Palenque City, five meters before the entrance to the Zona Arqueológica

de Palenque, turn left on a ruttypuddle-gravel road, and before you can blink you are encompassed by jungle, the real triple-canopy kind with thick green understory, umbrella-leafed middle tier, and soaring many-limbed giants peopled by parrots, toucans, and howler monkeys. This clump of jungle is known as Panchán: not a village, a community. The gravel road swings left by the community’s restaurant, Don Mucho’s: perhaps fifty tables, some under a roof, some arrayed along a stream, some just set into whatever adjacent open space the jungle offers. The gravel road branches. Fifty meters further along what might be the most substantial of the branches is Mono Blanco, breakfast joint and bar, with its two-dozen or so tables strewn around a small clearing. The now dirt road branches again, the branches branch, those branches twig, and you find yourself in a warren of maybe a hundred cabins and huts, camping areas, and tiny hotels and hostels, one or two reachable by car, the others by narrow cement path or jungle trail.

Our path takes us to Margarita and Ed’s (recommended to us by Deborah, Abby, and Libby, who have stayed here multiple times). Margarita and Ed’s consists of half a dozen ramshackle wooden cabins, a two-story moldy-blue “office” building, and three little 2-story hotelitos. We had tried a half dozen times to make reservations, by phone and by internet, bur failed utterly do the fact that—as we found out on arrival—their phone works only sporadically, it only gets picked it up when someone happens to be in the office, and no one who works here knows how to use the computer. Still, we lucked out: there was a vacancy in the new building at the farthest end of the path. It turns out to be a gorgeous second floor corner room with ample plugs and lighting, a balcony jutting into the jungle, a desk and a couple of chairs, screened windows, an air conditioning unit, a spotless bathroom and shower, and all the mod-cons that

we didn’t expect to find out here but are willing with glee to put up with. Having now surveyed the rest of Panchán, it’s clear we have the nicest digs in the jungle, well worth the $35 a night.


Panchán is swarming with people, most of them in their twenties. Lots of long hair, the women’s in long falls, braids, or sweeping cascades; the men’s often in ponytails or dreadlocks, and maybe half with bear

ds. Visible tattoos on shoulders, but no full sleeves: ink here is a hip statement, not a way of life. The girls sport granny dresses or tight jeans draped with lacy layers of blouse. The men wear cargo pants, jeans,

or shorts. It’s clear that clothes washing is a sometime thing. There is lots of dangly jewelry, most of it in earlobes or around necks, some on eyebrows, noses, and lips, and slightly more of it on the women than on the men. No shoes, few boots; mostly sandals or bare feet. There seem to be no older children, but there are lots of wee ones up to about age seven, as befits a parent cohort in their late 20s. The chatter, at least so far, is in Mexican, English, French, Spanish, German, Italian, and Hebrew. A few middle aged men, scruffy, bandanas or backwards baseball caps on their heads, stroll the paths or sit solitary, with a hollow-eyed look that says “I used to surf, but, you know, the beach scene, like somehow, you know, here I am now in this jungle.” In the time we’ve been here we’ve seen only a half-dozen folks who, like Linda and I, are of a “certain age.” This is a happening place, but mainly it’s a young-peoples’ scene.


Commerce is woven through Panchán, of course. It’s mostly hippy stuff, not much different from what the pioneers in Harvard Square, the Haight, and Washington Square established in the 60s as the array of stuff that authenticates the happening. Cheap jewelry, stamped out silver filigree and beads, arrayed on blankets (local, ethnic) on the ground, or on trays set across saw horses. Crystals. Faux-peasant clothing. Holistic massage. The tables at Don Mucho’s and the Mono Blncco are filled most of the day with people drinking beer: Panchán is not a margarita sort of place. A slat-sided hut functions as a mini-7/11 in the forest: toiletries, soft drinks, batteries, chips, bottled water. Antoher will do your laundry by the kilo. There are a couple of booths with agents signing up people for day trips to nearby tourist sites: ruins, waterfalls, boat trips. The booths don’t quite square with the overall atmosphere, but enough people use them to make it profitable to keep them open. One gets the feeling that some of the foreign contingent in Panchán came intending to stay a day or two to see the Palenque ruins, but that once they’d seen them they forgot to leave. As best we can tell, these semi-permanent residents don’t actually do anything, they just hang out near the restaurants and braid hair and play chess or their guitars and stare at the jungle and enjoy the laid-back scene.


The only counterpoint to the prevailing sense of mellow in Panchán are the several handwritten signs posted at the restaurants and on nearby trees: no drugs, no mushrooms, no drums.


In the midst of this self-replenishing international congregation of folks of a certain style and cultural predilection, a small Chiapas Indian and mestizo population goes quietly about their business. Some farm corn and vegetables, rabbits and chickens and turkeys, on small plots carved out of the forest. Some work at the lodges and hotels as room or grounds cleaners, they staff Mono Blanco and Don Mucho’s, or they are part of the maintenance crew at the Zona Arqueológica Palenque. The farming men get out early, early enough so that when I set out on a jungle trail this morning a little after dawn, I hadn’t walked a kilometer when I met a farmer returning from checking on a couple of cows that he had pastured high up the hill. At three out of four houses, in the early hours I see backpack-laden foreigners blearily emerging from their rooms on their way to Mono Blanco for coffee to jumpstart their day’s adventures. At the fourth, l see groups of four or five local women clustered on white molded plastic chairs outside the door of one of their houses, sharing a cup of joe and gossiping about their neighbors. 


For the outsider community, Don Mucho’s restaurant/bar is where it all comes together from about four in the afternoon until eleven. Saturday night is a madhouse. Tables fill, and empty, and fill again. Linda, exhausted, decided to sack out early, so on Saturday I am here alone. To my left, a couple in their early thirties are sitting with a woman who could be the mother of one of them or perhaps the grandmother. The three are arguing in English whether to visit the Palenque ruins tomorrow morning or the day after, while the older woman interlaces complaints about her trials in getting the contractor to finish the new roof on her garage back home. They order dinner by pointing at the menu.


Two tables to the other side are two young women. One is clearly Mexican, rather heavy set, dressed conservatively in slacks and a generic university sweatshirt. The other, more European-featured, is a nymph, two layers of diaphanous lace over a black tank top, tiny tight blue shorts, sandals, long blonde hair, a dangling feather. She can’t sit still. She dances up to the bar, chats for a couple of minutes with one of the waiters, and waltzes back with a tall glass of water and a blue straw. She and her companion laugh hysterically over something, high, piercing, joyful giggles. Three young men are drawn to the table, sit down; one says something funny, the laughter explodes again, two get up and leave, and the third, now introducing himself to the two women, calls in native-Spanish to a waiter for a menu.


Though I failed to hear enough of the joke to share in the laughter, I did overhear everything that went on among the three men at the intervening table that was right next to me. At first I had trouble placing the language, but then I caught a Hebrew phrase and my mind switched gears. I got about half of what they were saying. The three men were all 6-footers in their mid twenties, all bearded, all big shouldered and obviously fit as prize fighters: I surmised that they were off doing their decompression world tour after military service. Most Israelis know multiple languages, but if these three did, neither Spanish nor English were among them. They were having a devil of a time making out the menu. The tallest of the three, a thin pinched-faced fellow who also had the longest beard, and might well have been what the Israelis call a “religious,” knew some Italian, and he was using that as a crutch, translating for the waiter from the Hebrew into some sort of mélange of Italian and Spanish and English words. “So, how exactly is the chicken cooked? What are these vegetables, this chaya thing here?”

Chayote,” the waiter supplies. “A little like calabacín, zucchini.”

“If my friend doesn’t get the chicken with this set of, these vegetables, could he get the vegetables anyway? No, not those ones there, these. But not the chaya. No, wait a moment.” He turned to his friend. “Atah rotzeh beitzim? Najon? He’ll have them with eggs. Just eggs. Eggs and vegetables.”

The Israelis weren’t asking for help, and they were seeming to manage, if awkwardly, so I didn’t volunteer. The waiter spent a full five minutes with them, listening to their pigeoning in various bits of language and watching them point to this and that on the menu in the candlelight. As he left the table with their order he looked at me and rolled his eyes.

That crisis having passed, I spooned into my cream of spinach soup (excellent!), and watched the action. Young men, often in pairs, buzzed around the tables of the women. Groups of young women, generally 3 or 4 at a time, flitted around the tables of young men. People getting up, sitting down. I saw the group of four girls at one table stand up, join three young men who had been clustering around them, and seek a longer table at the other end of the bar. Success.

As my strips of beef, stewed chayote, lettuce and tomato salad, rice, and garlic bread arrived (combination plate #2, enough for about three of me), at the far end of the restaurant area a young woman in a swirly-tan dress and the requisite long hair, took out her violin and launched into a Bach partita. Riveting. Warm applause. She began something by Debussy. In a patch of dirt by a tree that stood in the middle of a cluster of tables, a construction crew of four-to-six year-olds worked building roads for their toy cars. Under another tree a woman was giving a shoulder massage to a man whose head was buried in the cushions of her massage chair. The violin was laying down some serious Mozart, and a couple of night birds, loud, but far off, went for counterpoint but completely missed the beat. The rest of Panchán seemed to be getting it, though.

David & Linda

PS. I probably ought to say a couple of things about the archaeological site of Palenque, which is what attracts so many visitors to this part of Chiapas. The lords of Palenque ruled most of this part of the world between around 700 and 950 CE, and their capital, at the border between the coastal lowlands and the central Mayan mountains, reflects their power, their wealth, and their exquisite taste. The couple of things I have to say are these:

(1) Wow!! 

                                                            [2] Rome, eat your heart out!