I’m running through the thick undergrowth of the jungle. The hidden Mayan ruins of Palenque, Mexico are my destination. The heat is unbearably smothering, as the humidity tips 90%, and my clothes start to fill up with sweat. All around me I’m surrounded by a maze of lush green leaves hanging from windy vines, intricately intertwined into a spider web of pure nature. The branches twist and turn around tree trunks like giant boa constrictors. Or maybe they are? I’m moving so fast that I can’t stop to tell the difference, nor do I want to.
Judging by my rough and torn map I should only be a couple of hundred metres from the temple. After dodging a few misplaced holes in the ground I finally bust through the vegetation and emerge into the clearing of this ancient Mayan temple. And it’s more magnificent than I could ever have imagined. Neglected moss covered stones stack 50ft tall, commemorating better times for the historical Mayan empire. If my information serves me correct the amulet should be tucked into the third chamber from the top. I size up the slippery rocks and carefully choose my route to the top.
I start my slow and cautious climb up the temple. I’m up 15ft and going strong when suddenly I grab a loose rock and slip onto one hand, dangling mid air only from the grip of my left. Keeping my composure I gracefully swing onto something looking a little more secure, collect my feet and resume my climb. I’m nearing 30ft and the chamber is in sight. The excitement and anticipatory nerves of this discovery are reaching new heights. My adrenaline is working overtime. I reach the chamber, the moment of truth, I scrap away the cobwebs and peer inside… and there’s nothing there.
Just then a sound in the distance raises my alarm and snaps me back to reality. I’ve been caught! Is it a tribal chief, with his band of warriors ready to shoot poison darts at me? Instead, I turn around to see a very frustrated man dressed in a neatly set uniform blowing a whistle and shouting at me in Spanish. “Get down from there! This area is not permitted within the national park”.
I slowly climb down the monument, empty handed and disappointed that my Indiana Jones fantasy is over. For just one moment I was taken back to my early childhood, dreaming of exploring the world and all it’s hidden treasures. But that one moment was all I needed.
Together we walk back to the official tourist track and chat about random things. I pretend I didn’t know about the restricted areas and that I was lost, but deep down I feel he knows this is probably bullshit. I just wanted to get off the path, and by the relaxed look on his face I can tell he’s not too bothered about it. We shake hands at the designated path and I join the other unknowing tourists for the remainder of the famous Mayan ruins of Palenque. My clothes are wet with perspiration and are clinging to me, I have cuts all over my bare exposed legs and dirt smeared all over my face. People look at me like I’m a wild native, but all I can do is smile. I got closer than they could ever imagine.
The ruins at Palenque, Mexico are incredible. While sometimes I feel like I’m ‘ruined out’ along my travels, Palenque had me back to the old days of running around ruins like a famous explorer. After years of travel and ruins visited, Palenque would have to be up among the best. While many other ruins might tell more elaborate stories of history and cultural significance, at Palenque you get a much more authentic edge. Not that I’m discrediting other sites, but there is something special about Palenque that makes you feel like a real adventurer. Maybe it’s the fact that only 10-15% of the ruins have been excavated to the public and that within the thick jungle, where the howler monkey’s echo, there is still so much left to explore.
Here’s a couple of tips to get the most out of your very own Indiana Jones experience;
Don’t be afraid to deviate from the path a little, kind of like a broader metaphor for life really. There are signs against it, but the ‘I’m lost’ look on a travelers face can always buy you a bit of leeway. Note, it’s best to save the off-beat exploring until after you’ve finished doing the main stuff, just in case they do kick you out.
Pack some food and water. You can buy it at the ruins, but it costs at least double. With energy sapping humidity in full force, you’ll want at least a couple of litres for a day of walking around.
Know your limits. There’s no point trekking all the way through the jungle if you don’t know where you’re going or how to trace your steps back. It’s a wild place out there, and it wouldn’t be hard to find yourself lost within half and hour.
Never take the guides outside the park entrance! Wow, they are pricey! Even some decent haggling doesn’t get the price down enough. Walk inside and you’ll find people more than willing to show you round for a lot cheaper. (Need haggling advice?
If you’re not feeling up to solo style exploring, you can always opt for a guide that will take you on a ‘mushroom tour’. You’ll find them just inside the park gates and the tour quite literally consists of consuming magic mushrooms, hiking off the path to find hidden ruins, with some boy no older than 16 leading the way.