Zapatista road blocks in Chiapas, Mexico
Here is out tale of traveling from San Cristóbal to Palenque through Ocosingo, Mexico. We ran into Zapatista road blocks along the way but had a good time anyhow!
Carrie slept in and woke finally feeling better from her bad enchiladas. We packed up and left our hotel in San Cristóbal by 11am or so. The stone and concrete hold the cold from the night, so you wear jackets or sweaters until the sun hits things. When the sun does come around it is strong, as we were at a high altitude of 6700 feet and only 1100 miles from the equator. Within 30 seconds of being on the street we were hollered at by a taxi. I was happy for the $2 ride which would save my walking energy for later. We quickly arrived at the transportation area. Imagine a bunch of easy-up shade tents with destinations printed on them and passenger vans waiting to leave. We would take one of these “collectivos” to Ocosingo where we would change to another van headed to Palenque. The first passengers to arrive were allowed first choice of seats. It’s best to sit near the front, especially on long drives through the mountains. Over the trip you travel over hundreds of “topes”, small (or large) speed bumps. They are relatively mellow when riding in the front but when riding in the rear the bouncing can give you quite the headache by the time you reach your destination.
We had the front seats behind the driver, the best spot to be, and soon we were leaving San Cristobal behind…onwards into the lands of indigenous Mayans and Zapatista rebels. The road from San Cristobal to Palenque has a bad reputation. It’s not a good place to travel at night, as tour buses have been robed and there are often Zapatista road blocks. The large tour buses no longer travel in this direction, instead detouring almost thrice the distance up into the state of Tabasco to avoid the winding roads and unpredictability of the local political situation. By taking the vans we hoped to reduce the travel time from 9hrs to 5 or 6, and felt confident in the safety as we were traveling in the daylight hours with plenty of extra time.
The countryside was extremely beautiful. We continued to higher altitude out of San Cristobal, driving through small communities. The women in this area wore colorful traditional dresses, the men cowboy hats and boots. Many women and girls had a baby on their back, held there snuggly wrapped in a woven blanket known as a “rebozo”. Streets into the villages all had the same homemade signs at the entrance declaring their autonomy and allegiance to the Zapatista Movement, or EZLN. They didn’t allow visitors without special permission; just peaceful people that wanted to be left alone. The lots were divided by wooden fences, one house per several acres and most land had corn planted, in all phases of growth.
The road was wild. Speed up, pass, hard curve, BREAK HARD, tope (speed bump), creaking shocks, accelerate… At least the windows were open and we were in the front. After a long time climbing we finally hit the summit with some amazing views. Every little shack along the road had a few giant green pumpkins on the porch, for sale of course. I really want to smuggle back a few of these seeds, as I believe they are dependents of the original pumpkin plants that were native to this area.
Soon we were switchbacking downwards into Ocosingo, a small city in a pretty valley. It was one of the cities occupied during the Zapatista rebellion of 1994. We hopped out of our van and within a minute were in the van headed to Palenque, first ones on in the best seats. I ran off to grab some snacks, picking up some cheap tacos from a motorcycle-powered taco cart. Some school girls ran up to me, wide eyed, asking to practice English. I said I didn’t have time, because I had to run back to the van. I felt weirdly like a celebrity, quickly going to hide with my tacos. A man came past with a wheelbarrow-style ice cream cart; he had ice cream made from local peanuts which was a flavor we hadn’t seen before. Slowly our van filled up but over the next hour we didn’t leave. Right as I started to wonder what was up, I heard the bus drivers having a chat about a “bloqueo.”
The bus driver then told me that the road was blocked up ahead, a protest by the local people, Zapatistas. Apparently a common occurrence, annoying nonetheless. It was the first time they had done it this year and the van which left minutes before we arrived had gotten through. The driver thought it would be open by 4pm, another hour, so we sat around with a little hope. I saw some white guys coming from the other direction and went to ask them what was going on at the road block. Turns out these guys lived in Flagstaff so we had a laugh about that. They said they had no idea the road was blocked until their van arrived there. They just got out and walked across the Zapatista protest and into town. Apparently we could do the same thing in the other direction, however it was getting late in the day. The idea of walking a couple miles with my backpack then hoping to hitchhike to Palenque before dark didn’t sound like the best of plans. Sure, it might have been interesting and a good story with a few more hours of daylight, but in this case we knew the best choice was to find a place to stay there in Ocosingo for the night, then either they would be bored of protesting by morning or we could walk across in the daylight hours.
At 4:30pm we gave up on the Zapatista blockade ending and got a van ride refund. A bunch of people were stuck here, however some decided to brave the walk/hitchhike in the night. We walked down the road to the only decent-looking hotel in town. It looked like something out of Don Quixote, ornate, well-painted, overstaffed, a front for something but comfortable enough. We went up to the rooftop restaurant and ordered some food, happy with our smart decision to stay. An older British guy walked in and ordered a beer. We started talking about our annoyance with the situation, apparently the first roadblock of 2023. He ended up sitting at our table and we shared travel stories. It was fun finding someone that had seen more of Mexico than us; rarely does that happen. His name was Sam and he offered us a ride to Palenque in his SUV in the morning if the roadblock ended. We went to bed hopeful that we could make it in the morning.
Morning came quick and we grabbed a coffee on the roof. “No hay bloqueo!” the waiter reported. The roadblock was done. Apparently they got what they wanted from the government or just gave up. We were soon on our way in Sam’s Mercedes SUV, traveling cozy and with someone else to talk to. Sam was an interesting character who lived in a tent on his plot of land in a new intentional community near the border with Guatemala. He also owned a house in the Canary Islands but preferred the Mexico hippy life. When Carrie asked him how he had managed to travel so much in life, he said, “Well, I’m not very good at relationships.” There was no sign of the roadblock but there was one place where local people pulled a rope across the road, making us buy a bag of friend plantains to pass. After a few hours of the jungle growing thicker, the landscape grew flatter and the city of Palenque was upon us. We grabbed some lunch together then said our goodbyes, planning to maybe cross paths later in the Yucatan. We were excited to explore the Mayan ruins!
On his way out of Palenque, Sam picked up a couple of Spanish hippie ladies hitchhiking. Not too soon after they were stopped by the policia. The police quickly pulled a massive bag of marijuana out of the top of these girls’ backpack. Marijuana is legal in Mexico, but only in small amounts. The police told the ladies they would let them go if they had sex with them. The girls then started to scream at the police, who then told Sam that he was responsible for them since the weed was in his car. Having lots of Mexico experience, Sam was able to negotiate a 1500 peso bribe (~$80USD) to keep the women out of the terrors of the Policia. He messaged us this story after arriving at his destination, thankful to have made it without further trouble.
This is one of the worst first hand experiences that we have heard. This story reinforces some of our rules for traveling in Mexico. If you don’t break the law then you don’t get yourselves into these types of situations. Unfortunately, we see many Spanish hippies traveling in Mexico that don’t seem to have a lot of respect for the local rules and regulations. They often look quite grimy and don’t treat the local people very respectfully. I have seen them get in big arguments over several pesos, raising their voices in a disrespectful way and causing a scene. Staying calm and being nice can get you out of a lot of bad situations.
Rules for not getting into terrible situations in Mexico (or anywhere really…)
- Don’t travel at night. Some areas are ok, especially the toll roads. However, it’s a good idea to always find a place to spend the night BEFORE IT GETS DARK. Most bad things in Mexico happen in the middle of the night.
- Mexican cities usually have areas that are safe at night, places with bars and young people hanging out. Do go out at night, but keep your wits about you! Try to stick to areas with other people; avoid dark, lonely alleys. If you are unsure, grab a taxi back to your hotel, even if it’s a short distance. I usually judge the safely of a city by what kind of people are walking around at night. If you see local women walking by themselves then its probably pretty safe. If you find yourself in a bad place, walk like you know where you are going (even if you don’t). Standing on a corner with your phone out, drunk at 3am looking at your maps is the place that people get mugged. Don’t carry lots of money, and if someone does try anything then just give them the money you have. Don’t fight them or argue. It’s not worth it. We have never had any problems in the night in Mexico, but we also don’t drink or stay out til 3am.
- Stay away from drugs, people who are selling drugs, and people who are using drugs. While I don’t consider marijuana a “drug” necessarily, it’s never a good idea to travel with things that can get you extorted. At the beaches it’s pretty accepted and lots of Mexican people like it. Once again, figure out what you can get away with by noticing what other people are doing. If you do decide to travel with it, keep it under the legal 5 grams that you are allowed to have.
- Be VERY CAREFUL with local women. Flirting with the wrong lady is a great way to get the “bad hombres” upset with you. Sometimes really pretty ladies work for bad, bad people. Do not go to the house of women you meet online. Meet someplace public many times to build trust. Gullible men do get drugged and sold for their organs because they couldn’t say no to a pretty women. You can meet people in a safe way, just remember if it seems too good to be true than it probably is.
- Don’t worry about getting murdered by the cartel. They own many of the businesses in the touristy areas and more often than not will actually be keeping you safe behind the scenes. They have realized long ago that they make more money on tourism than kidnapping. There are still some factions into kidnapping, like the Zetas and a few others. They generally operate in areas that you would have no business going to. Most of the violence in Mexico is cartels killing other cartels, or cartels vs the Mexican army. You have a much better chance of being randomly shot in the USA, and we generally feel safer in the big Mexican cities than in big cities in the USA.
- That being said, don’t fight or argue with local people, especially drunk. Be nice, stay calm, try to speak Spanish.
- Listen to the locals. If you are somewhere you shouldn’t be, I can almost guarantee someone will approach you and tell you so. People really look out for each other in Mexico, and they will look out for you as well. Take these words of advice seriously, don’t be stubborn!
- If you have problems with the police, stick to your guns and don’t instantly pay them bribes. Know the laws and don’t let yourself be extorted. If you made a mistake driving, ask for a ticket. You can pay it at the bank. They will almost never give you a ticket. They will try to make you nervous, waste your time, and wait for you to crack. Sit back, look comfortable and content, smile, and wait them out. The only time to pay a bribe is if you broke the law in a bad way (after not following my simple rules). At this point it would be MUCH BETTER to pay a $100 USD bribe than to spend a night in Mexican jail.
Stick to these rules and you won’t have any trouble traveling most places in Mexico! Almost all foreigners who get into trouble are men mixing prostitutes and cocaine, or drunk women walking around late at night by themselves. Use your common sense and be nice to people! Trying to speak Spanish goes a long way. If you do this and someone is mean, let the locals stick up for you and handle the bad person. Don’t be a hero or a villain. Stay out of the drama and go home safe!
Here is a video that explains really well how not to pay bribes when traveling. This guy drove the circumference of Africa without ever paying a bribe. Pretty impressive and definitely good advice for any traveler!
I’m sure I’ve missed some good points. These are good rules to travel when going anywhere outside of your comfort zone. Let me know in the comments if you have any tips that I’ve missed, or disagree with any of my “rules”!