May 7, 2004

Cheap but Exotic Vacation Destinations

By Albert Simonson

San Diego has super weather compared to most places. But let’s face it - summer gets pretty hot, dry and stifling.

As your wrinkles deepen with dehydration, and your sunbaked brain shrivels to the size and color of that cauliflower you forgot in the uncharted depths of your ‘fridge crisper,’ you may wish for a getaway. You may wish for billowing clouds, thrilling thunderheads and a chance to swim in a wild river as rain pours down in a torrent of natural skin moisturizer.

All you have to do is call Aero-mexico and get a ticket from Tijuana to Villahermosa. It’s an easy, short flight.

You ride the trolley to the border, and take a taxi to Hotel Bugambilias, named for the bougainvillea that sprawls over walls surrounding the pool.

Of course, you don’t NEED to overnight in TJ to catch the afternoon flight, but why start a vacation with rushing to catch a plane? The hotel’s chauffeur will even take you to the nearby airport when you are good and ready.

There are several fine hotels in Villahermosa, but the unpretentious and fiscally conservative traveler will like the Hotel Pakaal, named for the Maya lord whose sarcophagus was discovered in the depths of Palenque’s Temple of Inscriptions. The hotel is downtown by the broad, muddy, and very tropical Grijalva River. The lady in charge is a sweetheart and gave us a book about the state of Tabasco when we checked out.

You can wait a few days before renting a car, because there are things to see nearby. The Olmec culture was the mother culture for later Maya, Aztec and other civilizations. Colossal 40-ton Olmec heads are found in a jungle setting at the “Lake of Illusions,” a short taxi ride from the hotel. More statuary and diverse artifacts, Olmec and Maya, are found at a museum just down the river.

If you like San Diego’s Wild Animal Park, you will have to visit Yumká, out by the airport. It has giraffes and hippos for an exotic African feeling, but also a rain forest which is pure Tabasco. Enjoy your view of the critters as you eat lunch, and don’t forget the tabasco sauce.

Agua Azul

On the way to the obligatory Maya ruins of Palenque, you can get a quiet double with AC, private bath and garage for $17 at the Hotel del Bosque.

As a big spender, I prefer the Mayabell, next to Palenque’s museum, in a drippy, big-leaf jungle environment. We could have hung our hammocks in a thatched “palapa” for $6, or even taken a regular cabin, but we splurged big-time with an air conditioned cabin for $38. You only go around once.

Further south, Agua Azul is the place if you want broad, churning cascades of white water. If you prefer narrow, high waterfalls, you can eat and even sleep at Misol-Ha, but don’t forget to try the trail which leads behind the curtain of falling water. There is lots of skin moisturizer in the air down there, and those who are contemplating a really forceful massage or suicide can try swimming in the roiling pool beneath the falls. The moisturizing will either make you look years younger or drown you.

A few years ago, the Ocosingo road was a carefree panorama of puffy clouds, green meadows and misty forests. It still is, but impromptu settlements of Guatemalan refugees now crowd the road. Luckily for us, the refugees are too young or unschooled to know or care that it was the CIA who instigated the decades-long killing of Indians and burning of their villages, mainly for the benefit of the United Fruit Company.

It is ironic that the U.S. has caused Mexico to have a problem with undocumented workers, but that is another story.

In our quest not to die before seeing every Maya site in Central America, we drove down next to the Guatemala border to Chinkultíc, where the famous Montebello lake region is. People who fear heights will feel some wooziness looking down from the high temple to the water-filled sinkhole below. Such “cenotes” were used for ritual drowning of flawless virgins in Yucatán. A couple of non-virgins were clinging white-knuckled to each other and looking down.

You get to meet Mayas of different cultures at Na Bolom in San Cristóbal de Las Casas. It is a cool place even in summer, at 7000 feet of elevation. Na Bolom, meaning “House of the Jaguar,” is a kind of pun on the name of its famous late owner, archaeologist Frans Blom. His empty mezcal bottles still pave the entry and line the walkways of the gardens.

You can learn about the Mayas in Na Bolom’s 5000-book anthropological library and the in-house museum. Trudy Blom’s photo archive has 50,000 negatives artistically documenting a people who held off “civilization” longer than anyone else. Many of her photographs grace the rooms throughout. Or, you can just go into the kitchen and arrange with Doña Beatriz, Trudy’s lifelong friend, to have dinner with them. Just look for her well-creased, but gentle and beautiful face.

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