We hung around the hotel most of Tuesday morning waiting on a WhatsApp message from the technician assigned to the van. We had hopes it would be able to be fixed that Monday, within a day, but by 5 PM we gave up hope and eventually got a voicemail saying they would try to get it finished first thing in the morning on Tuesday. We walked around the town, Tuxtla Gutierrez (even though the area we were staying in wasn’t really a tourist area) and watched a pretty sunset while strolling through the streets.
When we finally got the message the next morning that it was ready, it took us less than 10 minutes to have our things packed up from the hotel room and be on our way to walk to the dealership. In the days at the hotel, we were hit with food/water contamination and were sick for most of our stay. At times I’d joke that we were all dying – me, Andre, and Savannah. It really wasn’t that bad that I thought we were actually dying but… it was pretty bad. The worst seemed to be over and our spirits were high with the hopes that Savannah was fixed and the bug we had was gone.
When we spoke with the mechanic, he said it was an issue with frayed wires in the computer. This could explain why it seemed to quit at odd times, like after being driven for 5 hours, stopped, then started again only to die after 10 minutes. The repair cost was $125 (~2500 pesos), and $2 of that was for the materials to fix it (wires) – the rest was labor trying to track down the problem. They had also washed Savannah and cleaned the tires so she looked as good as new rolling up to us. We hoped this will be the end to the mysterious faults in her engine.
We decided we still had time that day to check out Sumidero Canyon. The watch towers would be closed since it was Tuesday during the off season, but the boat tours would be running. Originally we had been hoping to find some climbing beta for the area. Andre sent an email to a local guiding company to ask if they would share the grades and locations of the climbs, since they weren’t on Mountain Project. I was skeptical they would, since we wouldn’t be clients, but they did email back saying that the easiest route to the top of the canyon from the river was a 5.12 – way harder than we climb. So, we decided to be tourists to the area and hop on a boat to ride up the river and look at the canyon like pretty much everyone else did. I can’t say I felt the best being on a two and a half hour boat tour after being violently ill for the past couple of days, but the canyon was so cool and huge that it was easy to forget about the potential of tossing my cookies over the side.
We couldn’t quite tell where the climbing would have been since a lot of the wall was covered in vegetation and looked really chossy. Maybe that’s why it’s a 5.12 though and it’s an adventure climb. We saw some really cool caves way up high on the wall and some stunning waterfalls. One was called the “Christmas tree” waterfall for how the moss and vegetation formed an evergreen tree shape. On our boat ride up the canyon, we saw a huge crocodile that didn’t seem too happy with how the wake from the boat tossed his body towards shore. It was definitely the biggest one I had ever seen. We also saw a spider monkey! The boat was filled with about 20 people, and on multiple occasions passengers would push up to the front of the boat, take off their life jacket and pose for an Instagram worthy photo that would make it seem like they were the only person on the boat. After one couple went up, many followed suit and it did become a bit annoying to wait until they all got their photo and returned to their seats so we could continue with the tour. Many people brought beer on to enjoy during the tour, and we may have too if we had been feeling better.
We passed a large dwelling that looked abandon and like the jungle was taking over. It was incredibly lush up the canyon and would make for some wild, but difficult, exploring. Soon though, we hit the dam that bottlenecks the water from the river. The guide explained a lot when he slowed the boat near the edge, but we couldn’t understand the full story. After the dam, we headed back up the river (down the canyon) towards Chiapa. With any wildlife sightings, everyone would point and look on the side of the boat where it was spotted. This was happening off the left side of the boat when Andre gasped and said “a turtle!” It was a crocodile… and I hope everyone on that boat could understand “turtle” and that Andre thought a crocodile was a turtle.
We got back to town in time to try some food and see how it settled with us. We each got various forms of chicken and a beer. Then we explored the side shops around the town, there were tons. I am still on the hunt for a yellow dress but have not found one yet. Andre found some cool billowy pants.
We had found a waterfall nearby that also allowed free camping. After we finished exploring town, we gassed up, and drove the ~20 minutes out of town up to the waterfall. It was 50 pesos each to camp in the parkinglot and 25 pesos to walk in to see the waterfall. The group of men guarding the gate to the waterfall were really friendly and assured us (after we asked) that they would keep the side gate open for us to use the restrooms overnight. We still weren’t sure what our bodies were thinking about eating again…
The waterfall was beautiful and was fed from a cave above. We hiked up to the top of the falls to explore the non-technical part of the cave. It would have been really cool to do the full cave, which we read on the sign can take up to 16 hours to get from the upper entrance of the cave all the way down to the falls. Unfortunately we didn’t have caving gear with us or the time/beta to do it. We saw some bats fly around in the back of the entrance and used our phone flashlights to peer in as far as we could. After we crawled back down the waterfall, we hung out by the water hoping to see the bats fly out at sunset. Eventually though, we knew we had to get back to the van since the gate would close around 6:30 PM and the guys probably wanted to go home.
We waved goodnight to them as we left the gate and headed back to Savannah to find a small scruffy dog curiously poking around. This pup stole our hearts like the volcano dog and soon we were giving him scraps of food and head scratches. He was nervous at first but after some food he felt right at home sitting at our feet outside of the van and barking to let us know he was still there and still hungry. He even played chase with me for a bit. That night he slept under the van, it was really hard not to let him come in with us.
The next morning as we drove away, the pup chased after the van, pulling at our heart strings a bit more. But the friendly group of caretakers for the waterfall seemed to let him hang out with them, and hopefully fed him scraps sometime. Our next stop was Cascadas de Agua Azul, a system of waterfalls with supposed bright blue pools of water. From Tuxtla Gutierrez to the falls, we would not be on toll roads. Despite the heavy cost of the tolls, we did think they were worth sticking to given the overall better condition of the road and efficiency to get places. “Libre” or free roads, were riddled with topas (huge speed bumps) and potholes. There was no other way to get there though, so we set off on the libre road that wound its way up into the mountains.
The mountain villages were a lot different than the lowlands. There was different architectural style with more extravagant store fronts, almost like saloons would look like in old west towns. These were a lot more colorful though – vibrant pink, blue, and orange. We passed some villages that looked very poor and had only scraps of sheet metal for walls and roofs. We found it odd that some children looked like they were dressed to go to school while others right next to them were digging holes or raking rocks. Stray dogs dashed along the streets everywhere.
As we were making our way up and over another mountainous area, a “check tire pressure gage” came on with the alarm sound that I swear I am becoming conditioned to with all of the issues with the van. The silly do-do-doop! instantly causes me to tense and wonder what’s wrong now… I hoped the message was just triggered with cooler weather in the mountains, as sometimes it had done in the past. A few seconds later though we heard the swoosh of air and realized we did indeed get a flat. It was the back right side and Andre confirmed our suspicion checking in his side mirror.
I’m embarrassed to say that up until this point neither of us needed to change a flat, and we didn’t entirely know how. It was on our list of things to do before leaving Durham – practice a tire change and other maintenance that may come up, but we didn’t have time. We pulled over onto a shoulder when it was safe to, which was right on top of a hill, and came up with a plan. We found where the jack and tire iron were stored (under the passenger seat and in a side compartment of the passenger side step respectively) and read the manual. We didn’t feel confident though and decided to seek out help from someone in the village nearby. Eventually we walked to a store that sold diesel and gas and asked if she knew anyone who could help us. She thought she did, and we walked back to the van and just a bit past it to another small building that also sold gas. She explained to the man what we had taken a while trying to explain to her with why we needed help – I’ve never had to use the Spanish words for tire and spare before. He agreed to help us out since we already had a spare tire and we got to work. The whole endeavor only took about 20 minutes before we were back on the road again. We gave the man who helped us a heavy tip and thought it was pretty cool that we ended up learning how to change a tire on the side of the road in Mexico from a local.
I was still worried about the tire, it was a spare and not a long term fix, so we decided after the falls we would seek out a tire shop and try to either get the old one repaired or get a new one. In the meantime, it was back to the bumpy, windy mountain roads that would bring us to the falls. It took awhile for me to trust that the spare wouldn’t just fall off, and I continuously checked it in the side mirror while we made our way along.
When we arrived at the falls we were surprised with how touristy it was, even in the off season. Stands of shops and restaurants lined the trail that led to the falls. We ended up having to pay two fees to get in, though we weren’t sure how they differed from each other. When we parked we saw buses and taxis with people pouring out. We noticed that out of all places we’ve been, we saw the most foreign tourists here.
The falls weren’t quite blue, but they were beautiful. It had been raining on and off all day and we read that with any rain, the run-off into the falls can make it more muddy than blue. There wasn’t swimming allowed with the strong current except for in two small roped-off sections. We hiked along the trail, past the shops, to the top of the falls. There was a rickety bridge thrashed together with barbed wire that we walked across – unclear if it was actually a good idea. After we explored the falls, we grabbed something to eat (I realized I still didn’t have an appetite though) then crawled into the van to sleep hoping that tomorrow would be calmer weather and we could see the blue water.
That night though, some crazy thunderstorms blew through. I had dreams that Savannah’s tire got washed off and we had leaks all in the ceiling. Savannah was fine, but the falls were something fierce the next morning. Definitely not blue water, but the power of the falls was also pretty cool to witness.
We pushed on to Palenque where we saw on Google maps that there would be a Firestone to fix our tire. Palenque is known for their Mayan ruins and we thought we’d check those out in the midst of getting Savannah fixed. When we arrived at Firestone, we accidentally used the word for “rim” instead of “tire” and the spare tire was refitted to the road rim that had the tire pressure sensor. Realizing our mistake, we tried again and explained that we needed a new tire mounted on the road rim and the spare to be, well, a spare again. My old tire ended up being trashed beyond repair, and they didn’t have any in Savannah’s size on hand. They ordered a new one for me (not Firestone brand though) and told us it would be in the next morning. The town wasn’t really suited for wild camping in the van so we stayed in a (really nice) hotel near the ruins. We decided to spend two days here and enjoy the pool, king size bed, and air conditioning while we waited for Savannah to get fixed.
We finally did laundry by dropping our clothes at a lavanderia that a family ran out of their home behind a garden shop. We could pick up the clothes the next day after we got the tire changed. After our obligations, we spent the afternoon in the pool during a big rain storm which was super fun. An iguana even joined us near the pool for a bit! We also had some of the best sleep of the trip in the huge, comfy bed.
The tire change the next morning went smoothly and within half an hour all the right tires were on the right rims and attached. I was pretty disappointed that the old tire was shot, it was less than two years old, but I guess it hit some sharp bump in just the right way to leak. Hopefully this new tire (well all the tires) will hold longer into the trip. After that was done, we headed off to the ruins!
Palenque was a Maya city that perished in the 7th century. After it’s demise, it was overgrown by a jungle of mahogany, cedar, and sapodilla trees. Since then, it has been excavated and restored; we saw a curator at work chipping away at some pillar carvings. It is estimated that less than 10% of the total area of the city has been uncovered and explored.
Most of the smaller hiking trails that led to less excavated sites were closed so we were only able to do the main loop. It was really impressive though what we were able to see – like giant temples and a palace. We wandered around the park for a couple of hours, dodging heavy bouts of rain by hiding under mahogany trees. It was a pretty great place to be stuck for a couple of days!
We left the hotel this morning and headed East to the Yucatan Peninsula. As has been the trend, Savannah is still being fussy. A check engine light and loss of power left us frustrated on the side of the road, again. This time, she started back up and we were able to drive to Campeche, which is our first city on the Caribbean coast. Tomorrow we will be bringing her to a Ford dealership in town. I’m beginning to think a better theme for this adventure is “a tour of the Ford dealerships in the Americas,” rather than “driving the Pan-American highway.” We have a few more clues after some reading and the codes thrown from the computer now, so hopefully we can figure this out with Ford tomorrow…
Campeche is a really interesting town that has a lot of evidence of the Spanish conquest – such as old churches and forts. We romped around the city for a bit and are currently boondocking/urban camping at a boardwalk parking area. The sunset was really pretty tonight.
And we just realized we’ve been on the road now for over a month! Time flies when you’re having fun 🙂
Andre’s post here!
Updated camp map here 🙂