I stepped out of the taxi and into the dark jungle. The humidity enveloped me in its familiar embrace and my hair went wild from the dampness. When the engine started again, I heard my old friends the howler monkeys roar a warning. Damn, it felt good to be in the jungle again.
Tiki torches lit a narrow path that led me towards the sound of drums in the distance. It came from a place called Don Mucho’s, the convivial restaurant in the traveler’s hangout El Panchan in Palenque, Chiapas, Mexico.
A live band played world music in front of a hand painted mural of jungle vines, jaguars, monkeys, and tropical birds. Uniformed men exited the busy kitchen carrying wood oven pizzas to tables of Mexican tourists and foreign backpackers. Stands displaying macramé jewelry and colorful stones lined the outskirts beside shops selling artisan textiles and hiking tours.
After finishing a plate of handmade tortellini and listening to the band, I chatted with the jewelry makers, asking them about different stones and about themselves. More jewelry was the last thing I needed in my boulder of a backpack, but I wanted an excuse to touch the beautiful crystals.
One of the sellers couldn’t have been over nineteen and he had the face of an angel. He told me he was from Tulum, but was studying archaeology while traveling to the most sacred temples in Mexico. He complimented me on my amethyst necklace and I told him that I also made jewelry. I looked down at his table and saw a striking black pendant. Beneath the glassy surface of the stone I saw a million flecks of gold and silver light.
“Wow!” I exclaimed. “You can see the stars in that stone!”
“Do you know about the power of Obsidian?” he asked.
Apparently no religious Mayan site in Mesoamerica is without Obsidian.
In fact, they used it for just about everything. To make arrowheads and knives in warfare, to create art for their temples, and as instruments for spiritual ceremonies.
Crystal healers have told me about the benefit of using Obsidian to cleanse and protect against dark energies. The black color absorbs psychic dust and clears clouded auras, forming a buffer between you and anything you don’t want to take on. Though it not only absorbs, it also reflects with its glassy finish. Some say that those who know how to work with Obsidian can see the truth of themselves and the universe in its reflection. I just saw stars.
Rain hailed on Palenque over the days that followed. I befriended a global mish mash of travelers, visited the stunning temples of Palenque, stood behind rushing waterfalls, taught yoga to the owner of my guesthouse, and I even met a Mayan warrior prince.
I considered taking mushrooms, “the thing” to do in Palenque, to understand the jungle and the Mayans better and to see all of the things that my mind keeps me from seeing. But the opportunity never presented itself and it was hardly an experience I wanted to force.
Then came my last day in Palenque. At midnight I planned to take the bus to the Yucatan. Truly on my own for the first time since I had left San Cristobal, I decided to spend that precious day alone in the jungle.
Initially I felt a little hesitant. No one knew that I was here and I didn’t exactly know where I was. But as soon as I entered the national park and pressed my bare feet into the wet earth I felt completely safe and protected. I felt at home. I felt a tremendous level of love and support. So I walked on.
That’s when my journey in Palenque really began.
Thick tree vines appeared to fall from the sky with the strength of a thousand ropes woven into one. I wrapped my body around a vine and let myself dangle.
“What if the vines were really the snakes that our eyes could not see?” I thought.
Was I tangled up with a tree or an anaconda?
I walked on, passing beautiful waterfalls that cascaded down terraced rock pools like stairways to other worlds. The mineral rich water coated fallen branches, petrifying them into rock adornments.
Eventually I arrived at a ruined temple that appeared to be an ancient swimming pool. Rainwater had filled it to the brim and jungle leaves floated at the surface. I gently walked down the stairs and bathed in the rainwater.
Looking around I quickly realized that I had somehow lost the trail. Instead I was on a tiny mud path. Up ahead I saw a small animal run through the forest, perhaps an Indian rabbit? It was hard to tell. My eyes then focused on a green barbed wire fence. I had reached the end of the park.
I got out of the pool and suddenly felt a strange sensation. I wouldn’t exactly call it an out of body experience, because I was still me and I was still very much in my body. But my body felt different. The more I connected with the sensation of my feet on the ground, the less I felt like Camille and the more I felt like another me.
It sounds a little crazy saying it now, but in that moment I felt the presence of the Mayans and I felt myself as one of them. I felt myself reliving the experience of leaving Palenque behind, as one of the Mayans. And it was intense.
Though I experienced none of this through thought. It was through feeling. Which is why when I started to cry it surprised me. My mind couldn’t understand why I was crying. Eventually I stopped trying to understand and I just felt it instead.
Then something beckoned me to turn right, a sort of fascination coupled with fear. I felt compelled to move forward but too afraid to lift my feet. I didn’t know where I was going and I didn’t even know what I was stepping on. That’s when a voice came to me through thought. It was like the jungle was speaking to me through my own mind. It said,
“I will always keep you safe. I will always love you and I will always protect you. I will never hurt you.”
So I kept walking until I saw it. A waterfall. I sat on the jungle floor and sang to console myself. I burned my Palo Santo and closed my eyes. In time, the fear disappeared and I felt an incredible lightness. Whatever cycle I was moving through had come full circle. I felt like I could fly. I skipped through the mud all the way back to the entrance.
Maybe I didn’t need mushrooms after all.
Back at the ruins the sky had cleared and I dried off at the top of a temple in the sunshine. I heard the howler monkeys roar from the tree canopy, their call echoing across the weathered facades of ancient structures.
Some scholars theorize that the pyramid like temples at Palenque represent the tree of life, an important symbol in Mayan culture. Like a tree the temples remain grounded while reaching to the sky. Forever connected with heaven and earth.
I lit my Palo Santo again and overheard a Mexican guy ask his friends what I was doing. I turned and told him I was burning a special wood for protection and offered to cleanse him with it. Surprised that I spoke Spanish, he nodded and walked over. He stood at the edge of the towering temple while I blew smoke from the sacred wood against his heart.
You really can live a hundred lifetimes in one afternoon in Palenque.
Around sunset I spontaneously decided to get a massage. I went to an unassuming house down a gravel road called Casa Shanti, or House of Peace, where a cat met me at the door with an intense stare. I thought back to that angel boy jewelry maker from El Panchan who told me that in Shamanistic belief the cat is considered the protector of the soul.
A fair skinned man dressed in all white with kind eyes came to greet me and led me to the massage table. At the end of our session he guided me through the most beautiful visualization I’ve ever experienced. This is how it went:
“As you lay here, imagine yourself bathed in the warm light of the sun.
Feel the rays come down into the crown of your head.
Now imagine a lotus flower sitting right at the crown of your head.
As the sun rays connect with the lotus, see the lotus start spinning in a circle.
It changes color.
Then that light begins to spill down into your head.
The light fills your entire head with the warm glow of the sun.
It moves down to your neck and into your throat.
The light fills your chest, your heart, your shoulders, your arms, and shoots out your fingertips in bright rays.
It moves into your lungs, down your spine, and fills up your belly.
The warm glowing golden light trickles into your hips, your pelvis, and your groin.
It flows down your thighs, to your knees, to your calves, and into your feet.
Begin to feel the light burst out the bottoms of your feet and connect with the Earth.
The light moves from your feet down through layer after layer after layer after layer of the Earth until finally it reaches the core.
When it reaches the core, the light connects with a crystal.
Feel the high vibration and frequency of this enormous crystal that lives at the center of the Earth.
On your next inhale, the vibration of the crystal moves through the rays of light, back up to the Earth’s surface, eventually coming into contact with your feet.
Now feel that vibration move into your toes, into your feet.
Feel that high frequency move up your calves, to your knees, up your thighs, into your groin.
The light vibrates rapidly into your hips and your gut, into your rib cage and lungs.
Feel that frequency move all of the way up your spine and fill your heart with the highest vibration of the most powerful crystal.
The vibration moves into your shoulders, down your arms, into your hands.
It moves up into your neck and your throat and fills your head.
Eventually the frequency comes into the lotus flower and shoots back up the rays straight into the sun.
Visualize this cycle a few more times. Imagining the light of the sun moving through your body and connect with the crystal at the center of the Earth, then the frequency of the crystal moving back up through your body out your crown and up to the sun.
Let this image remind you of your true purpose:
the channel of light between Heaven and Earth.”
I was buzzing with energy yet completely overwhelmed with peace.
He drove me on the back of his motorcycle to El Panchan. It was full moon so I went to sit by the river and bask in her glow. She was surrounded by an enormous red halo from the mist of the jungle. Stars flickered on the black canvas of the night sky.
I grabbed my bags to head into town and catch my bus, when someone stopped me. It was that angel boy jewelry maker from my first night. He took my hand and placed something in it. I looked down and saw the Obsidian pendant filled with stars.
“Oh, no you shouldn’t!” I said.
“You are a woman who collects stones,” he insisted, “you need a stone from here too.”
I put it around my neck and hugged him goodbye.
As the taxi pulled out of El Panchan I looked down at the Obsidian again. I still saw millions of stars, but this time I saw more. The stars clustered together in a seemingly endless spiral that disappeared into the depth of the center of the black volcanic rock. Like an amalgam of stardust from the heavens moving in an eternal circle held by the darkest piece of Earth.
If what the crystal healers said was true, I was seeing my own reflection in the stone.
I laughed because it made so much sense.
It made sense that I was looking not just at me, but I was looking at everyone.
Bundles of stardust bringing light to Earth,
Earth holding space for bundles of stardust.
Receivers of the energy of the moon and the wisdom of the jungle.
Channels between Heaven and Earth.
My Top Recommendations for Palenque
Stay at El Panchan
When staying in Palenque, you’ve got two options: town or the road to the ruins. While you have much cheaper food options and more amenities in town, you miss out on the magic of waking up in the jungle to the sound of howler monkeys and watching the moon and the stars at night. There are plenty of hotels, cabanas, and camping on the road to the ruins, but my top recommendation is the community of El Panchan. This jungle plot with different cabanas and a few restaurants has a strong traveler vibe and very inexpensive lodging. Most places don’t have websites or book online, so it’s best to just turn up and see what they have. You can find cabanas with two double beds for less than 100 pesos per night ($7) and dorms for even cheaper. I stayed at Margarita and Ed’s which is unarguably the cleanest place and has rooms with two double beds and a private bathroom with hot water shower for 320 pesos ($20). Hanging out for live music after 8pm at Don Mucho’s is a must, which has surprisingly good Italian food like wood oven pizza and homemade pasts for around 80 pesos. Don’t expect any wifi at El Panchan, so if need to connect I recommend heading into town or bringing an internet stick with a local SIM card. FYI even the internet connection in town is very slow. At El Panchan they do occasionally have wifi, but it’s very slow and costs about $3 per hour to use it.
Visit the Waterfalls
Palenque is nearby some incredibly stunning waterfalls which are definitely worth a trip. Most famous are Agua Azul with turquoise pools you can swim in and Misol Ha which is massive and very impressive. There’s plenty of tours out of Palenque, but they’re really not necessary. The tours are cheap, but I like to take my time and have my freedom so I did it on my own. I took a shared van from El Panchan to town (which passes by frequently, just wait on the side of the road) and then from there took another shared van to Misol Ha. They will drop you at the side of the road and you will need to walk about 1km to the entrance. Make sure to walk behind the waterfall at Misol Ha, which is extremely powerful. From Misol Ha, Agua Azul is about an hour further.
Even though I work online, staying at El Panchan where there was no wifi was a wonderful blessing. Everyone was present instead of attached to their phones and I felt more connected with the rhythm of nature. Rather than stress about the slow internet connection, enjoy the real connections all around you.
Do a Temescal with Hugo
At El Panchan you can organize temescals (native sweat lodges) any day of the week with a minimum of four people. Admittedly, I wasn’t able to do a temescal in Palenque myself, because the timing wasn’t right. However, the man who does them, Hugo, is one of the most beautiful, gentle, and yet masculine people I’ve ever met in my life. I imagine he must guide a pretty amazing temescal.
Get a Massage from Antonio
On the road to town from El Panchan you’ll find Casa Shanti, with very affordable massages and healing treatments. I had a combo of deep tissue plus Reiki with Antonio which was ammmaaaazzzzing. He also does Mayan astrology readings, unique and special!
Hike Alone in the Jungle
If you want to learn more about the history of the Mayans and about different plants in the jungle, I recommend going on a guided hike with Gabriel (300 pesos for a 3 hour hike) who you’ll find at El Panchan. He takes you off the tourist trail and deep into the jungle to the most amazing hidden spots. He’s originally from Palenque and has an intimate connection with his ancestry and with the jungle. Personally, I highly recommended taking a walk in the jungle by yourself to really feel it. As far as jungles go, this one feels very soft, sweet, and tame, and you can absolutely stay on the wide gravel guided trail so it’s impossible to get lost or accidentally step on a snake.