Road trips. For many travelers they are the ultimate reason to go abroad, but even if you are traveling full-time there are always plenty of opportunities in the area where you live where you can enjoy some of the off the beaten path sites, all from the comfort of your chosen ride.
For me, spending my late teens and most of my 20s in the Rockies of Colorado, I have had plenty of time to indulge my road trip tendencies. I had a Jeep Wrangler Sahara for many of those years, and the canyons and backroads of Colorado make for some of the most beautiful road trips you could ever imagine.
When I moved abroad, it became less easy for me to do road trips considering I have, for the most part, relied upon public transportation to get from one point to another since January 2008. But in early 2013 I had the opportunity to go deep into the heart of Tabasco with Cristina to visit her family, and to go back to the days of backwoods romping with friends and family during the late 90s and early 2000s.
Christina’s family hails from the town of Chable, which is a small pueblo in Tabasco bordering the state of Chiapas along the river Usumacinta. This is the same river that passes by the Maya ruins of Bonampak and Yaxchilan, near the ancient Maya mega-city of Palenque in the heart of the jungle. We hit an overnight bus from Cancun and slept most of the 10 hour ride. Once we got there, it was a hectic morning of saying hi to everyone, getting breakfast, and then making a last minute decision to head to the Archaeological Zone known as Reformas, along with the associated waterfalls and river.
At this point we did something that is almost impossible to do in the U.S. anymore, even though we used to do it when I was a kid: cram everyone in and ride in the back of the truck. We got the whole family into this little Ford Ranger. Four adults inside + the two smaller nephews (one was 18 months and the other 3 years old), and then Cris + myself + her brother + her sister + the two other nieces (6 and 9 years old) all together. Plus the cooler of beers + food + the tube.
It was about an hour ride with just one small stop by the soldiers at one of the crossroads who just wanted to give her brother-in-law a hard time about driving down the country roads with so many people crammed into the vehicle. But after a quick “hey man, it’s a family outing” they let us pass without any issues and we soon found ourselves on dirt roads moving into the heart of the jungle where very few non-Mexicans ever have the opportunity to visit.
Perhaps the most unexpected surprise for me was the partially-uncovered Maya ruins that make up the Zona Arqueológica de Reforma. It’s literally just a few pyramids lumped together just off this dirt road in the middle of the countryside, and the surrounding fields are packed with dozens of other pyramids that are still covered in dirt and trees and accumulated debris from over the years. It’s also easy to see that they are only halfway uncovered. There is more to be discovered, but the government hasn’t yet put any money into doing so because this isn’t a tourist zone where they can recoup their spend via tourists.
The afternoon was spent mostly hanging out at the river and waterfalls that make up the Cascadas de Reformas. There were dozens of families there for the day, and there are concrete benches with small roofs overhead to set up for picnic areas, as well as plenty of local vendors walking around selling tamales, tacos, empanadas and beyond. We had brought along plenty of beer, fruit and snacks, but we still ended up ordering several dozen empanadas for the family to munch on while we were there; a combination of chicken and iguana (which is plentiful in the area and are so thick in numbers that the local farmers kill them off like rats and eat them because they are free).
I speak Spanish, not to mentioned I’m married to Cristina and part of the family, but even so, I was certainly one of the first gringos that many of the local children had ever seen that day. I was running around swimming and taking photos and there were plenty of wide-eyed stares thrown my way during the course of the day.
The adventure didn’t stop there, however! Once we finished up at the river and made our way back to Chable, we stayed the night before getting up and ready to catch one of the buses back to Cancun in the late afternoon for another night ride. However, after almost three hours of hailing buses only to find that they were all full (on a Sunday evening), we finally found one who said hey…we don’t have room up top but you can ride down in the sleeper bunk where the off-driver usually camps out during long hauls.
Steel coffin is more like it. I’m not a claustrophobic fellow, but between Cristina and myself there was barely room to do anything else other than stretch out and lie down. There wasn’t any air conditioning; just a tiny little window and a little dashboard fan. Combined with the fact that it’s illegal for the buses to let passengers ride in the box, and we were both a little uncomfortable, but it was an adventure so what the hell! Plus, we had to be back in Cancun for our brand boot camp students who had class on Monday morning.
It was stifling, it was hot, and it was uncomfortable, but we both managed to eventually sleep, but the downside is that while if you ride up top you have access to a bathroom, down below you don’t. So we were limited to when the bus stopped, which meant no quaffing of liquids to cool us down. Plus, there were a few checkpoints where we had to make sure the window was closed so the soldiers and police didn’t see us below and get the bus drivers in trouble.
But for me the most hair-raising part was rocketing down the highway at 100 kilometers per hour in this metal box that is just hanging from the underside of the bus. You feel every bump, every jolt, and you hear every little ricket and rattle and ding and ping that goes on…and the whole time I was drifting in and out of sleep having nightmares of the damn box falling off and the bus running us over. Silly, perhaps, but nevertheless somewhat frightening!
The ride back was much longer; we ended up taking almost 12 hours in total before we were back in Cancun at around 8 a.m., just in time to make a quick grocery store run, shower, and have breakfast on the table for our students ahead of Cris’ Spanish classes in the a.m. Not bad for a night’s work…but I don’t think I’d want to replicate the experience anytime soon. For me, it’s either up-top in the normal cabin, or I’ll rent our own vehicle next time!
T.W. Anderson is the writer and editor in chief for Marginal Boundaries. He has been traveling since 1999 and traveling full-time as a location independent digital nomad since 2008. He’s lived in Bulgaria, Colombia, Mexico and the United States.