Alone in the Mexican jungle on a secret tour of Palenque
Nearly two centuries ago, the story goes, an eccentric European vagabond named Count Jean-Frederic Waldeck decided to play house in a temple at the ancient Mayan city of Palenque.
Waldeck and his Mayan mistress lived atop the jungle-choked pyramid for two years, and he documented his stay with overwrought drawings that argued Palenque's former inhabitants were actually the lost tribe of Egypt.
I thought of Count Waldeck as I clambered, blissfully alone in the gathering darkness, up the steep steps of the temple now named in his honor. Admiring this UNESCO World Heritage site for two hours without being surrounded by other tourists (up to 4,000 a day during peak times) gave me a glimpse of the magic Waldeck and his companion must have experienced - for only 425 pesos (about $21.50) per person.
My husband and I had learned about the after-hours access from a local hotelier and Mayan expert - who noted, accurately, that park officials don't advertise or promote its existence. (We had to ask several staffers where to buy our tickets, which turned out to be upstairs in an unmarked office next to the museum.)
When we arrived at the main entrance just before closing time at 5 p.m. we discovered, to our delight, that we were the only visitors who'd signed up. We were accompanied by an assigned custodian, Melita - a 29-year park veteran who, in a sharp contrast to her disheveled and overheated charges, showed up for the occasion in a skirt and platform sandals.
Since we'd already walked through the site when it opened at 8 a.m., we weren't interested in a temple-by-temple tour. And with Melita tagging along at a discreet distance, we were able to wander at will - marveling at a flash of parrots, the steadily softening light and temperatures, and a raucous troop of howler monkeys that, as one astute observer put it, sounded like a cross between a dog and a T-Rex.
Before we knew it, we were making our way back to the entrance - by the light of our iPhones, a crescent moon and a cluster of fireflies (las luciérnagas, we learned from Melita).
No, we weren't tempted to follow in the count's footsteps. But that secret tour turned out to be one of our favorite evenings in years.
Sunset and silence (except for the howler monkeys) at Palenque's Royal Palace.
The steps of the Royal Palace are usually crawling with sweaty tourists until 5 p.m., when the ruins closed and our private tour began.
Our official after-hours "minder," Melita, waited patiently while we explored.
One of Palenque's most iconic structures is the Temple of Inscriptions, which covered the grave of Mayan ruler Pakal the Great. He ruled the city state for nearly 70 years, from 615 to 683 AD.
View of Palenque's Temple of the Cross
A panel atop the Royal Palace.
Yours truly, on a path through the ruins that follows a small creek with several waterfalls.
Evidence that the jungle still rules in Palenque.