Report from Mexico: A Haunted Visit to Palenque

By Robert Israel

We were clustered in rooms off a corridor. On one side was a parking lot, on the other a forest. Foraging ants marched into thickets and tree branches shook as monkeys traversed on vines.

A ragamuffin group of tourists in rooms adjacent to mine were waiting for me when I opened the door. I owed my popularity to a hand-cranked coffee grinder, a backpacking stove, and an espresso pot. I brewed shots for everyone; they sipped the elixir as if it were cognac.

Scotty and Robert were first in line; Thomas and Suzanne close behind, each holding porcelain cups.  It was mid-January. Frosty temps blanketed the eastern seaboard as far south as Georgia, but in Mexico it was steamy. We were padding about in flip-flops and tee-shirts. Palenque, with its Mayan ruins and verdant grounds that had been carefully manicured to reveal stone temples and a ball court, was just a few miles down the road.

“We crossed into Mexico and immediately got arrested,” Thomas said. “The cops were looking for payola. They put us in a holding cell next to a bandito whose cell was equipped with a refrigerator and bottles of tequila. When we arrived a woman was in his cell with him, sitting at the edge of his bed. I told him I fixed things. He produced a gold wristwatch and some jeweler’s tools. ‘Show me how good you are,’ he said.  Ten minutes later I had it ticking. He spoke to the guards. We were released.”

Robert and Scotty said they fled the Russian River valley of California where they trafficked in marijuana. A week before a helicopter hovered over their backyard. Convinced they’d wind up in jail like so many of their neighbors and that their crop would be burned or confiscated, they loaded up their van and drove off in the middle of the night. “We’re going to stay as long as our money holds out,” Robert announced.

A teenage boy carrying a knapsack appeared from the parking lot wearing a straw hat and soiled cloth sack pants hitched around his waist with a frayed hank of rope. Scotty greeted him in Spanish. The boy produced plastic baggies crammed with mushrooms he said he had grown in the dung where he groomed horses. Scotty haggled and they arrived at a price.

“Do you think I could borrow your camp stove?” Scotty asked. “I’m gonna cook me up some tasty psilocybin tea.”

Temple of Inscriptions, Palenque, Chiapas, Mexico

My girlfriend Robin and I departed for the park as the morning sun peeked over the tallest trees and onto the lawn leading to the ruins. Just out of earshot was the sound of cascading water. Owing to the early hour there were only a few tourists about. The guards were nowhere to be seen. The heat of the day was intensifying. Reaching the top of the Temple of Inscriptions, I regarded the violet-tinged glow that seemed to radiate off each building, bathing the grounds in a purplish vapor that highlighted the structures and the manicured lawns without leaving shadows. I recalled a day years before during a total eclipse of the sun when I strode out onto the gray shale cliffs at Beavertail Light as the moon blocked the sun and the sky was plunged into an eerie gloaming. I noticed the seagulls – they had been flying out to sea – but as the eclipse neared totality, they hastened back to shore in search of shelter. Palenque was awash in similar light.

And that’s when I felt a tingling at my toes that was slowly traveling up my legs, benumbing them.  And then the blows came as if someone was pummeling me in my gut. I fell to my knees, barely able to hold my head above the boulders.

Robin watched me writhe and said she stooped to assist me, but told me later that she couldn’t reach me. She likened it to some sort of force field she said kept her from approaching me. When the forces finally quit me moments later, she helped me to my feet. I couldn’t speak. Something had passed through me. Now it was gone.

I bumbled my way down the steps to the ground, sat on the stones near the parking lot. I was spent. The violet light had given way to bright sunlight, the park was cast in shadows, a tour bus arrived and visitors were strolling the grounds holding color-coded maps.

Back at the motel, Robert was sunning himself in a canvas deck chair, Thomas and Suzanne had gone off to the town, and the army ants were relentlessly transporting chipped leaves on their backs down into a gully deep into the woods. Scotty, Robert told us, had spent most of the morning on his hands and knees vomiting the psilocybin tea he had ingested; he was now in bed mumbling incoherently.

Robert offered me a puff of his marijuana cigarette, homegrown from his ranch in California, but I held up my palm and declined. I had no use for intoxicants, no matter how pungent. In our room, Robin helped me off with my clothes. I stood under the shower, listening to the patter of water gush down the drain and the encroaching sounds of insects and birds beyond the screened window.


Robert Israel is a Boston-based writer. He can be reached at


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