The Lacandón Maya say that the jungle has a spirit. This one certainly does. Lush rainforest, the sounds of the jungle, the mystic and nearly extinct Lacandón Maya, lagoons with pristine waters, endangered animal species, Mayan ruins. What a diverse appeal!
Lacandón Maya, the jungle dwellers. They wear long white tunics in their everyday life.
A must for Mayan fans like myself, for you will not find better preserved and more beautiful ancient murals like Bonampak anywhere else. Not to mention the scenery of the ruins of Yaxchilán which you can only approach by boat along the Usumacinta River. The jungle is also ideal for nature enthusiasts, where you can go trekking, camping and boating on a range of lagoons. I visited with friends in April 2017 but I want to come back because a two-day visit was not enough.
I came here for the ruins but I found much more. I was pretty taken by the authenticity of the place but what I did not expect was to fall in love with the indigenous people. So let me tell you their story.
The heart of this rainforest is located in the Montes Azules (Blue Mountains) Biosphere Reserve and that is where the Bonampak site sits. The journey starts in the village of San Javier, then after about 8km you get stopped at Crucero Bonampak by the Lacandón settlers who will take over from there. You will have to leave your car and go with a local guide. Our guide was Elias but he also has a Lacandón name. If you come by bus from Palenque, you will have your own guide and you will miss the encounter with the Lacandón people.
What immediately struck me about Elias was his vitality, vivid eyes and cheerful and determined face. He is 46 years old and has always lived in this settlement. His Mayan name Chan Bor Yuk means 'Little Bee Deer' and he was given his name when he was 8 years old, as is their tradition. All children, boys and girls, get the same neutral name to start with: Chan Och (Little Fox/Possum?). By the age of 8 his parents detected the child's main interests. So Elias liked bees and deer and his continued love for nature was clear as we went on.
On our walk, Elias made a walking stick from some branch for our friend John. Then he practically touched with love every tree on our path, knowing their use for medicinal purposes, such as ceiba and mahogany. We stopped at a rubber tree that his grandfather tapped some years ago for chicle. By the (very) tall amargo tree he insisted that we embrace it for good energy.
That was a bit of an understatement because amargo is a tribal remedy for debility, digestion problems, fever, liver problems, parasites, malaria, snakebite, and back spasms. The tree was not only very tall (they grow here up to 30m) but also too wide for us to embrace so we had to do with a touch. Elias took a panorama photo of us and he clearly knew how to operate my iPhone! Unexpected, for a jungle dweller. The modern world is obviously reaching this tribe. I understand that they have had to embrace the modern world in order to survive but I do hope that they will maintain their traditions as they are rather special.
His grandfather came to the Lacandón area from Guatemala (the Petén region) and others came here from Yucatán (the Campeche area) even earlier, hiding from the Spanish conquerors and living in this area for over 300 years. Actually, the Lacandón language is closely related to Yucatec Maya. They were never captured by the Spanish conquerors. They deliberately remained in small, isolated groups in order to survive. They used their inaccessibility and dispersed settlement pattern to protect their traditions, customs and religion. They supported themselves for centuries practising a method of agro-forestry, in which they rotate areas in which they plant crops. I was pleased to hear that in 1971 a Mexican presidential order turned about 600,000 hectares over to their community, recognising their land rights and that Elias's community still practises agro-forestry.
Today some Lacandón Maya work in the tourist industry, either selling their crafts or as guides, like Elias. He is a licensed guide to Bonampak ruins and is very knowledgeable and well-prepared.
He used to be president of the local eco-tourism board and his life effort is to promote their culture. He has large prints of the Bonampak murals and explained them to us in great detail, to my delight.
Elias lives in a separate community at the entrance to the Bonampak site (Crucero Bonampak). His grandfather discovered Bonampak and showed it to American travellers in the 1940s and his family has stayed there ever since. Lacandón believe that the ancient Maya sites are places where their gods once dwelled before moving to new domains they constructed in the sky and below the earth. They also worship their own gods in small huts set aside for religious worship at the edge of their villages. A shelf of clay incense burners decorated with the face of a Lacandón deity is a must in their households.
His little settlement is a small community of 52 people. Practically everybody in his community is his cousin. Interbreeding could be a problem but migration to cities for study at universities is slowly taking place now. Chan Bor Yuk has seven children and four of them study tourism at the University of San Cristóbal. This could strengthen the community and hopefully bring a rebirth of Lacandón culture. He himself studied at the Jungle Technological University in Ocosingo. The other three children and his wife are making art objects from the jungle wood and seeds and sell them to tourists on the Bonampak site (although there are not that many tourists about). You can also find the northern Lacandón offering their artisan work and jungle tours in Palenque, as we discovered on this road trip. In the north the movement for keeping to their traditions was even stronger than in the south.
We asked Elias to show us his house. He was pleased that we were interested in the way he lives. He lives in a wooden house with a polished concrete floor. The family continues cooking on an open fire and they collect rainwater in barrels. But he buys drinking water in large plastic bottles like the rest of Mexico and his house has electricity for TV, fridge and a microwave. What I liked most was the drawings of his daughter on the wooden walls: Mayan hieroglyphs! Glad to see that the Mayan traditions are kept alive.
Although most of the jungle outside the reserve has been partially destroyed by timber logging and damage continues even within the reserve (have I mentioned that they found oil here?), the Lacandón jungle is still the largest montane rainforest in North America with many kinds of ecosystems, large enough to support jaguars. Other endangered species include red macaw, hocofaisan (a rare breed of pheasant), harpy eagle, and quetzal.
Lacandón Maya are not the only people who live in the jungle here. The Blue Mountains Reserve is also home to other indigenous tribes such as the Ch'oles, Tzetzales, Tzotziles, Mames and Chus. We stopped on the way from Palenque to Yaxchilán in a village restaurant La Cabaña and we drank our coffee admiring the view of the Blue Mountains. That is where we met Esmeralda.
Esmeralda is a Ch'ol Maya. Her father is Tzetzal and her mother is Ch'ol. Her older sister speaks both parents' languages but she only learnt her mother's language. She speaks Spanish as well like a lot of indigenous people do (but not all). Her school was not teaching her in Cho'l; she learnt it at home.
She looks young for a 29-year-old mum of two children (two and five). She lives in a jungle village an hour's drive from the restaurant La Cabaña where she works. Her father drives her to work on Monday morning and brings her back home on Sunday to be with her children. Her parents look after her children in the meantime.
She told us she was lucky to find work and her boss only required that she learnt fast. Her duties are in the kitchen and we admired her traditional cooking on an open fire. Like all her folks, she is not rich but she certainly had a smile on her face, despite her shyness. I found her sweet, like the local pottery ladies on the restaurant shelf.
How to get there:
All the indigenous villages that offer camping and trekking are along the Frontier Highway 307; just ask the driver to stop for you. Bonampak and Yaxchilán are off that highway as well. If you come by bus, you can go all the way to Yaxchilán on the Guatemalan border. For Bonampak you need to get off at the village of San Javier. You will need to take a taxi or another local bus (I would not bet on this option) or hike the last 3km to the Crucero Bonampak.
At Crucero Bonampak the guide will take you to the ruins (unless you are prepared to walk about 10km to the site) or you can opt for the camping site on the river Lacanjá and do some trekking and boating. For more details see my post Bonampak.
MIX AND MATCH:
Most people come here after Palenque. The best combination is a two-day trip, visiting Yaxchilán and Bonampak. If you want to do some jungle trekking or boat trips in the lagoons, you will need more time.
There are plenty of other places that we passed and I would like to visit next time: Las Guacamayas on the Lacantun river, Las Nubes on the Santo Domingo River where you can rappel and explore caves, Miramar lagoon, Metzabok, Nahá's elaborate cavern system, the village of Lacanjá Chansayab where you can camp on the Río Lacanjá.