Lacanjá Chansayab is not just a jungle. This is an encounter with the extraordinary indigenous tribe of Lacandón Maya.
This jungle walk will also reward you with great waterfalls, Cascadas de Moctuniha, and the small ruins of the lost Maya city of Lacanjá. It is one of the few remaining intact jungle areas in Central America.
Lacanjá Chansayab (not to be confused with Lacanjá Tzeltal) is a small village located 8km from the junction to the archaeological zone of Bonampak. It is the entrance to the reserve of the Blue Mountains Biosphere (Montes Azules). In fact, it is just a few miles from the border with Guatemala, along one of the main cocaine routes.
Lacanjá in Mayan means Green Water Snake. The river is indeed green and winds through the jungle like a snake. Río Lacanjá is a small tributary of Río Lacantún, which is one of two rivers forming the mighty Usumacinta. Río Lacanjá flows through the protected Reserva Montes Azules. The area has dense vegetation, and there are still many threatened jungle species, including the jaguar.
Relatively few visitors to Mexico make it to Chiapas, and far fewer make it here. It is the only natural site inhabited by the Mayan descendants, who still preserve their cultural traditions. When the Spanish first appeared, the Lacandón disappeared into the jungle and only reconnected with the outside world in the 19th and 20th centuries. Now the jungle is disappearing (only about 10 percent remains virgin) but local groups here in the town of Lacanjá are trying to curb deforestation.
I came here in 2017 with my husband and two friends and in 2018 with a group of Slovak visitors. On the second visit we stayed in the camp called Campamento Río Lacanjá. There are other camps (Ya'ajche, Topche, Ya'axkan, Los Domos de Las Selva, Sak Nok, Río Chuc Tej). They all work on the same principle. They are private eco lodges, on the communal ejido land of the Lacandón people. They offer cabañas, simple meals in their restaurants, and they organise jungle walks and rafting for their guests. These people are still stewards of their land. Ejidatarios do not actually own the land, but are allowed to use their allotted parcels indefinitely as long as they do not fail to use the land for more than two years. They can pass their rights on to their children. While the Lacanjá village still has some land allocated to growing maize (corn), more and more people are now turning to tourism, renting log cabins, offering guide services and making artisan products for the tourists. I don't blame them.
I personally find the Lacandón people pretty amazing. They look majestic in their white tunics and believe that their jungle has a spirit. They still pray to stones that they consider living beings. They smile despite their poverty and they still have the skills of the jungle dwellers (despite the fact that some of them now have electricity and TV in their homes). They know each jungle plant; they use the plants for medicinal purposes. They still produce traditional bows and arrows (but for tourists only). For hunting today they use more modern weapons. I am drawn to these people, their plight, their way of living. If you come here just for one day, to experience their beautiful tropical jungle, do talk to them. You will find a lot of human stories that will stay with you forever. More than the memories of the jungle, perhaps.
It helps to go into the Chiapas forests with some basic understanding about the people you are going to meet and who they are. For that, allow me a small peek into their history.
In the centre of the state rise the Chiapas highlands, covered by an open forest of pine and oak, the home of the Tzotzil Maya. During the years of colonial domination, they were converted to wheat, corn, and sheep production for the benefit of Spanish landlords. Through the colonial systems of royal land grants (encomienda), the Spaniards came to own both the land and the labour of its indigenous occupants. East of the highlands, the Ocosingo Valley (around the towns of Ocosingo and Las Margaritas) has been the home of the Tzeltal Maya for at least 1,000 years. Here, most of the forest was cleared during the colonial period to produce sugarcane and cattle for Spanish landlords. This is the homeland of the Zapatista Army, named after the revolutionary Emiliano Zapata, which staged a rebellion in 1994.
The third zone of eastern Chiapas is the Selva Lacandona, a lowland tropical forest that shelters jaguars, tapirs, monkeys, and macaws. Until the 20th century, the jungle covered 13,000 square kilometres, stretching eastward from Ocosingo and Las Margaritas to the Usumacinta River. Today, two-thirds of this forest has been cleared and burned for milpas and pastureland, leaving only the Montes Azules Biosphere Reserve (3,140km2) in its original vegetation. This is the home of the Lacandón, Chol and Cholti Maya. During a series of military and missionary expeditions in the 16th and 17th centuries, the Chol and Cholti of the lowland tropical forest were either killed or relocated into the northern foothills. The Lacandón Indians emigrated from the Yucatán peninsula and Guatemala forest in the 18th century to flee the conquistadors, and remained there almost untouched until the middle of the 20th century. Timber companies were next to come, deforesting the jungle for mahogany and pushing people even deeper into the jungle. In 1971, the Mexican government decreed an indigenous reserve of 641,000 hectares and declared 66 Yucatec-speaking Lacandón Maya the sole owners of the area. Even today this causes further tensions between the tribes who live in the area (Tzeltal and Chol), of course.
Our jungle guide was Nah Kin (in Mayan it means The House of Sun), as friendly as all the Lacandón Maya. She is 50 years old and very optimistic and jolly. She walked in the jungle barefoot (she does not possess a pair of shoes and would find it hard to get used to them), and as quick as a Sherpa in Tibet (we struggled to follow her). Very fit! She has four adult sons, and one of them is a teacher, as she proudly told me. Her husband is now with another woman and she did not seem to be distressed by it. Traditionally polygamy was practised here (and if you talk to Chol Maya in nearby Yaxchilán, they will tell you that the Lacandón still practise it!). But if her husband left her for another woman, I would not call that polygamy. That happens everywhere! In any case, I will certainly come back here to 'investigate' more. Nak Kim works as a guide and also makes lovely bracelets and necklaces from the seeds of the amber tree – great souvenir, a more interesting version of friendship bracelets.
The jungle trail called Ya Toch Kusam starts at the camp. It is about a one-hour walk to the waterfalls and there are information boards about the habitat along the trail. As we walked, we could hear the roar of the waterfalls before we reached them. In fact, we crossed a few streams on our way, and we crossed them on logs or wooden bridges and in one place we had to take our shoes off and cross by jumping on the stream stones. Above us the trees soared up to 30m (and more), their canopies providing shade and coolness from the tropical heat and humidity.
Along the way Nah Kin pointed out various plants to us: parlour palms, mombin tree (also called jobo: the Maya used it for diarrhoea, dysentery, haemorrhoids), monkey head (sansapote, Licania platypus: with edible fruits), chicozapote (sapodilla, from the latex of which the Maya made chewing gum, chicle). The ramón tree, known as breadnut or Maya nut, has seeds covered by a thin, citrus-flavoured skin favoured by a number of forest creatures. We tried it too (you can easily open it with your hands). It tastes like a soft citrus nut. It has been a staple food in the Maya diet for centuries; they even learnt to make tortillas from it at times of drought. We were also offered a plant k'uxub that combats sore throats. It truly tasted like modern throat lozenges. We know it as the annatto tree. Traditionally it was used as food colouring, also as face paint (think of it as a lipstick tree). In the past, when the Lacandón Maya wove their own clothes, they used it as a dye for fibre.
We were also surrounded by the sound of the jungle inhabitants. Two dogs, that Nah Kin took with her (I suppose as our security guards), kept barking and leaving us when they heard an animal but we were never told what they possibly encountered. The sound of cicadas was overwhelming, mixed with the sound of woodpeckers (we spotted one). We were not lucky enough to spot a toucan.
When we reached the waterfalls, we were stopped by the forest guard who asked for the jungle fee (jungle path maintenance, 75 pesos per person). There is a picnic place and then a wooden bridge to cross to the lower pools, unless you want to jump from above (which some of my companions did). Towering above the waterfalls are mud and rock formations that look like hidden elephants. No one was here and we swam in the pools created by the rocks around them. There are caves under the waterfalls, where swallows like to nest. And sure enough, they were flying above us when we were swimming. The locals refer to the place as La Cueva de las Golondrinas (The Cave of Swallows). This is not to be confused with Las Golondrinas waterfalls near Nueva Palestina village, 12km north of here
After our swim we decided to extend our walk and go to the ruins of Lacanjá. It is only another half-hour walk, up and down the hills. There is an extra charge for that walk (we paid 500 pesos to the waterfalls and an extra 200 for the ruin walk). We were aware that we would be returning in darkness but that just added to our excitement.
Although these are not extensive ruins (because only one temple has been excavated), just getting there makes it special. The locals refer to it as the 'temple of the swallows'. The temple sits on a mound that is probably hiding a pyramid. There are a few other mounds around and apparently there are a couple more ruins further along (for which we did not have time). I refer to this Maya 'lost city' as the White Lizard Kingdom. The actual name of the lizard, Teleech, could come from the Tzotzil Mayan language, teleš, for Basiliscus vittatus, a crested lizard with the surprising ability to run over water. Archaeologists discovered the Lacanjá site sometime in the 1930s but did not recover or reconstruct this city.Although our guide was not able to tell us anything about its history, I dug out some information afterwards.
By the end of the fifth century, Lacanjá rulers established themselves at Bonampak: its Sculptured Stone 4 mentions a ceremony undertaken by a Xukal Naah lord at Usiij Witz, the old name for Bonampak, in 600 AD. The text on Stela 1 at Ojo de Agua describes earth-opening rituals in 588 AD undertaken by a Xukal Naah lord who acceded to kingship in 573 AD.
Xukal Naah is the old name for the Lacanjá kingdom. There were quite a few Maya city kingdoms around and they all fought for dominion, partially for land resources but with time for the dominance of trade on the Usumacinta River. From around 600 AD both Lacanjá and Bonampak were forever vassals (satellites) to Yaxchilán and were governed by the king of Yaxchilán. A lintel was found here, now known as Kuná-Lacanjá Lintel 1, depicting the lord He of White Lizard (Aj Sak Teleech) in 743 AD. The Lizard King was none other than the father of Yajaw Chan Muwaan (Lord of Sky Hawk), who was bestowed the throne of nearby Bonampak by his uncle Bird Jaguar IV (possibly in 776 AD). They created a military pact, jointly fighting the nearby kingdom of Sak Tz'i'. This battle is depicted on the murals of Bonampak. For further details on Lacanjá ruins see my post Lacanjá.
Walking through the jungle is an unforgettable experience; the different shades of green, the sound of water in the streams, the songs of the birds; a world far away from the modern world. If walking during the day is exciting, at night it is a bit spooky, as we found out on our way back. We used our cellphones to light the path. By now the sounds of the jungle had intensified and we could hear the monkeys above our heads. An unforgettable experience! And the people? They call themselves Hack Winik, the True People. It is certainly a befitting name!
How to get there:
Lacanjá Chansayab is on the way to Bonampak ruins. Bonampak is off the Frontier Highway 307. You can take a three-hour bus ride from Palenque.
The bus will drop you near the Bonampak ruins, at the village of San Javier where there is a booth for paying the jungle park entry (30 pesos) next to the police booth. You will need to take a taxi. A sign in the village of San Javier points at the possibility of taking a taxi to Crucero Bonampak. Another option is to hike the last 3km to Crucero Bonampak, the Lacandón community settlement.
At Crucero you either take a guide (with their own transport to Bonampak) or turn right to the camps that are right in the middle of Lacanjá Chansayab village. We stayed at Campamento Río Lacanjá, which offers a restaurant and eleven cabins, five of which have private bathrooms. If you prefer to be more isolated, there are rustic cabins right next to the river. All cabañas on the river are equipped with mosquito netting for the beds and verandas overlooking the water, with shared bathroom facilities in the forest.
As you approach the village, you’ll cross the Río Lacanjá on a bridge, from which it’s about 700m to a central intersection where tracks go left (south), right (north) and straight (west), to different camps.
There is no entry fee to the ruins but you will be asked to pay 75 pesos per person as a fee for the jungle path and waterfall maintenance.
The walk took us about 4 hours, including swimming. For rafting you will need about the same time but bear in mind that rafting is offered only in the mornings.
MIX AND MATCH:
Most people go here after the Palenque visit. The best combination is a two-day trip, visiting Yaxchilán and Bonampak. If you want to do the jungle trekking, it is still possible to do it in two days but you need to schedule it well. On day one, travel from Palenque and visit Yaxchilán. You can sleep there in cabañas on the Usumacinta River (for details see my Yaxchilán post). The following morning you go to the Lacanjá Chansayab camp and take the jungle walk. You may have time for Bonampak ruins the same day. If not, visit Bonampak the next morning and then head back to Palenque.