Lacanjá

Chiapas, Mexico


The Name   |   The Age   |   The People   |   The Focus   |   The Mystery   |   Don't Miss   |   Mix & Match


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Waterfalls on the way to the ruins.

Waterfalls on the way to the ruins.

 

What makes this site special? A hiking jungle adventure to access it.

Lacanjá is a bliss for nature lovers. It is one of the lost cities of Chiapas and is a true Indiana Jones experience. This site can be reached only by a two-hour walk one way in the deep jungle of Lacanjá or by kayaking along the river Lacanjá (four-hour trip). You will see only one temple and a few uncovered mounds but getting there is a magical experience. And the bonus is that you can interact with the natives of Lacanjá Chansayab.

Each trip (walking or kayaking) is organised by the local Maya in Lacanjá Chansayab (not to be confused with Lacanjá Tzeltal). It is a small village located 6km from the junction to the archaeological zone of Bonampak and it is situated at the entrance to the reserve of the Blue Mountain Biosphere. Relatively few visitors make it here, though there are gorgeous waterfalls, excellent Maya ruins, the occasional jaguar spotting, and eco-camps with the Lacandón people, a Maya group that now numbers fewer than 1,000.

 
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When the Spanish first appeared, the Lacandón escaped into the jungle and had little contact with the outside world until they reconnected in the 19th and 20th centuries. They produced corn, beans and squash on their milpa fields (by slashing and burning). They worshipped their own gods in the jungle and made pilgrimages to ancient Maya cities, such as Bonampak, which the Lacandón Maya rediscovered. They are still one of the most isolated and culturally conservative of Mexico's native people, although they are now turning to tourism. As I found out through talking to them, they still practise polygamy. Have your own talks with them and find out about their fascinating way of life.

 
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I came to Lacanjá Chansayab in 2018 with a group of Slovak visitors. We stayed in the cabañas in the camp Ría Lacanjá and from there took an afternoon walk along the jungle path called Ya Toch Kusam. There are a few camps in Lacanjá Chansayab village that you can choose from. The round hike, with the swim in the waterfalls, took us 4 hours. The path crosses the mountain streams of Ría Lacanjá a few times, which you can cross on logs or wooden bridges and in one place we had to take our shoes off and cross by jumping on the stream stones. On the way you can look at the lush green of the jungle, try the 'nuts' of the ramón tree (commonly known as the breadnut or Maya nut), listen to the wild birds and monkeys above you and swim in the pristine waters of the Moctuniha waterfalls. Bliss for nature lovers!

 
One of the cabañas for our group. Right: the restuarant.

One of the cabañas for our group. Right: the restuarant.

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The Name

Lacanjá is also spelt Lacanhá and it is also known as Kuna or Kuná. I will spell it as Lacanjá, as it appears nowadays on the maps. Lacanjá in Mayan means 'Green Water Snake'. Well, the river is green and it winds like a snake. The Maya simply named their places after nature.

I also refer to it as the city of the Lizard King, as a lintel was found here naming the ruler as He of White Lizard (Aj Sak Teleech). In reality the place could have been originally called Xukal Naah', because the Lizard King called himself 'man of Xukal Naah'. The locals refer to it as 'Temple of the Swallows', possibly due to the fact that there are caves under the nearby waterfalls of Moctuniha, where swallows like to nest.

 
Our guide Nah Kin.

Our guide Nah Kin.

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The Age

The site sits in deep jungle, near the river Río Lacanjá. I presume in the past it was built right on the bank of the river, supplying the city with precious water. The main trade route, however, was along the Usumacinta River, where the large kingdoms of Piedras Negras and Yaxchilán were situated. Lacanjá would have been an old site, but we have no evidence of settlement from the early period. 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).

There is only one temple ruin to be seen today, the 'Temple of the Swallows'. Underneath is a mound, either of a pyramid or even possibly an acropolis. Just compare it to the nearby Bonampak and you can imagine the whole structure.

 
Small temples, similar to 'Temple of the Swallows', scattered on top of the Acropolis at Bonampak.

Small temples, similar to 'Temple of the Swallows', scattered on top of the Acropolis at Bonampak.

In front of the Lacanjá Temple of the Swallows.

In front of the Lacanjá Temple of the Swallows.

 

The People

Like all other Maya cities, Lacanjá was a city of warriors. For a long time in its history it was a vassal of Bonampak (They even shared one emblem glyph). Vassal cities had to pay tribute to the overlord, mainly animal skins and food products. Later they were political allies as Bonampak because the vassal of Yaxchilán.

Little is known about the people of Kuná-Lacanjá but I did some digging and found the following. The limestone monument known as Kuná-Lacanjá Lintel 1 depicts a seated lord holding a serpent bar sceptre from the ends of which emerge the deity of K'awiil (also known as God K, identified with lightning, serpents, fertility and maize).

 
The Lizard King on Kuná-Lacanjá Lintel 1. Source:  research.famsi.org .

The Lizard King on Kuná-Lacanjá Lintel 1. Source: research.famsi.org.

 

The surrounding text on the lintel identifies the lord as He of White Lizard (Aj Sak Teleech), who acceded to the rank of sahal (also spelt sajal, meaning 'the Governor') in 743 AD. He evidently ruled the city of Lacanjá where this stone was found, although only under the overlordship of Knot-Eye Jaguar, king of the unified Bonampak-Lacanjá kingdom. (Hence his title sahal, the subordinate lord). 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.

Chan Bor Yuk, the Bonampak guide, in 2017. 

Chan Bor Yuk, the Bonampak guide, in 2017. 

There is more information on Lintel 1, for example from 746 AD when its ruler with the title of sahal celebrated his 15th tun. Tun was a Mayan name for a year, or rather 360 days. This means that this lord had been in power for about 15 years and that was the reason for a celebration. The title sahal suggests that this lord was subsidiary to the ruler of Bonampak who is also named on this lintel. We don't know if this refers to the father of Yajaw Chan Muwaan.

The White Lizard king was the son of a sahal himself but he may have later achieved kingship either through promotion or usurpation. Texts from nearby Bonampak later accord him full royal titles: the father to Lord of Sky Hawk (Yajaw Chan Muwaan), who ruled Bonampak-Lacanjá from 776. I rather like their names, taken from nature.

Source:  research.famsi.org . 

The father was as fast as a lizard, and the son was probably a good hunter of prey, like a hawk. From what I know about today's Lacandón Maya (from my encounters with them), their parents give them a Spanish name at birth but they wait until the child is 8 or 10 years old, to see what interests him. Then the child gets a Maya name based on their interest, which is of course the interest in the animals of the jungle where they live. So names like Lizard or Hawk do not surprise me. Our guide's name during my visit in 2017 was Chan Bor Yuk, meaning 'Little Bee' because he was interested in bees when he was a child.

Bonampak Stela 1 names Aj Sak Teleech as the father of Yajaw Chan Muwaan. The Lizard King called himself 'man of Xukal Naah', indicating that Lacanjá was likely associated with this place name. It could have been the original name of this city. He was from the line of Xukal/Tz’ikal Naah lords, which came to be associated with at least five places in the nearby area. The origins of the dynasty may be at the site of Lacanjá (a monument by a local ruler was built here in AD 593).

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 (Vulture Hill), the old name for Bonampak, in 600 AD. The text on Stela 1 at Ojo de Agua describes earth-opening rituals in 588 undertaken by a Xukal Naah lord who acceded to kingship in 573.

At some point the White Lizard King had warred against Tab' B'ahlam of the Knot Site, whom the lord of City Sak Tz'i' (White Dog) had installed on the throne of Bonampak and Lacanjá. This was indeed a complex network of allies and foes, constantly changing as a result of victories.

 
Drawing of Bonampak Stela 1, with Aj Sak Teleech's name. Drawing by Peter Mathews. Source:  mesoweb.com .

Drawing of Bonampak Stela 1, with Aj Sak Teleech's name. Drawing by Peter Mathews. Source: mesoweb.com.

Stela 1 Bonampak.

Stela 1 Bonampak.

 

The Focus: The wars

In the complex set of wars an overview of the nearby city kingdoms might help to understand the local situation of Lacanjá. All the sites along or nearby on the Usumacinta River made their wealth from the trade along the river and were fighting for that trade domination. Palenque and Toniná in the north had vied for control of the Usumacinta region. Palenque's 'star war' defeats by Toniná in 692 and 711 AD may have diminished its appetite for conquest. Toniná also fought Piedras Negras. The cities of Piedras Negras and Yaxchilán led constant star wars, taking turns in defeating each other. A star war was often instigated depending on the position of the 'star', Venus (for more details see my post Warriors). The next big players were Bonampak and Sak Tz'i' (White Dog). And then there were other cities situated between the four strong kingdoms: Lacanjá, La Mar (or Namaan, meaning Serpent Segment, probably the site of La Florida on the San Pedro river), Buktuun, Hix Witz (Jaguar Hill, today El Pajaral), La Pasadita, Laxtunich, El Cayo, Wak'aab Ha, El Chicozapote, Dos Caobas and Chinikihá.

 
The ancient cities in Chiapas. Scanned from the book by Nikolai Grube (see the source below).

The ancient cities in Chiapas. Scanned from the book by Nikolai Grube (see the source below).

 

Just imagine that density! And each court had a lot of nobles to feed, dress and entertain! The war for resources (land for agriculture) would have been a must! Yet alone the wars for the domination of trade routes. All these Maya kingdom cities were at war with each other. Here are just a few examples of the wars:

The ruler Shield Jaguar II (Itzamnaaj Bahlam II) from Yaxchilán captured Aj Nik, a lesser lord of Maan or Namaan, lords Aj Sak Ichiy Pat (689) and Aj K'an Usja of Buktuun, (713), Aj Popol Chay of Lacanjá (729) and a lord of Hix Witz city (732). Under Itzamnaaj Bahlam, Yaxchilán's overlordship extended to Dos Caobas to the east, La Pasadita on the northern side of the Usumacinta and El Chicozapote on the southern, the latter only a dozen or so kilometres from the Piedras Negras subsidiary El Cayo. Before the rule of king Itzamnaaj Balam II, who reigned from 681 to 742, the city was relatively small but under the king Bird Jaguar IV (Yaxun B’alam IV: 752 until 768 AD) the city-state then grew to a regional capital and the dynasty lasted into the early 9th century.

On the maps below it is clear how the boundaries of the Usumacinta kingdoms moved in a very short span of time, depending on the war victories. The map on the left shows years 750-759 AD, and on the right years 763-772 AD. Source: Zachary Nathan Nelson,  famsi.org/research.

The Usumacinta kingdoms, 750-759 AD. Right: in years 763-772 AD.   Source: Zachary Nathan Nelson, famsi.org/research .
The Usumacinta Kingdoms, 763-772 AD. 
 

The king of Piedras Negras, K'inich Yo'nal Ahk I, defeated the city of Sak Tz'i' and its lord K'ab' Chan Te' in 628 AD. In 641 AD Piedras Negras fought Bonampak and La Mar and in 726 they defeated Yaxchilán. In 752 Yaxchilán's ruler Bird Jaguar IV captured a lord from Wak'aab Ha (old name for Santa Elena). Around 773 Bird Jaguar IV had the loyalty of La Pasadita and Laxtunich. As for Bonampak, its ruler lost a battle in the early 5th century against K'inich Tatb'u Skull I from Yaxchilán and other nobles were captured in a later war against Knot-Eye Jaguar I (at Knot Site kingdom). In 514, Knot-eye Jaguar I was himself taken captive (by Ruler C of Piedras Negras), giving Bonampak some respite; but after 526, his successor K'inich Tatb'u Skull II attacked Bonampak again and captured more lords.

 
The warriors of Chan Muwaan II in the battle. Source:  pinterest.com .

The warriors of Chan Muwaan II in the battle. Source: pinterest.com.

A photo of Lacandón Maya on the wall of my cabaña in the camp.

A photo of Lacandón Maya on the wall of my cabaña in the camp.

 

From 600 AD Bonampak was forever a vassal (satellite) to Yaxchilán and was governed by the king of Yaxchilán. In that time, the king of Yaxchilán installed Yajaw Chan Muwaan I as lord in Bonampak. The subordinated king of Bonampak also ruled Lacanjá. They even had a joint pairing emblem glyph. Sharing an emblem glyph is not necessarily an attribute of different political regimes fighting for the same spot on the map. The existence of competing dynasties sharing an emblem glyph alongside what looks like diasporas of royal families of the same origin raises the issue of strategy. Members of the same royal diaspora may equally stress their shared origins and act as a kind of political confederacy where some members may play more prominent roles than others. This seems to be the case of Lacanjá and Bonampak.

Lintel 1 in Bonampak depicts Yajaw Chaan Muwan capturing an enemy on January 12, 787 AD:  mesoweb.com .

Lintel 1 in Bonampak depicts Yajaw Chaan Muwan capturing an enemy on January 12, 787 AD: mesoweb.com.

The most famous battle of them all took place in 787 AD, when the rulers of Yaxchilán and Bonampak jointly defeated the powerful city of Sak Tz'i' and its ruler Yete' K'inich. This battle is famous because we have the murals of it in the Bonampak temple. This particular story involves the king of Yaxchilán, Shield Jaguar the Great (possibly Itzamnaaj B'alam IV, the sources vary about his name), who installed his nephew Chan Muwaan II on the Bonampak throne (possibly in 776 AD) and they created a joint military pact. This was sealed by the marriage of Shield Jaguar's relative, Lady Rabbit (possibly his sister), with Chan Muwaan II.

Creating allies was an absolute necessity as the smaller towns clearly could not sustain the military prowess required for constant warfare.

 
Bonmpak mural: Yajaw Chaan Muwan capturing an enemy.

Bonmpak mural: Yajaw Chaan Muwan capturing an enemy.

Lintel 3 depicts the Lizard King from Lacanjá in his own battle, capturing an enemy. Drawing by Peter Mathews. Source:  mesoweb.com .

Lintel 3 depicts the Lizard King from Lacanjá in his own battle, capturing an enemy. Drawing by Peter Mathews. Source: mesoweb.com.

 

Ruler Chan Muwaan II built the temples on the Bonampak Acropolis (facing Yaxchilán and its overlord, which is about 30km away). And it is here, on the Acropolis, where we can still see the lintels of all these rulers. Apparently they were commissioned by the king of Yaxchilán, and he is portrayed in the murals. The doorway to each mural room features a carved lintel of a warrior subduing a captive. Lintel 1 (Room 1) depicts Yajaw Chaan Muwan, ruler of Bonampak, capturing an enemy of Sak Tz'i' on January 12, A.D. 787. Lintel 2 (Room 2) likely shows the overlord from Yaxchilán, on January 4, A.D. 787. Lintel 3 (Room 3) displays Aj Sak Teles, the Lacanjá father of Bonampak's ruler, probably on July 25, A.D. 780.

 
Lintel 2 from Bonampak.

Lintel 2 from Bonampak.

Lintel 3 from Bonampak.

Lintel 3 from Bonampak.

The Mystery: intermarriages

In all this complex system of allies, vassals and foes, I want to focus on a simple matter: did Lacanjá princesses marry into the royal court of Bonampak? We now know that the military ties among the allies and vassals were combined with intermarriages. I would like to know more about the life of Lacanjá as a vassal. During our first visit to Bonampak, our guide, Chan Bor Yuk, told us of a love story of Chan Muwaan II and the princess of Lacanjá. But he had to marry the relative of the Yaxchilán king, for the political allegiance. And the Lacanjá ruler would not have been not pleased as their princess was bypassed. Was she promised to him? But if the Lacanjá ruler was Chan Muwaan's father, it could not have been his daughter (unless she was Chan Muwaan's step-sister). The Maya kings often married relatives (hence so many deformities in the royal courts). In any case, I am not sure he would fall in love with his own sister. And could this story be true anyway? True or not, I will keep this image in my mind…

Three young heirs in the Bonampak murals, wearing tall, green, quetzal-feathered headdresses and dancer's wings.

Three young heirs in the Bonampak murals, wearing tall, green, quetzal-feathered headdresses and dancer's wings.

The musicians of the court, Bonampak murals.

The musicians of the court, Bonampak murals.

 

We do know that the Maya kings had many wives. They did not portray them on the stelae or reliefs very often, unless the king happened to be the son of the 'lesser' wife. This actually happened with the king of nearby Yaxchilán, Bird Jaguar IV (Yaxun B'alam IV). His mother was the third wife and the first wife did not produce a male heir. He had to struggle to take and hold power, as he was not perceived to be the rightful heir to the throne, being born to the third wife; so he commissioned a stela showing his mother with his father, the king Itzamnaaj B'alam II, in a royal blood-letting ceremony.

So did the king Chan Muwaan II take the princess he fell in love with as his second or third wife? Did they have any children? All we know is that he presented his heir to the court around 790 AD because this scene is depicted in the Bonampak murals. However, in Heather Hurst's view it was a daughter (based on her clothes and face paint). We don't know if this is the daughter from his first wife, Lady Rabbit. The daughter would not have been eligible for the throne, if there were any males available first, which included the brothers of the king. Well, apparently the three male nobles that are depicted in the murals dancing, are the possible heirs. It is believed that among the three nobles was Chooj, son of Bonampak ruler Yajaw Chaan Muwan (and grandson of Aj Sak Teles, the Lizard King from Lacanjá). Interestingly, the infrared images of murals done recently by the scientists revealed that one of the figures in this scene has in his left hand the still beating heart of the sacrificial victim. Violence and human sacrifice was never far away in Maya art (see more in my post Bonampak and Captives.)

In any case, Chooj was clearly already adult when his father presented the new daughter to the court. So this could be a daughter from the second or third marriage but we have no evidence of further wives so this remains a mystery. We have no evidence if Chooj ever got to the throne either because soon after the murals were completed around 800 AD (some say they were never completed), the Bonampak site was abandoned. 

The noblewomen (king's wives?) cutting their tongues with stingray spines in a bloodletting ritual, to celebrate the war victory. 

The noblewomen (king's wives?) cutting their tongues with stingray spines in a bloodletting ritual, to celebrate the war victory. 

Bonampak Stela 2 shows the wife of Chaan Maun, Lady Rabbit, behind the king, assisting in a ritual bloodletting ceremony done to communicate with deceased ancestors. His mother is on the right.

Bonampak Stela 2 shows the wife of Chaan Maun, Lady Rabbit, behind the king, assisting in a ritual bloodletting ceremony done to communicate with deceased ancestors. His mother is on the right.

 

Needless to say, if Bonampak was abandoned, the smaller Lacanjá followed suit. And that is another mystery, the so-called collapse of the Maya civilisation in the 9th century. Was it drought that caused them to abandon their cities and go deeper in the jungle ? Was it the result of the never-ending wars? Was it a rebellion by the commoners?

Our jungle guide, Nah Kin (in Mayan it means The House of the Sun), was as friendly as all the Lacandón Maya. She is 50 years old, very optimistic and jolly. She walked in the jungle barefoot, and as fast as a Sherpa in Tibet. We struggled to follow her.  She has four adult sons, and one of them is a teacher, as she proudly told me. Her husband is now with another woman. Well, that can happen everywhere in the world.

With our guide Nah Kin.

With our guide Nah Kin.

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Don't Miss: Moctuniha waterfalls

The waterfalls are on the way to the ruins, about 30 minutes before you reach them. You can have a swim before or after visiting the ruins as you will walk back to the same waterfall. It is 4m high and it falls from the river Lacanjá. It is a pretty greenish colour, absolutely transparent and refreshing. The current creates pools surrounded by rocks and you walk from one pool to another. I am sure that the ceremonial buildings of the city of Lacanjá would have spread all the way to the waterfall.

The name of the waterfall is confusing. It is called Moctuniha, but under the waterfall there are caves where the swallows like to fly in, so it is also referred to as La Cueva Golondrinas (golondrina in Spanish means a swallow). This is not to be confused with the waterfalls Las Golondrinas, which you can visit from the village Nueva Palestina (north of Lacanjá and Bonampak), near the ancient city of Plan de Ayutla (the scientists think that this is the possible site of the once almighty city of Sak Tz'i' that Bonampak fought).

 
My husband Rhod in the Los Flamingos restaurant. 2016
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The site map

At San Javier village: a signpost for a taxi to Lacanjá Chansayab.

At San Javier village: a signpost for a taxi to Lacanjá Chansayab.

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 from San Javier point to Crucero Bonampak. 

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.

There is no entry fee to the ruins but you will be stopped on your walk in the jungle and asked to pay 75 pesos per person as a fee for the jungle path and waterfall maintenance.

 

 

Mix & Match

Most people come here after the Palenque visit. The best combination is a two-day trip, visiting Yaxchilán and Bonampak. The combination with the additional jungle walk makes it a bit tight for two days. If you want to do rafting, you will certainly need another day. Alternatively, you can visit the waterfalls Las Golondrinas in Nueva Palestina village (off the main road) and Three Lagoons, sitting just on the highway. From there you can make more trips in this special jungle.

Sources:

Grube, Nikolai (2012): Maya, Divine Kings of the Rain Forest, Ullmann

Grube, N and Martin S (2000), Chronicle of the Maya Kings, Thames and Hudson

Stuart, David (2007): Archaeological Map of the Río Usumacinta Region, decipherment.wordpress.com

Nelson, Zachary Nathan (2015): Settlement and Population at Piedras Negras, Guatemala, famsi.org/research.