Torrents of dust shoot out behind the Jeep, billowing up between the walls of zapóte and ceiba trees. Chunks of gravel fly up from the void beneath me as we charge down the twisting white corridor of road through the Jungle.
Sprawled out here on the tailgate, every muscle strains to keep me from flying out into the road. A bandanna masks my face, but my eyes clog with muddy tears. There is not so much to see; just the white dust and the dense Lacandon Jungle of Southern Mexico, tangled with tropical vines. Just that and a narrow stripe of blue sky far above.
Midday, and the heat presses in between the walls of green. No rut eludes us. Jeep and road diverge, then reunite with a jolt that lifts me off the tailgate. White-knuckled I clutch the chains and stay on board. Already my arms are aching. I look down from that narrow window of sky and see myself riding the tailgate of this crazy white Jeep into the seething jungle.
"What the hell am I doing here?"
I am on my way to find Bonampak, the ancient Mayan city lost for a millennium under the great American Jungle. I will find much more.
There had been only rumors of a road being recently driven into the jungle. But I tracked down an obscure bus company in Palenque that runs the first leg south, and I planned my trip. Was it only this morning that I set out?
Five am. The streets of Palenque were black as I picked my way through the ruts toward a vacant lot where the Lacanjá bus awaits. One block away, I heard the engine growl, headlights flashed, and the rickety old bus lurched out ahead of me.
Aroused from half-sleep, I charged up the hill, clutching my knapsack in one hand, trying to whistle through my labored breath. Two blocks down, the bus slowed to pick up a passenger and someone noticed my frantic charge. Pulling myself up into the dimly lighted chamber, I joined a jumble of dozing farmers, and the trip was under way.
For five hours we navigated gravel roads through sparsely populated savannah land. When the bus turned west at the La Tumba crossroads, I was told that -- contrary to the sign on the bus -- they were not going to Lacanjá, but to Nuevo Jerusalén. I got down as the first leg of my journey ended abruptly.
La Tumba is only a clearing in the jungle, littered with great stacks of massive trunks of mahogany and ceiba, awaiting their trip north to the lumber mill at Chanka-la. I squatted quietly beside the logs, and an hour later got a dusty lift in the back of pick-up to Lacanjá, 40 minutes south.
The village boasts a wooden schoolhouse, two small dry goods shops, and a meager scattering of thatched huts off in the fields. Here I awaited a ride, along with six senior Boy Scouts from Merida. They were playing 'tenta-tenta' (native stickball; same as 'tip-cat' or 'Danguli') in the road when the white Jeep pulled in an hour later. The arrival of any vehicle at all created a commotion, but this one was packed with four young men, a woman, and all their gear.
I think they took pity on me. They said they could fit one more if I didn't have much gear. But when I returned with my little bag, they directed me to the tailgate -- no more than four feet by two. It was, however, a Ride. The scouts shook their heads in disbelief as I climbed on.
"You're going to fall off!" they cried as we bolted out. I had a sinking feeling that they were right.
Now it is too late to ask "What am I doing here?" Here I am, collecting dust, blisters, and tall tales on the back of this damn Jeep. "Bonampak!" comes a shout as we grind to a dust-choked halt at an unmarked crossroads. "You have to walk 12 kilometers, that way," they tell me. I don't really care, I am thankful just to be standing on solid ground again.
The sun presses down and the air hangs thick and still among the trees, as I trudge along in a steambath. Sweat trickles off my face, soaking the front of my jeans, and my old felt hat turns brown. I roll down my sleeves to protect from horseflies and sun. I push my leaden feet step by step down the dusty narrow lane, a lone figure dwarfed by the silent surrounding jungle.
After an hour and a half I feel my knees buckling and become aware that my mind is in a fog of exhaustion. I have eaten nothing today but two ears of corn in Chanka-la. I empty a small tin of sweetened condensed milk, sucking the thick warm goop down my throat, waiting for the sugar to do its work. But now I am beckoned by the sound of gurgling water, to find a stream flowing beside a bend in the road, hidden in the jungle. The water stings my face and arms with its coolness.
Fifteen minutes later the road ends abruptly at the bank of a deep river, the Río Lacanjá. This is no 12 kilometers! On the other side, only a footpath leads into the jungle from a small clearing. This fits none of the vague descriptions I have heard of the road to Bonampak.
After moments of confusion, I strip down and swim across to retrieve a small raft, and bring my gear over to a thatch-roofed shelter in the clearing. Now I must eat and rest before attempting any decisions. At best, I should spend the night here and start off -- to where? -- in the morning. [Photo left: Rio Lacanja]
Later that evening, after a can of mackerel and a cool swim, I squat
by my small fire heating a cup of coffee. The full moon is rising and
strange animal sounds emanate from the darkness of the jungle,
mingling with the murmur of the river. Moonlight faintly dabbles the
I hear the sounds of a canoe crossing the river, and soon an old
Lacandon Indian man and two small boys come over to investigate my
fire. They are going to the village of Lacanjá
Chansayáb, just down the path. The old man speaks some Spanish
and I invite them to join me. He informs me that I have already
passed the unmarked trail to Bonampak, four kilometers back up the
Photo (click): Moises, Lacandon Indian boy.
Then, nodding over to he trees, he asks, "Is that your hammock?" When I assure him that it is, he looks me squarely in the face and gravely says, "Aren't you afraid the tigers will eat you?"
An empty feeling sweeps up from my stomach and sticks in my throat at the thought of 'tigers' (jaguars) prowling the jungle. The American jaguar is just like an African leopard, only twice its size. I manage to reply nonchalantly,
"I didn't know there were any tigers around here."
"Oh, yes," he continues, "Just last week they killed three dogs, right over there."
"How big are they?" I ask, trying not to show my concern.
He scratches his stubbled chin for a minute, then replies with a smile,
"I don't know, I've never seen one." His broad grin puts me half at ease.
"At this table," he booms, slapping his hand on the plank table beside us, "sat the Governor of the state of Chiapas, just last week." He goes on to explain that the shelter was recently put up to accommodate a jungle summit conference. The governor flew in, along with representatives of the National Indigenous Institute (INI) to meet with the chiefs of the local villages. It was decreed that all other settlers would have to abandon their homesteads and leave the Lacandon Jungle to the Lacandon Indians.
The next day I decide to visit the village. After only ten minutes, the trail enters a grove of orange and grapefruit trees. This leads me to a clearing beside a stream, scattered with thatched huts made of poles. Cherubic young children in long muslin tunics frolic barefoot amid the simple squalor of chickens, turkeys, and dogs. Their straight black hair falls long down their backs. The girls wear necklaces and patterned tunics; otherwise it is quite impossible to tell them from the beautiful young boys.
I meet the headman of the village, and learn that the two adjacent
huts are occupied by his two wives and their children. Polygamy is
not uncommon here, and often leads to bad feelings among the
younger men when the elders monopolize the available women.
Photo (click): Mother and child, Lacanjá Chansayáb, Lacandon village.
Until recently the Lacandons lived outside the influence of Mexican society, an isolated throwback of innocence. Never discovered by the Spaniards or the Catholic missionaries, their daily life remains much as it was for their ancestors; growing corn, beans, and chiles, and worshipping the ancient Mayan deities of nature.
But they hunt with old rifles now; the bows and arrows the young boys stalk birds with are produced mainly for sale as souvenirs. The children have Spanish names as well as Maya ones, and they are learning Spanish. Protestant missionaries have recently reached Chansayáb, and stay on for part of the year.
Several of the men travel to cities outside to sell their goods: bows and arrows made of guayacán, necklaces, deer and lizard skins, bowls, and tobacco. A few of them have cut their hair and wear western clothes and shoes.
But the biggest influence on the Lacandons will be money. Through the efforts of the INI and others, their ownership of vast areas of the jungle is recognized, and they now receive money from the revenues of mahogany lumbering operations on their land, a very lucrative enterprise.
"Have you ever been to San Cristobal?" I ask old Kin.
"Oh, yes, three times."
"How did you get there?"
"By plane," he replies, then adds proudly, "I went to Mexico City, too -- by jet."
Radios are not uncommon, and the Yuc family has a record player and several records, although there is no electricity to run it. The village has also purchased a radio transmitter to keep in touch with the outside world.
The INI has sought to minimize the cultural impact on the Lacandons by limiting access to the villages, and keeping squatters out of the traditional Lacandon hunting territory. But there is also an effort to move the villages to one central location, (Centro Población), more accessible to government services.
No trappings of progress, however, have yet changed the singularly gentle spirit of a people who have lived for centuries with the jungle as the only influence on their culture. They are refreshingly childlike in their openness.
"Do you mind if I pick some oranges?" I ask Enrique, near his hut. He looks a bit surprised by the question. "Do whatever you like," he replies with an easy smile and a wave of his hand. Still, he happily accepts the bandanna I offer in return.
Life has been good in the jungle, there is an abundance of wildlife and land for crops. And now there is money, and exposure to a new way of life. Time will tell how well the Lacandons adapt. Yet adaptation means absorption into Mexican society, and the eventual loss of the Lacandon culture as it has been for centuries. The Indians have benefited from access to goods and government services, but their traditional way of life is going the way of their less isolated relatives, three and four hundred years ago.
By our cultural standards, the change, the progress, is good for them. But what about their traditional standards? The question is futile, for the changes are inevitable. Only 300 Lacandons live in the jungle today, I wonder how many will remain in twenty years?
Early the next morning, a chilly mist shrouds the jungle. It is a welcome change from the sweltering heat, and I resolve to hike to Bonampak today. Forty minutes back up the road, a set of deep tire ruts veer off and are swallowed immediately by the jungle. Could this be the road to Bonampak? Well, it might have been at one time, but it is now overgrown with plants and vines, appearing no more than a risky turnout by the road.
I realize that during the entire journey I have relied only on word of mouth for directions; I have not seen one positive sign that I was anywhere near Bonampak. Yet, this is the only place that bears any resemblance to a trail. If this is a wild goose chase, it's going to be a good one.
The sun has burned off the mist and the jungle seethes with ripples of heat, as I tentatively enter the dense forest. Once a narrow dirt track, the road has degenerated into a quagmire of dried mud, choked with weeds and hobbled with old truck ruts, then pock-marked with mule tracks, making the footing treacherous.
Recent rains have washed great chasms out of the roadway, some of them eight feet wide and as deep, making it impassable even to horses and mules. Fallen branches, a constant danger in the jungle, litter the way and huge trunks lay across the trail in places. The forest is a tangle of ceiba, zapóte, ramón, and mahogany, caught in a web of thick, woody lianas (vines).
High overhead, the foliage bursts into the strange cries and colors of the toucan, motmot, and macaw, keeping my mind off the lower forms of wildlife that inhabit the jungle floor -- scorpions and the poisonous barba amarilla vipers. My ankles are already swollen with fly bites.
Alone in the jungle, I cast out a deep sigh of relief. This is it, this is where I want to be. For a few more days, this jungle will be my home. The day is young, and I can walk until we are both worn out. Having accepted the potential dangers, I walk alert but at ease. The jungle is alive, pulsing around me. It reminds me with its gentle hint of mortality, that I too am alive. I am part of the jungle now, and I have seldom felt more at ease with myself.
The trail tapers to a tenuous shadow lost among the wild plants and the air is suffocating. The avenue of sky above narrows to a slit. It should be about eight kilometers from the turnoff to Bonampak, but the trail is too rough to calculate distance well.
What's this? I wipe the sweat from my eyes and, incredible as it seems, there in the thick of the jungle, at no crossroads whatsoever, is my first sign. It is a small white wooden one, tapered into an arrow, and it says 'BONAMPAK' -- I can't help laughing out loud.
Thirty minutes later the jungle opens into a large clearing, an ocean of blue sky and rarefied air. Here are several huts, and a few horses grazing on the cleared ground. This is the place.
Beyond this clearing and across a crude dirt airstrip, is the wooded entrance to another clearing, the ancient ceremonial center of Bonampak, a late-classic Mayan center that flourished in the 7th to 9th centuries.
The ruins are not as impressive as other large sites, although a number of richly carved monumental stones (stelae) stand among the ruins. A tall, steep pyramid, several temples, and a ball court have been cleared, but the jungle has taken its toll and little restoration has been done. However, hundreds of surrounding structures, now little more than mounds of rubble, wait to be reclaimed from the jungle's grasp, along with untold thousands of others, scattered throughout the great jungles of the ancient Maya world.
The real treasure at Bonampak is a small temple with three rooms, each painted with magnificent color murals, dated to about 790 AD. Fabulous rituals, costumes, musicians, domestic scenes, battles, and ceremonial human sacrifices dance across the chamber walls in a surprisingly naturalistic and delicate style. Although much of the work is faded, I am awed by what I can see, both by the artistic genius, and the first-hand spectacle of court life at Bonampak, 1200 years ago. (I must say that the present crude reproductions of these murals in the museums of Mexico City and Tuxtla do no justice at all to the true artistry of theses splendid originals.)
After a full afternoon at the ruins, I spend the evening listening to tall tales from Don Pedro Pech, for twenty years a chiclero in this area, and now guardian of the ruins. Finally, I fall into my hammock among the trees and listen to the cries of animals and the crackle of tree limbs crashing to the jungle floor. But my thoughts keep returning to the ancient Maya whose presence I feel so near.
A thousand years ago the Mayan empire collapsed, as suddenly and inexplicably as it appeared, leaving only a primitive tribal society to wander among the ruins of the forgotten greatness of their ancestors. I reflect that once again, the primitive Mayan culture is rising to higher forms of civilization, represented not by monumental architecture and art, but by guns and record players.