Mexican Ruins – Chiapas – Yaxchilán and Bonampak

By the Rio Usumacinta, Mexican soldiers inspected trucks and waved us on. Five miles back, at the frontier passengers had been consolidated and redistributed from vans into liner buses and vice versa. The drivers gracefully coordinated cross border travelers and would continue to smooth (and seemingly “protect”) their way with cellphones and CBs – using common technology to create flexible exchanges at crossroads or strategic diners. I was bound for ruins twenty five miles up the river from here but was not clear about booking possibilities. So, I would triangulate through San Cristobal de las Casas and from there I could select -from among many options. I took a blissfully un-airconditioned bus ($80 vs $125 Pesos) and schlepped six hours farther North. Once in Palanque, tours were very available for the all day trip to Yaxchilán and Bonampak.

A 12 person group to la Selva Lacandona* starts out at around 6AM. (*the term Lacan Tun is derived from ACAN (stand or setup) TUN (precious stones or idols) – This is according to Danish explorer, Franz Blom still others prefer “piedra enmedio del agua” – Stone in Water

Life is lived along the road bordering the river
people have been out for a while by dawn
… preparing foods: feeding stoves with wood and charcoal; BB’queing lunch in the early cool
… already sitting astride horses or in lawn chairs watching the sky, cows and kids
… some meticulously sweep up or paint stairs desperately shoo-ing chickens
Few approach and fewer wave because this parade happens everyday

All along the white line dogs loll sleeping protected by speed-bumps
Brahmas’ chomp in the shade
Segments of smooth pipes wait to guide creeks and rivulets under bridges built in the grass

And, after a while, there’s a valley of mossy mounds
What? random 5-10 story lumps?

“No. they are not more ruins,” he says.
The ticket includes a quick breakfast buffet
– tortillas, coffee, eggs, orange juice
After a few more miles we come to the covered launches
It was a pleasant be motoring on muffled currents of murky Jade
we skimmed by forests and an occasional camp…
…remote thunderheads
… maybe crocodiles

Yaxchilán’s upland buildings are concealed by foliage and the larger group is “sunken” away from the dock. Flora billows wildly shadng everything into mystery – except the simply divinable signage. The map shows the lower site compact and dense like Cahal Pech and with the upper group this park covers almost three times as much area. The place was already hot so, we opted to do the more forbidding upper group – making the climb to the upper acropolis while it is still a bit cool. The vertical mountain path discordantly echoes the stairs featured in the architecture. Of course, the path’s irregular and double high “risers” make for tough going and become more so farther up. Treading rough stairs made of slippery rock and snag-ly root is the stuff of adrenaline On this incline, I seriously wondered (again) if the short-legged Mayans would install temporary half-steps with rope railings if only for holidays and special sacrifices.

Not much is visible until two thirds the way up but then the sight of neatly stone stairs lends motivation to claw on breathlessly. The higher building’s outer walls are strewn about but the stable stone floors support the less than 6′ doorways; so, the overhead carvings are so low that you stoop to see the auto-sacrificing courtesans displaying their loyalty. (That would be: dropping blood from their tongue piercing ritual onto paper – to be incensed, later.)

We descend from this extreme acropolis to follow hallways etched into a mossy hill. This skinny way is braced by stout Mayan vaults and the dead end chambered cloister is sheltering…. bats. I skibbled up the next, least slippery looking lump and came upon ruins stamped squarely into manicured fields – marching orthogonal for blocks. Alas, we had too little time left when we got to the main area.

After a quick but nice lunch we arrived at Bonampak where you must hire a Lacandon man to walk any group around the site. The “Hagh Winik” Mayas maybe be from Yucatan and Guatemala and are famous for resisting the conquistadors; they call themselves the “True people.” The male guides have pony tails, wear sandals, white calf-length gowns and carry thin mashed wood shoulder bags. This site is known for elaborate ceiling and wall panels but these are not really readable. Detailed paintings decorated a tight stone building a little bit longer than it is high -20’x15’x 8′. It is so tight that only 3 or 4 people at a time are permitted. We were prepared to see the 200 guests attending the wedding party. It is said that the illustrations had “depth and perspective” and some may guests may be displaying “hand signals.” But, the fuzzy representation that our guide unfurled from his bag did not help. He coached us on the “Alliance” of Chan Maun II and Lady Rabbit of Yaxchilán and how Bomampak’s warriors had defeated their distant neighbors. I can vividly imagine Lady Rabbit’s procession trudging inland to this location with the high palaces and the thin stellae. That trip would have covered the same distance that we had driven and boated in three modern hours. This mighty site has been active since the late 1940’s when United Fruit sent a film crew to document it.

The all day tour was really arduous. Next time I will eliminate the four hours of round trip travel by staying at one of the local cabins or camps between Yaxchilán and Bonampak. I know that tour vans pick up and deliver from there, too.

photos by Norma Valdez

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Return to Chiapas Quartette
Chiapas – romping, stomping and chomping
Day trip to Palanque, Agua Azul and Misol-Ha
Colectivo hopping from San Cristobal de las Casas
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Author: diane e. dreyfus

on the road until they put the lid down

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