Life Imitates Art
We discovered eventually that the van had a working DVD player, so we sorted through an odd assortment of pirated movies from a local market to pass the time. The fatalist nature of our adventure tour came out in the choices. We saw The Mission, a story about a disastrous fight to the death between "the savages" living near the top of Iguazzu Falls and the Portuguese colonial powers trying to reign in the influence of the Jesuit missionaries. It doesn't end well.
Then we saw Fitzcarraldo, a Werner Herzog film about a half-crazy but determined man who drags a riverboat across a mountain in the Amazon region of Brazil. He's trying to make enough rubber trade money to build an opera house in the jungle. It doesn't end well.
Next up was the new Rise of the Planet of the Apes. We all know how that ends. Bad decisions and a lack of planning lead to terrible unforeseen circumstances.
Our lack of planning manifested itself through odd bathroom breaks. One was a tiny town that was just a collection of buildings around a convenience store. We wandered down the muddy street to a place where we could use the bathrooms for 5 pesos each, the money obviously not going into cleaning crew salaries or toilet paper. But the convenience store had tequila, so we returned to the van recharged.
Finally though, redemption. After the rafting fiasco we slept in a cool eco-lodge collection of bungalows run by the Lacandon indigenous people. The clean sleeping quarters at Top Che in Lacanjá Chansayab were surprisingly well-equipped, the food was filling, and the family running the place couldn't be nicer. The next morning—after a blissfully short van ride—we arrived at the Mayan ruins of Bonampak.
Our flowing-robed guide finally perked up and started talking, allowing us to stop asking Renaldo questions that he couldn't answer, such as "What's the name of this place?" Renaldo apparently realized his continued presence served no purpose, so he left us and went back to his real job in the state capital.
The Land of the Lacandon
Bonampak is best known for its murals dating to the year 790, which depict a battle with another kingdom. The whole place was unseen by outside eyes until 1946, when a guide from a local Lacandon tribe, descended from the original Maya, led two U.S. visitors to the site. A national government decree in the 1970s gave the original locals more control over these lands and that has been strengthened in recent years. The draw of Bonampak helps bring more visitors into the realm of Lacandon sustainable tourism. With a monetary reason to keep the jungle intact, the loggers and cattle farmers can be kept at bay.
After Bonampak, we set off on our afternoon jungle hike to a lost ruin that hasn't yet been restored. This hike ended up being five hours through mud, through creeks, and over narrow slats of wood connecting two banks of a raging river. Nobody complained though: it felt good to be off our asses.
We slogged through mud so deep it could suck your shoe off and streams so deep that wearing shoes was pointless. Everyone got barefoot eventually for at least part of the hike. Mr. Okoro was barefoot within five minutes and stayed that way. He was a great sport to come along, but obviously the dress shoes weren't going to cut it.
That night we celebrated our successful day of limited van riding hard, with more tequila and a whole pyramid of Modela beer. Joining us was another pre-conference group staying in the same camp, their tour arranged by the same company. Their trip had gone better, partly because a real tour leader had been leading. There were mishaps though. They had gone rafting a day before us though on a river that had quickly swelled to hit class 5 rapids level. The rafting guides, imported from another state, said it would be safer to abort and go on a calmer section (like we did the next day).
"The river is fine" said the head of the tour company and got everyone to sign a hand-written release form. One of the participants signed hers after scribbling above it that she couldn't read Spanish. Thankfully for everyone, they paddled through it like pros.
The City of Water
On the final day we rode several hours to the reason many of us had signed up for this tour to start with: the glorious ruins of Palenque. The original city name of Lakam Ha meant "big water" and it was living up to the moniker that day. The rain came down in buckets and the plastic poncho salespeople were doing a brisk business. Mr. Okoro tried to negotiate a better price on two ponchos since neither he nor his wife had any rain gear.
The kings of Palenque weren't exactly comfortable themselves though. Their genitals were pierced in order to offer blood to the gods. The inscriptions here outline multiple battles with other nearby city-states and eventually the whole place was abandoned around the year 800. Much of the chronology was well-documented and a treasure trove from king K'inich Janaab' Pakal survived into the modern archeological age, including a jade mask over his face and a whole suit made of jade, held together with gold wire.
We learned of grand structures built by hand without wheels or pulleys, of the long-count calendar ending in 2012, of the great mathematical and Mayan astronomical observations that were centuries beyond what anyone had figured out in Europe or the Middle East.
Our guide told us all this and more with the assured air of someone who knows what he's talking about. We were not sure how to deal with someone like this, so we soaked up the knowledge in silence while the rain soaked our clothes, with occasional relief inside one of the structures.
At one lull in the conversation, someone said, "Wait a minute…they invented the zero but didn't figure out the wheel?"
We returned to our own four wheels, the ones we knew so well, for one last long drive to San Cristobal de Las Casas, where laundry services awaited.
That night though, the President of Mexico, Felipe Calderon, delivered a stirring speech about the power of responsible tourism to transform families, villages, and whole states. It was fitting that we were in Chiapas, he said, for this was previously the poorest state in Mexico by far and we were seeing first-hand what can happen when people can take control of their surroundings and create a "dignified source of income."
We can only hope that Craigslist Tuxtla Gutiérrez has some job ads posted for a few good guides and an itinerary planner.
Tim Leffel is the editor of Perceptive Travel and co-author of Traveler's Tool Kit: Mexico and Central America. See his regular rants on the Cheapest Destinations Blog.
All photos by the author except pickup shot by Rafael Meyer. Some names in this story have been changed or omitted. For more information on the area, see the Chiapas Tourism site.
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