Zapatista Signs of the Times – Chiapas, Mexico

The New York Times called the Zapatista movement “the first post-modern revolution.” The movement boiled to the surface on January 1, 1994, the day the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) went into effect–when mysterious balaclava-wearing Zapatista leader Subcomandante Marcos and Comandante Romona lead thousands of armed villagers in a surprise attack on the Mexican army which culminated in a bloody shootout in the main plaza of San Cristóbal del as Casas in Chiapas, Mexico. Fighting went on for years and the Mexican Army still maintains a very visible presence in the area.

Though technically still at war with the Mexican government, the days of palpable Zapatista revolution (which called for land rights, resource rights, rights for women and economic and educational equality for Mexico’s indigenous poor) seem gone. For the visitor, at least, the most noticeable remains of the movement are hand-painted signs and murals which keep the spirit alive in the many rural village that support the EZLN (Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional, the Zapatista government) in Chiapas.

We saw dozens of Zapatista and EZLN signs throughout the state and here are a few of our favorites examples of this ongoing artful protest.


This mural, on a building in the Oventic caracol, an autonomous village run by or Zapatistas, depicts corn (a symbol of the land), an indigenous woman defending her rights and Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata--the inspiration for the term Zapatista.

This sign shows a snail (caracol in Spanish--which is also the word Zapatistas use for their autonomous villages) wearing the signature black balaclava of the movement's leader, Subcomandante Marcos. We love the Virgin of Guadalupe at the bottom wearing a typical EZLN red bandana over her face too.

In this sign little baby Zapatistas are depicted as growing ears of corn--wearing balaclavas, of course. Part of what was (and still is) radical about the Zapatistas was their inclusion of women and women's rights in their doctrine.

An ode to Emiliano Zapata, for which the Zapatista movement is named.

We loved the simple, graphic nature of this painted wall depicting Zapatista leader Subcomandante Marcos on the left and Emiliano Zapata on the right.

"Land and Liberty," two basic tenets of the Zapatista movement.

"The land belongs to those who work it" is a basic belief of all Zapatistas.

A tienda in a village in Chiapas which is sympathetic to the Zapatistas.

The Zapatistas stay involved in fresh issues that affect them too--including taking a strong stance against a major road project through Chiapas.

"You are in Zapatista territory" this sign proclaims.

This is one of the most understated EZLN signs we saw.

The Zapatistas stay involved in fresh issues that affect them too--including taking a strong stance against a major road project through Chiapas.

This sign welcomes you to an autonomous Zapatista village and makes it clear that the people here are "in rebellion."

An autonomous EZLN-run village makes its politics known.





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A Final Resting Place (finally) – Nahá, Lacandon Jungle, Chiapas, Mexico

In 1951 Danish historian, anthropologist, explorer, art history teacher, archaeologist and oil man Frans Blom and his Swiss wife Gertrude “Trudi” Duby Blom, a journalist and mountain climber turned photographer and ecologist, founded the Na Bolom Center of Scientific Studies based in San Cristóbal de las Casasin Chiapas, Mexico.


First wishes

Their goal was to preserve the ways and rights of the indigenous Lacandon people and other indigenous groups in the region and it’s virtually impossible to overstate the impact their documentation, respect and support have had on these groups. Their legacy is part of the reason the Lacandon and so many other cultures exist in Chiapas today—though with an estimated total population of just 800 people, the Lacandon aren’t out of the woods (or the jungle) yet.

One of the many jaguars at the Na Bolom (Jaguar House) museum, hotel and restaurant in San Cristóbal de las Casas.


Na Bolom (which means jaguar house) continues in its original non-profit mission. There’s also a wonderful hotel (Henry Kissinger and Diego Rivera have stayed here) with rooms in the main rambling house and dotted throughout a large and lush walled garden. Each one is decorated with traditional weavings, some of Trudi’s extraordinary black and white photographs of the striking Lacandon people and most also have fireplaces to ward off the high-altitude chill of San Cristóbal de las Casas (expansion work was underway when we were there).

Rooms are still set aside to accommodate any of indigenous people who may need to overnight in the city and many people use Na Bolom as a kind of drop in club house.

Members of local indigenous groups use the Na Bolom museum, hotel and restaurant as their haven in the city of San Cristóbal de las Casas.


Many of the writings and photographs that Frans and Trudi left behind are displayed in a small but informative on-site museum (open to guests and non-guests and definitely worth a visit for a crash course in the history of the Lacandon and other local indigenous groups).

Na Bolom in San Cristóbal de las Casas operates a museum, hotel and restaurant to help fund its non-profit work on behalf of the rights of local indigenous groups including the fast-disappearing Lacandon.


A visit to the Na Bolom museum also includes a tour of intimate spaces like Frans’ beloved library and Trudi’s bedroom which brings these two larger-than-life characters into sharp focus.  We were impressed with the sheer determination and innovation of Frans and Trudi (they definitely seem like “Just Do It” kind of people). We were also impressed with the passion of the staff and volunteers who continue their work, including a massive project to archive and preserve the tens of thousands of photographs that Trudi took in her lifetime.

The bedroom of Trudi Blom is now part of the museum at Na Bolom, the non-profit advocacy group she co-founded in 1951 in San Cristóbal de las Casas.


Last wishes

Both Frans and Trudi spent a good portion of their time in what is now Lacandon Jungle and when they died they stated that they wished to be buried in the jungle they knew and loved. Unfortunately, when Frans and Trudi passed (in 1963 and 1993 respectively) the jungle was still virtually impenetrable—especially carrying a coffin–and the Zapatista uprising at the time Trudi died made jungle trekking a complicated business as well.

2011 marks the 60th Anniversary of the founding of Na Bolom and the occasion seemed like the right time to finally lay its founders to rest in the place of their choosing.

Special coffins were hand made to carry the remains of Na Bolom founders Frans Blom and Trudi Blom to their final resting place in the Lacandon Jungle of Chiapas.


We were honored to be invited to travel to the Lacandon village of Nahá with a group from Na Bolom (and, of course, the remains of Frans and Trudi) and witness a very special ceremony to re-bury the Na Bolom founders in the Nahá cemetery next to Chan K’in Viejo, a legendary Lacandon leader (and friend to Frans and Trudi) who died in 1996 at the age of 104.

Na Bolom co-founder Trudi Blom with legendary Lacandon leader Chan K'in Viejo.


Once-in-a-lifetime opportunity

Among the group of devoted people from Na Bolom who traveled to Nahá was a woman named Doña Betty. As a child she was informally adopted by the Bloms (there’s a photo of Betty as a young woman in Trudi’s bedroom at Na Bolom) and she often made mule trips with them into this jungle where she worked as the camp cook.

On this occasion Doña Betty returned to familiar territory, running the camp kitchen (and accepting very little help) to feed the 25 people or so in our group. Doña Betty is in her late 70s now and she appeared to be as respected by many of the Lacandon as Frans and Trudi were.

Our group camped on land given to Trudi by the Lacandon. Nearby, the Lacandon of Nahá have also built a handful of bunglaows available to the scant tourists who make it out here (Na Bolom can arrange complete tours). The camping area consists of a long tin-roof covered shelter with a level dirt floor. The roof (and the methodically-maintained drainage ditch dug around the perimeter of the shelter by a mute Lacandon) proved crucial given the epic downpours that pelted us while we were there.

The camp also has an open-sided cooking/dining area (Doña Betty’s domain) plus an outhouse. All in all, more than adequate and far more comfort than we expected way out here in the Lacandon Jungle.

Carved coconut shell bowls full of a fermented drink called balche during a ceremonoy marking the re-burial of Na Bolom founders Frans Blom and Trudi Blom in the Lacandon village of Nahá in Chiapas, Mexico.


Final journey

Frans and Trudi made their final journey to Nahá and their beloved Lacandon Jungle in a pair of child-sized beautifully carved wooden caskets made specifically for their remains which were removed from their original graves in San Cristóbal de las Casas along with their enormous concrete headstone with a jaguar and a Mayan cross carved into it.

At 11:00 the morning after our arrival our group headed for Chan K’in Antonio’s house. As the son of Chan K’in Viejo, Chan K’in Antonio is the most devout keeper of Lacandon traditions. But he is not a shaman. Rather he believes that he, like all Lacandon, can speak directly to the Lacandon Gods and request help and favors. Better health. Better wealth. But there are no guarantees and there are certainly no miracles.

Chan K'in Antonio, son of legendary Lacandon leaders Chan K'in Viejo, who led the traditional ceremonies surrounding the re-burial of Na Bolom founders Frans Blom and Trudi Blom in the Lacandon village of Nahá.


Chan K’in Antonio is one of the few Lacandon to have a God House (something many Lacaondon used to have) and this is where the pre-burial ceremony took place. We filed into the God House, a 20′ by 15′ open-sided, dirt-floored, thatch-roof structure, and women sat on one side with men seated on the other. Almost everyone in the God House was part of our group from San Cristóbal de las Casas. Where were the people from Nahá we wondered.

This vessel is a replica of a very important Lacandon ceremonial piece. It was to meet an untimely end...

Chan K'in Antonio breaking out the balche, a fermented wild honey drink made in a wooden canoe.


Chan K’in Antonio wasn’t waiting around for them to arrive. He jumped right in with chanting in the fast-disappearing Lacandon language and distributing drops of balche (more on that later) to molded figures representing the Lacandon Gods. Each also received a small hand-formed ball of copal which was ultimately lit on fire.

Chan K'in Viejo leading an elaborate traditional Lacandon ceremony to mark the re-burial of Na Bolom founders Frans Blom and Trudi Blom in the Lacandon village of Nahá.

Chan K'in Viejo leading an elaborate traditional Lacandon ceremony to mark the re-burial of Na Bolom founders Frans Blom and Trudi Blom in the Lacandon village of Nahá.


The ceremony culminated in the drinking of balche, a beverage made of wild honey fermented for days in a wooden canoe. Balche is a cloudy, beige, sweet and sour vaguely slimy liquid. Not unpleasant, but not delicious either. However, balche is effective and a number of people noted a certain impatience in the ceremony as if some participants were rushing to get to the balche which was ladeled out of the canoe into a hand-made pottery jar (a replica of an important original vessel) then distributed in cups made from coconut shells. Sadly, the gorgeous ceramic jar was dropped and shattered later that night after perhaps one too many balches.

Part of a traditional Lacandon ceremony to mark the re-burial of Na Bolom founders Frans Blom and Trudi Blom in the Lacandon village of Nahá.


In the afternoon Frans and Trudi’s coffins were taken out of the Nahá community center, where they’d been displayed on top of a small shrine, and carried to our encampment accompanied by a procession of villagers. At the encampment, the coffins were displayed on top of the picnic tables in the dining area. Small bags of soil from Frans and Trudi’s birthplaces (Denmark and Switzerland, respectively) were added to the coffins.

The remains of Frans and Trudi Blom being carried to our jungle encampment on their way to the cemetery in the Lacandon village of Nahá.

Traditional meets modern as this Lacandon boy learns how to use a GPS device and a digital camera in the Lacandon village of Nahá.


As people shared stories and memories from the lives and times of Frans and Trudi, emotions started coming to the surface and by the time we put the coffins into the back of a small white pickup truck and convoyed to the cemetery tears were on the way.

With storm clouds building, a group of men lowered Frans and Trudi into a joint grave near that of Chan K’in Viejo then placed their massive concrete headstone and grave marker on top.

Frans and Trudi Blom's joint grave, near their friend Chan K'in Viejo, in the cemetery in the Lacandon village of Nahá.


Unlike at the God House, many villagers showed up at the cemetery including two ancient sisters dressed in gorgeous traditional dresses, each with a tiny, delicate bird wing adorning her long braids.

Villagers pay their respects before Na Bolom founders Frans and Trudi Blom are laid to rest in the cemeterty in the Lacandon village of Nahá.


The Lacandon believe that now that Frans, Trudi and Chan K’in Viejo have been reunited these three old friends can “continue their conversations” even in death. After witnessing some of the most solemn ceremonies of a threatened culture as they honored two of their most fervent defenders, we tend to agree.


Check out our video, below, and make up your own mind.





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The Last of the Lacandon? – Nahá & Metzabok, Chiapas, Mexico

The Lacandon Maya are the descendents of the Mayan who fled what is now southern Mexico and northern Guatemala in order to escape the Spanish. It worked and since that time the Lacandon have survived in the ever-shrinking jungle–what’s left of the millions of acres they once called home.


A Lacandon man sporting the traditional white tunic and long hair in the village of Metzabok in Chiapas, Mexico.


Changing times

Some Lacandon communities had no contact with the “outside world” until the mid-20th Century but things have changed fast since then. Inter-marriage, a yellow fever outbreak, the lure of the big city and general loss of the jungle areas that sustain the traditional Lacandon way of life mean that fewer and fewer Lacandon people are being born and even fewer are learning and practicing their traditional ways.

Even in what are considered to be Lacandon villages it’s common to see inter-cultural families. Some Lacandon families send one or more children to the nearest Mexican city to make pesos which are increasingly used in this society which once functioned just fine without the concept of money. As happens so often, some Lacandon kids are lured out of their villages in search of things like TVs and motorbikes.

A community meeting in the Lacandon village of Nahá.


Disappearing jungle

Then there’s the jungle problem. The Lacandon–not unlike the jaguar–require healthy jungle and lots of it to sustain their gentle and effective form of agro-forestry which includes crop rotation and hunting and gathering. Mexican ranchers and loggers, on the other hand, require enormous swaths of land to graze cattle on and extract timber from and these interests have been able to take over huge tracts of jungle only to clear it for timber and pasture land.

Almost all of the land surrounding the protected Lacandon Jungle has been cleared for ranching or logging.


Today there may be as few as 800 Lacandon left in the world…and by world, we mean Chiapas, Mexico.

In 1971 groups concerned with the continuation of Lacandon traditions and the shrinking jungle environment helped persuade the Mexican government to carve out and protect the Lacandon Jungle, a 1.5 million acre (614,000 hectare) chunk which is a haven for flora and fauna and home to the Montes Azules Biosphere Reserve and important Mayan archeological sites including Yaxchilan and Bonampak.


A friendly local rancher we stopped to chat with on his cleared property on the outskirts of the protected Lacandon Jungle.


The last of the Lacandon?

Three of the most vibrant remaining Lacandon settlements are Nahá, Lacanja Chansayab and Metzabok which are each believed to be locations where Lacandon gods traditionally lived. In these areas, deep within the Lacandon Jungle, villagers and increasingly concerned anthropologists and environmentalists are working to preserve and build upon what’s left of Lacandon traditions.

Jungle cleared for cattle ranches lines the road toward the Lacandon village of Nahá.


One of the longest-standing and most effective of these groups is Na Bolom which, since unorthodox artistic and philanthropic free spirits Frans Blom and Trudi Duby Blom founded it in 1951, has been primarily concerned with preserving the Lacandon way of life and their jungle areas while ensuring they (and other local indigenous groups) benefit from modern services like health care and education on their own terms.

Recognizing that the outside world is coming in whether they like it or not, these communities have chosen to control local tourism in their own way and you can now visit most of these remote villages as a traveler and enjoy camping, cabins or homestays with the Lacandon as well as hiking and canoeing in their lovely jungle. The non-profit Na Bolom can arrange comprehensive trips to Nahá and Metzabok out of San Cristobal de Las Casas and these trips directly benefit these communities and support Na Bolom’s work on behalf of the Lacandon in general.

Nahá Lake has invitingly crystal-clear water...and a lot of crocodiles.


Scorpions, magic rocks and the underworld in a Lacandon village

The heart of the village of Metzabok, where fewer than 30 Lacandon families live some of them running a small community tourism project which includes a handful of bungalows, is Laguna Tzibana. When we visited Metzabok we headed out to cross the lake in, of all things, a small paddle boat.

Beautiful Laguna Tzibana in the Lacandon village of Metzabok.


About midway across the lake we realized that we were not alone. A scorpion was also in the tiny boat with us and we both jumped up and tried not to flip the boat while attempting to kill or evict our dangerous little hitchhiker. Eric finally squashed it and, after a quick survey for other stowaways, we continued on our way.

The Lacandon believe that this rock on Laguna Tzibana is a God.


Our destination was a very special rock on the far bank which features red hand prints and other paintings. Our Lacandon guide explained that the rock is believed to be a God and new symbols appear on it after storms. A nearby cave is also believed to be one of many pathways to the underworld that the Lacandon must navigate after death.

Our Lacandon guide (far right) explains that the petroglyphs (far left) appear on a rock face after storms then takes us into a cave believed to be a pathway to the underworld which all Lacandon must navigate after death.


We were honored to be invited to visit the village of Nahá as well, along with a group from Na Bolom as part of a very special ceremony to re-bury Na Bolom founders Frans Blom and Trudi Duby Blom in the Nahá cemetery next to legendary Lacandon leader and activists Chan K’in Viejo (who died in 1996). It’s where Frans (who died in 1963) and Trudi (who died in 1993) always wanted to be buried and the Nahá villagers believe that reuniting the three old friends will enable them to “continue their conversations” even after death.

Find out what we saw, heard and drank in Nahá in our next post all about this once-in-a-lifetime chance to be part of some of the most solemn ceremonies of a threatened culture as they honored two of their most fervent defenders.


Our time in the Lacandon Jungle coincided with some very heavy rain. Our video, below, lets you experience one of the most epic downpours we’ve ever experienced without getting wet. This is why they call it a rain forest…

All that rain made for some very high rivers too which raged past us as we drove deeper and deeper into the Lacandon Jungle.

Rivers swollen by heavy rain in the Lacandon Jungle.





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Church of Stone, House of Stone – Ocosingo & Toniná, Chiapas, Mexico

Ocosingo

Ocosingo does not make a winning first impression. It’s dusty and run down and at odds with the Zapatista strongholds in the neighboring areas (some of the worst battles in the 1994 Zapatista uprising took place in Ocosingo). But there is charm in this town.

The scenic mountains that surround the so-so town of Ocosingo.

 

For starters, there’s the daily Tiangius Campesino which is like a magnet for indigenous women (and only women) who bring their corn, flowers, chickens, herbs, tamales (and their babies) from miles around. The women’s hands never seem to stop. If they’re not setting up their displays on the ground or selling or re-arranging their displays or tending to their kids then they’re working on elaborate embroidery.

Indigenous women sell anything they can grow in the ground or make with their hands at the colorful Tiangius Campesino in Ocosingo, Mexico.

Indigenous women sell anything they can grow in the ground or make with their hands at the colorful Tiangius Campesino in Ocosingo, Mexico.

 

 

Then there’s the town’s church which looks pretty ho-hum on the outside but just you wait. The inside is covered in smooth river stones in varying shades to create an enormous portrait of Jesus as well as agricultural scenes and  general fabulousness. Not a drop of gold leaf in sight. This was, by far, one of our all-time favorite organic foo-foo-free churches. It just felt faithful.

The interior walls of the church in Ocosingo are in-laid with stones that make intricate, organic mosaics..

 

We can also highly recommend the Hotel La Casona in Ocosingo which really could be charging more than 250 pesos (about US$21) for their spotless rooms right on the square with TV, fan and WiFi. They even had parking big enough (barely) for our truck.

 

 

Toniná

But the main reason to go to Ocosingo is to visit the Toniná archaeological site. After a short and gorgeous drive out of town, past grazing cattle and small farms and one very big army base, we see the remains of Toniná up on a slope. It still presents itself with dignity and it’s imposing.

The still-formidable Toniná archaeological site in Chiapas, Mexico.

Toniná archaeological site in Chiapas, Mexico.

Toniná archaeological site in Chiapas, Mexico.

View from the top of the main temple at Toniná archaeological site in Chiapas, Mexico.

 

The experts tell us that Toniná, which was constructed on a hill the Mayan built up, was even more imposing when it was inhabited by what appear to have been fairly war-happy rulers. One main rival was Palenque.  Toniná is also famous for its stucco and carvings including more than 100 Long Count calendar carvings. This is of particular interest to anyone who’s paying attention to the fact that the Mayan calendar ends in 2012. In fact, Toniná may have the last known Long Count date on any Maya monument.

Some of the detailed decoration still visible in the nooks and crannies of Toniná archaeological site in Chiapas, Mexico.

Some of the detailed decoration still visible in the nooks and crannies of Toniná archaeological site in Chiapas, Mexico.

A stelae still stands guard at Toniná archaeological site in Chiapas, Mexico.

 

To reach the site itself you have to walk along a pleasant lane from the ticket booth, past more grazing cattle. We hear the museum near the ticket office is good but it was closed when we visited.

The word Toniná means house of stone in Tzeltal Mayan language–which doesn’t really narrow things down in the Mayan world where everything was made of stone (except at Comalcalco archaeological site in Tabasco, which the Mayans there built using bricks and mortar made with oyster shells).

What they did with stone at Toniná is a bit different, however. Many of the structures have round corners and there are lots of nooks and crannies and tunnels that you can poke around in. This is one site where it pays to be nosy.

 

Toniná means "house of stone" and intricate designs in stone walls like this one still remain at the archaeological site to give us an idea how this Mayan city got its name.

Karen doing the Mayan Stairmaster again...

Toniná archaeological site in Chiapas, Mexico.

Yes, that nearly vertical wall is the staircase up...

 

 


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Too Much of a Good Thing – Wejlib-Já, Misol Ha and Agua Azul Waterfalls, Chiapas, Mexico

This area of Chiapas gets some of the heaviest rainfall in the whole country–120 inches in some parts of the state. Result? Lots and lots of waterfalls.

Not far from Palenque we turned down a dirt road in search of one of them. What we found was a mostly empty gravel parking lot. Now, a nearly empty parking lot is either a very bad sign (this place sucks so no one comes here) or a very good sign (this place is a hidden treasure). Cascada Wejlib-Já (a Mayan phrase for falling water) is a good example of the latter.

After paying 15 pesos (about US$1.15) each to the ejido (local community) which owns the waterfall we walked the path along the falls–which is really a series of small, wide falls. That gentleness was part of the reason the water was still clear and though there was plenty of it flowing through the falls there were still pools that were calm enough to swim and sit in–as a couple of Mexican families were happily doing.

Palapa-covered tables (but, weirdly, no chairs) had been turned into overflowing picnic spots and all that was missing was a six pack cooling in the water.

Cascada Wejlib-Já in Chiapas, Mexico.

Cascada Wejlib-Já in Chiapas, Mexico.


Misol Ha Waterfall

The parking lot at the much-more-famous Misol Ha waterfall was packed, but we braved the crowds in order to see this 115 foot monster from a very unique perspective. Here a trail takes you from one side of the flow to the other by passing behind the waterfall itself, then going on to the other side of a huge pool that collects beneath the falls. There’s no way to stay dry. Because the water was extra high a safety rope had been put up across the pool and there were even a couple of whistle-toting lifeguards on duty making sure that swimmers stayed behind the rope, far from the dangerous cascade at the bottom of the pool.

Misol Ha, where the trail takes you behind the spectacular cascade.


And then it happened. When we turned around to see what all the sudden, frantic whistling was all about we saw that a young Japanese man had let go of the safety rope across the natural pool and was struggling to resist the pull of the water. He was no match for the flow, however, and was slowing but surely being sucked toward the lower falls.

In jumped one of the lifeguards (handily answering any questions we may have had about his ability to swim) and moments later he had the (very embarrassed) Japanese man back on dry land.

Misol Ha, where the trail takes you behind the spectacular cascade.


Check out the view from behind the spectacular Misol Ha waterfall in our video, below.


Agua Azul

About 15 minutes further down the road is Agua Azul (Blue Water), an even more famous series of waterfalls and cascades. True to Chiapas’ rainy reputation, the sky opened up and it poured for an hour as we arrived at Agua Azul so we pulled over and took a nap in the truck.

So many people visit Agua Azul that the trail from the parking lot up past the cascading pools is lined with food and souvenir sellers. During our visit the place was more like Agua Cafe, however, since the water had become so churned up and filled with silt on its way down the mountains that it looked like a foaming river of latte, not an inviting series of brilliant blue pools that appear to be melting due to the thick coating of mineral deposits draped over their edges. We guess that’s what postcards and imaginations (and the dry season) are for.

Agua Azul is usually a series of brilliant blue pools but rainy season rain can stir up enough sediment to turn the pools temporarily brown.

Agua Azul is usually a series of brilliant blue pools but rainy season rain can stir up enough sediment to turn the pools temporarily brown.

Agua Azul is usually a series of brilliant blue pools but rainy season rain can stir up enough sediment to turn the pools temporarily brown.


See the high water at Agua Azul in action in our video, below.





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Never Stop Digging – Palenque, Chiapas, Mexico

The experts tell us that Palenque, which was inhabited from 100-800 AD with a peak around the 7th century, is smaller than, say, Tikal but it sure feels big. The structures are hulking and the area that’s open to the public (a fraction of the six square miles or 15 square km the city is believed to have covered) is full of nicely groomed trails which take you through the city’s “suburbs” so you can see where some of the people lived beyond the temples and main plazas and royal areas.

Overview of the main plaza at Palenque archaeological site in Chiapas, Mexico.

The El Palacio structure at Palanque archaeological site in Chiapas, Mexico.

 

When Palenque was flourishing it was a major political and creative powerhouse. We know this because the site has been extensively studied for years.  Elaborate frescoes and glyphs have been discovered here, demonstrating superb artistic technique and many works also tell the story of the city’s dominating and visionary rulers and their considerable accomplishments.

The discovery of the tomb of Pakal, perhaps Palenque’s most venerated leader, in 1952 by Mexican archaeologist Alberto Ruz Lhuillier was a major find at the site. Ruz Lhuillier himself is buried at Palenque–under the trees in front of Templo XIII.

Pakal, one of the most revered leaders of Palenque, was buried in an elaborate tomb under the Temple of the Inscriptions.

The Temple of the Inscriptions with Temple XIII to its right. This is where the tomb of the so-called Reina Roja was unearthed in 1994.

 

And yet, they keep finding new goodies. In 1994 archaeologist Arnoldo Gonzales discovered the tomb of a woman underneath the already-explored Temple XIII. The last resting place of the Reina Roja (Red Queen)–so called because she is believed to have been a dignitary and because her body was dyed red from the cinnabar used during her burial–is now a major attraction. The sarcophagus is still at the site and it is, indeed, very red.

Palenque archaeological site in Chiapas, Mexico.

Patio of the Captives in the El Palacio structure at Palenque.

Relief of a captive at the Patio of the Captives at Palenque.

Masks still stare out from the El Palacio structure at Palenque.

 

In 2010 archaeologists also discovered the only known pressurized aqueduct system in the Mayan world at Palenque.

Part of the charm of Palenque is its park-like setting, including a beautiful stream and waterfalls like this one called Baño de la Reina.

 

So, there’s lots to see and plenty of fascinating structures and design elements and nooks and crannies to explore (though you can’t climb much anymore) AND Palenque retains a sense that is still has plenty of secrets up its sleeve. It’s intoxicating and we spent more than three hours here, not counting time spent in the adjacent (free) museum.

Here you can see a replica of Pakal’s tomb (the original is not open to the public) with its intricately carved sarcophagus. The museum also has a large collection of pottery incense burners and plenty of English on their signage.

A panel of Mayan glyphs in the free museum at the Palenque archaeological site.

This Tablet of the Warriors from the 7th Century AD is on display in the free museum at the Palenque archaeological site.

As we left the Palenque museum we passed this Lacandon man wearing a robe made out of pliable tree bark which, he told us, had been softened in a waterfall.

 

Be aware: Palenque is a rock star and it draws rock star crowds. We parked at 8:45 and the lot was already swarming with tour buses and it just got worse as the day wore on. The ticket booth employees were dealing off a stack of tickets that was at least a foot and a half tall. Also, there are a LOT of vendors selling cheap tourist crap set up right in the main plaza, which breaks the spell a bit.

We also wonder why Palenque is a National Park with it’s own separate fee of 25 pesos per person (about US$2.50)? There is no apparent ecology protection or national park-like infrastructure in the area–just a gate with a guy who has an excuse to charge an entrance fee.

This carving, which we like to call "Old Smokin' Dude," is unusual in its depiction of old age and of smoking.

 

The modern town of Palenque, about a 10 minute drive from the site,  is really nothing to write home about (hot, dusty, noisy)  but there is one notable relatively new addition to the tourism landscape: Palenque now has a bonafide boutique hotel half way between town and the site. It’s called Boutique Hotel Quinta Chanabnal and it’s run by Italian Mayanist Raphael Tunesi and his Mexican wife (whom he met at Palenque).

The hotel, which Raphael built using modern interpretations of Mayan construction methods and designs, has seven huge rooms and a lovely pool. The dining room, where you can enjoy traditional Mayan dishes (like snail and chaya soup) if you ask in advance, is decorated with modern versions of Mayan carvings depicting milestones in Raphael’s life (the birth of his daughter, the building of the hotel, etc).  For more, read our full report about Quinta Chanabnal for iTraveliShop.

Raphael is putting his expertise in Mayan glyphs to work with lots of new seminars and tours of Palenque and other Mayan sites scheduled for 2012–the year in which the Mayan calendar “ends.”

Raphael Tunesi, Mayanist and hotel owner, on the grounds of his Boutique Hotel Quinta Chanabnal near the entrance to the Palenque archaeological site.

 

Our video, below, delivers a view of the main plaza at Palenque, including the Temple of the Inscriptions, as shot from the El Palacio structure.

 

 


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Getting There – Bonampak & Yaxchilán, Chiapas, Mexico

Bonampak

After two and a half hours on severely pot-holed pavement (which is even worse than pot-holed dirt) we were happy to park the truck at the ramshackle village-run welcome station near Bonampak archaeological site. Here you’re required to pay 71 pesos per person (about US$6) to the local Lacandon community.

That pre-entrance fee entitles you to a seat on an old school bus with all of the windows missing for the 20 minute drive to the site itself. Almost as soon as the bus pulled away from the ugly mess of unfinished concrete at the ejido entrance station we entered another world. Green, lush, flourishing jungle surrounded us and was so dense and alive it seemed as if it might grow over the road behind us.

This, finally, felt like being in the mythic Lacandon Jungle. Leaves bigger than a Smart Car, deep silence, crazy shades of green, a real sense that you (and your fancy GPS and hi-tech bug-repelling clothing) really do not know how to survive here, a combination of simplicity and severity that is foreign and humbling.

Helping the jungle vibe along was the fact that our guide from the ejido was a young Lacandon named Chan Bar who  (like most of the scant remaining Lacandon people–some estimates claim there are fewer than 800 alive today) was wearing the traditional white unisex tunic and sporting the signature long black hair of the Lacandon. He was even carrying his bow and arrow. It all could have felt contrived, but Chan Bar was so naturally at home that it made sense and felt true. Chan Bar is so emblematic of the Lacandon that we later spotted him in an official tourism promotion video made by the government of Chiapas.

The main plaza at Bonampak archaeological site, home to some of the best-preserved stelae and paintings in the Mundo Maya.


The Bonampak site, which required its own entrance fee of 41 pesos (about US$3.50), does not have massive temples or vast excavated areas. It’s really just one plaza. Within that plaza, however, lie some of the most intact stelae in all of the known Mayan world. The stone used by the Mayans of Bonampak is harder than the stone used in other part of the Mundo Maya and that means they’ve weathered better over the years, despite the fact that they remain in position in the plaza without much protection from the elements. Stelae 1, a particularly giant white stelate which is nearly 20 feet (6 meters), is one of the tallest stelae in the Mundo Maya.

Stelae 1 at Bonampak--at nearly 20 feet (6 meters) tall it's one of the tallest stelae in the Mundo Maya.


The inscriptions on the stelae are still so clear that even our completely untrained eyes could  make out distinct images in the storytelling carved into each awesome stone panel. Okay, we had no idea what the story was about, but we could at least make out recognizable icons and characters.  It was thrilling. The carving was in such good shape that we asked Chan Bar in confidential tones if the stelae were really originals and not just great copies. He just smiled at us as if we’d asked the dumbest question of the day.

Well-preserved carving on a door lintel at Bonampak archaeological site.


Bonampak’s other draw is the Temple of the Murals, a strip of three small rooms with walls covered in some of the best-preserved murals. Time and tourism have faded some of the color and there are now guards outside each room and rope barriers inside each room to keep tourists (and their wandering hands) away from the murals. As if to reinforce the “do not touch” rule there was a 2″ scorpion on one of the walls. When we pointed it out to the guard he gave us a Mexican version of the “And…what’s your point?” stare.

Still-vibrant wall paintings in the Temple of the Murals at Bonampak archaeological site.

Still-vibrant wall paintings in the Temple of the Murals at Bonampak archaeological site.


Even without the scorpions, the murals are exciting stuff, depicting scenes of battle and prisoner torture and ritual tongue piercing and fancy rulers. You know, everyday Mayan stuff.

A Lacandon boy playing in the main temple of the Bonampak archaeological site.


Yaxchilán

From Bonampak we braved the pot-holed pavement once again and headed toward the riverside town of Frontera Corozal, passing through Lacanja on the way. We pulled into this Lacandon village to check it out and went away with the feeling that Lacanja exists in a kind of no-man’s-land between Lacandon culture and a Mexican village.

There is no ambiguity about Frontera Corozal. It’s a dusty town in the dry season and a muddy town in the wet season and would be little else if it weren’t the jumping-off-point for Yaxchilán archaeological site.

In Frontera Corozal we checked into the Escudo Jaguar hotel (you can’t miss it–it’s bright pink) just in time for a surprisingly good dinner in the hotel’s restaurant. In the dining room we met an American couple (Jed and Sam) and a French couple and we all agreed to visit Yaxchilán together in the morning so we could split the cost of the lancha (a small boat with an outboard motor) that must be hired to reach the site. They boat captains will tell you it’s a set price of 900 pesos (about US$78) for up to seven people, but haggle hard.

On our way to the Yaxchilán arcaheological site which is reached only by boat.


Like Bonampak, the journey to Yaxchilán is a big part of the thrill. The lancha ride, which takes about an hour each way and cost us 600 pesos for six passengers (about US$9.00 each), goes up the Usumacinta River which doubles as the border between Mexico and Guatemala. We enjoyed the cool morning air and saw quite a few birds, though much of the river side jungle on the Mexican side had been sacrificed for corn fields. The Guatemalan side of the river looked pretty much untouched since no roads really go out there and there are no real settlements.

Our video, below, lets you tag along as we journey up the Ucmancinta River in a lancha to reach the Yaxchilán archaeological site in Chiapas, Mexico.


An unusually hilly site, Yaxchilán requires quite a bit of climbing in order to see all of the areas. It’s slippery and sweaty but also worth it to see what remains of this powerful Pre-Classic and Classic era Mayan city. Many of the lintels that the site is famous for have been moved to the excellent Museo Nacional de Antropologia in Mexico City for safe keeping, but there’s still plenty to see (stelae, cockscomb rooftops, lots of excavated plazas and structures) and plenty of atmosphere to soak up. Not to mention the howler monkeys and emerald toucanets (or were they aracaris?).

Yaxchilán archaeological site in Chiapas, Mexico.

Yaxchilán archaeological site in Chiapas, Mexico.

Yaxchilán archaeological site in Chiapas, Mexico is famous for its carved lintels. Many have been taken away to various museums, but this one remains at the site itself.

An ornate cockscomb roof structure on a temple at Yaxchilán archaeological site in Chiapas, Mexico.


Despite the mosquitoes, this was easily one of Karen’s favorites Mayan sites so far. Allow a couple of hours at Yaxchilán before returning to Fontera Corozal, back down river.

Yaxchilán archaeological site is unusually hilly and to reach beauties like this requires a jungle climb.

Yaxchilán archaeological site in Chiapas, Mexico.

Yaxchilán archaeological site in Chiapas, Mexico.


TIP: Get on the earliest boat you can out of Frontera Corozal (arrange it the night before if possible) to maximize your alone time at Yaxchilán before other boats start arriving. If you get on the earliest boat (around 8:00 am) you’ll also be back in Frontera Corozal in time to grab a quick shower before checking out of the Escudo Jaguar hotel. Also, you can buy your entry ticket for the site at the INAH office in Frontera Corozal or at the site itself.




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Best Campsite Ever (but the neighbors are kinda noisy) – Las Guacamayas, Chiapas, Mexico

Las Nubes

The rough road that leads to Las Nubes in Chiapas, Mexico almost got the better of us, but we finally reached this collection of 18 wooden cabins and a nice camping area on the banks of the Santo Domingo River. The river drops here creating a series of rapids and swimming holes which are the main attraction. When water levels are normal the water is clear and blue and you can swim in the refreshing pools. During our visit we were afraid to even approach the bank and walking across a footbridge over the churning whitewater and tumbling rapids was heart-pounding.

The Santo Domingo River as it rages through Las Nubes in Chiapas, Mexico.

We walked past a few more seemingly-abandoned very large cabins in the jungle on our way up a trail to a dramatic overlook about 300 feet above the river–which felt like a relatively safe distance, at last.

The Santo Domingo River as it rages through Las Nubes in Chiapas, Mexico.

 

Las Guacamayas

We didn’t stay at Las Nubes long, however. We were anxious to get to Centro Ecoturistico Las Guacamayas and check out their namesake scarlet macaws (which are called guacamayas in Spanish). NOTE: the road to Las Guacamayas was mostly paved and all of it was in good shape (a relief after the bone crusher out to Las Nubes), so don’t be scared off if your guide book talks about a bad dirt road.

Las Guacamayas was started by locals in the Reforma Agraria village–mostly aging original settlers and descendants of the folks from Oaxaca who were encouraged to move here by the Mexican government in 1976 as a way to populate this border area and work the land.

Our wildlife-filled campsite at Las Guacamayas in Chiapas, Mexico.

 

In 1991, the locals organized themselves and set up a 14.5 sq. km preserve where they placed 30 nests of scarlet macaws–a flamboyant relative of the parrot which used to have a large range in Mexico but is currently found primarily in the southwestern region.

This preserve, on the banks of the Lacantún River abutting the vast Monte Azul Biosphere Reserve (one of the most bio-diverse areas in all of North America) has been very successful at increasing the scarlet macaw population and attracting tourists.

 

With the help of a group called Sendasur, a community-based organization devoted to preserving the flora and fauna in Southern Mexico and promoting sustainable tourism in the region, Las Guacamayas has expanded to include tour guides and a host of tours in the jungle and on the river, palapa roof cabins with private hot water bathrooms and a lovely open-air riverfront restaurant (the Sunday brunch buffet looked particularly good).

There’s also a wonderful grassy area very near the river that’s been set aside for camping, complete with running water and flush toilets and cold-water showers which are cleaned daily all for 30 pesos (about US$2.50) per person per night.

Just part of the flock of scarlet macaws which took over a tree next to our tent in Chiapas, Mexico.

A breakfasting scarlet macaw.

 

That would have been perfect enough. Then we woke up after our first night to discover that the tree next to our tent had been taken over by scarlet macaws.  They’d flown in for breakfast and up to 10 at a time were feasting in a tree literally right next to our tent. While other visitors to Las Guacamayas were out tramping through the sticky jungle trying to spot macaws we spent the entire day in our comfy camp chairs sipping coffee (and, later, cold beers) and watching the vibrant birds stuff themselves silly.

In the late afternoon a small family of howler monkeys showed up as well and decided to spend the night in another nearby tree. The following morning their dinosaur-like roars (they really should be called roaring monkeys) served as our (very early) wake up call.

Don’t miss our video, below, which gives you an up close look at the macaws and the chance to hear howlers monkeys at close range.

 

A male howler monkey marking his territory by howling like mad using a pouch under this chin to amplify the sound to truly creepy levels.

 

But one creature really took us by surprise (see below). Meet megalopyge opercularis, otherwise known as the Southern flannel moth, the pussy moth or the puss moth.

This 3″ long dude was inching its way along the riverbank and when we spotted him he quickly rolled up in a defensive ball. We know enough to never touch caterpillars or centipedes–they’re often poisonous. Little did we know that this fluffy guy is extremely poisonous–hence one of his other names: the asp caterpillar. This crazy thing eventually turns into a really glorious moth (and loses its poison).

Mother Nature is cooler than we’ll ever be.

 

 


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Water World – Lagos de Montebello & Cascadas el Chiflón, Chiapas, Mexico

Though coffee and Zapatistas might be the first things that spring to mind when you think about travel in Chiapas, this high-altitude state in southwestern Mexico also offers sophisticated city fun in San Cristóbal de las Casas, the remains of Mayan cities with unusual architectural features and plenty of great ways to get wet in the tranquil lakes of Lagos de Montebello National Park to the raging El Chiflón waterfall.

 

The famous pottery of Amatenango del Valle

After extending and re-extending and re-re-extending our stay in San Cristóbal (we had our reasons) we finally packed up and headed toward Comitán, passing through Amatenango del Valle which is famous for its pottery. Hand crafted animals of all shapes and sizes and colors are for sale everywhere you look in this town. We really loved the plump doves which make excellent planters by the way.

A selection of the famous pottery made in Amatenango del Valle in Chiapas, Mexico.

We stumbled upon a small wedding procession as we drove through Amatenango del Valle in Chiapas, Mexico.

 

The classic cowboy town of Comitán

Following the smorgasbord of indigenous (and foreign) cultures that make San Cristóbal so addictive, Comitán struck us as shockingly mainstream Mexican. Dudes in cowboy hats, norteño music, cattle farms, a Walmart (something the residents of San Cristóbal had successfully fought against).

Iglesia de Santo Domingo on the plaza in Comitán.

An art filled boutique hotel

Our base as we explored this so-called Frontier area (because it’s on the border with Guatemala) was the Santa Maria Parador Museo hotel, the sister property to the Parado San Juan de Dios where we stayed for a few nights in San Cristóbal.  Like its sibling, the Santa Maria has been created by art and antiques dealer Mario Uvence as a completely unique art-lovers’ paradise.

The small but powerful museum inside the small chapel at the Santa Maria Parador Museo is full of religious art.

 

The small simple chapel which served this 19th century hacienda has been turned into a thoroughly modern museum housing a fascinating collection of religious sculptures and paintings. The boutique hotel’s eight rooms (some of them on the tiny side), are all located in a long tile-roofed building that was a storeroom and each room is full of more art and opulent antique furniture. All open up onto a breezy communal patio that runs the length of the building. A fantastic restaurant and delicious coffee made from beans grown on-site plus a gorgeous little pool and a huge tented room decorated like a kasbah round out this unexpected gem.

The airy patio in front of the eight antique-filled rooms at Santa Maria Parador Museo.

 

Chinkultic Mayan archaeological site

Not far from Comitán lies the Chinkultic archaeological site where the remains of a Mayan city that dates back to 600 AD can be toured. Unlike most Mayan cities, large sections of Chinkultic were built on a hillside and ridge top not on an artificially leveled plateau. We hear the views from up there are fabulous, stretching all the way to the brilliantly-colored lakes of Lagos de Montebello (more on them in a minute).

During our visit to Chinkultic, however, all we could do was look up at bits of the ancient city poking tantalizingly through the wooded hillside as we stood stranded on the wrong side of a flood. Rain had turned the normally-docile creek that runs through the site into a wide, deep river that swept away the foot bridge.

The good news? The site’s entry fee was waved for as long as the flood persisted. We contented ourselves with the well-preserved stelae that are on display at Chinkultic–some even have some color left on them. The stelae are located out near the (oddly asymmetrical) ball court. Don’t miss them.

Because of high water, we couldn’t reach the main part of the Chinkultic archaeological site which was, oddly, built on the hillside you can see in the distance.

 

Parque Nacional Lagunas de Montebello

Parque Nacional Lagunas de Montebello was created in 1959 and its 15,000 acres and the surrounding area are punctuated with more than 50 gorgeous mountain lakes in varying shades of blue and green and blue/green. A good paved road winds through the park past a group of five lakes called Laguna de Colores because each one is a distinctly different hue.

All of the lakes in the park are visible from convenient roadside turnouts along what is one of the closest thing to a US-style National Park road we’ve seen in all of Mexico.

Just one version of the many shades of blue and green displayed in the lakes of the Laguna de Montebello region in Chiapas.

 

A warning though: as soon as your vehicle slows down you will be swarmed by men and boys offering to be your guide along trails to and around various lakes. If you happen to want a guide, look for 14-year-old Emmanuel. He is charming and has somehow learned how to speak very good English and if ever there was a kid who was worthy of your pesos it’s Emmanuel.

Past the lakes we parked the truck and took a short walk to see the caves and natural rock arch at Grutas San Rafael de Arcos. Ignore the Propiedad Privada (private property) sign and walk down the dirt road past a small group of houses and corn fields to get to the trail that winds through the forest. High water, again, prevented us from reaching the arch but we did get to see a group of caves with water raging through them. Pretty spectacular.

One of the inviting lakes of many colors in the Laguan de Montebello region of Chiapas, Mexico.

 

From there we backtracked past Lagos de Colores (where we waved goodbye to our new friend Emmanuel) and headed for Laguna Pojoj. After paying 10 pesos (about US$0.80) per person to the ejidos (local communities) that own the  lakes on this side we found ourselves amongst huge buses full of Mexican tourists hell-bent on getting onto Huck Finn style rafts and being paddled around Pojoj and deposited on a picturesque island. We fled.

Laguna Tziscao had more tour buses and more rafts plus a marimba band, which reminded us just how close to Guatemala we were. A bit further on, Laguna International is actually bisected by the border between Mexico and Guatemala and you walk across the border, enter Guatemala, then re-enter Mexico during a stroll around the lake–one of the rare visa-free crossings we’ve ever encountered.

The border between Mexico and Guatemala cuts right through Laguna International in the Lagos de Montebello region of Chiapas.

A quick trip into Guatemala…

The Lagos de Montebello area is right on the border with Guatemala and marimba players walk over the border and perform for lake visitors. Check them out in our video, below:

 

There were some tempting two story bungalows on the lake here, but we resisted their charms and moved on to the Cinco Lagunas area where (you guessed it) five more lakes awaited. Cobalt blue Laguna La Cañada was the most spectacular of this group with rocky spits on both sides which nearly cut it into two separate lakes.  Just begging for a kayak.

 

Laguna La Cañada in the Lagos de Montebello region of Chiapas.

 

High water at Cascadas El Chiflón

The next day (after more of the terrific coffee at Santa Maria) we headed to Cascadas El Chiflón for water of an entirely different nature. Where the lakes had been tranquil and relaxing Chiflón was raging in high water, beyond control, totally out of its banks due to the recent heavy rains.

Dramatically high water at Cascadas El Chiflón in Chiapas, Mexico.

 

And still, the trails and picnic tables and cabins and a few camp sites around the falls were busy with Mexican holiday makers. We put on our Crocs and grabbed a plastic bag for Eric’s camera (and our own picnic supplies) and walked up the trail toward the action.

Cascada Velo de Novia (Bridal Veil Falls) is a nearly 400 foot monster at Cascadas el Chiflón in Chiapas.

 

The area’s namesake waterfall, Chiflón  (which means big whistle), is near the bottom of the trail. The real star, however, is Cascada Velo de Novia (Bridal Veil Falls), a nearly 400 foot monster at the top of the trail. With high water raging, this waterfall is more like a waterwall and Eric got soaked getting pictures and video for you–the spray alone was like a heavy rain.

 

Wet and hungry, we grabbed a picnic table back down at the bottom of the trail and made sandwiches while secretly wishing that one of the Mexican families grilling up beef and onions would take pity on us.

 

Tenem Puente Mayan archaeological site

Before leaving the region we also made a stop at Tenem Puente archaeological site. The remains of this Mayan city, possibly inhabited as late as 1200-1500 AD, are now grassy and inviting. Built along a series of slopes and hills, the site is more multi-level than most Mayan cities. It also boasts some wicked-long walls and sets of stairs.

Tenem Puente archaeological site in Chiapas, Mexico.

This wall of stairs at Tenem Puente archaeological site was more than 200 yards long.

 

Note: We’d read that the Tenem Puente site was free but we were asked to pay 31 pesos each. We paid, but when we got a less-than-official receipt (always ask for a receipt or ticket stub) we smelled a rat. Turns out, the site is now legitimately 31 pesos per person as confirmed by INAH, the Mexican branch of government which oversees archaeological sites.

 

 

 


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Booze, Blouses and Burials – Mayan Villages Around San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico

San Cristóbal de las Casas is fascinating, but you really should get out of town long enough to get a feel for the very different (but equally fascinating) Tzotzil and Tzeltal Mayan villages that surround this city in the Chiapas highlands.

 

San Juan Chamula

The most-visited of the neighboring villages has to be the Tzotzil town of San Juan Chamula just a few miles from San Cristóbal and home to a famous church.  We arrived early on a Sunday (market day) and our truck was immediately swarmed by kids and not in a good way. For the first time in Mexico we felt uneasy about leaving our truck in the hands of these kids.

Tzotzil women selling goods at the Sunday market in Chamula near San Cristóbal de las Casas in Chiapas, Mexico.

 

But we had no choice, so off we went to pay the 20 peso per person entrance fee that’s required for foreigners to enter the Chamula church. We also get the very clear message about the town’s rules against taking pictures of town officials or anything inside the church. In case you didn’t understand the rules the first time, local men wearing white wool tunics and carrying big sticks were walking around confiscating film and erasing digital photo cards whenever they caught someone taking a shot.

Fair enough. Certainly a town (espeically an autonomous one like Chamula) has the right to earn a little something off the tourists they attract and the locals absolutely have the right to lay out (and enforce) some ground rules.

Festively-dressed civic and religious officials overseeing the Sunday market in Chamula. They'll be drunk by noon.

A traditionally-dressed Tzotzil man gets his sandals shined at the Sunday market in Chamula.

 

What bothered us was the resentment we felt in Chamula. It was clear that some members of the population have had it up to here with tourists. After witnessing the skimpy clothing and photo-snapping behavior of a few of the folks getting out of mini-vans we can understand that feeling. 

But if you really can’t stand us why take our money and fake welcome us in? You simply can’t have it both ways (snatch the cash then wish we’d never come), no matter how cool your church is. And the church in Chamula is damn cool.

Chamula's claim to fame is beautiful on the outside and other-worldly on the inside. Unfortunately, they're serious about not taking pictures inside.

 

The white facade with colorful blue and green trim is fairly unassuming. Inside, however, is an amazinng world of Mayan customs and Spanish Catholic tradition. Dry pine needles blanket the tiled floor. There are no seats but locals sit and squat on the pine needles as they meticulously arrange candles in all shapes, sizes and colors. Each person seems to have their own personal design in mind and the floor is abalze in flickering patterns–the only light in the whole dark space. Men and boys wander around scraping the dregs of spent candles off the tile and making sure the pine needles don’t ignite.

The walls are lined with niches which house carvings of saints we recognize and some we don’t. Smoke from copal insense obscures their faces, mirrors and doll parts and other offerings hang from their limbs. Some people faced the front altar (the altar paintings were all missing when we visited) and some faced a saint along the walls as they lit their canldes and mumbled their prayers in the Tzotzil language. One woman was swinging a docile live chicken as she chanted.

The effect was hypnotizing–one of the most transporting experiences we have ever had in a church.

A procession exiting Chamula's famous church.

A Sunday procession exits the church in Chamula. Note the Jesus statue wearing a white wool cloak that matches what many local men wear.

 

By the time we emerged back into the sunlight the resentful vibe eased up a bit as the men (and some women) were becoming increasingly blotto on a clear alcohol made from fermented sugar cane called posh (pronounced pox) which they like to mix with Coca-Cola. One theory is that the belches produced by drinking carbonated beverages are thought to expel bad spirits. Our theory is that the special billboard Coca-Cola put up along the road near Chamula, aimed squarely at the local market, has done its job.

They'd like to teach the world to drink.

Roughly spun wool, which the local communitites weave into fabulously fluffy skirts and tunics to ward off the cold in the Chiapas highlands, for sale at the Sunday market in Chamula.

 

Exploring the Chamula market, with its gorgeous piles of rough wool and its smattering of fresh produce, and silently soaking up the atmosphere in the church made us hungry so we stopped at a little stand where a woman was grilling chicken. With so many begging children around (where, exactly, is our 20 peso entrance fee going?) we saved some of the food to give to the kids.

Imagine how stupid we felt when we returned to our truck to find that some of those kids had splattered sticky, drippy fruit all over the passenger side window and shoved soda cans and candy wrappers into the bed.

It's a rare treat to find areas where both men and women retain their traditional dress.

 

Wander around the Chamula market and watch a procession leaving the town’s famous church in our video, below.

 

 

San Andrés Larráinza

The Tzotzil Mayan town of San Andrés Larráinzar hosted peace talks between the Zapatistas and the Mexican government (whose represenatives sometimes failed to show up for scheduled talks, accusing the Zapatistas of propogandizing) in the mid ’90s. 

The church in San Andres Larráinzar.

 

We arrived in Larráinzar in time to grab some tamales from a vendor at their market, which fortified us for a good half hour of watching men wearing fancy hats and sashes (members of the local civic and religious groups) stumble around blind-drunk in front of the town’s church. There seemed to be a hierarchy and specific roles to play–some were attempting to  dance, some attempting to play music, some orchestrating events–but all of them were too inebriated to do much aobut it. A few were simply slumped over on a bench next to the church entrance. 

Brightly dressed, and totally blotto, civic and religious leaders in San Andres Larráinzar.

 

If anyone has any theories (beyond the obvious) about why binge drinking is a such a huge part of so many market days and religious days in indigenous areas around the world, please share your comments here.

 

San Lorenzo Zinacantán

Though we arrived too late to take in the market in San Lorenzo Zinacantán  (most are over by noon at the latest) we paid our 15 peso per person entrance fee and checked out what this town is really famous for: bright blue and purple floral weavings.

Zinacantán is famous for its textiles in eye-popping colors and patterns.

The colors are almost blinding and the large floral motifs are bold to say the least. The local women look fabulous in the the boxy blouses they make out of these fabrics, but most tourists end up looking silly. Though if we still had a house we would have been tempted to buy one of the blouses from one of the women selling them from small shops in the center of town and hang it on a wall as pure art.

 

Tenejapa

Another great day trip destination outside San Cristóbal is actually the final destination for many Tzeltal villagers. Near Tenejapa lies the Romerillo cemetery where tall light blue and light green crosses are arranged on the crest of  a hill. Like lop-sided sentinals, they keep watch over a ramshackle (and, sadly, garbage-strewn) collection of graves. The small crosses on each grave are color-coded to indicate the nature of the person buried there (old, female, male, a child, etc). Each grave is also topped with a simple wooden door or wooden planks. On Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) the wood is removed so people can “talk” to their dearly departed.

The immediate effect is an unshakable impression that zombies will be shoving their rotting arms up through the earth and rising up through the doors at any moment. Creepy, but cool.

The Romerillo cemetery near Tenejapa.

The Romerillo cemetery near Tenejapa.

 

 


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