This summer I spent four days traveling through Chiapas, Mexico’s southernmost state, which skirts the border with Guatemala. I landed in the Villahermosa airport and from there rented a car and drove south, down to the Mayan ruins of Palenque and into the Lacandona jungle at Yaxchilan. I spent a few nights at a lovely eco-lodge called las Guacamayas, perched on the banks of the iridescent Lacantún river and flanked by the Montes Azules natural reserve.
During my second day of the trip I was soaring up the muddy Rio Usumacinta on a narrow turquoise motorboat, admiring the sweeping view and humid winds that licked my face and made my dress billow out behind me as Guatemala flew by on my right and Mexico on my left. I was going to discover the ruins of Yaxchilan, a vital city state of the Mayan empire whose fortuitous location along the river had granted it control over the region’s trade and taxes.
Today, there’s little to betray Yaxchilan's prosperous history – only around ten percent of the original city has been excavated and the rest still lies buried among tropical jungle, waiting. As I made my way through hanging vines and ancestral mahogany trees, climbing small hills littered with dozens of rocks, I realized that I was actually walking over submerged temples overgrown with centuries of heavy rainfall and thick jungle. I ached to bury my hands into the soft earth to uncover the stately tombs, bright murals, stone effigies and obsidian treasures underfoot.
All around Chiapas the story is the same. Hundreds of sacred temples, royal palaces, astronomical observation towers and ceremonial pyramids lie submerged in the last remaining swathes of protected Lacandon jungle. It makes your skin tingle. At a certain point earlier on in my journey I had climbed atop the Temple of the Sun in Palenque (another majestic archeological site further north) and watched dumbstruck as a light grey blue mist rose from the jungle canopy and melted up into the clouds. It was as if the spirits of the jungle were feeding and being fed into the sky, one breathing into the other. Trees spilled out, blossoming into a kaleidoscope of different shapes, pouring into the sunlight. The wind whipped the leaves into a frenzy, and as the thick clouds above me swirled and condensed they began to pour down delicious warm drops of fresh rain. I understood in that instant that this ancient site was still very much alive.
I came across an ancient historian in Palenque, who has been on my mind ever since. I passed by without noticing him at first, reading the official information board next to the temple; he was sitting on the tall stone steps next to me when suddenly I heard him mutter under his breath that the information there “was all mierda.” With my habitual penchant for conspiracy theories, I sidled over to him, intrigued, and asked him to tell me more. To begin with, he told me, Palenque was a made-up Spanish name and its real name was Lakamha which meant “place of the rains”. He described in great detail how thousands of years ago all of the great civilizations pilgrimaged here – the Egyptians, Greeks, Tibetans – because it was a university of learning and ceremony, and he pointed out the seated Buddha statue on the temple right above us and the head of a Pharaoh inscribed in one of the chambers inside. I gazed into his impenetrable face, at once a miser, at once shockingly wise, with startling light blue eyes that seemed to change shade as he spoke. He could have been Mexican or Chinese or god knows what else, he might even have been mad, but somehow I just knew I had to believe him.
The next day I drove to Yaxchilan and then down to Las Guacamayas. The drive was one of those simply glorious trails, only two lanes coated with a tunnel of thick trees breaking out into open swathes of glimmering countryside and vines and grazing cows, straight undulating pastoral hills. We drove past small brightly painted towns with tiny chubby grandmothers stroking their grandchildren under the shade of ceiba trees and dozens of stray dogs sidling along the road.
As we entered the Lacandona natural reserve though, another reality hit home. Beside the highway I’d spotted vast fields of palm oil plantations, an issue that plagues rainforests the world over from Sumatra to Ecuador (farmers choose to cut down the forests that actually make ecosystems thrive in order to grow this cash crop). Many other fields were barren, their trees having been cut down for firewood and livestock farming, and now lay infertile. Ghostly wisps of dark smoke blew into the air as still more jungle was burned down to clear space.
The problem, I was told, is that the Mexican government endorsed a misguided policy of urban resettlement during the seventies and families from all over the country moved to this remote part of Chiapas. Because they didn't have any fundamental understanding of how to work with the local ecosystem, the new settlers tilled the land, cleared out the lush jungle and in the process destroyed entire habitats. Today, only ten percent of the original jungle remains. Solutions are available though, for example if locals are helped to understand the value of the lands and offered alternate revenue streams through tourism and related activities, they won’t cut down the trees. It’s that simple, and yet that complex. As for the original inhabitants of the forests, the Lacandon tribe, they’ve all wandered out and the 1,250 or so that remain now run small camping sites and ecological tours near Yaxchilan. Some still don their traditional white robes and wear their hair long, but they too have had to adapt to keep up with the changing ways of the forest.
As we neared Las Guacamayas I had just been thinking that I had never actually seen a guacamaya before (a species of endangered macaw) when suddenly I spotted some silhouetted in the purple sunset light in a tree which looked like a pair of lungs, squawking and frolicking in its thin branches. I shivered as I remembered all too well the fragility of the sight. This feeling was to remain with me my entire stay in Chiapas, a feeling of delicate balance, of teetering on the edge of something we don't quite understand, of the ethereal nobility of the jungles that depend on our respect and protection.
On my last morning I woke up at the break of dawn for a boat ride on the Rio Lacantun. I folded my arms across my chest under the bright orange life jacket to defend against the morning’s chilly mist and gazed down the river at the way it snaked through the jungle, at the fresh dawn sun glowing white and giving off fire that lit up the hazy layers of distant forest. We passed monkeys dropping fruit down to the fish, weird furry delicious river fruits that grew in a pod like cotton candy, five bats suspended on a tree trunk, camouflaged agents of the night with scythe-like claws, colorful toucans, cheeky woodpeckers, minute finches and immense roots that wrinkled and folded over like wax sculptures. Huge palm leaves the size of beds cut the sunlight into jagged pieces. Sturdy vines the size of tree trunks wound around trees and back onto themselves.
The moon was still full and hung heavy above the tops of trees. As the strong current of the river carried me along, I was filled with an overwhelming sense of the profundity of the jungle, of its immensity and power, it’s simple gentle being and patient wisdom in the face of all of man’s fussing and fretting. The jungle doesn’t ask to be more. It just is.
Article and photos: Alexa Firmenich
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