Looking out over the Maya site at Tonina (Dan Linstead)
Article Words : Dan Linstead | 05 November

Chiapas: Mexico’s secret corner

Dan Linstead discovers there’s more to the Mexican state of Chiapas than one great ruin – including Coca-Cola shrines, echoing rainforest and countless lost cities

Dressed in a Christ-like white robe and carrying a machete, Carlos led the way into the jungle. He was a man of few words and he’d walked this way many times before. He paused only to hack back the creepers that snarled across the track, and to help me wade through a stream, thigh-deep, that had broken its banks. 

Soon, the path began to rise sharply, and chunks of stone – mossy, irregular but undoubtedly carved – littered its flanks. Carlos stopped at the crest of the hill; I joined him, breathless. A parakeet screeched, and a little sunlight filtered onto a stone archway. We were alone on top of a Mayan city.

More specifically, we were on top of the city of Lacanjá, an unexcavated Mayan site in the rainforest of south-east Mexico. I had walked in from Carlos’ village, one of the last communities of Lacandón Indians who have inhabited this area for centuries. Anthropologists are still arguing about how long exactly, but in Carlos’ long, dark hair and high forehead, it was easy to imagine the DNA of the warriors who stalked these trails 1,500 years ago. He was showing me his backyard.

Until you visit the Maya world -– this was my first time -– it’s almost impossible to fathom its extent, and how much more there might be to discover. Even in developing countries, we’re used to our ancient monuments roped off and signposted, but here was an entire city – possibly bigger than the well-known site at nearby Palenque – so overgrown it was just a gnarled, knobbly hill. A small ceremonial chamber with a wild toupée of ferns and tree roots was all that was visible. It was probably one of hundreds.

Part of Lacanjá’s obscurity is down to its location. Hard on the Guatemala border, on the fringes of Mexico’s frontier state of Chiapas, it’s in an area that has long been left to its own devices. This is a region of steaming rainforest, rugged valleys and stubborn highlands, with a large and fiercely proud indigenous population. Progress has been slow coming. Carlos’ village was only reached by a sealed road in 1998. But recently, the potential for ecotourism has started to be realised, and the modern Maya, like Carlos, are finding ways to make a living from the heritage of their ancestors.

Consuming faith

My introduction to their world started in the highland city of San Cristóbal de las Casas, a Spanish colonial town with a bohemian-turned-cosmopolitan air. Sitting in a natural bowl at 2,200m, its long, straight streets are lined with traveller-friendly bars and shops selling sombreros and New-Agey paintings. Groups of Maya women wander through, hawking woven bracelets for a few pesos. There’s a 16th-century cathedral, and a bandstand where sun-weathered musicians render ‘Blue Moon’ at dusk.

I sat at a colonnaded café with Allan Rhodes, a softly spoken Anglo-Mexican entrepreneur involved in community tourism. “Most visitors to Chiapas come to San Cristóbal and then do day-trips to the main Mayan sites,” he told me as we sipped lattes and watched the hustle-bustle in the plaza. “But you can also sleep in the local villages, and be shown around by guides from the different indigenous groups.” 

He had devised an itinerary that would take me east from San Cristóbal to the Lacandón jungle, and then back west via a trio of classic Maya cities, finishing at the most famous, Palenque.

But first he wanted to show me how some of the old Maya beliefs had lingered on, and so early the next day we headed to the village of San Juan Chamula. It’s an easy drive from San Cristóbal, but we went the traditional way – on horseback. The morning was bright and blue, and the scent of pine wafted over the hillsides as we clopped up a winding track. We passed fields of maize -– the Mayan staple diet, and a symbol of regeneration – before tethering our horses and walking through Chamula’s scruffy outskirts to the main square. 

Flanked by market stalls and the whitewashed church of San Juan, this broad plaza is the epicentre for indigenous politics in Mexico. I had been warned not to take photos of the locals, predominantly Tzotzil Maya speakers who take a dim view of outsiders exploiting their identity. The village runs its own affairs – the Mexican police and military may not enter – and although tour groups have been visiting daily for years, there remains a watchful atmosphere. 

From the outside, the church of San Juan – which is what everyone comes here to see – looks like many other Spanish missions: flat-fronted, capped by a belltower, with a massive arched door. But inside it’s another world, where the old Maya spirits mingle with Catholicism in a strange and potent brew. We entered a dim nave, heady with incense, where gaudy statues of saints were lit by thousands of votive candles stuck to the floor in puddles of wax. There were no pews. A carpet of pine needles brushed our feet, and worshippers cleared space to build their cake-candle shrines. Family groups huddled in knots, with musicians playing accordions, guitars and drums, and dirges being sung. 

The high point of Yaxchilan, known prosaically as 'building 33' (Dan Linstead)

I heard the squawk of a chicken, and turned to see an elderly Tzotzil woman holding the bird by its scrawny legs and wafting it rhythmically over the guttering candles. “She’s a holy woman, a shaman,” whispered Allan. “The villagers come here to pray for good fortune, or fertility, or health. The shaman performs these rituals and advises them how their prayers may be answered.” 

The ill-fated chicken was now being wafted over the head of a second woman, evidently the customer, whose shrine included several bottles of Coca-Cola – which the villagers believe has quasi-mystical powers. Unable to take photos, I was jotting notes quietly when a man approached me and sternly gestured for me to stop. In 20 years of travelling, it’s the only time I’ve been asked not even to write about what was unfolding before me.

Dazed, I emerged back into Chamula’s sunlit plaza. “There is no other church like this in Mexico,” said Allan, and I believed him. Over half a millennium, these isolated highland Maya have fused nature worship, Catholic ritual and modern consumer goods into a bizarre but unique faith.

Shrine of the times

Waiting to meet us outside the church was one of Allan’s local friends, Dona Clara, an ample, beetle-browed woman with an infectious laugh. More outward-looking than some of her neighbours, Dona Clara was keen to explain the Chamula way of life to visitors. She led us to her house, a simple concrete room with a few food tins and buckets along the walls. To one side was her own shrine, with saints’ statues, rows of candles and a bottle of Coke. We drank a glass of poche, sugar-cane liquor, and Dona Clara performed a goodwill ceremony for the two of us, brushing us with a bunch of leaves.

I was curious about her beliefs and asked her what she thought happened after we die. Allan translated her reply: “I will go to a place, not far, where people can still see me.”

For all the ritual paraphernalia, it was an optimistic philosophy many would share.

After a night back in San Cristóbal, it was time to head east. We left before dawn, escaping the suburban sprawl and descending into the lowlands just as the sun rose. Pine woods gave way to ferns and banana trees, and tongues of mist licked at a succession of Eden-like valleys. 

By mid-morning we were down in the jungle proper, with vultures high overhead, the zither of cicadas and tangled roadside foliage waging its slow, endless war on the tarmac. The combination of limestone cliffs and dense forest has kept road-building to a minimum, and we drove for hours along sinuous switchbacks until we reached the long, straight Frontier Highway to the Lacandón jungle.

Rebel country

This road is another hotspot in the tense relationship between indigenous Chiapans and the Mexican government, and a wooden sign on the verge spelled out the reason: ‘Esta usted in territorio Zapatista en rebeldia’ – You are in Zapatista rebel territory. The reference is to the leftist revolutionary movement, led by the flamboyant, balaclava-wearing Subcomandante Marcos, which has been fighting for indigenous land rights in Chiapas since 1994 (see box, previous spread). 

The Zapatistas were formed and trained in the jungle borderlands, and their early successes prompted the Mexican government to lay some tarmac fast, to enable military deployment in the area. Although these days there’s an uneasy truce between the two sides, the highway is still watched over by army checkpoints, and the general advice is to get off it before dusk. 

The reason travellers come this way is to visit two of Chiapas’ most remarkable Maya ruins: Bonampak and Yaxchilán. Both are in the Lacandón jungle, and were venerated as sacred sites by the locals before being taken over by archaeologists in the last century.

We pulled in at the main village, Lacanjá Chansayab, a string of tin-roofed huts and milpas – allotments of papayas, pepper and pineapple – alongside a frothing river. There are only a few hundred Lacandón Indians left; since the road here was built, tourism has become their mainstay. Lacandón women cook fried beans and quesadillas for guests, and the men – pulling on their traditional white robes – act as guides. We headed for Bonampak with one of them, Daniel.

By the end of my trip I’d visited half a dozen Maya sites, but Bonampak was a good place to start. It’s small and quiet, it feels remote, and its striking murals give a graphic insight into the Maya worldview. There’s also a degree of panting up stone steps, trying to decode glyphs and swatting at mosquitoes, rounding out the typical temple experience.

Daniel led us in past giant ceiba trees, and paused at an airstrip lawnmowered out of the jungle – the usual way here before the 1990s. Giant flying beetles and dragonflies zipped past our heads, and you could imagine the excitement when the American traveller Carlos Frey was first led here by the Lacandón in 1946, some 1,200 years after the site was abandoned.

In front of us were the steps of the Acropolis, built into a hillock and rising up into the tree canopy. We looked in at the Temple of the Murals, whose portrayals of war and torture overturned the pre-1940s view of the Maya as a peaceable bunch. Decapitated bodies, blood-spirting phalluses and scenes of mass slaughter line the walls of the three rooms. Strike that theory.

The carnage depicts a battle that took place in AD792, in which Bonampak successfully allied with the greater power of Yaxchilán against an unknown enemy. Yaxchilán is only 30km from Bonampak – “My grandparents used to walk there in a day,” Daniel told us – and it was our next stop. 

Into the jungle

If Bonampak’s main draw is its murals, Yaxchilán’s is its location. Overlooking a bend of the Usumacinta River – today the border with Guatemala – you can only reach the city by lancha motorboat, and the first view of the temples looming through the forest is electrifying.  

This isolation also makes Yaxchilán a wonderful place to experience Chiapas’ jungle in the raw. We pulled into the riverbank halfway along our boat trip, and walked quietly through the voluptuously scented trees. In an hour, we were rewarded with termite nests the size of medicine balls, the tracks of a jaguar or ocelot, and the unearthly, machine-lathe roar of a troop of howler monkeys. As we returned to the boat, we even saw a flash of red and yellow as the unmistakable profile of a toucan swooped past.

Yaxchilán itself is the lost city of fantasy, a sprawling realm of tree-strangled stonework that climbs sharply up a hill from the river. We walked in through a bat-lined tunnel representing the underworld, and roamed around dozens of structures, from ballcourts to bedrooms, unearthed since the 19th century. From its high point – the ornately carved, roof-combed structure known as ‘building 33’ – you can easily imagine yourself back in the eighth century, as Bird Jaguar IV himself, scanning your milling dominion and the unbroken miles of rainforest beyond.

The final steps 

My time with the Lacandón was up, but I still had a final Maya site to visit: Palenque. Back up the Frontier Highway, I re-joined the main Chiapas travel circuit: five-star hotels and backpacker bars replaced the Lacandón’s homestays and campsites. I bought a ticket and joined the visitors at this most-celebrated of Mayan cities.

And indeed it was spectacular – a vast open-air museum of crypts and courtyards painstakingly eked out of the forest since 1839. But as I puffed up my last set of stone steps, and looked out again over the jungle, with its endless array of suspiciously pyramidal bumps, I was thinking back to Lacanjá, and the little, forgotten temple I’d walked to with Carlos. Archaeologists had come in the 1980s, he had told me, but had lost interest. A city even greater than Palenque might have lurked beneath our feet. That one still belonged to the Maya, ancient and modern.

The author’s trip was arranged by San Cristóbal-based ecotourism consultant Allan Rhodes, via the meet-a-local website www.tripbod.com. Half-day experiences and trip-planning help are available from £29pp. The five-day itinerary from San Cristóbal to Palenque, including driver-guide, accommodation, entry fees and excursions, cost £1,500.