Tag Archives: Maya

The Journey Begins: San Cristobal de Las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico

Most of our Penland School of Crafts travelers continued on with me from Oaxaca to explore Chiapas. Our journey began at the ADO bus station where we boarded an overnight luxury bus called the Platino with twenty-five reclining seats, leaving at 8:30 p.m. and arriving in San Cristobal de Las Casas at 7:30 a.m. the next day.   ChiapasBest45-16

Our destination, La Joya Hotel, is our base for exploring the art and archeology of the region. It’s a long and winding road! I recommend taking ginger drops in water, eating some crystallized ginger and taking a sleep aid! Hosts Ann Conway and John Do prepare a spectacular first night Thai welcome dinner after we visit Sergio Castro and his museum. Next, bed!

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Chiapas vies for the title of Mexico’s poorest state along with Oaxaca.  It is a sorry competition.  Both states are filled with isolated mountain communities that have little access to health care, education, nutrition and employment. Rural life is tied to the land where people cultivate corn, squash and beans and weave on backstrap looms. The result is the creation of magnificent textiles, a tourist draw. Isolation has preserved tradition at a huge cost and the politics are complex.

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Chiapas is rich in Maya culture filled with pre-Hispanic, indigenous folk practices blended with Spanish-introduced Catholic beliefs.  Known as syncretism, we can see this in every corner of life ranging from food to textiles to religious celebrations today.  The Mayan world spans southern Mexico, Guatemala, Belize and Honduras and her political borders are artificial and seamless.

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Our expert first day guide is Patrick, fluent in English, who studied archeology and history at University of California at Berkeley, son of a Mexican mother and Irish father. His uncle was the famed Bishop Samuel Ruiz Garcia, who mediated the peace treaty with the Zapatistas and the PRI.

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We learned much from Patrick about Spanish colonialism, the cultural and political history and the life of indigenous people. One cannot visit Chiapas without putting the textiles into the context of the people who make them.

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That’s why we include a visit to the Sergio Castro Museum as an introduction to Chiapas life on the first day, after a walking tour of the great pedestrian avenues of San Cristobal de Las Casas with Patrick.  Much has been written about Sergio.

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Sergio Castro is a hero, folk legend and medicine man who treats indigenous people who have suffered burn injuries at no cost.  Donations from visitors like us help fund medicines and supplies. He has won many humanitarian awards.

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We see everyday and ritual clothing. We see the skull rattle and string instrument made from gourds. We learn about the Maya language variations and the Lancandon tribe in the forest who escaped Spanish colonization.

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The photos on this post include our walking tour around San Cristobal de Las Casas, and our visit with Sergio Castro to see his textile collection of the region and understand his work.

We are not guides but educators. Norma Hawthorne Shafer has spent over 35 years at major universities organizing and delivering award winning educational programs for adults. When you travel with us you can rely on getting an in-depth experience from local experts who are most knowledgeable in their fields. We can include hands-on workshops to enrich the learning experience. Our forte is developing customized programs for arts and cultural organizations like we did for Penland School of Crafts. 

 

 

 

 

Tonina, Chiapas: Atop the Mayan World

The Mayan archeological site of Tonina is breathtaking.  The Moon Handbook on Chiapas says it is one of the best sites that no one seems to know about.  In fact, there were only about ten people there when we visited.  About midway between San Cristobal de las Casas and Palenque, and a few miles off a side road from Ocosingo, Tonina is in the heart of Zapatista E.Z.L.N. country.

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Tonina boasts the highest pyramid in Mesoamerica.  May I boast that I managed to climb to the summit?  Ojala.  The Acropolis has more vertical gain than any other known Mayan structure.  It is really steep.

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Our taxista Ricardo drove me, Fay, Gayle and Dennis to Tonina from San Cristobal de las Casas on a two-and-a-half hour, winding ride on an S-curve mountain road lined with pine forests and valley vistas.  We went through Zapatista country and dropped down into the semi-tropical Ocosingo valley where ripe fruit hang from banana trees and cowboys ride the fence line that corral herds of cattle.  They say the best cheese comes from Ocosingo.

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By the time we arrived it was almost noon.  I could feel the altitude although we had dropped almost 2,000 feet from San Cristobal’s altitude of nearly 7,000 feet.  It was a dry, very hot day.  Bromeliads hung from the trees and wild begonias grew between the ancient stones where Mayan aqueducts once held water.

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Fortunately, we were wise enough to share in the cost of a wonderful local Spanish-speaking guide who lived in the nearby village of Nuevo Jersalen and participated in the archeological excavations.  He was both knowledgeable and patient as we carefully made our way higher and higher up the seven levels of the site.

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Between the four of us, we were able to help each other out with translations and got most of what he explained to us.  While he said the guided visit would be two hours long, in fact we were there with him for three hours.  Without his helping hand, it would have been impossible for me to climb to the top!

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I climbed the last, very steep part almost hand-over-hand, never looking down, going across the face of the stones from left to right.  Slowly.  Slowly.  And, then suddenly I was at the top where the vistas are extraordinary.

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Once, many years ago when I had first visited Chichen Itza and Uxmal, my dream was to go to all the major Mayan sites in Mesoamerica.  I’ve almost completed that dream and have added Tikal, Palenque, Bonampak and Yaxchilan to the list.  I never imagined that Tonina would be on par with those other more famous sites, but I was surprised to discover that it is a worthy equal.

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After getting down from the top we spent some time in the wonderful museum where the original stone carvings, glyphs, funerary masks, stelae, and clay vessels that had been excavated are on display.

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Tonina survived for 200 years after the fall of Palenque.  As the Mayan world was crumbling around them, the leaders focused more and more on death, sacrifice, and doom.  At the museum, I talked with students from Moscow University who speak fluent Spanish and are involved in translating the glyphs from Tonina as part of their thesis.

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More archeological digs are happening at Tonina.  As recently as four years ago, a new tomb was discovered.  This is a site you do not want to miss!

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On the way back, we made a stop at Oxchuc where cloth woven on back strap looms are embroidered and worn by indigenous women from the region.  It was a great day!

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Selva Lacandon Territory: A Chance Meeting

My journey into the Lacandon jungle along the Usumacinta River that is the boundary between Mexico and Guatemala began simply with a top-of-the-list visit to Na Bolom (Jaguar House) in San Cristobal de las Casas.  Here I was fascinated by Gertrude (Trudi) Duby-Blom’s descriptive black and white photos shot in the mid-1950’s of Lacondon people.  Na Bolom is dedicated to the Lacandones, who retreated deep into the rainforest to preserve their ancient practices in the face of the Spanish conquest.

The Selva Lacandon, a dense jungle rainforest, is where you will find Yaxchilan and Bonampak — two glorious and significant Mayan archeological sites.  To get there isn’t easy.  It’s three hours southeast of Palenque by van.  Palenque is five hours north of San Cristobal de las Casas IF you take a direct bus and don’t sign up for the tourist trip that stops at Agua Azul and Cascada del Misol-Ha along the way (extending the trip to eight hours one-way).  But I digress.

The day before I was set to leave for Palenque, Fay and I were on Real Guadalupe pedestrian avenue window-shopping.  I noticed an indigenous man and woman in the doorway of one of the shops who looked familiar, as if I had seen them somewhere before.  I asked the shopkeeper which indigenous group they belonged to and she said Lacandones.  I stepped into the shop and approached them with a “buenos dias.”

Carmela Chan Ak In and Cayhum Yuk Masha introduced themselves and told me that they lived in the jungle and had been friends with Trudi Blom.  I asked if I could take their photos and he agreed.  They requested and I agreed to send email copies to their nephew who has correo electronico.  As I set my lens, I realized that they may be the same people who were the primary subjects of the photos I had seen at Na Bolom and in the published books — taken at least 40 years ago. Our conversation ended with an invitation to me to visit their village.

Just yesterday, as I exited Bonampak, I met Daniel Chank In, a Lacandon native and registered eco-tourism guide who takes visitors through the jungle and arranges overnight stays.  Daniel is part of a Lacandona owned/operated eco-tourism cooperative called Jaguar Ojo Anudado certified by the Mexican Tourist Board.  He knows Carmela and Cayhum and says they live about 2 km from the ancient ruins and told me that, yes, they had been friends with the Bloms and subjects of her photography.

If you are interested in a guided visit with overnight stays (I highly recommend this, since one day to see both Yaxchilan and Bonampak are not enough), please contact Daniel at jaguarojoanudado2@yahoo.com.mx.  His website is www.jaguarojoanodado2.com.mx

Daniel introduced me to his wife, Victoria Chank In Chana Bor, his son Esteban Daniel (males wear white tunics, females wear floral tunics), and their newborn son wrapped and sleeping close to his mother’s heartbeat.

 

Palenque. Mayan Temples in the Chiapas Rainforest

They say there is more rain here in Palenque than anywhere else in Mexico. We are in the middle of a rainforest. It is a jungle of green, and with the shroud of fog, drizzle, and mist that hangs over us all day, the archeological site is a photograph of sepia and gray tones only punctuated by occasional green grass, moss, or red lichens.

Tracey and I spent most of the morning and early afternoon in the extraordinary museum filled with glyphs and bas relief carvings and jade funerary masks. The highlight was the every half hour on the hour entry into the exhibit of the tomb of Palenque ruler Pakal that was discovered in 1952. By 2 pm the heavy rain had subsided, and covered by plastic parkas, we entered the park.

The temple steps are slippery. Were the Mayans that tall? I grab onto the stone steps in front of me for balance and foothold. Sometimes I slip on the wet moss covered stones and I look below to the ground, afraid of tumbling. I am a mountain goat, careful, one step at a time. I made it to the top of the palace! Hurray. And at the end of the day, when the park closes at 4:30 pm, the guard says it is time to leave. I say, I need your hand to help me down those steep steps. He frowns. Pretend I am your mother! I say. And he does.

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Where to stay in Palenque?  I highly recommend Hotel Xibalba.  I booked online on booking.com and saved about 20% off the going rate.  The hotel is located close to the bus station, is clean, delightful, safe, with helpful staff and a good breakfast (extra).  A taxi to the archeological site costs about 70 pesos and the collectivo from the main highway a few blocks away is 10 pesos.

Right next door to the hotel is a fantastic seafood restaurant, El Huachanango Feliz.  I ate dinner there three nights in a row.  First night was grilled tilapia.  Second night was the Caldo de Mariscos (seafood soup) and the third night was the Cazuela de Mariscos (they added cheese to the seafood soup).  Each meal was fabulous and more than I could eat for 85 pesos, including a ceviche of shrimp and octopus.