Yaxchilan (Yash-chee-lahn) is situated on the high banks of the Usumacinta River that borders Mexico and Guatemala, three hours southeast of Palenque. The secluded ruins are in a dense jungle only accessible by river boat, a good 30-minute ride from the launch site. The boat ride is a wonderful transition from now to then. In years past, Lacandon Mayas made this passage in open dugout canoes. Today, the wood-planked boats are covered in palm thatch.
Yaxchilan rivaled Palenque (Mexico) and Tikal (Guatemala) as these three “super-powers” vied for control over the surrounding lesser Mayan centers that provided food, tribute and able fighters.
This magnificent archeological site is worthy of several hours of your time. It is a space that is dark jungle, moss-covered, limestone rocks tumbled and crumbling, and with only the beginnings of a restoration in process.
As you walk into the space you feel as if you were an archeologist discovering it for the first time. It speaks of antiquity. The howler monkeys calling back and forth across the river are haunting, adding a sense of mystery to the place. I pass through a compact Mayan arch into a vast plaza.
Situated high on a river bank, the site offers a strategic location on the wide and magnificent Usumacinta River, testifying to the power and influence of this once-great city. Huge bromeliads hang from hundred foot high trees with mahogany colored trunks. I walk beneath a tall canopy of leaves, vines, roots and flowering succulents, careful not to trip on toppled stones.
Yaxchilan is probably like Palenque was 30 years ago. The only nearby lodging is at the boat launch site, where there are also a couple of good restaurants. If you contact Daniel Chank In, the Selva Lacandon guide, he can help you make lodging and boat travel arrangements instead of taking the cookie-cutter day trip.
My journal scrawlings about the Palenque to Yaxchilan passage:
The languages of travel are Czech, German, three varieties of English (Brit, American, Aussie), Spanish, French, Dutch. These are my traveling companions. In Palenque they speak Chol. We stopped for breakfast at a simple comedor with tree trunks for stools and a dirt floor and GREAT coffee, dark and rich, locally grown and organic. I have not been sick since I arrived in Mexico a month ago.
We are western women taught to cover our breasts, be modest. From the window of the van I see a woman at the water source, one large breast exposed, suspended, full of milk walking toward a toddler waiting for nourishment. Plank wood and palm thatch cover the humans at night. Shelter is simple for man, woman, cows, chickens. Chiapas, siempre verde is the state motto. It is always damp here. We are on flat land now, clear-cut for growing corn and lumbering, heading toward the frontier. Maize scrabble, hard-scrabble, bare feet, dirt, bare chests, men at work with machetes. We pass a sign: This is Zapatista country. Land of campesinos.
Grazing land, cattle, horses. Ceiba trees, overcast skies, animals are thin I see their bones. We pass through pueblos of resistance, a village sign announces this, the sign is rough wood with white paint. The land is flat, vast, green scrub. This is the road to the Guatemala border. We pass military sentries, checkpoints, men heavily armed, some masked. Put your cameras down and cell phones away, says the driver, as we approach one. They wave us through. On the way back, away from the border, we are stopped and I show my passport. Of course they are checking for drugs and I know that the pipeline works its way across the river through the jungle to the vast cities and towns of America where demand keeps this business in business. Did I feel in danger? No.
Tonina, Hidden Chiapas Archeology Gem: The Road Less Traveled
Few people make Tonina, the classic Maya archeological site just beyond Ocosingo, Chiapas, a travel destination. Instead, they choose to go between San Cristobal de Las Casas and Palenque directly, bypassing the most vertical site of the ancient Maya world. It’s another three hours by road to reach Palenque, which demands at least one overnight stay. (Do you see us at the top?)
From San Cris, Tonina can be navigated in about a day-long round-trip, giving you several hours at the site. We left at seven-thirty in the morning and planned to return to San Cris by seven in the evening, including a one-hour stopover in Oxchuc to stretch and see textiles.
It’s a long and winding road. We traveled from seven thousand foot mountains studded with pines to lowlands bordering the Lancandon rain forest filled with tropical vegetation, banana palms and adobe huts with thatch roofs. The mountains fall fast to almost sea-level over this almost three-hour journey, so the road curves sharply. Ginger is a great antidote.
This is EZLN territory, and Zapatista politics for and by the people prevail here. It is not unusual to come across an occasional roadblock demonstration. This is a common method for anti-government protest in both Chiapas and Oaxaca. There are grievances here. Sometimes for a donation, vehicles may pass. Other times, it’s important to know alternate secondary routes and have a full tank of gas when passage on the main highway isn’t possible.
At Tonina, we had an on-site Maya guide who participated in site excavations ten years ago. He played here as a child. Our multi-lingual guide who traveled with us from San Cristobal, anthropologist Mayari (meaning Maya princess), fluidly translated between Spanish, English and Tzeltal, the regional Mayan dialect.
There were at most ten other people at Tonina. From the top of the Pyramid of the Sun there is a spectacular view of the Ocosingo valley. Mayari tells us that Frans and Trudy Blom would fly in a single engine Cessna to Palenque and the Lancandon rainforest in the early 1950’s. She made that trip, too, with her archeology father as a child.
After most of us climbed to the top (not me this time, because of my new knee), we enjoyed a picnic lunch back at the site entrance, where a small, excellent museum hold pieces excavated from the site. When I was in Mexico City recently, a huge exhibition (now closed) on the Maya world at the Palacio Nacional prominently featured treasures from Tonina.
Then we back-tracked to Oxchuk.
Oxchuk weavers work on a back strap loom and then embroider the textiles by hand. If you turn off the main highway and venture onto the town’s main streets, you will find family run shops supplying huipils to the women of the local community. The quality is first-rate and the price is about half of the cost as in San Cristobal. Definitely worth a deviation. We were a curiosity since I suspect not many tourists make a stop there.
By now it was dusk and as we approached the intersection beyond Huixtan to turn onto the highway just about fifteen miles from San Cristobal, there was a roadblock demonstration. We turned around, bought two five liter jugs of gas at a roadside stand, asked a local man and his son to go with us (for a fee), and set off on an alternative back road through the mountains that would take us into San Cristobal. They carried official local papers authorizing travel across mountain communities.
We arrived back at our hotel only an hour later than we had planned. For reassurance at the outset, I called our hotel to tell them our whereabouts and route while our very competent guide Mayari notified ATC Tours to track us on GPS. Risk of danger? Little to none.
One of our participants said this was definitely an adventure story worth retelling! It was the last day of our two week Oaxaca and Chiapas art and archeology study tour. What a grand finale, wouldn’t you say?
Posted in Cultural Commentary, Photography, Travel & Tourism, Workshops and Retreats
Tagged archeology, Chiapas, culture, EZLN, indigenous, Lancandon forest, language, Maya, Ocosingo, Oxchuk, Palenque, politics, protest, roadblock, San Cristobal de las Casas, Tonina, Tzeltal, Zapatista