The Lacandon Jungle: The Final Frontier

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By Marcia Chaiken and Jan Chaiken

Whether your passion is creepy, crawly critters, larger animals, or Mayan archeological sites, the Lacandona Jungle is a must-see site for the intrepid visitor to Mexico. Partially located in the state of Chiapas, between the state of Oaxaca and Guatemala to the east, this dramatic rainforest jungle covers a vast area that continues into Guatemala and the state of Yucatan (1.9 million hectares in all, or over 7,000 sq. miles). The part in Chiapas is bordered for hundreds of kilometers by the Rio Usumacinta, the river that separates Mexico from Guatemala, and is so dense that indigenous people there were able to stay hidden out of the gun-sights of the Spanish conquerors for centuries after the conquest. Magnificent archeological sites remained unknown to foreigners until about 65 years ago.

According to the World Wildlife Fund, the Lacandon is home to 50 percent of Mexico’s bird and daytime butterfly species and 30 percent of the country’s mammalian species. Although our car trip last February was intended to explore three of the major archeological sites; Palenque (read more about Palenque in our March 2012 issue, Bonampak, and Yaxchilán, the biodiversity was a characteristic that added to the wonder of the sites… not to mention the record number of biting insects, which provided unrequested souvenirs for several days following our visit.

We launched our trip to the Selva Lacondona from San Cristóbal de las Casas, which in February was bitterly cold and very rainy (its altitude is 7000 feet or 2,100 meters). Driving up, over, and then down the mountains that separate the high plateau from the tropical mountains, every kilometer decrease in altitude produced an increase in temperature. The road has so many curves that it was virtually impossible to strip off any of our many layers of clothing until we stopped at one of the extremely few Pemex Stations on the route.

Our first overnight stop was at Palenque. We had last visited this archeological site over 30 years ago, and the changes were notable. During our previous visit, the ruins were so isolated that the number of places to stay overnight could be counted on one hand, visitors to the site were rare, and there were virtually no restrictions on access to the excavated buildings. Now, given a local airport, a small city had developed outside the highly protected ruins, numerous concessions are clustered around the gate, a plethora of men vie to be one’s guide, and large groups can be seen determinedly following their leader. The feeling of Shangri-La was gone but not the magnificence of the ruins, described in a previous Eye article on Palenque.

Many of the buildings undergoing excavation on our first trip had been cleared and were accessible. Thanks to the painstaking decoding of the hieroglyphic labels on the monuments, we learned details of the life of over 10 rulers, including a women who ruled for more than 20 years. We were most amused by tourists paying great attention to the indoor toilets, built centuries before the Spanish conquistadores “discovered” Mexico. We treated ourselves to one of the boutique hotels a short distance from the archeological site and were utterly pampered by the staff and the accommodations – including a bathroom much more luxurious than those serving Mayan rulers – and meals consisting of fresh local vegetables and game but with a decidedly European gourmet preparation and presentation.

Our drive from Palenque to Bonampak followed an almost straight road passing through many small villages with typical Mayan cottages with thatched roofs, white-clad residents, and copious flowers in riotous colors. The village topes were numerous and not easy to spot, and the road between the habitations was laced with pot holes. The turnoff to Bonampak was well-marked and we thought it was remarkable that the ruins were so close to the main road – until we realized we had to park our car and hire a private van to take us for several kilometers to the entrance to the archeological park and then walk to the main sights.


The murals at the Bonampak site made the trip more than worthwhile. Located at the top of a monumental building, unimaginatively dubbed Templo de Pinturas, the murals cover the walls and ceilings of three small rooms and in vivid colors and great detail show celebrations probably carried out in honor of the birth of the ruler Chaan-Muan II around 780AD. The celebrations, including dances, mock battles and the sacrifice of slaves leave little doubt that decapitation and other forms of bloodshed were considered an important part of royal life. While over the centuries, the murals had been dulled by a layer of salts that were deposited on the surface, recent removal of these minerals have restored the paintings to their original vibrancy.

Yaxchilán, at times a sister-city to Bonampak and at other times a bitter enemy depending on the politics of the rulers, is close as the crow flies. Not being crows, we traveled several kilometers down a road so rough that the Palenque-to-Bonampak road now seemed to be a superhighway. We arrived at an ecotourism site, Escudo Jaguar, for an overnight stay and then traveled by river boat early the next morning to reach the site (only accessible from the river). We departed so early that the only primates sharing the site with us for several hours were howling monkeys.

Because of its isolation and few visitors, Yaxchilan maintains the magic that Palenque has lost. Signs at the entrance to the site describe the rulers and concentrate on the reigns of the Jaguar dynasty from the late 600’s to the early 800’s.   In addition to monkeys, a plethora of birds, butterflies and shy porcine mammals can be seen and heard. The Mexican government web site for Palenque and Yaxchilan ( includes audio of the environmental sounds.

The gracefully decorated temples, palaces and other civic buildings loom peacefully over the broad flat grand plaza and are shaded by immense trees that are hundreds of years old.   Intricately carved steles rest toppled over in places where archeologists and vandals gave up trying to move them. From the fact that some steles were found at the bottom of the river, we know that their weight made it impossible to float them down river. One major “acropolis” soars up from one side of the grand plaza. The climb is steep and the steps far from secure. Another smaller acropolis can be viewed from below at a distance or accessed from a path that climbs from near the entrance to the park. You need considerable stamina to explore the entire site, so we were content to visit the grand plaza edifices.

The history and habitation of both Yaxchilan and Bonampak came to an abrupt end in the early 800’s. Although there are many theories about why these incredible sites were deserted, they remain unproven theories. Independent of why the Mayans left, if you travel through the Lacondon you will be thankful they built beautiful places to visit.

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