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Journal - 20-Mar-2001, Tuesday, Bonampak, Yaxchilan, Chiapas, Mexico
(Trip: Ruta Maya, Southeast Mexico)

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Click for larger image! Rio Usumacinta<br> . Keywords: backpack,Mexico,travel,overland,camping,camp,bus,autobus,chiapas,ruins,maya,maya bell,jungle,bonampak,yaxchilan,lacandon,lacandona,indigenous,long shirt,white,shirt,river,boat,indian,guatemala,usumacinta,rio
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Click for larger image! Carved monuments in Yaxchilan. Keywords: backpack,Mexico,travel,overland,camping,camp,bus,autobus,chiapas,ruins,maya,maya bell,jungle,bonampak,yaxchilan,lacandon,lacandona,indigenous,long shirt,white,shirt,river,boat,indian,guatemala,usumacinta,rio
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Rio Usumacinta
 
Carved monuments in Yaxchilan
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For the first time on this trip, the night gets cool enough to unpack our sleeping bags. Of course we wake feeling hot and sticky!

The tour van will pick us up after 06:00 so it's a bit of a panic to try pack everything up in the dark. Deep, loud, growling sounds emanate from the surrounding jungle as we pack. We're leaving most of the stuff in a campsite locker.

The tour van is almost full with six other thrill seekers. The van drives in convoy with a few other tour operators. For some reason, all the tour companies seem to offer exactly the same tour - same pick up time, same restaurants, etc. Maybe they share space or something.

We stop for a buffet breakfast in a 'tropical' style restaurant, with rustic, outdoor, decor, surrounded by trees. Also enjoying breakfast are a number of men with automatic weapons.

Before leaving, we are asked to put our names and passport number on a sheet. Military controls apparently. Chiapas is the home state of the 'Zapatistas', a group of armed rebels fighting for indigenous rights. Or so they say. Until recently, foreign visitors to Chiapas required a special permit.

After getting back in the van, we wait until a police car (with two armed breakfasters) leaves ahead of us. It looks like we have police escort! I'm not sure if it's pre-arranged but it is definitely deliberate. Following us, also from the restaurant, is a large tour bus of well-to-do Mexicans.

As we drive past very simple, one room, houses, the young children wave at us.

An hour later, we reach a military checkpoint and the name list is handed over. On the other side the police car waits until the tour bus passes through. Looks like the escort is no accident. This is proved beyond doubt when Monica asks to make a pit stop. We are told we have to travel with the police. When we finally do stop, at Monica's insistence, the police come back for us to check if everything is all right. Our driver tells us that there are a lot of bandits in the area.

Bonampak is a beautiful site (and sight) - much of it still under jungle. The main attractions are three small chambers, with murals completely covering the internal walls and ceiling. For me it's nice to see some ruins in their unrestored state - somehow it's more exciting to come across ancient stone structures that have been untouched for hundreds of years!

We only have an hour at the site which is not really enough. One of disadvantages of an organized tour. Before boarding the van we are offered water from a big plastic cooler. When everyone declines, we are told "Don't worry, I filled it fresh from the river this morning"! Humor typical of the locals when dealing with tourists.

The next stop is Yaxchilan, another, larger, Mayan site. To get there, we drive to the Usumacinta river which separates Mexico from Guatemala. Another military checkpoint is passed on the way.

At the river we board a long, narrow, boat, with outboard motor. The river is wide and fast flowing. Thick vegetation lines the banks. It's clear that the high water mark is several meters above its current level. Scary. The journey takes about 45 minutes.

Arriving at Yaxchilan, we climb up the bank to the entrance gate. At the top of the bank, there is a jetty for use in the wet season. It's hard to imagine so much water. It seems like the site is only accessible by river.

The first building we see is built into a bank and has three inviting doors. Entering the first chamber, an unlit corridor is visible. Now this is explorer action! I turn on my torch and start to follow the tunnel. The small, yellow, beam from the torch reminds me, once again, that I really should get a new battery!

A sound in the ceiling alerts me to a family of bats. They hiss and squirm as I shine my light on them. Maybe I should have got the rabies vaccination!

Exploring further, I'm led for about 5 meters down a winding path, passing around four small rooms with stone beds. Cozy. Returning, there is a small stairway leading out the back of the building and into the main plaza.

The site is quite large. There are various clusters of restored buildings, separated by long, steep, paths through the jungle. There is a constant sound of loud growling from the trees surrounding us. Seems almost incredible that it comes from a small, harmless, monkey. Sounds more like something out of Alien.

The exciting thing is that we are well and truly in the jungle, exploring ancient ruins: A longheld fantasy of mine!

The return boat trip, against the current, will take around 2 hours (over twice as long as getting here). The air is quite cool and misty now, with odd bursts of rain. We wrap up in plastic ponchos provided by the tour company. They work pretty well - must try to get some. Poor Monica packed for tropical heat and now has arms like a plucked chicken (with a tan).

Tired from the early start, I fall fast asleep - seated in a wooden boat (now if I could just perform the same trick in a comfy bus!). Every time I open my eyes, the scene is the same - broad river stretching into the distance with green banks partly concealed by mist.

After what seems like a life-time, the 'harbor' comes into view. Trance-like, we climb into the van and allow the driver to take us where he will.

We've opted for a 2 day tour that includes 'rustic' accommodation in a Lacandón community and a guided walk through the jungle the next day. This means we'll be dropped off, along with two others, while the rest head back to Palenque.

The tour van stops at a small town called San Javier. Stepping out, we see a small crowd of backpackers, a decorated combi van, and a long haired 'Lacandón' man rushing around purposefully. The Lacandón are the indigenous people from this area, said to have descended from the Maya. The men have very characteristic features: Large eyes and nose, robust frame and face, head set forward over body when walking. The traditional male dress, which many still use, is a long white shirt. The women wear colored dresses.

An exchange of backpackers occurs as some us get in the colorful combi, bound for the jungle lodgings, and others get in the tour vans, bound for Palenque. We drive off in the combi at a fair pace. Watching the foliage flash past, in last remnants of daylight, reminds me of a sci-fi worm hole sequence.

At our first stop we drop two of our companions. Wearing new backpacks and hiking gear, they look a bit lost and bewildered amidst the Lacandón 'village' of small streams, rustic tin-roofed huts, and jungle growth all around.

A women approaches the van and peers inside, as if she's never seen a crowd of pale skinned tourists before. She steps back and starts yelling at our driver. It's not really clear if she's angry or just highly animated. She's ranting in the local dialect, which bears no resemblance to Spanish. The driver lets her scream for about five minutes, calmly placating her every now and then with a few words. The rest of the van occupants are giggling almost hysterically at her sweeping gestures and rapid fire speech. She continues shouting as we move off, then stares after us open mouthed, apparently stunned that we could leave her mid-conversation.

On the way out of the village we stop where an ass is grazing by the side of the road. The driver gets and starts yelling and throwing stones at the poor beast until it moves to the other side of the single track road. Maybe he's letting out what he wanted to say to the women.

We drive off at a ferocious pace. Looking back, I see the ass crossing back to his preferred side of the road.

A few minutes later we arrive at our camp. There's six of us - two french boys, a retired french-speaking swiss couple, and us. We'll be sleeping in a star-shaped, two story, 'palapa' (palm thatched hut). Each couple has their own triangular-shaped 'star point' to sleep in. Simple but acceptable. The only running water are streams and rivers that criss cross all over the place. Dinner is at 8.

We relax, while waiting, balancing ourselves in a hammock. A huge moth, the size of a small bird, flutters by. The night is cool and fresh, with a light breeze.

Dinner is served in a communal hut. The food is very good and well appreciated after our active day.

Bellies full, we prepare for bed. Cool air is blowing in through the large mesh window at the foot of our 'room'. Rather too cool, in fact, so we do our best to block the wind with bags and spare clothing. The mosquito net is called into service once more, giving a fairy-tale look to our bed.

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