Mayan Holiday

In Chiapas—Mexico’s wildest state—you can find cowboys, Indians, and ancient cities in the mist.

Chiapas is the southernmost state in Mexico, the wildest state, the poorest state, the forgotten state. Few tourists go there compared with the throngs who visit other states; those who do are mostly ruins explorers or Europeans with backpacks or holdover hippies searching, as one guidebook put it, for “the score on the ’shrooms.” I myself had not planned on Chiapas; I was going to spend my three weeks of vacation on the Yucatán Peninsula, but on one ferociously hot morning in Cancún, I spied a travel agency, dashed inside, and bought a one-way plane ticket to Villahermosa. I had heard that somewhere south of there was a place called Chiapas, with waterfalls and sapphire lakes and roads winding through mist-shrouded mountains where it was always cool, even in summer—and that was where I wanted to be.

Chiapas is at the very bottom of Mexico, at the lowest part of the isthmus that stretches between the Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific Ocean. To the north are the swampy lowlands and oil refineries of Tabasco, to the south the hot, fertile Pacific Coast, and to the east, Guatemala. From the sixteenth century until 1820, Chiapas was actually part of Guatemala, and in terms of landscape and indigenous culture, it seems as if it still ought to be.

I had not realized when I started my journey that I would be following in the footsteps of British novelist Graham Greene, who journeyed through Mexico in the winter of 1937 and 1938. From his experiences, Greene wrote a travelog, Another Mexico, and later his masterpiece, The Power and the Glory, the story of a fugitive priest on the run in Tabasco and Chiapas during the anti-Catholic purges of the thirties.

Some things, of course, have changed since the days when it took Greene three days to reach San Cristóbal de las Casa by mule. Today there are paved roads, good hotels, and people who speak English just about everywhere. But some things haven’t changed: the steep serrated hilltops, the isolated impoverished native villages, the foggy serpentine roads, and the singular sense of awe and dread that comes when you find yourself all alone, surrounded by the exotic emerald jungle.

Like Greene, I began my trip by heading south from the modern city of Villahermosa, through the flatlands of Tabasco and up into the Chiapan highlands. Greene was on a mule; I was on a public bus. Actually, the easiest way to travel is by rental car, but at $75 or more a day, plus mileage, this can be prohibitively expensive. After about two hours of steady climbing, with the muggy air growing more bearable at each turn in the road, I arrived at Palenque. In Graham Greene’s day, this was a quiet ranching community called Santo Domingo. Today the town is overrun by tourists who use it as a base for exploring the Mayan ruins of Palanque, about twenty minutes west of town and halfway up a mountainside.

Palenque was one of the most magnificent of the Mayan ceremonial centers, with nearly five hundred temples and platforms and pyramids, only a handful of which have been disentangled from the ever-creeping vegetation. If you visited Palenque long ago, you should go again: In the last year archaeological work has uncovered even more structures, and what were once tumbledown piles of stone and green mounds overgrown with tree roots are now reconstructed buildings. The single most astonishing sight at Palenque is the tomb of the ruler Pacal, deep inside the Temple of the Inscriptions—indeed, it is enough to make you want to chuck it all and become an archaeologist. The crypt, with an enormous stone slab covering Pacal’s body, was discovered in 1952 at the end of a sealed passage and a stairway filled with rubble. To get there, you ascend 69 steps, then descend into the guts of the temple via a steep, suffocatingly steamy stairway. At the bottom is where Pacal’s untouched burial cache was found, including his jewel-adorned skeleton and jade death mask. I emerged wet with sweat, happy I’d made the climb but gasping for air. Unfortunately, Palenque is hot and steamy year-round; bring mosquito repellent and sunscreen.

Thanks to breakthroughs in the last two decades, we can now understand many of the ancient hieroglyphic inscriptions on the structures at Palenque and other Mayan sites. This alone is reason enough to visit Chiapas: to comprehend the stunning revolution that has transformed our knowledge of the ancient Maya. Gone is the image of them as a peace-loving people who spent their days designing pyramids and their nights gazing at the stars. They were actually a ruthless people obsessed with blood. The rulers mutilated themselves in shocking rituals and tortured and sacrificed their captives.

The best place to stay at Palenque is not at one of the many hotels in town but at Chan Kah, a collection of roomy cabanas scattered at the edge of the rain forest. From your private porch you can sit in a rocker and watch the wild parrots, toucans, and hummingbirds. Some guests claim they have even seen the quetzal, the sacred bird of the Maya, with its iridescent green feathers, crimson breast, and long curved tail. I have my doubts; quetzal sightings are the fish stories of Central America. I myself have seen only three, and two of them were stuffed. The third was in a cage at a zoo.

From Palenque, it’s possible to make a side trip to the even more far-flung Mayan ruins of Yaxchilán and Bonampak, both near the Guatemalan border. Flying into those sites is expensive (charter flights from Palenque cost $650); one alternative is to join a small group and make an overland journey for only $100. It’s a grueling trip: five bumpy hours down a washboard road, then an hour by boat up the Usumacinta River to Yaxachilán. Like Palenque, Yaxaxhilán is a bewildering complex of overgrown temples, pyramids, and ball courts with elegantly carved stelae depicting bloodletting rituals, including one showing a woman pulling


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