16 APRIL (Wednesday)
At 6am we met our guide at the hotel front desk. Since there were only the two of us, he brought his own Volkswagen Bug instead of the minibus. It was a little cramped, but off we went into the darkness. Unfortunately, he spoke virtually no English, and after trying to ask him various questions in Spanish we lapsed into silence and just watched the countryside flow by. We eventually got near to the Mayan ruins of Bonampak, where we stopped at a Mayan Indian village to pick up a local guide and escort in the form of a young Lacandon Indian girl. Since Bonampak is still considered to be a holy site by the Lacandons (the local tribe of Mayans), entry is permitted only with a Lacandon escort.
I had read that the Mexican government had to enter into a treaty with the war-like Lacandons to allow the development of a road to Bonampak and so that the Indians would allow tourists onto the site without killing them anymore. I don't know when that treaty went into effect, but I was glad that it had.
After picking up our escort Maria, we drove over an unpaved and unsettling stretch of road that was under construction just prior to the site. It looked to be difficult going for the work crews, as the jungle was not cleared out of the way except directly where the road was, and the road itself followed a natural (but tortuous) path through the landscape. It used to be that you had to hike the last 10 kilometers into the site through the jungle, but this new road fixed all that. By now it is probably paved and quite easy to drive on.
Arriving at Bonampak our guide parked his car and waited for us in the parking area. Maria took us up the path to a small admissions area that consisted of a single Mexican guard in uniform and a modern building that was under construction. I think it was to be a small museum and visitor's center, and at the time I was really hoping that the restrooms would be complete, but no such luck.
A panoramic photo of Bonampak. The building with the famous murals is on the right under a protective modern roof. Up on the hill (behind the tree in the foreground) is a series of small temples.
We were given an hour to tour the site, and as Bonampak is quite small, that's ample time. There are numerous stelae out in front of the few temples on the hillside, but the main point of interest is the three rooms that contain floor to ceiling frescoes of Mayan artwork. Archeologists were stunned when this site was found in the 1940s, as it was one of the only surviving examples of original Mayan paintings in full color. Unfortunately, poor restorative attempts and the intervening years have taken their toll on the paintings, but they are still something to see.
We were the only four people at the site the entire time we were there (Sue and myself, Maria, and the guard). Maria soon sat down and waited for us to complete our explorations, while the guard kept a wary eye on us. We were told not to take flash or video pictures of the inside of the painted rooms, and with the guard watching us from outside the doorway we investigated each of the three rooms. I had been taking video shots all over the site, but now I had the video camera just hanging from its strap around my neck, resting in my hand. With my back to the door I hit the Record button, and without looking through the viewfinder I attempted to film as much of each room as I could. The whole time I would be pointing out various features with my other hand, and talking to Sue, saying things like, "Oooh, look at that section there...." while I stealthily moved the camera all around trying to film the walls and ceilings. The guard kept looking in on us, but I guess he figured that I wasn't filming if I didn't have the viewfinder up to my eye. Surprisingly, these video shots turned out remarkably well considering the circumstances, and the colors came out a lot better than those in our still photos.
A small section of the Bonampak murals. The clarity of detail doesn't show up well, but the colors came out okay on this particular photo.
When we were done, we got back in the car and returned Maria to her village. She asked us if we liked Bonampak, and when we said that we did, she seemed very pleased. The Lancandons are a poor but proud people, and they have every right to treasure their heritage.
From there we drove to the little village of Frontera Escheverria, on the border of Mexico and Guatemala. Near the border we had to proceed through one or more military armed checkpoints, at one point having to exit the car and present our passports, whose numbers were noted in a logbook. The village at the end of the road was on the banks of a river, and it was to be our jumping off point for the site of Yaxchilan. I don't remember anything modern about it; it truly typified a classic Third World village in the middle of a non-civilized area. Down at the river we boarded a long riverboat that was about as wide as a canoe and twice as long. The boatman, our guide, and ourselves were the only occupants, and we settled in for the scenic 45-minute boat ride up the Usumacinta River.
Taking the boat trip up the Usumacinta River to the ruins of Yaxchilan
This was one of those times in the trip where it kinda felt like we were modern "Indiana Jones"-type characters. Having a local native take you to a remote site of ancient ruins via a riverboat has its own special flavor. There were no "tourists" around, no signs of civilization as we proceeded down the river, and very little of the previous two items at the site itself.
After arriving at the beach landing near Yaxchilan, we went up the hill to a rustic dining hall that served lunch to a handful of explorers like ourselves. After the meal, we were set loose to explore the ruins. The two of us went alone, though I felt a guide would have been better for this particular site. (Our guide finally did find us somewhere in the site, and was helpful for the last part of our tour.) It is not especially easy to navigate through Yaxchilan; while we were able to see most of the major structures on our own, when we got back to the states I reviewed a borrowed Yaxchilan book that seemed to tell me that we had missed some important temples. I don't know if that really was the case, but I felt like we had experienced the site, and now knew what it was like, and what it had to offer.
I'm using the camcorder while standing in the left-most door of this Yaxchilan building.
Yaxchilan, even more than Palenque, stood out from the other sites in that it had a higher proportion of surviving decorative artwork on the buildings. The door jams, lintels, and carved artwork on important steps had survived the passage of time better than any other site. This was probably due to the fact that this site has not seen as many visitors as the other "touristy" sites have.
Yaxchilan also seems to be more enveloped by the jungle than any other site. You felt like if humans left the site alone for few weeks the jungle would quickly cover the structures that are currently visible. The trees and other plants at the site were very green and alive, unlike the "dry" sites that we had been touring (up until Palenque). Because of the way it is laid out, the profuse foliage, and the lack of tourist visitors, it is hard to find photos of Yaxchilan in the outside world. There are no site guides or postcards of Yaxchilan available, though if you search you can find a large and expensive coffee-table type book on it. Despite its lack of fame, and the difficulty and expense in reaching the site, I heartily recommend going there. No one who goes to the Palenque region for more than a day should pass up Yaxchilan if at all possible.
A major building at Yaxchilan, this one has a very intact roof comb. It was located out of sight high on a hill above most of the rest of the ruins.
After finishing our explorations of Yaxchilan we took the boat ride back to our waiting car, and took the long drive back to our hotel. Along the way we went through a brief period of rain, which was the only time we were actually out somewhere when the rain fell. We arrived at our hotel by 6pm, just in time for dinner at the hotel restaurant.
After dark we took a swim in the hotel pool, listening to the frogs and insects making their nighttime song. We were treated to a display of fireflys, who flitted in the sky nearby and who made the evening just that much more interesting. Then, as usual, we turned in early so that we could be up in time to get to the ruins when they opened.