January 15, 2010 to January 25, 2010 – Paamul to Xpuhil

We departed from Paamul in a rented car on January 15 about 10 AM and arrived at the fort of Bacalar around noon. Our party included Lyda and Castor Puleston, Roberto and Gloria Ghisolfi and myself. Bacalar is a small for but quite significant historically for it was defended by Spaniards and their dependent “peons” but fell to the rebels in 1948. The rebels gave them the choice of joining or leaving and they chose to leave settling on Albion Island in Belize, where I studied their descendants in the village of San Antonio Rio Hondo. The church in San Antonio is surrounded by the graves of the Spanish immigrants as this one of Bonifacia Castillo who was born in Bacalar.

We reached Cenote Azul at 1:10 PM where we had lunch and the children swam. I had not been to the Cenote for over 30 years so it was quite exciting. The place had no changed except that the wild animals that used to roam free around the restaurant were no longer there. Also, a big cement parking lot extended the area above the cenote making for a diving area and vertical ladder which the children loved climbing up and down upon.

We had the usual fish and all was when we used to come here with the villagers from San Antonio and sit at a central table, eating a huge fried fish and drinking beer. The cenote has become somewhat of a center of controversy according to Roberto who was interviewed on local TV about it the year before. There is criticism that it is a sacrilege to use ancient sacred places for frivolous fun. However, as far as I can see, there is no evidence of ancients regarding this area as sacred. Not all cenotes were sacred.

At 2:30 we left for Xpuhil. The road is straight but lots of villages have grown up around it and there are topes everywhere. Dusty little towns have grown up advertising an internet café, a loncheria, abarrotes shops with hanging buckets and spades, lots of chanclas (plastic flip flops), and other necessities mostly for locals. Not too much tourist stuff and what is there is mainly painted bowls in vivid colors of gaudy Mexican legends.

Our party at Bacalar, Lyda and Castor Puleston, Roberto and Gloria Ghisolfi
Bacalar Fort
San Antonio Belize church of Bonifacia born in Bacalar

Xpuhil

At 4:15 Pm we arrived at the lovely Hotel Calakmul in Xpuhil which was about the best in the area and after settling in quickly we headed to the site of Xpuhil which closed at 5 pm but the Guardia told us we could stay as long as we wanted.

This was a very exciting moment for me because I had been past these ruins twice before by car with Denny Puleston, my late husband, but for some reason we never stopped. I cannot figure out why because Denny always stopped at every interesting spot and he knew that Xpuhil, Becán and Chicanná were nearby. Xpuhil can be seen from the road. So it boggles the mind that we never stopped to see these. This was my first time to see Rio Bec architecture although we could not get to Rio Bec itself because it requires a bit of a hike. However, Xpuhil is spectacular and it was made more so by the orange glow if the setting sun on the fallen buildings and the undulating green extending out from the site.

The jungle is gone. But if I strain my imagination from the top of one of the high temples, such as Calakmul  I see the jungle as it once was. Thick, green, impenetrable and intensely scented by strange flowers and molds.

Group I Xpuhil - the 3 faux temples
The faux temple with rounded molded corners, Xpuhil
 

Having grown up in Tikal so to speak the Rio Bec style seems like a cheap imitation of the real thing. Something like a bronze tourist statue of the Eiffel tower or the Empire State Building. Either they ran out of money when they built those faux temples or it just was not important enough to make true pyramidal structures with a room on top. Xpuhil’s main group, Complex I, has three faux pyramids that are basically non functional. The stairs are fake and the rooms are solid, as if the Maya felt they had to do what was told but they did it as minimally as possible. We have churches like that all over Europe where small communities could not afford to build a proper church so they took short cuts. The idea is still there but the detail is lacking. At the same time that shows that it was not important to climb up to the top and do anything public from that vantage point. All ceremonial stuff happened below at ground level.

Chris Jones has suggested that these Rio Bec Faux pyramids are similar to Twin Pyramid groups in Tikal. I have seen all the extant Twin Pyramid Groups and unless he knows something I don’t (which is not unlikely) I see no similarity among them. At Xpuhil the faux pyramids are in a group of 3 facing rather haphazardly toward the southeast. There is no square between them, no small plaza in between. They seem like a rough shod fulfillment of a responsibility to a religious entity without actually being too precise about it.

The 3 faux pyramids are connected by a series of palaces (they call them “range structures” in archaeological parlance these days but I prefer “palaces”).  These are typical of anything found in the Maya area with the largest I have seen found in Uxmal and the coziest in Tikal. All have steps and platforms and I cannot believe they were used for living space. Let’s face it. Why build a platform if you have kids to raise and since the Maya were just as anxious for progeny as any nobility (we only read the voices of the nobility), then this was not the place to raise kids.

I know that in 1971 the National Geographic did a whole piece on Maya palaces and how they were lived in but even that issue considered it all a stretch. In this area, it is much more comfortable to live in a nice large thatch structure with a cured earthen floor, cool breezes wafting through and an outdoor kitchen, than to cram everyone into a hot damp dark room with a stone bench.

Peter Harrison has found evidence in the Central Acropolis of Tikal that one dynasty occupied the buildings in that crowded space for over hundreds of years. Fine. They probably did and he is right. But they probably had summer homes or winter homes outside the capital where the kids were raised while the big man did his business in the city. So perhaps we are back to the old concept of the ceremonial center which was not lived in. But I am not sure we have any evidence in Tikal of human food, fire, or excrement except perhaps some post Penn data such as Miguel Orrega’s excavated of G-Group where he found remains of rolled tobacco and some food items from the Terminal Classic. But then, maybe the Late Classic folks were really clean. Who knows?

Up on top of the southernmost faux pyramid Roberto discovered an inner tunnel and staircase that seems to have been opened during excavation. We all carefully made our way around the top and down the stairs of the tunnel.

At the Hotel Calakmul the children enjoyed the only TV they had seen in ages. Mexican cartoons which made equal sense in any language kept them entertained evening and morning again.

 
Palaces between the faux temples with typical Maya benches, Xpuhil
Inside the palaces between the faux temples, Xpuhil

Becán

The next morning we went to Becán which is 9 km down the road toward Escarcega also on the north side of the road. The day was cool and the road narrowed considerably as we left Xpuhil. There were several detours which took us along short bumpy side roads.

Becán is a fairly large site surrounded by a pit and defensive earthworks shown on the entrance map in blue implying a waterfilled moat which is unlikely given the porous nature of limestone. (Pix9) The site seems an architectural mix of tikal and Rio Bec but the pyramids are divided into segments. Palaces are built into the base of temples which is something that one sees everywhere here especially in Calakmul where I found the clearest example of this multiple temple-palace combination on a grand scale. One of the remaining lintels in a palace was original presumably of Zapote wood.  
The walled city of Becán
Becán - Dual faux temples
Palace at Becán in a vague Tikal style
Tunnel in Becán
 

The plaza to the south has the typical Rio Bec faux pyramids facing a stepped temple with palaces to the East and West. The faux pyramids are flat topped which is the only resemblance I can see to the Tikal Twin Pyramid groups. Other that that there is nothing in distribution or design resembling them at all. There is a vaguely Tikal feel to the place although it is so much smaller than Tikal it would be perhaps one or two complexes of that place. But the site was occupied long after the abandoned of central sites because the altar in front of the Rio Bec structure says it was built in 1220 AD.

The impressive thing here is that the palaces have very elaborate rooms. They are smaller than those of Xpuhil but even less comfortable to live in. In Xpuhil the temps all face roughly east. In Becán and Chicanná they are arranged around a typical plaza but also oriented East and wet. The main temple in Becán, the one that looks like a tikal Temples faces south oddly enough.  There is also an unusual tunnel connected several parts of the site.

Chicanná

Just 2 miles down the road from Becán is Chicanná with 3 cleared major groups. At Tikal this would be been considered a satellite site of the main city but here where sites are much smaller and more discreet it is classified as a separate town.  (Archaeologists like to use words like “epicenter” instead of “center” “village” or “town” just so they don’t get caught with their pants down). But basically there are towns, villages, centers and rural areas. All over the world urbanism shares the same patterns but also embodies major differences. We call Cuzco, Dacca, and London “cities” and they the only thing they share is population concentrations and non agrarian labor. However, here is this little set of groups 2 km from the next largest set of groups. That means either this whole area was settled by little independent groups, or it was part of one large polity. Either these groups were independent, or they were subservient to each other or to larger groups. No one has explained that yet.

These small groups were no larger than other ‘satellites’ and they all share the same culture, art and design elements. We ate lunch in the shadow of the elaborately decorated Sayil/Labna style small temple (probably structure XX) with long nosed gods on the rounded corners and elaborate carvings on the front. The structure is oriented more or less to the south. Castor went up to the top which is hard to climb and the rooms up there seem to be so narrow that the doorways could be said to open to the back wall. Only the center front room has any internal space.  
Chicanná decorated temple
Chicanná faux rooms
Chicanná temple has odd interior spaces
Itzamná entrance
 

The others all have doorways opening into the different directions but they are not real rooms but tiny narrow spaces too small to enter. This is another part faux temple structure. The bottom of the temple is all two stories of palaces opening out into the four directions, but again, they don’t look as if they were lived in. Think of life in a stone vaulted room attached to a pyramid! Who can raise a child there?

The second plaza at Chicanná had palaces around a square plaza but no temple at all. The sign said they were the oldest at the site but that is doubtful. They are all 2 storied. The benches are decorated in front with pilasters and with stepped designs.

The last plaza has the well preserved molded doorway of Structure II with the mouth of Itzamna through which you walk to enter the palaces which are in two stories. Again, hardly living quarters. Once stuccoed in red, some bits of color remain. The building is long and definitely not a temple but it once had a lacy roof comb a piece of which still remains. On the north of the plaza is a long palace which has been rebuilt since Early Classic times.

On the west is a set of Rio Bec style faux pyramids with a connecting palace between them. What a mish mash! Puuc building. Rio Bec building complex and palaces. It is outside Becán’s defensive wall but perhaps it was an ambassadorial quarter of Becán. We must remember that here we are dealing with extremely small distances. Further, while Becán is fortified, Chicanná is not. That says that Chicanná was not the enemy.

Calakmul

Leaving Chicanná we drove to Calakmul which is about 50 km West on the highway, then 60 km south. However, we  stayed in the campground called Yaax’che is only 7 km south of the main road and is run by Fernando and his wife inside the biosphere park. They rent tents with mattresses and blankets and even though we thought we had all the information we needed beforehand it turned out that the mattresses were air filled and held no heat. Yes bedding was provided. But that consisted of one sheet and one thin overwashed cotton blanket and no pillow. WE froze at night. Yes showers are available. These consisted of a nice building with stalls, each of which is supplied with a bucket of water and a scoop. Yes, there is a restaurant.  Dinner was a hushed affair in a screened in comedor with one coleman light casting long dark shadows that made everything look other worldly which made everyone speak in hushed tones or whispers and put a damper on any pleasure that may have been had in dining in the woods.  
Yaax'che campsite where we froze at night

Dinner consisted of rather indifferent hand made tortillas of masa harina filled with cheese or a choice of some kind of meat which reminded me of meals in Tikal at the Posada de la Selva except that they were more jolly and raucous affairs. The food was terrible and we referred to the rough meat as “Zopelote steaks.” On a good day at the Posada we got rice and sardines with juice made of a mixture of ketchup and rainwater. Breakfast was no better although much slower. Fernando’s wife worked over 5 fogons bustling around madly with the result that she got about 3 tables served with eggs, toast and coffee in the space of an hour. I finally got up to help her get some food for the children who were cold and hungry and wanted hot milk for the chocolate that was already on the table.   

The place itself wasactually beautiful, with spacious tents set up under a zinc roof separated by a thinned forest which filtered sunlight in pretty dappled patterns very unlike the forests of Tikal, Piedras Negras or Yaxchilán. This is a totally different scrub forest with little rainfall and the sounds of the night are absent. No cicadas. No frogs. No night animals. There was a strange silence at night.

I f you go, I suggest you bring your own sleeping bag, flash lights, towels, and be prepared for indifferent food in a lovely place. You have to make arrangements ahead of time, though. They say they are open at 6 am but there was no hope of a warm cup of Nescafe until after 7 AM, so don’t trust the signs.

Calakmul - a huge site, well maintained and only partially uncovered
Palace complexes in Calakmul have inner closed off central courtyards
 

The 60 km road to Calakmul takes about an hour and there is nothing to buy at the site so we had our own water and picnic stuff with us. The site is huge and little of it is cleared and excavated, but it has a superb network of nicely laid out pathways that connect small partially cleared groups where there is plenty to see and experience including interesting wildlife. It took us 5 hours to see the place although most people take only 3. But we climbed every structure and visited every single group that was accessible.

The architecture seems to make a clear distinction between palace complexes and temples although the temples have palaces incorporated into their flanks. In fact, the main temple has a peak topped with a palace, not unlike the temples at Tikal. But the largest temples here are two tiered. You ascend to the first peak which is topped with a palace, then go around that structure to the back and continue climbing to the next peak which is topped with another palace. This last higher one seems much smaller and partially obstructed by the larger one further down.

Sitting on top of the main temple, the books say you can see El Mirador. Well, that is not quite true although it is only 50 miles away. The buildings face all directions and this one faces north and a little east. The Maya were not particular about cardinal directions. Whatever worked went.  Nevertheless the view from the top is exhilarating and invokes the endless forest that once covered all these sites. From the top we could see the second cleared major structure but the rest is covered by thick green vegetation. It is hard to imagine that when the Classic Maya looked out over their city they saw was endless habitation. One city beyond another.  It boggles the mind.  
View from the highest temple over the jungle northward

Palenque

We left late Calakmul at 3 PM and arrived at the main road at 4 PM. Between here and Escarcega there is no where to stay overnight that is either reasonably priced or clean and comfortable. Staying in Escarcega is asking for trouble so we opted to drive right on through to Palenque with a stop for Dinner at a restaurant called El Rosario, arriving in Palenque about 10 pm. Roberto recommended the Jungle Palace, a rustic cabaña place but it was full so we ended up in the Jaguar which was also very nice and affordable. We ate at Don Muchos right across the road which is owned by an Italian married to a Mexican and the next morning proceeded to the site.The kids played in the little streams that feed into the Otulum River. The place is kind of a European Hippie hangout, crowded with young people dressed in black with Palestinian Jalabiyas, smoking cigarettes and wearing hiking boots as if they are true nature lovers. Sort of incongruous to say the least.

Palenque has been consolidated (Pix 21) and rebuilt tremendously since the last time I was here with Denny and the children probably 1974 or 75 (Pix 20). Grass covered the steps to Pacal’s tomb and only the wind could be heard rustling through the trees that press in on the site from the west. In the silence we could hear the past speak to us.  Also at that time little was known of the great Ajau Pacal, his life and his times. Now he is a historical figure of some note.  If you can see past the hordes of tourists, vendors of cheap painted plates and statues and the whistle wielding guards, this still remains one of the most elegant and artistically refined cities of the Classic Maya culture.

Pacal’s tomb has a mystical feel to it and people seem to feel the power of it as they gaze upon the tomb in hushed respect. Everywhere the sound of dripping water leaves trails of calcite and brown mineral depostis.   One improvement in the display might be to elevate the sarcophagus lid so that its marvelous carving of the young maize god would be visible. Right now it is too high to see anything at all.

 
Palenque today
Lyda and Denny Puleston in Palenque Tower ca. 1974
Lower rooms within and underneath the palace complex
  Climbing up into the palace complex with the tower we found a well preserved stairway leading down to the lower levels of rooms. (Pix 22)  There are about three stories underneath, with rooms layered in parallel so that most lie on the inside and never see the light of day. Water seeped through the walls leaving discolored mineral streaks on the vaults and dripping down onto the floors making the spaces cold, dank and airless, hardly luxury living. Perhaps there was less moisture when the rooms were well cared for, but still this seemed to me more proof that no one ever could have lived here.

Why would a rich family opt to live in a dungeon when they could be in the fresh air? Well, if they were attacked, or course. But Palenque, like all other Maya sites is not a heavily fortified city. None of the Classic Maya cities show evidence of bunker mentality, even those with defensive earthworks such as Tikal and Becán. At worst warfare was probably no more lethal than in New Guinea or in Precolumbian South America. You get a few captives, the weaker side capitulates, the war is over. No great massive killing on the European scale seems evident here. Warfare did not define their settlement patterns in this region.

The adquaduct, a marvel of engineering is still there but we are not permitted to climb in it anymore. The place is the same but it is different. It is no longer “ours.”

We stayed until closing time although the hills cast long shadows so the setting sun does not paint its brilliant amber light on the buildings as day ends. Tourists were still there. The whistles were still shrill, and the greatest beauty of the experience was in its memory of the past.

Frontera Corosal

The next day we left to go to Frontera Corozal and to Yaxchilán and Piedras negras.  The ride is 3 hours but we stopped at a balneario along a lovely greenish blue river by a small village, and had a picnic with Roberto cooking pasta over an open fire and the kids swinging off a rope Lyda tied to a large tree. (Pix 24) A suspended footbridge crosses the river taking farmers to their fields and cattle on the other side where a well worn path (Pix 23) runs along the bank like a giant pedestrian highway. A farmer returning from his morning’s work on the other side of the river came and sat with us a while in the typical Maya social fashion, requiring no conversation. I spoke with him avoiding his eyes to be polite and when he left gave him a packet of crackers.

Frontera  Corosal  is a dusty sprawling town of unpaved wide streets lined with shops and open stalls. Ornate cinder block buildings in different stages of construction stand in between thatch houses and crumbling shacks. The only comfortable place to stay is the Escudo Jaguar, a bright pink collection of small buildings built right on the bank of the Usumacinta River and surrounded by nicely tended gardens.  The rooms are okay with clean beds, good mosquito netting (not needed this time of year), fans, and separate communal bathrooms which had hot water two of the four days we were there. In typical local fashion there are no comfortable places to sit so in the evening, we sat on the cement stairs just  outside the doors to the rooms.  The restaurant has white table cloths, several very busy cooks bustling furiously in the kitchen, and one harassed waiter who cannot keep up with the customers. It is expensive and the food is not great unless you like French fries.

 
Kids playing at the River Balneario on road to Frontera Corozal
Me on footbridge at the River Balneario south of Palenque on the road to Frontera Corosal
Exploring a little we discovered the clean friendly Corazon de la Selva restaurant with excellent food including Yerba Mora (which I think may be deadly nightshade) and huge handmade tortillas, about 10 inches in diameter! The family also offered good advice about cascades and places to go. There are other comedors in the town but our group tended to return to the tried and true instead of exploring new options. Food is relatively expensive in restaurants and here 3-4 plates of fish with rice beans and vegetables, plus a few extras such as soup and juice cost about 380 pesos.

Yaxchilán

Boats on the Uxumacinta River which take visitors to Yaxchilán
  The next day at 10 AM we took a boat to Yaxchilán for 700 pesos for the four of us excluding a tip. The ride takes about ½ hour to get there and a little longer back. We spent 4 hours at the site although normally only two are allotted and Ernesto, our  boatman had brought no lunch, since the woman who booked us failed to tell him we would be spending longer than usual there. She also forgot to tell us to get our INAH tickets at a kiosk by the river bank prior to leaving. When we got back to the boat he was hungry and rather upset but a tin of sardines, several slices of bread and a bottle of water helped mollify him.

Yaxchilán is a little gem of a city built within an almost circular loop of the river which surrounds its high hills and probably limited its growth. Where the river loops almost connect to form a circle there may be a defensive earthworks but the last excavation of the site has produced no reports and apparently none is likely to come out so we won’t know until someone else excavates a bit more.

Built upon natural hills the Maya cleverly utilized the elevations as natural bases for their pyramidal structures mainly adding long stairways up the sides and topping them with palace structures decorated with lacey roof combs. Three groups are cleared and consolidated. The main plaza, the largest of the three, is flat, very large and spacious with numerous buildings flanking the sides and decorated with lovely carved monuments, many of which were removed to museums. Most of the buildings here are small and reminiscent of Palenque palaces with a decorative edge of shaped stonegracing the upper perimeter of thebuilding  walls, although the roof combs themselves are quite different.

As in all Classic sites, there is a main temple and we had our picnic lunch of canned tuna, sardines, avocado and brown bread on towels behind the main palace structure facing the uncleared forest.  The temple is quite high and we were pleasantly surprised when the guard came around and pointed out a family of Howler monkeys sleeping not far from us. They tend to be gentle nocturnal and from time to time they woke and jostled each resulting in a bit of commotion, pushing and shoving followed by urinating and defecating quite noisily. We could see several babies clinging to their mothers and a number of juveniles.  Somewhere far in the forest the sound of one lone persistent howler reverberated across the treetops reminding us that we were only visitors here.

Just as the thrill of the howlers was wearing off, the children were treated to the excitement of a family of spider monkeys swinging noisily through the trees on their way to someplace important by the look of things. These are more playful than Howlers and put on a much better performance, swinging wildly through the trees and leaping from branch to branch. There were a number of young among them as well.  Some threw down sticks at us to get our attention.

 
Yaxchilán
Lacey Roofcomb at Yaxchilán
Main Plaza of Yaxchilán
Yaxchilán small plaza group
Structures 39, 40, and 41
  The two smaller groups are much more fascinating than the main plaza because they are more harmonious with the forest and the landscape. The group with temples 39, 40, and 41 is reached by a long series of steps, which are barely cleared giving it a mysterious feel. At the end of the climb we emerged onto a cleared hilltop topped with the three small ornate palaces adorned with intricate roof combs all facing roughly NE and a superb view of the mountains beyond.  It is odd that all three buildings face out over the river and beyond the hills without the presence of a plaza. Their alignment was rather haphazard and imprecise so any argument that buildings were placed in relation to some cosmic elements, seems rather far fetched although one can always find a star or planet in the cosmos that faces each building. One of the three is completely askew as if no one cared where to place it.
Yaxchilán has a number of carved lintels depicting captives but it is now known that bound prisoners were often symbolic of subjugated Ajaus of conquered towns who continued to rule those towns. There is very little depiction of sacrifice and none of actual killing that I know of although there are plenty of war scenes.  Yaxchilán records show that they were at war at various times with Piedras Negras but in actual fact it is not a defended city. The buildings are situated with their backs to the river with no architectural no provision for defense, ramparts or watchtowers of any kind. None of the Maya cities give an impression of serious warfare and river embankments are conspicuously missing. Perhaps they just got washed away with years of cresting, but there is no construction linking embankments to the any kind of defensive architecture.

Bonampak

Giving up on the idea of Piedras Negras because the boat trip would be too long and arduous, we headed for Bonampak and the Lacandon forest.  bonampak is a bit tricky to reach. You drive to the guard station and there you pay a van 70 pesos per person to drive you the last 9 km to the site itself. After that there is an entrance fee of about 37 pesos per person and a quarter mile walk to the site itself.

However, it is well worth seeing and I was pleasantly surprised at how much more there is to the site besides the palace with the famous murals. I had always imagined a plaza with a single pyramid and the temple with the murals. While that is exactly what is there, the plaza is beautifully laid out with several impressively decorated small buildings and a huge pyramid with a long stairway extends upward to a large platform topped with small square palaces with intricate airy roof combs. Some of the original paint and glyphs still can be found on their walls.

The temple of the murals is part way up the skirt of the main pyramid which like Yaxchilán is built into the hillside, saving time and labor. Perhaps one of the most fascinating glimpses into the elaborate ritual and historical life of the Classic Maya, the murals tell the story of a period of conquest in vivid color that brings their world to life. They are fading bit by bit and restoration efforts are constant but the work is still impressive and where it our heritage it would be no less famous than the Sistine ceiling.  The colors are quite vibrant although the humidity in this area is hard to control and it is taking its toll on.  The children were particularly impressed with the story of the conquest which Lyda explained to them.

 
Bonampak main plaza looking toward main temple and palace with murals on right
Bonampak main temple with a secondary staircase behind going upward to a second higher structure

The pyramid extends beyond the palace of the murals and up to a high platform topped by several small square free standing palace structures with delicate roof combs. Behind the palaces a path leads up to a collapsed structure with a doorway leading into a bedrock hill. Around to the right of the main platform another set of stairs ascends to a still higher platform which is uncleared.  

Again it is interesting that even tiny sites such as Bonampak maintained all the elaborate arts, education and ceremonialism of the large urban centers plus they must have been important enough to make marriage alliances with them. Small in Classic Maya did not mean provincial unless when they were conquered a small army of intellectuals and artisans were sent in to quickly hack out elaborate stone carvings and write histories in stone.

Bonampak Stela 1
  At one point a sister of the Ajau of Yaxchilán married the Ajau of Bonampak.  There is a certain consistency in the Classic Maya culture which reflects a certain uniformity which can only come from communication.  Small centers and large centers both shared in that culture equally. For example, Stela I represents the ruler Chaan Muan II on a beautifully rendered huge thin slab of stone almost 20 feet high, which, according to the caption, is the largest found to date in the Maya world. He is shown standing with a ceremonial staff in his hand. At the bottom is the earth monster holding up the ruler. There are two faces of the young corn god emerging from the middle of the figure. His geneology is give below on another side bad along with Bonampak’s emblem glyph. This is hardly a hick town of the Classic Maya.

Lacandon Forest – Lacanjá

From Bonampak  we drove to Lacanjá  where we found a spectacular picturesque campground with idyllic cabañas along a burbling green forest river.  Scattered in the thick woods each cabins is supplied with comfortable beds, pillows and blankets, mosquito netting and a lovely verandas facing the green burbling river. We watched darkness come sipping wine by the gently flowing rich green water, where Castor was leaping from log to log as if in a playground, listening to the evening birds settling for the night.  Normally,  Lacanjá operates through advance reservations because food and other supplies have to be ordered from outside, but Rogelio, the owner was able to pull together a lovely dinner of vegetables, rice, beans and tortillas in their nice little restaurant and his aunt had cold beer and water for sale.  
Sipping wine in the riverside cabaña at Lacanjá
The communal bathrooms are very clean, have excellent shower facilities with hot water and the cabins are cozy and peaceful. It would be a wonderful place to spend a few weeks thinking and writing although there is no electricity there and no phone service.
Golondrina Cascades Lacandon Forest
Miguel the guard explaining the cascades and forest to Roberto
 

The next day we took a forest walk in the Lacandon forest which led to the stunning Golondrina waterfalls cascading down about 100 meters into deep blue pools. Miquel, Rogelio’s uncle and caretaker of the place, gave a long on the philosophy of the continuity of life which he was quite passionate about. He explained how each of us is just a mere connection in this chain of life and as we die we leave the world to the next generation that is good and whole and not be too proud. As he said, death humbles us all.

When we set up our picnic and gave him crackers and cheese, in proper Maya fashion he retired to his hammock to give us privacy. Among the Maya eating is a very private affair. We sat on benches over the falls eating avocado and cheese sandwiches in the crisp air of the cool white mist.

The forest walk is about a mile through high forest with some spectacular old trees such as a giant Ceiba with a climbing platform on top and over several small creeks crossed by plank bridges. Some of the cedars and other old trees have signs which describe their uses. However, to me it looked as if the forest is failing to regenerate as there are few saplings of the big trees and the undergrowth is sparse, limited to a few varieties of palms.  Certainly Miguel must see that in the future, the forest will not be regenerating in the same way as before. The big trees will probably be replaced by the smaller palms.

Piedras Negras

After leaving the Lacandon forest we decided to go to Piedras Negras after all so we drove back to dusty Frontera which was only an hour away and back to the Escudo Jaguar. Roberto and Lyda arranged the boat ride to Piedras Negras directly with a boatman for a fee of 3,000 pesos which is 80 pesos less than the office at the hotel wanted to charge and we ended up with Ernesto, the same boatman who took us to Yaxchilán.

The boats are all long about 20 feet long, made of planks and topped with a zinc roof hidden by some loosely slapped together thatch. The narrow benches along the sides have cushions which we put on the floor for the kids to lay upon. The motor was a 50 hp Suzuki which seemed to give us about 25 mph or even a little more. Mateo, the boatman who made the arrangement said this was the best boat for the job as they needed the power over the rapids, especially on the way upriver.

At 6:30 AM in the cold silvery light of dawn we arrived at the fogbound river bank paying a part of the fee for purchasing of additional gas.  I also sent Ernesto home to pick up a lunch because I did not want a repeat of Yaxchilán.  He returned with a bag full of chips and a 3 liter coke for himself and his assistant who happened to be the owner. Rudolfo, the owner of the boat, did not know the river as well as Ernesto and came along as assistant to refill the tanks en route while we passed through the rapids. To run out of gas at the wrong time could have been fatal.

We set out in the thick mist with a chill wind blowing in our faces making  the children huddle in close to their parents.  This time surprisingly Ernesto insisted we put on life jackets as a precaution which is almost unheard of in Mexico where people prefer to trust their fate to the Virgin Mary or some other patron Saint.  Beyond Yaxchilán even he and Rodolfo put on life jackets as well, rearranged the weight in the boat and told us to hold on.  We were about to start down the major rapids. Rodolfo put his arms around the big plastic gas tank in a kind of loving embrace, which would have been absolutely ineffectual should we hit a boulder or get swept into a turbulent whirlpool.

The river began to zig zag and in places constricted dangerously where big boulders had crumbled from the elevated banks. The river crests about 4 meters above the current level every July and this breaks off huge chunks of limestone which topple down creating narrows and dangerous obstacles.  In the narrows, the water speeds up considerably forming powerful eddies which got bigger and deeper as we went along. The boat pitched and rolled around churning swirls 10 feet across with 3 to 5 foot cascades, and even though looked as if any moment we would be smashed against the huge boulders,  Ernesto remained unfazed and navigated confidently and skillfully. As the pull of more powerful eddies increased, he ran the boat with the water toward the cataract and the offending boulder, then, at the last possible moment he picked up a spin out swirl that in a breathtaking maneuver spun us out and away from the swirling surge and into the calmer waters downstream. The effect was like riding a roller coaster and pretty exciting. I was impressed with his skill. These boats, after all are not exactly made for easy handling or for whitewater rafting.  Lyda was impressed that it would be permitted to make this trip at all. But then, this is Mexico and all things are possible.

 
Morning mist on the Usumacinta
Morning departure for Piedras Negras
Lyda and Castor Puleston huddling against the morning chill on the Usumacinta
Ernesto and Rodolfo getting ready for rapids
Piedras Negras emblem glyph on the riverbank stone
Walking up to F Group on the first terrace at Piedras Negras
 

The mist thinned slowly and patches of blue appeared. After two and a half hours we were slid up to a large sandy beach where we found the large stone with the Piedras Negras emblem glyph facing up to the sky. Where the sand ends the forest begins like a thick green impenetrable wall. However, a fairly open trail leads to the center of the ruins. We walked up looking for the familiar places - plazas from Tatiana’s drawings, and the great stairway - but at first it was hard to distinguish anything under the 70 year old trees. The trail led us up to the top of F group and to the marker of her gravesite.

The whole city was green, overgrown, and silent, just as Tikal was when we first worked there. Tree covered mounds cleared of underbrush could be seen as big green humps extending into the foliage.(Pix 43)  It is easy to see that the city was once both beautiful and grand. From F group the bend in the river was visible around the curve that wrapped around the site and descended toward Tenosique, Mexico. The terrace below us was built over with once magnificent albeit uncomfortable palaces, many of which were in the violent grasp of strangler figs. Walking through them I could see that they were inward oriented to courtyards even though they were placed amid huge temples and large monumental staircases. From this level the monumental staircase descends down to the large plaza which we missed on our way up because of all the trees.  Except for the animals sounds the place was silent and we felt as though we were alone. Like many years ago in Tikal, the place, long abandoned, now belonged to us. We were the lords of Piedras Negras.

Except that as we were walking around the lower plaza two caretakers suddenly appeared. This is the trouble with the Peten. There are people everywhere and they are silent and invisible most of the time. One goes off into the bush to relieve oneself only to find some quiet Petenero walking by on a trail that is like a local highway.  However, Peteneros are discreet and no man would ever look upon a woman bathing naked in a river or squatting in the forest.

We chatted with the two until two more men appeared, also caretakers with machetes. Greeting me in the standard Peten manner of a ceremonial one handed embrace and a light kiss on the cheek, they introduced themselves and pretty soon we were wandering around not alone in the jungle but in a pack with four additional people who chatted amiably about their chopping and their home towns. A little further on, we bumped into a group of 9 other persons, 5 of whom were tourists and as white as eggs. They had come in from downriver with a man known as Don Willie who ran infrequent tours to this site. So now we were in a group of 17 in a site that is almost never visited. The Guatemala Institute representative had me sign the guest book within which the last entry dated to over 6 months before!

We looked at the one reconstructed building and listened to Don Willie talk of the South Group which belonged to some noble family that split off from the main group…. But the beauty of the place is not so much in the detail of its history as it is in its existence. It is there. It is in the jungle. It belongs to the land and has a mystical feel to it. Silent voices whisper in the rustle of the wind. Sweat of workers drips in the moisture from the trees. The gently wafting scent of sweet flowers touches us from the gardens of the past. Intelligence, art and love created it and it stands here as the footprint of the human soul, in a quiet struggle to survive against the force of the encroaching jungle. What beauty there is left to uncover lies beneath these buildings, beneath these trees, and in the written voices of the people who built this extraordinary city.

The ride back to Frontera was like a dream. The rapids were easier to negotiate upriver and the others slept as I watched in silence extraordinary bank of the Usumacinta river go by in all its changing forms. Boulders with their cataracts and whirlpools smashed into the ground. I had finally seen Piedras Negras, a long standing dream of mine, but instead of putting the dream to rest, it awakened in me the desire to return. Yes, you can go home again, Thomas Wolff.  
Rapids closing in on us as fog lifts

Expedition from Paamul, Quintana Roo to Piedras Negras, Guatemala

Sugar-Cane Blues for Doña Ettelvina and Family