Welcome to the Jungle: Exploring Mexico’s Lacandón

Explore the lush, green jungle of Chiapas and step into the lore of the indigenous people who call it home.

Anyone who says Mexican time runs sloooow hasn’t walked with a Maya in the jungle.

Mariano must be 200 feet ahead already. I break my gaze away from the slick roots on the trail to see him weave through a clump of hanging vines, his sheathed machete strapped to the back of his white xikul tunic.

“He must be going three miles per hour,” says Spencer Millsap, a videographer I’m travelling with. I nod, figuring that’s fast. I’m thinking more about the last half of this six-hour hike—when we have to walk back in pitch dark.

The Lacandón rain forest spills across the Usumacinta River into Guatemala from Mexico’s southernmost state, Chiapas, where about a quarter of the population is indigenous. Relatively few visitors to Mexico make it to Chiapas, and far fewer make it here, though there are gorgeous waterfalls, excellent Maya ruins, the occasional jaguar spotting, and eco-camps with the Lacandón people, a Maya group that now numbers fewer than 1,000.

When the Spanish first appeared, the Lacandón disappeared into the jungle and only reconnected with the outside world in the 19th and 20th centuries. Now the jungle is disappearing—only about 10 percent remains virgin—but local groups here in the town of Lacanjá are trying to curb deforestation. Tourism helps.

The road we’re taking is twisting, quiet, remote, and partly paved. We pass a buffet of greens in sudden vistas of wide valleys. Hand-painted signs before simple wood-plank homes and racks of peas drying in the sun read “Zapatista” in support of the rebel group that stands for indigenous rights. On one curve, we slow for a small brown-and-black anteater, which crosses before us, then stands on its hind legs—front legs outstretched at its sides—to look back at us.

During the last half hour of the ride, I read a local brochure to my travel mates (Spencer, Sebastian, Enrique from Mexico City’s Nomad Republic, and our lively driver, Serafino). It says of our next stop, “everything at Las Golondrinas is a party.” We laugh at the hyperbole.

Then we get there.


Explore the dense, verdant jungles of Chiapas with a local guide.
Video by Spencer Millsap

JUNGLE TREKKING

A jungle trail to the waterfalls leads past bright flowers. We hear the roar before we reach it, then are rewarded with a wide, bright blue-green pool fed by a cascade. Towering above are mud and rock formations that look like hidden elephants. No one is here. “This is so Indiana Jones,” one of us says. We follow a trail heading up through the jungle to the right and find a second, higher pool, set below towering trees.

It’s perfect, but how do we get there?

“You have to jump,” Enrique is saying, holding out his arms in a circle the size of a manhole cover. “But you have to land in a hole this big.”


Swimmers enjoy the water at Las Golondrinas. 
PHOTOGRAPH BY SPENCER MILLSAP


A man stands under the falling water at Las Golondrinas in Chiapas, Mexico.
PHOTOGRAPH BY SPENCER MILLSAP

We agree on an alternative: climbing straight down the 25-foot steep bank of shrubs, plants, and loose dirt. It looks a little sketchy. Sebastian, Enrique, and Serafino go first. Then Spencer, ever selfless, goes down holding an underwater camera. He tumbles the last few feet, making a splash and reappearing with a scrape across his chest. (The man works hard, so be sure to watch his great video.)

Somehow I follow more successfully, and we swim upstream, over a fallen log, to reach the pool below the crash of falls. We’re cradled in jungle, in a bright blue pool—the best swimming hole I’ve ever seen.

YAXCHILÁN


Writer Robert Reid hikes up to a set of ruins at the Mayan site of Yaxchilán.
PHOTOGRAPH BY SPENCER MILLSAP

A couple of hours later, we meet Mariano, our Lancadón host in Lacanjá Chansayab, the small village we’re staying in for a few days. He's not much more than five feet tall, stocky in his traditional white tunic, with long hair pulled back into a ponytail. "Look," he says proudly of his arcing forehead and sharply defined nose. "My profile. Just like you see at the ruins."

He joins us on a boat trip to reach the Maya site of Yaxchilán, one of my favourites from previous visits. We eat veggie tacos as our driver spins around to show us crocodiles on the banks. Howler monkeys groan from treetops on either side of the Usumacinta, along the Guatemala border.

At Yaxchilán, we pass one temple’s dark tunnels, where fruit bats huddle and squeak above us, to reach the wide shaded plaza where hundred-foot-tall trees share space with temples well over a thousand years old. On the ride back, we stop at a Guatemala border town for a celebratory Gallo beer. No passport required.

Mariano, who learned to hunt by bow and arrow as a kid in the ‘70s, leads us through the jungle, over root-laced trails—and occasionally off them. We pass over a series of log bridges and ford one river by foot.

I quickly see how over packed I am for the jungle. Sebastian and Enrique, grown-up city boys with gusto, are gamely walking barefoot with just a small bottle of water. My bag, meanwhile, is filled with four waters, some chocolate cookies, a few hard-boiled eggs, some electrolyte powder, and a rain jacket I wouldn’t need. Then, in the first 15 minutes, my strap broke.


Colourful artwork has been preserved inside one of three main chamber rooms at the Bonampak ruins.
PHOTOGRAPH BY SPENCER MILLSAP

But it’s a fun walk. After two and a half hours—at Mariano’s brisk pace—we reach his camp at a shady crest above a reed-filled lagoon just as dusk approaches. Crocodiles are out of sight on the muddy beach below. Nearby is the start to a new home Mariano is building with materials he hauls in on foot.

He pulls binoculars from his tiny bag and uses them to survey the water. He sees a few “spirit people” on the opposite bank, perhaps a quarter mile away. “Not everyone can see them,” he says.

I take this, and the binoculars, as a challenge and soon spot a shadowy figure. I can’t quite make it out. It could be a person, perhaps even a spirit. It seems still, though I sense something moving, like arms. As the sun sets, I watch the figure gradually fade into the background. And out of sight.

TRADITIONAL LORE

Mariano, a shaman’s son, has built a fire and mentions that a TV crew came to shoot a “how to survive the jungle” show once, but a few of the participants quit after getting infected by some ivy. “But it’s easy to survive here,” he insists.

To demonstrate, he chops off an arm-size branch of a bejuco, letting us sip the sweet running sap. He whittles the bark and boils cut-up pieces of the branch, soon producing a bubbling gold broth. “Jungle coffee,” he says. I have two cups’ worth. It’s delicious.

It’s fully dark now. Above, stars are bright through the shadowy outline of treetops. I wonder when we’ll be starting back—and what sort of life will come out at night—but Mariano’s not ready to go yet.

He catches and hands over a sudden visitor. The cocuyo is a click beetle with fluorescent yellow-green lights that glow from its eyes like a penlight. Its head sharply clicks between three positions.

The thing you have to worry about here, Mariano says, are the aluxes, which are something like Maya leprechauns. They’re well-known, knee-high tricksters (as depicted in some Yaxchilán engravings). And if you’re not careful to ignore their misleading noises, you can get lost.

“I saw one near here,” says Mariano. “I thought it was an armadillo at first, but it made a human noise, then went invisible.” I ask what it looked like. “Hairy and nude,” he replies.

Mariano tells us more about spirit people, including one who transformed into a crocodile, and also about a friend who can become a jaguar. After a half hour, silence falls around the fire. “That’s the end of the story,” Mariano says.

And then we start walking back in the dark.

HOW TO DO THIS TRIP

Day trips from Palenque regularly visit the sites of Yaxchilán and Bonampak, famous for its brightly coloured murals showing Maya ceremonies. I travelled with Mexico City-based Nomad Republic, which customise volunteer tours (with English-speaking guides) to indigenous communities.

It’s also possible to show up at Golondrinas Falls (the turnoff is at Nueva Palestina) as well as Lacanjá village and arrange overnight stays and activities, including white-water rafting, visits to ruins, and jungle hikes. If you don’t speak Spanish you will miss a lot.

Header Image: Explore the dense, verdant jungles of Chiapas with a local guide. Photograph from video by Spencer Millsap

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