long, dusty bus ride from Palenque brought me to Frontera Echevarría (also known as Corozal) on the
Usumacinta River. The miles and miles of gravel road felt as though it took 9 hours rather
than the actual 6. Echevarría has no paved streets, no hotels, no real restaurant.
Just after the sun edged over the
rainforest's horizon, Angél, the immigration officer, took me to the river, where everyone goes, to bathe the
dust away. Close to shore, in early evening light,
men in tattered underwear soaped and splashed and, a little farther
downstream, a group of bare-breasted women in long skirts waded and
shampooed their long black hair. I saw feces floating by in the water,
so I pointed to a large, flat rock out where the water ran faster.
Angél and I leapt over
boulders and jumped in. Afterwards, the night-flying insects buzzed and swarmed the lights
in the decrepit open-air tienda while
the locals watched a 10th rate, cheap North American flick on the only TV in town. I was a
little nervous about being in such a remote location, but upon waking this morning Angél
put his pistol out in plain sight and I realized he also didn't know who or what I might
the hot, humid night on the terracotta-tiled floor of the
immigration office without a sheet or pillow. With only a towel beneath my head, I woke up
several times during the night with deadened hips or shoulders. Still, I finally rose at
6:30 and actually felt refreshed. Walking out into the post-dawn mist and humidity, I took
photographs of the river. At points, the Usumacinta is
more than a hundred untamed meters wide, with
turbulent currents moving in a myriad of directions and churning whirlpools. Everything
glowed in otherworldly shades of gray.
I hired a tiny wooden outboard to take me
Yaxchilán and then Bethel, up the river on the Guatemalan frontier.
Around here, the Usumacinta is
a natural border between México and Guatemala, and for the land-bound at Echevarría, both
places are only accessible by boat. Bethel can be reached by road from Petén in
Guatemala, but I was on the Méxican shore; Yaxchilán can also be reached by
a four-seater plane
out of Palenque that lands on a
cleared but overgrown strip in the jungle
at the ruin site. The boat trip to the ruins took about forty minutes motoring a quick
20km downriver between banks walled with
rainforest. There are no towns or villages. The only signs of civilization are sections of
the forest that have been slashed-and-burned or simply clear-cut. These large plots look
like lesions on the face of a world-class Beauty
arrived at 7:30 and my captain waited at the river's edge. My "guide" was
the caretaker and the only person at the site. The dense jungle steams and is full of
animal music. Howler monkeys, saraguates, and spider monkeys inhabit the dripping
forest, along with many singing birds and other dwellers. The howlers' call is a cross
between a lion or some other large cat (they ROAR) and a dog when they are not so excited.
It is comical that, in reality, they are less than a meter tall but sturdily built. Their
terrain is the canopy of the forest and the ceiba trees, which can reach
heights well over 30 meters. Since the site is isolated from the whir of
civilization, the sound is extraordinary. It's almost frightening in volume
and utterly captivating. The caretaker said they were howling for rain,
which would mean more fruit and new leaves to eat. He also said they were
howling because we were trespassing onto their domain.
meaning "green stones",
exudes a powerful aura of primitivism and timeless sleep. Over the centuries, the
rainforest has wrapped its arms around the site like a loving mother would a dozing child.
It is a Sleeping Beauty lost in time and space. This particular place is known for its
lintels and fine stelae. Many are intricate, complex, beautiful.
reconstruction has been completed, unlike other sites such as Copán or Monte Albán, and
what lies untouched is extraordinary. Also, it is obvious that much has yet to be
excavated at this hilly site—which,
certain ways, I hope will never
happen. The progression of time and erosion is raw and natural; what
sleeps there is magnificent.
was both exhilarating and enchanting to be the only
visitor. Few travel to the site
because of its remoteness and I felt like an explorer stumbling across an exquisite
discovery. The character of Yaxchilán is deeply peaceful, rich and, even though sleeping,
alive. Beneath its humid emerald slumber lies an almost tangible pulse, evoking an
important and numinous epoch. Truly, it is a Sleeping Beauty.