Yaxchilán Ruins

Lacandona Rainforest, Chiapas, México

  The photographs are thumbnails.


A long, dusty bus ride from Palenque brought me to Frontera Corozal (also known as Echeverria) on the Usumacinta River. The miles and miles of gravel road felt as though it took 9 hours rather than the actual 6. Echeverría 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 be.

Spent 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 first to 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 Echeverría, 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

We 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.

Yaxchilán, 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. Little 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 sitewhich, in certain ways, I hope will never happen. The progression of time and erosion is raw and natural; what sleeps there is magnificent.

It 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.

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