After driving up a steep, misty grade lined with pine trees on red clay mountainsides, we arrived in San Cristobal de las Casas. San Cristobal is an old colonial town surrounded by pine forest with a large indigenous Mayan population in and around the city. The city is also known as the nexus of the Zapatistas who fight for indigenous rights and fair land ownership. It was the first day of Semana Santa, the holy week ending on Easter Sunday and a huge holiday for Mexico. Our campground in the brisk pines just outside the city was tranquil aside from the chorus of roosters, birds, and what sounded like hundreds of dogs barking from miles around day and night.
San Cristobal is a beautifully colorful, clean city with cobblestone streets and many churches. We spent a week strolling around the streets to museums, through markets, and other interesting historical sights.
A visit to the city’s textile museum turned out to be far more spectacular than we could have imagined. The museum houses a collection of intricately detailed textiles, hand woven by indigenous women of the Chiapas region of Mexico as well as Guatemala. The art of weaving is one of the few traditional Mayan crafts women have kept alive for perhaps thousands of years. They spin sheep wool into thread, dye the thread using natural leaves and berries, and then weave each individual string into a beautiful, one of a kind creation.
On Good Friday, we saw the reenactment of the crucifixion of Jesus in the city streets. Dressed up Roman soldiers on horses led the procession, followed by a man playing the role of Jesus, struggling under the weight of a large wooden cross. Roman soldiers walking alongside Jesus would whip him and the other captives in the procession to add to the intensity of the event.
Easter Sunday also happened to be the beginning of the weeklong Feria de la Primavera y la Paz (Festival of Spring and Peace). After the Queen of the Festival was crowned by the Governor of Chiapas, we watched the queen and her princesses parade through town on brightly colored floats. The floats were built in the back of pickup trucks and in classic Mexican style, one truck float stalled during the parade and had to be pushed and jump started by the onlookers. We love Mexico.
On our last day in San Cristobal, we joined some friends from our campground for a bull fight as part of the Feria de la Primavera y la Paz. San Cristobal’s small bull ring was filled to the brim for the event. Vendors tiptoed between the isles of spectators cheering “Ole!” selling beer, peanuts, and chips while the matadors performed their dance with the toros. It was thrilling to see a huge, immensely strong, one ton bull charge at the matadors but the entire ritual killing of the bull is not our cup of tea. I had to hold my breath during a few close calls when two of the matadors fell and escaped being trampled and gored by mere centimeters. One matador was nearly speared in his rear but luckily escaped with just a rip in his pants (see the picture below).
Leaving San Cristobal we set out towards our first Mayan ruins. On the road to the ruins of Palenque, we stopped at Agua Azul and Misol-Ha, two beautiful waterfalls nestled in the jungle. Agua Azul is a section of wide, turquoise blue river with multiple cascades and clear pools perfect for swimming, a great way to break up the long, hot drive.
Misol Ha, about an hour down the road was less spectacular but still beautiful. The tall waterfall filled a large, dark pool and hid a cave behind it’s façade.
We descended through the pine filled mountains into the heavy, humid air of the lowland jungle. From our campsite just meters outside the entrance to the Palenque ruins we could hear the whooping calls of howler monkeys in distant trees while in the evening fireflies sparkled around our camp like diamonds in the grass.
Palenque was first inhabited around 100 BC and flourished from around AD 630-740 when many of it’s buildings were erected. The site consists of a labyrinthine palace with a celestial viewing tower surrounded by temples and outlying structures all deeply imbedded in the dense jungle. The most famous of the temples, the Temple of Inscriptions, serves as the tomb of Pacal (meaning “shield”), the king that Palenque flourished most under. The temple has nine tiers each representing a level into the Mayan underworld, at the time of discovery in the lowest level sat the sarcophagus of the ancient king, Pacal, along with the skeletons of others who accompanied him to the afterlife . The city was largely abandoned by AD 900, possibly due to overpopulation and the depletion of local resources.
From Palenque we drove a few hours through the dense Lacandon jungle that borders Mexico and Guatemala until we came to Lacanja, a small, native Lacandon village alongside the Rio Umascinta. We camped and swam in the cool river with our new friends, Henrick and Karen, travelers from Colorado.
Smaller than Palenque, the ruins of Bonampak are famous for intricate hand painted murals from the Classic period that have miraculously survived for thousands of years. The colored murals really spurred the imagination and provided a window into the life of the ancient Mayans. The murals each tell a story open to different interpretations but the theme is clear. The first mural shows the ruling family presenting a baby, the heir to the throne to 14 lords.
Below there’s a musical precession entertaining the ordeal, some of the musicians are human while others are masked creatures of the land and water.
The second mural shows men wearing jaguar skins leaping, dodging, and grasping enemies by their hair while plunging spears through them.
The third room shows the ruling family involved in a sacrifice of shedding blood by piercing their tongues with a stingray spine as well as the sacrifice of the prisoners captured in the previous mural. It was quite spectacular.
Our exploration of the ancient Mayan culture, as well as the Mayan culture still alive today, continues as we travel through Guatemala.