We drove from Palenque town to explore Yaxchilan, our third and final Lacondon Jungle Mayan ruin. To get to the Yaxchilan site, it’s necessary to take a boat. The boat ride traverses the Usumacinta River, a waterway between southeastern Mexico and northwestern Guatemala. We entered the Yaxchilan park site, found a river transit service, paid the boat fee, and jumped aboard a long, slim, river boat piloted by a man named Sérgio. According to Sérgio, the trip would take 40 minutes each way and we would have just two hours to see the ruins.
The river trip part of this adventure was mysterious and wonderful. Here’s the thing: on the Usumacinta River you don’t always know what country you are in, Mexico or Guatemala. On the Mexico side, there is the jungle and lowlands. Just on the other side, there is still jungle, but, look a bit further and there are high mountains. A lot of them are volcanos. I don’t think I’ll ever be complacent or jaded about travel. Having the opportunity to be in two countries at the same time is an impressive state of being!
The day before had been really stormy, with tons of rain. (In Spanish, the word for “storm” is “tormenta.” Apt name for sure.) As a result, the Usumacinta River was running fast and high. Sérgio at times would slow the boat and lift the outboard to avoid it tangling in floating branches and flotsam. Though the sky was overcast and there were periodic raindrops, it was extremely hot and humid. We had dressed to fend off bugs but, as is always the case with this cruising life we live, there’s a compromise. So, though the bugs were kept at bay, we spent our ruins visit drenched in sweat. But, we enjoyed ourselves!
The boat, which had been skimming quite smartly through the water began to slow. Sérgio was steering it over to the river’s Guatemalan side and finally, finally, I saw them: Howler Monkeys! An entire family; a mother with a baby and three other adults. I say finally because years ago we travelled to Costa Rica’s Arenal Volcano rain forest to hike in search of the supposedly abundant Howler Monkey troops. We never saw or heard any Howlers, but we did encounter a Fer de Lance (“the two-step snake”), which cooled my enthusiasm for continuing to search for the shy simians that particular day in the rain forest.
Back to Yaxchilan … A young boy joined us on the river trip and I didn’t realize until he got off with us at the ruin site that he was our guide (I guess Sérgio’s river boat company included tour guidance with the transportation to the site). After I asked, our guide said, “Me llamo José … (My name is José),” and then whispered his last name. Jose’s reticence – or was he just shy? – continued throughout our day at Yaxchilan. But, I was delighted to have an opportunity to practice Spanish and perhaps learn a little bit about someone who lived in this unique part of Mexico.
The day became “Tuesday at the Yaxchilan Ruins with José.” I decided to “interview” José, find out as much as he was willing to tell me (with my questions limited – of course – by my marginal Spanish) about himself. He told me he was 10, and that he had a brother and a sister. He said he only worked as a Yaxchilan Ruins guide on Saturdays. When I said, “But today’s Tuesday, shouldn’t you be in school?,” he said that school was closed. Why was it closed? Never found out.
As I tried to communicate, José was sometimes impatient with my uneven Spanish. But, he listened and solemnly corrected my pronunciations. I asked him if he wanted to study English. “No,” he said. “Okay…” I thought. I asked, “Do you plan to study another language, like French? Would you like to travel to France?” He nodded to both questions. I pondered José’s answers. I thought at first that it was odd he didn’t want to learn English. It seemed like English was the most enthusiastically-embraced language to learn in Mexico. Then I realized that my own gringo bias had clouded my thinking and that it was certainly possible that a young Mexican student might not have any interest in learning English, but might instead choose to study French, or Russian or Chinese.
José seemed to take his “guide-gig” seriously, but not necessarily consistently. He’d get distracted after showing me and naming a specific jungle tree. But then, he’d run around kicking a balled-up piece of vegetation like it was a soccer ball. I told José – trying to keep the opportunistic conversación de español (Spanish conversation) rolling along, “When my son was your age, he liked to play soccer. His favorite thing to do was to pass the ball using his cabeza (head). Can you do that José?” And, this shy, distracted Mexican boy grinned from ear to ear and bounced that balled up vegetation with his noggin, aiming it at me.
Later, José would be chivalrous, taking my hand to help me down one of the pyramids’ moss-slicked “stairways.” Then, he would lose interest or focus, play with his T-shirt and throw a stick. He pointed out “monos (monkeys)!” but his loud announcement probably scared the simians away before we realized what he was talking about. José took us through a cavernous ruin’s hallway to show us bats and a terrifying araña (spider) clinging to the ceiling. Then, José moved away from us again down the trail, retreating into his own world.
The Lacondon Jungle, José’s neighborhood, is a microcosm. There’s a lot of complicated (cultural, historic, political, ecological) stuff going on there. Tourism is a mixed bag for the people living in the region we visited in terms of financial gain versus finding solutions and compromises. There is ongoing tension between indigenous/poor Mexican populations and the Mexican government over the Lacondon jungle land, that is, who owns it and how it should be used. The region’s problems are no different from those anywhere else in the world. But, I can’t help believing that the region’s issues are the proverbial canary in the coal mine.
Ron, José and I continued our walk around the site, visiting about a dozen or so partially-excavated structures. Yaxchilan is not as “cleaned up” as Palenque. The jungle is still in charge. Passages around the structures and stairways to ascend them are far more difficult to traverse (at Palenque, the stairways were rebuilt to accommodate tourists, rubble was removed). There weren’t any slick brochures and few explanatory displays. But, it was exciting to be in this site. It felt like we were explorers walking through the jungle, discovering for the first time mythic structures that revealed themselves amid the jungle overgrowth.
It was time to return to the Yaxchilan park entrance. We rejoined Sérgio and his boat. I made sure José put on a life jacket. He smiled at – or was he amused by? – my concern. Sérgio took us on a fast, exhilarating return trip. When we pulled up to the park’s dock, there were new tourists boarding another river boat headed back to the Yaxchilan ruin site. We bid goodbye to José and Sérgio, climbed onto the dock and returned to our car for our trip back to Palenque.
I hope when José grows up, he does study French and has the opportunity to travel to France, like he told me he wished to do. I hope that things are sorted out in the Lacondon Jungle, that good decisions are made for this beautiful, mysterious place.