Exploring Mayan jungles
Written by Dennis Anderson
It did not take much for hiking companion Gary Cothran to persuade Antelope Valley traveler Rick Bryant that going to the southernmost jungles of Mexico to explore ruins would be a great idea.
They were just wrapping up a hiking expedition around Yosemite when Cothran said, in effect, “What about Mexico?”
Really, it never does take a lot to persuade Bryant, recently retired, that seat-of-the-pants travel and exploration is a good idea. Like Howard the prospector played by Walter Huston in “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre,” all you have to do is help him sort out the gear, and he is ready to go.
“I am going to go now, at this time in my life, because I can,” Bryant said, recalling his recent trip with Cothran to the Mayan jungle in the state of Chiapas. “I always put my spare change in a little pot, and that way, after a while I have the money set aside to go, and I go.”
Bryant eschews the tourist-package, bus style of travel. He will take the local trunk feeder line bus, but tourist buses are not for him.
“When I see it, I want to be able to walk up and see it, and not from the bus,” he said, meaning not from the window of a tourist coach. Their travel, probably less expensive than a package vacation to Cancun, took them to the southern Mexico city of Mérida. They flew from Mexico City to Mérida, then got on a bus heading south.
“We stayed on the outskirts of a national park in a resort that was kind of a faded glory,” Bryant said.
Surrounding jungle, however, can be what Bryant called “oppressive,” meaning two or three changes of clothes daily while the previous set is wrung out and hung up to dry. “You’re just wet all the time,” Bryant said.
Still, at the edge of the jungle, there was plenty to see. Iguanas, howler monkeys, toucan birds, hawks and herons were all close neighbors.
“I had friends who thought we were down there in the jungle living off the land to survive,” Bryant said. “Really, not so much. We had a nice lodge, with drinks in the evening.”
And beautiful tropical flowers were everywhere, birds of paradise and varieties of hibiscus.
What his traveling partner really wanted was to see the ruins. Mayan ruins in the southern Mexico state of Chiapas date back more than a millenia, and yet some were only found by recent visitors in 1946. Some are being excavated. Some have their staggeringly beautiful murals preserved but visible to a traveler.
One of the sites was Bonampak, described in the foundational text “The Maya” as an ancient Maya archaeological site about 20 miles south of the larger site of Yaxchilan and the border with Guatemala. As described in the text about the Maya, the site is noteworthy for the Temple of the Murals, dating from A.D. 580 to A.D. 800.
The murals, Bryant said, are depictions of warfare that implicate the notion of human sacrifice, even though that is not explicit.
The site, lying close to a tributary of the Usumacinta River, was first seen by non-Mayans in 1946, recent research indicates. American explorer and photographer Giles Healey was the first to be shown the murals that cover the walls of three rooms and depict a battle, and its victory.
According to an online encyclopedia, a team from Yale University began The Bonampak Documentation Project in 1996, which included making an even more detailed study, photographic record, and reproductions of the murals in the three rooms.
The second room shows a war scene, according to “The Maya,” depicting prisoners being taken, and then, with ritually bleeding fingers, seated before a richly attired Chaan Muwaan II, the Yaxchilano “governor” of Bonampak.
Professor Mary Miller of Yale, who conducted an extensive study of the murals, wrote, “Perhaps no single artifact from the ancient New World offers as complex a view of Prehispanic society as do the Bonampak paintings. No other work features so many Maya engaged in the life of the court and rendered in such great detail, making the Bonampak murals an unparalleled resource for understanding ancient society.”
Bryant and Cothran also visited the ruins of Palenque, which date from 226 B.C. to around A.D. 799. The Maya city flourished in the seventh century, the research indicates, but the area has retreated back to the jungle.
What has been restored attracts thousands of visitors to the archaeological site near the Usamacinta River.
In a previous trip, Bryant traveled along the Amazon in a historic boat converted from the Werner Herzog film “Fitzcarraldo.” The German film about a man who wanted to build an opera house in the Amazon jungle was about interesting obsessions. Bryant is not obsessed, but he does like rivers. He got out onto the Usamacinta River with Cothran.
Half of the river is in Mexico, the other half in Guatemala.
“I love looking at other ways of life and other cultures,” Bryant said. “If you haven’t experienced other cultures, well, that’s ignorant. I’m not a historian, but I just go visit and get involved in the country, and not from a bus.”
Palenque, the research describes, displays some of the Mayan civilization’s greatest architecture, sculpture, and bas-relief carvings of the epoch. The most famous ruler of Palenque, according to “The Maya” text, was Pacal the Great, whose tomb has been found and excavated in the Temple of the Inscriptions.
By 2005, it was estimated that less than 10% of the total area of the city was explored, leaving more than a thousand structures still covered by jungle.
Mexico travel, these days, Bryant advised, has to be planned carefully. Reading travel guides and getting U.S. State Department advice on areas troubled by drug-cartel activity is simply good sense. But Cothran and Bryant understood that travel to the southern city of Mérida falls within the range of the mostly safe and sensible.
“I love wildlife, and I love to travel, and I do not want to do it all from a (tourist) bus,” he said.
The local trunk line is OK.