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Living with the Lacandons in Mexico

Visit the Sole Descendents of the Mayan Empire

Lacadon Man Lacadon Children
Chan Kin Quatro after a day's work carving a dugout canoe. Lacandon children, dressed in traditional white tunics, discuss chess moves.

Beyond the clear perimeter of this isolated village, deep in the heart of the jungles of Chiapas, the rainforest hills rise in steep, impassable grades. This is the realm of Yaxchilan and Bonampak, two of the ancient Mayan cities that hug the banks of the Rio Usamacinta, the broad, slow river that defines the border between Mexico and Guatemala. It is a land of howler monkeys and jaguars, of laughing children and Mayan temples. It is also the land of the ancient Lacandon, "The Children of the Rainforest."

"Hach Winik," as the Lacandons call themselves, literally means "The True People," the sole descendants of the vast Mayan empire to survive intact after the Spanish conquest. Directly or indirectly, everyone from the North Pole to the Amazon has been touched by the European civilization. Everyone except the Lacandons. They are unique.

Fifty years ago they were living in the stone age. They had no steel knives, no machetes. The Mayan corn has always been their staple diet. They sang to their Mayan gods in their temples of palm thatch. They raised their children in the old ways. They fished and hunted jaguars and escaped detection from the advancing culture until the middle of the 20th century.

"Na Bolom" which, in the language of the Lacandon Maya, means the "House of the Jaguar," is an organization founded by Franz and Trudi Blum to help preserve the culture of the last of the original Mayan people. Situated in the enchanting mountain town of San Cristobal de las Casas in Chiapas, it is the suggested starting point for a visit to Naja, the only village in the Northern hemisphere not to be corrupted by the mentality of the conquistadores.

Na Bolom is a bed and breakfast with meals for the guests served in a garden beneath towering pine trees. It is also a haven for any Lacandon from the villages of Naja, Metzabok, or Lacanja Chan Sayab with serious medical problems. A library of thousands of Trudi Blum's photos is housed there, recalling the first contact with this group of previously "undiscovered peoples." All projects designed to ensure the survival of the Lacandon culture originates in the offices inside the compound. Contact: Na Bolom, Av. Vicente Guerrero No. 33, San Cristobal de las Casas, 29220 Chiapas, Mexico; Tel. 011-52-967-81418, fax. 011-52-967-85586.

Much of this information on Lacandon history and culture may be found online.

San Cristobal is an intriguing city, a colorful blend of many different cultures, and Na Bolom is a charming place to pass the night. It is a short hop over the mountains from San Cristobal to Ocosingo. In Ocosingo you change buses for a very rickety, doubtful-looking bus with bald tires and lots of broken or cracked windows. That's your bus for Naja. It leaves sometime around 12 noon or one o'clock, Mexican time. Six hours on a road from hell and you arrive in Naja.

Naja has new guest cabanas with palm thatched roofs and mosquito netting over the windows and amenities such as showers and cooking facilities. But I suggest staying with the two remaining wives of Chan Kin Viejo. They have extra rooms that they rent to visitors and they provide simple meals with the family. This way you will spend more time with the people and with their delightful children. The price is negotiable depending on whether you bring such staples as rice, beans, oil, salt, fruits, and vegetables from the mercado in Ocosingo or Palenque. A few pens or pencils for the children in school, as well as balloons and bubbles, also can have a significant impact on the price, which averages about $5 per night. Please bring toothbrushes and toothpaste instead of candy.

The house of Chan Kin Quatro is down the road from the Diconsa store (the social center) in the direction of the cabanas. This friendly family rents anything from hammock space to private rooms for a variety of prices, depending on their mood. Chan Kin and his family of albinos (a blonde wife and children with red hair and red eyes) love gadgets. Flashlights and tools for working wood, such as an assortment of drill bits, chisels, or a chalk line, can easily be exchanged for meals and a night's lodging. The bartering system makes new friends, and they will remember your visit every time they use your gift. Just bring sensible things that are interesting, useful, or fun.

Anything that will help them to preserve the rainforest and the clean air and water is always welcome. That is what originally brought me to Naja. I build composting toilets, solar systems, and solar ovens. The playground equipment at the school was a summer project of mine. Self-initiated projects that will benefit the community may be brought before the elders and discussed in council and sometimes approved (such as the composting toilets) if you make a good presentation.

If your route takes you to Palenque first, where many tourists go to see the fabulous ruins, the travel arrangements to Naja are no more difficult (and no more certain of departure time) than from Ocosingo. On the Ruta Principal, the main street of Paleque, there is a large bus terminal. Three blocks towards the center of town lies the smaller but just as noisy terminal for the Ruta Lacandona. This is the preferred route to Naja, on the bus leaving at 1:15 p.m. and arriving in Naja around six or seven in the evening. The price is 35 pesos, about $3.50. The Ruta Maya, around the corner leaves for Naja at 12:15 p.m. and arrives before six. The price is the same but the buses are more rugged and the clientele less sober.

Welcome to Naja. Tell them "Memo" sent you.

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