““What are you after?” asks the pretty travel agent helpfully.

“I want to discover the REAL Mexico.” I blather optimistically.” None of the usual tourist stuff. Show me the jungle.” Her eyes roll. Another gringo wing nut!

I have made a list of “places to go” and “things to see” in San Cristobal de Las Casas. Surely Chiapas will deliver The Holy Grail?

At around 4pm, I reach Na Bolom and discover a love story fit for a movie.

Frans Blom, a Danish playboy, archaeologist, and surveyor was the first person to excavate the Mayan city of Palenque in the 1920s. Trudy Duby, a Swiss journalist, was photographing the shy and elusive Lacandone people who had avoided conquest and conversion by the Spanish. Their expeditions met in the Lacandon jungle and they married soon after.

Casa Na Bolom – House of the Jaguar, became their home in 1950. It is now a museum, housing his 9000 book collection and her 55000 photographs of the Lacandone people. Profits are returned to the Lacandone villages.

Pepe wears shoulder length black hair and a short fringe. It is his last tour of the day. I am hooked by images of smiling people dressed in simple white robes. “How can I visit your people?” I ask.

He writes down a name.

Rogelio Gomez – “Just call me Roger,” is closing the office door when I arrive. Cold evening fog swirls in.

“The Lacandones live in 3 villages. Lacanja Chansayab is easily accessible and popular with tourists. The others, Naha and Metzabok, are much more remote and rarely visited. There are no facilities in these two,” he says, eyeing my response.

“We must take food and tents. They are gentle open people. Photographs – no problem.” A nice change from the locals who view a camera as an evil-eye or a winning lottery ticket. (Who can blame them?)

Ahhh – The Holy Grail! I feel my stomach churn. “How many are you? – It will be expensive,” he asks. “I am alone.” I murmur. “Hmmm.” He hits the calculator.

After half an hour of bartering and much soul-searching, we strike a deal. For US$500 I get three days with Roger - who understands the local language. He will provide tents, sleeping bags, basic food provisions and a mini-van to transport our little expedition over 550 kilometres of hellish back roads. I hand over the cash. We leave tomorrow. The adventure has begun!

5am. I nudge the sleeping watchman into unlocking the hotel door. Roger is waiting outside.

The sun is burning through fog as we head up a switchback of hills towards Palenque. Spirals of smoke curl above the kitchens of one-room shacks. Laundry is already hanging out to dry. In Ocasingo we turn right.

A new highway is under construction but, after 30 kilometres, washed-out gravel roads are the norm. I wedge my feet and body as we swerve to avoid the potholes.

A village marimba maker shows off his latest creation with a short tune. Packhorses carry huge logs roped to their bodies. Gauchos head for the fields to build fences, plant corn or round up cattle. The countryside is gentle, rolling and pastoral. Apart from the odd “colectivo” we are the only vehicle around.

We see hand-painted signs telling us this is a Zapatista village and Roger floors the van. “They don’t like outsiders - Especially tourists,” he announces.

1pm. We pass a sign. It has taken an exhausting 8-hour drive to reach Naha.

Neat homes line the central roadway. Naha Lake is in the distance. A magical setting on the edge of the pristine Lacandon jungle.

Just another Mexican village I muse, until we get closer. The road is filled with men and children wearing long black hair and white ankle length robes. A hippy colony from the sixties? A cult perhaps? After all this is a pretty isolated spot.

They are all heading for the wooden community building. We follow on at the invitation of a man decked out in a Jaguar mask. Drummers and singers act out skits intended to show off the ancient ways of a people who claim Mayan ancestry. It’s important to keep these traditions alive.

I compare the features of the audience and performers with Trudy Blom’s 1920’s photographs that line the walls. I remember the extraordinary images at Casa Na Bolom that drew me here. Amazingly, nothing has really changed.

Joaquin volunteers to be our guide. Tomorrow he will take us to ancient petroglyphs across the lake by dugout canoe. He will show us a sacred cave where burial “god bowls” are hidden. His gentle manner, long hair, bare feet and shabby white tunic give him a “Christ-like” appearance.

“Where are the boys?” I whisper to Roger, eyeing the pretty little girls wheeling around on bicycles donated by Telmex - The national telephone company. “They’re all boys” he grins. “The girls are not allowed to wear white anymore because no one could tell the difference.” I blush!

Joaquin and his wife have agreed to provide dinner and the final screeches of a sacrificial chicken are proof of progress. Later they appear at our campsite pushing a wheelbarrow loaded with steaming pots!

Sunday 6.30am. I am awakened by a procession of women taking plastic containers to the lake. There is a pecking order for house locations. Homes at the top of the hill are fed by an ample stream, which disappears into the jungle, while those who live at the bottom must trudge to the lake for water.

I meet Joaquin’s grandfather. At 94 he is the ultimate village elder. I ask for a photograph and wish I could speak his language. He is sitting in a small bamboo hut watching his wife make tacos on the open fire.

I hope to photograph the village, of around 220 people, heading to church, but today there is a hitch. During the night someone tried to steal a truck. A meeting with local police has been called in the community hall.

I notice a blonde-haired, fair-skinned man in the crowd. The third albino so far. Albinos are common in Naha, perhaps from years of inbreeding, but it is still odd to watch fair-skinned kids playing with their black-haired, dark-skinned cousins.

I have survived many a madcap scheme but I don’t like the odds here! Water is already lapping over the side of Joaquin’s dugout canoe, even before Roger has added his ample frame to the narrow boat. “Are there crocodiles in the lake?” “Yes” he answers nervously. “You go but count me out!” “No no Andreas, it’s OK” he sighs with relief, “There really isn’t enough time. We should leave for Metzabok now before it gets dark,” he adds, desperately fishing for support!

We bid farewell and head out.

Through the efforts of Hans and Trudy Blom, The Lacandones, now 800 and dwindling, have been given prime jungle and a small stipend providing they refrain from deforesting or logging. Each family receives 2 hectares for personal use. Other indigenous groups who are still fighting for their own land consider this a “land grab”

I turn to my new friend Roger. “Did you enjoy yourself?” “Oh yes” he replies. “I’m already planning to return.”



Rogelio (Roger) Gomez – Agencia de Viajes

GETTING AROUND: Buses and shared taxis are the way to go. Car rental is expensive, unnecessary, and less secure.

SAFETY: Heed local warnings for travel outside the city – Especially at night. The Zapatista cause is not dead!

WEATHER WARNING: At around 3000 metres, night time temperatures in San Cristobal can be bitterly cold – Especially Nov/Feb.

NOTE: There is much to see around San Cristobal, which, in itself, is well worth a visit. Inexpensive tours to the Mayan ruins of Palenque or a boat trip through The Sumidero Canyon. Organized hikes between villages. Local markets. The village of Chamula is particularly interesting on Sundays when Chamula Catholicism is at full bore. The church floor is carpeted with pine needles. Chanting healers “work miracles” behind rows of candles, often sacrificing live chickens!



Copyright © 2010 Andrew G.P. Renton All rights reserved.