Three Monkeys Online

A Curious, Alternative Magazine

Crossing the Usumacinta – Travels in Mexico and Guatemala

The following story is an extract from the diary of a trip, rigorously and absolutely independent, that brought us from the Yucatan peninsula to Mexico City, passing through Guatemala, Chiapas, Oaxaca and the mining cities of the Altoplano de la Sierra Madre.We are awaiting breakfast in a small café with three tables, of which two are covered with tablecloths of coloured wool. The walls around us are painted to give the impression of being lost in the jungle, albeit a surreal one: a giant orang-utan has a smoothie in his hand and a satisfied smile on his face, trees, parrots, giant spiders, giraffes, toucans, and a lioness, as well as cute, coloured little frogs, and other animals, psychedelic to say the least hidden here and there. A small blue waterfall runs down the corner and behind us there’s an enormous elephant that looks set to charge. Two palm trees (fake? dry?) are held together with scotch tape, and the television (obviously on) is at full blast. Maybe the señora in the kitchen is following the morning chat show while preparing tacos, panuchos, salbutes, and refried beans. The taste of home-made tortillas nearly makes me cry of happiness….

But let’s proceed with order! First step was Isla Mujeres (the island of the women), off the coast of Cancun: a few days to acclimatise to the heat, the mosquitoes, and the idea of being in Mexico. Then Tulum, Mayan ruins side by side with the blue Caribbean Sea, the fine white sand (a little dirty at times), palm trees, huts and a hippie vibe. Our first Mexican week goes by lazily between a swim and a pollo asado (barbequed chicken). From the coast we move to Merida, colonial capital city of Yucatan. On the way we visited Coba’ and Chichen Itza, ruinous cities that belong to the glorious splendour of the Maya civilisation.

At Coba’ we stop for a night at the bus station, which also acts as hotel and restaurant. Ricardo served us cerveza and comida del dia (menu of the day). 22 years old, brimming with intelligence and enthusiasm, with a respect and love for the lost traditions of the Maya, starting with the language, which he knew despite the fact that it is not taught in school any longer. Children learn it from their parents, but unfortunately the language is getting increasingly mixed with Spanish, with the effect that sooner or later it will disappear. For instance, ‘thank you’ is yuntzil boutik, which literally means ‘God will repay you’. Nowadays though it is more common to hear Dios boutik, … I suppose, the God has changed too …Ricardo became very sad while he was talking about the Mayan version of the national anthem but he could not go past the first few lines (which however he did whisper to us!)

The ruins at Coba’ are half buried in the jungle and it is an adventure even finding them. A pathetic attempt to climb the main pyramid ends in a total failure: tiny steps, half rotten and steep, combined with a fear of heights is a lethal cocktail – perfect for a panic attack a third of the way up!! We made up for it though in Chichen Itza, where we reach the top of El Castillo, the huge pyramid of Kukulcàn, the one with the serpent heads at the bottom. Ahhhh, what satisfaction!, and what a view: you are way above the tree tops! With a binocular, we observed Chac mool (Editor’s note – Chac mool is a figure found in a number of Mayan sites – known as “Messenger to the Gods”), with his sardonic smile, patiently awaiting his tribute of human hearts at the top of the Templo de los Guerreros (the temple of the warriors). Coming dow: a tragedy (I wonder: what if someone refuses to come down … what then?). I manage, elegantly, on my bum, step by step!Not much is known about the Maya and about how they were using these awe-inspiring buildings. Sure there are loads of theories, and studies, and museums, and experts. But you have to wonder: if Yucatan and Chiapas are still inhabited by a Mayan population which passes its language and calendar from generation to generation, how is it that they forgot the secret of why these palaces and pyramids were built? Maybe it is just that they ain’t telling?!