Map of Archaeological Zone of Bonampak and Lacandon Forest
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The recent identification on this Web site that Bonampak had once been on Mexico’s T List (1986 -2001 under the title “Zone archéologique de Bonampak et forêt circondante”) has reminded me of my visit there way back in summer 1971! This Mayan archaeological site had first been “discovered” by non-Mayans as recently as 1946. This was just 25 years before my visit - since when, another 44 years have passed. It is famed for its Mayan murals – and these were already well enough known in 1971 to figure in replicas on the walls of a Mexico City underground station and a “room” in the city’s Anthropological museum.
But, in 1971, getting to see the real thing was another matter altogether. Nowadays there is a highway capable of taking daily bus tours from Palenque c150kms away. To the best of my knowledge this was only built relatively recently. Throughout the 1980 and 90s the states of Chiapas in Mexico and Peten in Guatemala opposite it were areas of civil war, drug and people smuggling, squatting and illegal deforestation. Many of these problems continue.
In 1971 the only practical way in was by light aircraft and this hadn’t figured in my travel plans! However, when, whilst sitting in a café in San Cristobal de las Casas, I was invited by a group of Germans driving around Mexico to chip in towards the cost of a flight to Bonampak it seemed a worthwhile opportunity.
At which point it is necessary to introduce the “Lacandons” – an indigenous tribe living in the Lacandon forest which, at the time, had escaped both conquest by the Spanish and any significant interference in their way of life by the Mexican state. As a result they remained one of the least culturally impacted peoples of the region with a language and cultural practices linked directly to the Maya. The Mexican T List entry paired the ruins of Bonampak with the forest in which they were situated and where these people lived. Whether it was intended to pay much attention to the people themselves I can’t assess since, as far as I know, there is no documentation for the original T List entry.
We, it appeared, would stay with some Lacandons who were living near to the ruins. Appropriate “payment” consisted not of pesos or $US but of useful articles such as machetes and processed food which we “stocked up” with at the local store! We also paid a visit to the Casa na Blom set up by a Danish couple, he an archaeologist, she a journalist/ anthropologist. Both became campaigners for the Lacandons and their forest. By 1971 she was widowed and running her home as an institution/ museum and had become a grand-dame of the Maria Reiche (of Nazca Lines fame) ilk who could be visited for information on her specialism. Like Reiche, “Trudi” Blom also lived to a ripe old age – dying in 1993 aged 92. By 1971 she had already foreseen the dangers to the forest and its peoples from logging, immigration etc and worked hard for the rest of her life to empower the Lacandon people and help save their forest.
Having loaded our plane with its “cargo”, we flew down from the highlands to the “jungle” (around 30 minutes as I remember it), unloaded, and then watched it disappear with a “promise” to return the next day! I am not so naïve as to believe that we were the first tourists to do this but there was at that time no real evidence of this being a major “tourist trip”. The Lacandons really did have very little and there was no sign of them altering their way of life to accommodate tourism. The women and children (and some of the men - but not our “”host” - see photo) were still wearing their undyed white ankle length tunics called Xicul. And their hair was mainly still in the traditional long, centrally parted style. We bedded down on the floor or a hammock as we wished and pretty well looked after ourselves with freedom to roam among the few huts, the forest, river and ruins –we also had access to a dug-out canoe! There were no tourist trinkets for sale and the extent of “guiding” by them consisted of taking us to see them planting maize in their “slash and burn” fields.
We had the ruins to ourselves with no guardian or entrance fees. At that time they had hardly been separated from the forest itself and my photo of the main pyramid shows the recently cut clearing. Modern photos indicate that a much larger area has been cleared and excavated. As for the murals - well we climbed up and into the chambers and saw them with some difficulty by the torches which we had been warned in San Cristobal that we would need! I have no photos of them not because as in now the case, they were forbidden but because my equipment just wasn’t up to making anything of them in the dark and mouldy forms they were then in. There were a few nicely carved stelae which had been exposed but everywhere the jungle quickly closed in.
Today there are around 500-1000 people living in the area as “Lacandons”. It appears that they have embraced ecotourism and gain rather more monetary benefit from the Bonampak ruins than was the case with us back in 1971! For instance, the sealed road ends around 6kms from the ruins and the Lacandons operate a truck service to take people along the final stretch as well as cafés shops and souvenir stalls. Reports of visits still seem to indicate that the in situ murals are a bit hard to fully appreciate and many people regard the ruins of Yaxchilan which now get taken in with Bonampak on a day tour as being more rewarding. No doubt the trip has considerably improved as a visit to a Mayan ruin but I am pleased to have had those experiences almost 45 years ago before such changes – albeit that I am pleased to see that the Lacandons are managing to benefit from them! As for the forest in which they live? Well, in 1978, 7 years after my visit, Mexico created its first biosphere reserve in that region but the general picture does not seem good (See “Lacandon Forest” in Wiki as an entrée). Quite what made Mexico “give up” on Bonampak and its forest as a WHS contender isn’t clear. The murals of Mayan life are unique but the ruins as a whole are not that special among the canon of Mayan sites and the forest around them isn’t even in the best protected area which would militate against it succeeding on “mixed criteria”.