My adventure in Chiapas, the southern-most state in Mexico, right on the border with Guatemala, actually began long before I boarded the bus in San Miguel de Allende on Feb. 26, 2013.  David Rico, leader of the group-travel company, Vagabundos, had sent us all dozens of web-sites to read about the places we were going to visit, and I boned up on all of them, and had my appetite seriously whetted.  Forty-six of us gathered at the Central de Autobuses at the reasonable hour of 10 a.m. to board a bus with a hand-picked driver, Ruben, for our four-hour (más o menos) drive to the Mexico City airport.  I was lucky to have a totally amiable seat-mate, Bobbi, as we kept our selected seats for the entire trip to enable David to see at a glance who might be missing.  Our flight did not leave Mexico City until 5 p.m., but it was good that we had plenty of lead time.  We got something to eat, and then waited an interminable amount of time in the Inter-Jet line to check in.  Note to self:  never fly through this airport.  It was a zoo.  All was fine with the one and a half hour flight that left and arrived on time.

We touched down at the Villahermosa airport, surprisingly not in Chiapas, but in the state of Tabasco (which has nothing to do with the hot sauce of the same name), just over the border.  We were met by another bus and another carefully-selected driver, Noé (Spanish for Noah, the pronunciation of which caused much hilarity as people thought of him as “No Way,” and the bus quickly was christened Noah’s Ark).  Noé was our extremely careful and skilled driver for the entire trip, until he returned us to our exit airport in Tuxtla Gutierrez, the capital city of the state of Chiapas, seven days later.

We rode all of about five minutes to our first hotel, the Hilton, right next to the airport.  I hated this five-star hotel with all of my heart.  I would not recommend it to anyone.  I think the only reason we stayed there was that it was extremely close to the airport.  We were there less than 12 hours, only to sleep before heading out the following morning for Palenque.  It was so corporate, so cold, so shiny and sterile.  We could have been in Cairo. There was nothing to indicate that we were in Mexico.  The bathroom fixtures were so slick that I could not figure out how to get hot water nor could I fathom how to turn the lights on and off with the card-key I was given. And I don’t even want to tell you about our restaurant experience there.  It was the first time in my life that I left absolutely no tip for the waiter.

I did sleep extremely well in my palatial room, though, and we left at 8 a.m. the next morning for about a two and a half hour drive to our next destination in Palenque, in the ecological and touristic area of La Cañada.  Also staying at the Hilton, and leaving as we were, was one of Tabasco state’s professional baseball teams, the Olmecs.  In other parts of Mexico, soccer is king, but in the south, where we were, it’s baseball.  While en route, David read us the choices for a fixed-price brunch at our next hotel, Maya Tulipanes (we had not had breakfast at the Hilton due to time constraints, but were advised to have or bring a little snack if we needed it to tide us over until 10:30).  We ordered on a sheet that was passed around and David called in our order on his cell phone.  How did trips such as this ever come off before the use of cell phones?  David’s was used with great regularity for all manner of reservations, orders, checking on things and people, etc.

It was overcast and quite humid.  As we drove, everything looked totally tropical:  lush and green, with many bodies of water, banana plantations.  All of this the polar opposite of San Miguel.

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This beautifully and colorfully painted distinctive Mayan corbel arch greeted us at the entrance to our hotel, again only for one night.  There was no doubt from this that we were in Mexico!

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As we stepped through the arch, we saw this map of the area painted on the wall, and I add it here so that you can visualize the trip.  We followed the red line right down the middle of the map from Palenque to San Cristóbal de las Casas, where we spent five days and went to several outlying areas for day trips, including in the Sumidero Canyon, before heading home.

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An outdoor dining room at the hotel.

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We, however, had our pre-arranged “brunch” (my choice was fish, the first time ever I’d eaten it at 10:30 a.m.) in this indoor dining room.  The attractive woman in pink was my seat-mate, Bobbi.

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A sitting and meeting place.

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This pool was so inviting, with its mosaic tile flower on the floor.  Following our fairly grueling day at the Palenque ruins, nearly all of us swam and lounged here quite happily in the humid, warm weather.

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A bit of info about the Maya. Their name means “the people of the corn.”  Corn and people are mutually dependent.  People of the Corn were considered perfection finally after the creation and destruction of the People of the Clay and the People of the Wood, part of their creation myth. They were the only Pre-Columbian civilization to develop a writing system that provided complete expression of the language, thus the only indigenous people of the Americas with a written history.  The Maya were organized into a series of city-states.  Their lack of cohesion thwarted the Spaniards’ attempt to conquer them, as they did the Aztecs and the Incas.  The Maya had a 365-day solar calendar.  There were 18 months of 20 days each, which equals 360 days, and then they had five “bad” or “nameless” days.  It was considered dangerous during this time because it was believed that the portals between the mortal world and the underworld dissolved, and without boundaries, ill-intended deities could cause disasters.  To ward off these evil spirits, the Maya had customs and rituals they practiced.  The Maya never predicted that the world would end on Dec. 21, 2012.  It was just the end of one cycle of their calendar, which began 5000 years ago.  A new cycle has now begun.

The Maya had a complex pantheon of deities, and practiced human sacrifice.  Their diet mostly consisted of maize, lime, chile peppers, beans and squash, not so different from today. They created their structures out of limestone, and used the corbel arch, seen earlier.  They had a distinct class system, but there is no evidence of a priest class.

Within the state of Chiapas, there are 5 million people, 2 million of whom are Maya.  They are currently divided into five communities or villages, each with its own language, clothing style, and speciality work, such as raising sheep for wool (sheep are sacred to the Maya and are never eaten), pottery making, and the growing of coffee.  Some of the communities allow intermarriage; those that do not are now suffering the results of in-breeding.  And of course there are Maya living in places other than Chiapas.  In all of Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, and Honduras, there are about 6 million Maya living today.

Palenque

When we boarded our bus at noon for Palenque, a UNESCO World Heritage site, we were introduced to our local guide, Patricio Murphy.  Yes, that’s Patrick Murphy, whose father was an Irish adventurer who came to Chiapas and married his Mexican mother.  His mother, as was the custom of her time, had only a third-grade education.  Patricio’s father eventually abandoned his family, which included four children, and returned to Chicago.  I can say without reservation that Patricio made the trip for me.  He is highly intelligent and incredibly well educated, and seemingly knows everything about everything.  He speaks English, Spanish, two of the Mayan languages spoken in Chiapas, and who knows how many others.  He was an obvious favorite with the locals at each place we stopped.  He is extremely left-leaning and makes no apologies for his position on the Mexican government and on the horrid treatment — past and present — of the indigenous peoples.  Why does that seem to be so in every country?

Palenque, the most studied and written-about of all the Maya sites, is a collection of palaces, temples, and tombs remaining from a Maya city-state that flourished in the 7th century.  Its finest ruler was Pakal the Great (sometimes written Pacal, which means “shield”; his title was Lord of the Solar Shield); his rule was from 618-683 C.E., and extended over all of Chiapas and into Tabasco state.  He began as ruler at the age of 12.  His mother helped him for the next 25 years.  It was they who carried Palenque to splendor.  He lived to the extraordinary age of 80 and was succeeded by his son.  His grandson was the last of the kings of Palenque, until it was abandoned in 799 C.E.

It is not known why the site was abandoned, but soon thereafter, the jungle took it over, and we were told that what we were going to see represented only about five percent of what is there, that probably 1000 more structures are still covered by jungle.  Most of these are felt to be just residences, and so not of the same interest and splendor as those that have been uncovered and explored to date.

By the 900s, practically all of the cities in the central area were abandoned, except in the Yucatan. Several reasons for this were floated, one being the lack of rotation of crops.  Corn needs direct sun, so slash and burn techniques are used to this day to prepare the areas where corn will be planted.  After five or six years of growing corn in the same area, there is nothing left in the soil to nourish the plants.  Also, they used wood to burn the limestone to make their buildings, creating an environmental disaster.  Other reasons could be water pollution, drought, and illnesses.  It takes 500 years to recover an eco-system.  The last kingdom of the Maya collapsed 12 years before Columbus.

The first Spanish explorers arrived in Chiapas in the 16th century, by which time Palenque had been abandoned for several centuries.  The first European to visit the site and publish an account was Father Pedro Lorenzo de Nada — in 1567.  It was he who gave Palenque its name, which means “fortification” in Spanish.

We were very fortunate to be at Palenque on the day that we were, Patricio told us.  Without the cloud cover, it could be scorching hot and humid. The highest average rainfall in all of Mexico is at Palenque.  Palenque is in the lowlands of Chiapas, and is at 200 meters above sea level.  Our first stop was at the Archeological Museum of Palenque.  The artifacts you will see below are all reproductions; the original items that were unearthed are in the Archeological Museum in Mexico City.

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Through study of these hieroglyphics from the Temple of Inscriptions, it was possible to document a dynastic list for the city (the first for any Mayan city); the mythology and ritual practice showed a woman as ruler.

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Check out these amazingly complex sandals, probably the king’s.

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Here, in reproduction, is the unearthed tomb of Pakal, with its exquisite and complex carvings.  This sarcophagus held the richest collection of jade ever seen in a Mayan tomb.

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A jade mask found in the tomb.

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Another mask. with crown and necklace.

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I couldn’t resist this photo of a peanut seller, each bag of a different hue representing the flavorings that were added.

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And here is Patricio Murphy, our guide par excellence.

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A model of the palace — the largest building complex at Palenque — that we were about to see.  Located in the center of the ancient city, it was built over a period of 400 years, and was used by the Mayan aristocracy for bureaucratic functions, entertainment, and ritualistic ceremonies.  The four-story tower was for astronomical observation; they practiced naked-eye astronomy.  Within the palace were found numerous baths and saunas, and an aqueduct.

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And what’s left of it today, over 2,000 years later.

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This is the Temple of the Inscriptions, where Pakal’s tomb was excavated.

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Patricio offered to take a group up and inside; I was not among them.  When I climbed up and more importantly down the pyramid at La Cañada de la Virgen last year just outside of SMA, I could barely walk for a week afterwards.  The steps are incredibly steep and there’s nothing to hold onto, and it’s pretty scary.  That didn’t stop many people, though.

And there they go!

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While they toured that building, David took the rest of us to see other buildings, and we agreed to meet at a bridge at a later time.  On their walk after the palace tour, the group of which I was not a part came upon a boa constrictor digesting something quite sizable; they had photos to prove it.  I was impressed!

On our walk, we saw this tree, which is laughingly called the gringo tree, because its “skin” turns red and then peels off, just as a gringo’s does when he or she is out in the sun too long.

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We also saw the sacred ceiba tree, which, like the sequoia, lives 2000 years.  It has a cotton-like flower and sap as red as blood.  The Maya represent this tree with a form of cross called the foliated cross (more info and photos later).

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I very much like the look of these roots.  I believe that this is a ceiba tree.

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An older one, perhaps?

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I am embarrassed to say that I don’t know which of the following buildings is which, but we did see the Temples of the Cross group, which included the Temple of the Cross, of the Sun, and of the Foliated Cross.

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This was reported to be the sauna of a very rich and/or influential person.

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Here a ball field, where warring leaders had their warriors play games to the death.  The leaders sat on the hillocks on either side of the playing field.

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There were ruins in addition to these, but you get the idea.

Some spirited members of the group in a magnificent, old tree.

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You can get the definite feel of the jungle in this photo, I think.

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I was very glad that this hanging bridge swayed only a foot or so above the riverbed.

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Here is the bridge where our two guided groups met up.

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Can you imagine the volume of rain water that would require a channel this deep?

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Indigenous people selling their handicrafts on the other side of the bridge.

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San Cristóbal de las Casas

In the rain, we left our lovely hotel and the lowlands at 9 a.m. for the trip through three ecosystems and the homelands of three ethno-linguistic groups to the highlands of San Cristóbal.  This was the first Spanish colonial city, Ciudad Real (the Royal City), established 1528, which is situated at 2100 meters above sea level!  Strangely enough, in the lowlands, it was the dry season, and yet it was raining.  On the journey, we passed through the middle area between the two extremes — the transitional area, where there is cloud forest — a rain forest with only pines.  This represents only one percent of the ecosystem.  Most of the cloud forest has been exploited, but the protected “El Triumfo” in Chiapas is the only remaining habitat of the quetzal.  In pre-Hispanic times, the long tail feathers of the male quetzal were the most precious commodity.  Aztecs traveled as far as Chiapas and Guatemala for these feathers. The Lacandón rainforest is the last remaining one in North America.

We made two stops along the way.  The first was at Misol-Ha, “Broom of Water,” a waterfall that rises 90′.  Parts of the movie “The Predator,” starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, were filmed here.  Patricio thought it was ironic, as the Governator supposedly doesn’t like Mexicans.  At this waterfall, it was raining steadily.  Still people were game and we walked the sometimes slippery paths to go behind it.

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I got a huge kick out of this sign, which translates to “Don’t throw trash in this area.”  So it’s OK to throw it everywhere else in the park?

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Here we are behind the falls.

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I think this is the only photo of me in my camera from the entire trip.

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After about an hour and a half ride, our next stop was Cascadas de Agua Azul, which is a spectacular series of waterfalls.  We stayed there for two hours.  The minerals in the water give it its brilliant aqua color. Where it falls on rocks or fallen trees, it encases them in a thick shell-like coating of limestone.  It had been raining for several hours, so we were lucky that we could still see the blue tint.  Had it rained all night, the water would have been brown.  We had been told that it would be possible for us to swim here, but because of the rain, only a few brought their suits and even fewer actually used them.

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This is Rosie from England; she swam, and this is her towel from the recent Olympics.

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It takes about 20 minutes to walk all of the trails and to see all of the falls, but by the time we got there, some of the trails had become quite muddy and slick, and one member of our party slipped and got pretty coated.  After each had gone as far as he or she felt comfortable, we chose whichever little outdoor restaurant looked appealing to us and settled in for surprisingly delicious meals.

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Of course, everywhere we went, there were ample places to shop for souvenirs, if desired.

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From there, it was a five-hour bus ride to San Cristóbal de las Casas.  It got colder and colder as we went up in elevation to the highlands.  Our destination city was 1000 feet higher than San Miguel, which is pretty darned high at 6500 feet!  We took a break at a rest stop in the town of Ocosingo, where almost everyone ordered hot chocolate after using the cleverly “dressed” restrooms.

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We arrived in San Cristóbal around 7 p.m., to be met at our centrally-located hotel, Best Western La Noria, by the owner with a tray full of warming sips of mescal, and a mariachi band.  What a welcome welcome!

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The entrance hall

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My floor (3rd).  My room was all the way at the back, which was lucky, because the acoustics in the place were quite interesting and you could hear the voice of someone coming in the front door all the way up on the top floor  Also, no one walked by my room as there were no others beyond it.  Our group took up the entire hotel.

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After checking in, we changed out of the light clothes we’d started the day in and put on practically winter clothes to brave the very different climate we encountered.  Dinner was on our own at any of the myriad of restaurants the city offers.  There was no heat in the hotel, and it was very, very cold unless you were under the several blankets provided.

San Cristóbal de las Casas, founded in 1528 by Diego Mazariegos, is named for St. Christopher, the patron saint of the town, and also for the first bishop, Bartolomé de las Casas (1544), who was a fervent supporter of the rights of the indigenous, saying that they had souls and had to be treated equally in the eyes of God.  The indigenous still refer to it by its Tzotzil and Tzeltal name, Jovel, which is a grass used for thatch.  It was the capital of the state until 1892, and is still considered the cultural capital of Chiapas.  Designated a “Pueblo Mágico” in 2003, it was further recognized as “The most magical of the Pueblos Mágicos” by President Felipe Calderón in 2010.

The next morning brought only overcast skies, with no warming sun, so it remained unpleasantly cold and damp the entire day.  We soldiered on, starting with a two-hour guided tour of the city by Patricio.

This is David Rico, the head of Vagabundos, rounding us up to start the tour.  This is a very uncharacteristic photo of David, as he was always smiling and cracking jokes.

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It was clear from the women vendors who surrounded us that Patricio was a favorite of theirs.  He told us that he had struck a deal with them.  They would have 15 minutes to try to sell us their wares, and then they would not do any business while he spoke to us.  Patricio told us that the indigenous in and around San Cristóbal didn’t want us to take their pictures, as they believed that the camera stole a part of their souls.  However, we were invited to take the photos of these women, as they were enlightened, and didn’t believe that.  They had beautiful hand-made things to sell:  belts, hats, rebozos, handbags, and one very clever item that every grandparent in the group immediately signed up for.  These were pens encased in woven cotton covers with any name we wanted woven right in.  They had sample pens with the words “Mexico” and “San Cristóbal.”  We were handed a small notebook, where we printed the names we wanted, and the very next morning at our hotel, they were ready for us to pick up and pay for.  As these women stood around, holding the heavy piles of things you see here, and displaying and selling their goods, they were constantly crocheting more hats like the ones pictured.  Their industriousness really impressed me.  And their personalities charmed all of us.  Seeing their smiles make me tear up to this day.

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Here are some of the things we saw on our city tour with Patricio.

El Arco del Carmen, built in 1680.

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City Hall, or El Palacio de Gobierno, was built in the 19th century.

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Every city and town in Mexico has a zocalo (main plaza or square).  (San Miguel is the only one I’ve encountered so far that calls theirs El Jardin.)  They all contain trees with white painted bottoms, a gazebo, and hideously-uncomfortable wrought-iron benches; the one in San Cristóbal was no different.

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This is called Casa de las Sirenas (House of the Mermaids), and you’ll see why in the next photo.  It dates from the 16th century.

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There were two pedestrian streets, closed to traffic, which had many bars and restaurants with tables and chairs out on the sidewalk, and lots of shops, too.

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The Cathedral, completed in 1721, with some finishing touches added in the 20th century.

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Check out the detailed work.

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In the upper right, can you make out the chain that occupies this building?  It certainly doesn’t look like any of their other outlets.

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El Templo de Santo Domingo, with the Mercado Municipal right in front.

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Again, the details are exquisite.

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The Mercado Municipal was huge and contained mostly stalls selling brightly-colored and beautifully-made textiles.

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Except for the occasional sweets stall, where everything is open to the air, dust, sneezes and kids’ grubby fingers.

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As I’ve said in earlier blogs about Mexico, this is not a country that believes less is more.

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We were on our own for the rest of the day to pursue whatever interests we had in the city.  From her previous trip to San Cristóbal, my bus seat-mate had clued me in to a boutique paper factory in town, Taller Leñateros (“The Woodlanders’ Workshop”), which specialized in handmade paper, silk-screens, block prints, and artist books.  After some confusing fits and starts, I located it.  Of course I got there just as they were closing for lunch, but a Mexican group was entering for a tour, so I just walked in with them.  Once I got inside, I admitted that I was not with the group.  Kindly, instead of turning me out, a worker asked if I’d like to see the gift shop.  Why, yes, I certainly would!  Believe me, I made it worth his while to miss his lunch and staff the shop.  I bought a T-shirt and tote bag imprinted with a silk-screened image that enchanted me called “Maya en Bicicleta,” plus post cards, greeting cards, little memo pads, and who knows what else.  Little did I know that we had a tour planned in English for the next day (it was not on the original itinerary).  I’ll explain more about the factory with those photos, but suffice it to say that the items in the baskets in the photo below are just some of the things that others might consider trash, but that this factory uses to make their unique and fabulous papers.

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From there, I went to the Museo del Ámbar (Amber Museum), located in the former La Merced monastery.  Again, it was very tricky to find, even with a map in hand.  When I got there at 3:40 p.m., it was closed for the siesta hours of two to four, common all over Mexico.  Since I was very, very cold, I considered ditching the whole thing, but decided I could stomp my feet for 20 minutes.  I was glad I waited.  San Cristóbal is a major producer of amber.  I learned a great deal about it from informative and attractive displays and two videos.  I also enjoyed the gift shop and ogling the super-expensive jewelry made from some fine specimens of the precious material.

By this time, I was chilled through and through, so I sought out a cute little chocolate shop near our hotel and had a steaming cup of semi-bitter hot chocolate with a touch of cinnamon, and bought Suji and Geoff a handmade wooden box with metal hardware filled with my choice of their many different and decadent artisanal chocolates.

The next day, with Patricio, we went to the Casa Na Bolom Museum, situated in an ex-hacienda.  Casa Na Bolom means House of the Jaguar.   A little background info is necessary here, and this will be an exceptionally brief rendition of the compelling history.  The Lacondón (one of the Maya groups) were the only indigenous people who were never conquered by the Spanish.  The last Spanish armed incursion in the area was in the 1600s.  The people fled into the jungle and stayed there without any other contact for 300 years.  In 1919, Franz Blom, a Danish archeologist, was sent to Chiapas to explore the rain forest for oil by the company which employed him.  In 1928, he contacted the Lacondón people after centuries of isolation.  They were not contaminated by anything Western.  In the 1940s, Gertrudis (Trudy) Duby found political refuge from the Nazis in Mexico.  She met Franz Blom is Ocosingo (where we had stopped for hot chocolate) and immediately fell in love.  They traveled to the jungle together where she photographed the Lacondón people extensively, and for years, they collected tools, crafts, archeological pieces and clothing related to the Lacondón Jungle and people.  In the 1950s, a hacienda from the 1890s in very poor condition became available and Trudy and Franz bought and re-habbed it.  They opened it to scientists to study the Lacondón.  Franz died in 1964 of cirrhosis of the liver, but Trudy lived until 1993.  Their house and wealth have maintained Na Bolom as a museum, a place of continuing study of the Lacondón, and for reforestation in the area.

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Franz Blom

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Trudy Duby Blom

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I consider the photo below the best of the trip.

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After Franz’s death, Trudy had a walkway constructed with some of the hundreds of bottles that Franz polished off.

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Following the trip to Casa Na Bolom, we had secured an appointment with the founder and head of Taller Leñateros, the paper factory, for a tour in English.  It turned out to be way more than a standard tour.  We were there for a couple of hours while the self-professed “runaway housewife” from San Francisco, Ambar Past, regaled us with tales of starting up the workshop and, using only indigenous labor, which is still true today.  We met many of her workers and saw their various roles in the making of the unique papers they use to construct books and many other paper items.  Ambar was justifiably proud of a book they had just published last year of the stories of indigenous women in Chiapas.  Each page had a photo of the woman, and her story in both her language and in Spanish, all printed on hand-made paper and hand-bound.  It won all kinds of international awards.  I would have bought a copy, but it was extremely expensive — understandably so.

I was fascinated that her name was Ambar in Chiapas.  Her last name is a shortened version of a much-longer Polish name.

Ambar showing us some silk screens used for printing.

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Other shots of this delightfully cluttered and colorful place that was really one of the highlights of the trip for me.

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Ambar runs workshops in paper crafts for school kids, and these were a sampling of the results, along with some of the materials used to create the papers.

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And then she took us into the warehouse, where we got to see and touch many of the workshop’s creations.  Ambar said that most of their successes were the result of hit and miss happy accidents.

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Of course we concluded the visit with a stop at the gift shop, which had been seriously depleted by my purchases the day before.  I was so glad that I had had private, unhurried time in the shop to make my selections.

Sunday, still cold, but sunny at last, was our day to visit two Tzotzil indigenous communities nearby, and the first, San Juan Chamula, was another highlight, actually in serious contention with the paper factory.  San Juan Chamula is the principal town of the Tzotzils, one of the two main groups of Maya in and around San Cristóbal, and is the main religious and economic center of the community.  We left about 9:30 a.m., and as we drove, Patricio told us the history of the melding of the indigenous religions with Catholicism into a syncretic religion (a new term for me, meaning a fusion of Western and indigenous elements) which was totally fascinating.  It’s just too long to relate here, but he said that the prominence in Mexico of the Virgin of Guadalupe was the best example of the co-mingling of the faiths.  He said that what we were going to witness were ancient rituals by shamans and cuaranderos to excise illnesses of the soul, such as sadness, fear, weariness, anguish, and depression, among others, and “evil-eye” afflictions.  Then we were given very serious warnings about not taking photos in the church, which could lead to confiscation of the camera, and even arrest and imprisonment.  The town enjoys unique autonomous status within Mexico.  No outside police or military are allowed in the village.  Chamulas have their own police force.  Also no hats, head scarves, visors, or caps of any kind could be worn in the church.

Our bus let us off near a cemetery attached to the “old” San Sebastian church (which was actually newer than the present church, but had burned about a century ago and was no longer in use), and it was here that I saw the foliated cross, a representation of the holy ceiba tree.  The brown natural items everywhere are dead pine needles.  The people of San Juan Chamula use pine needles and flower petals extensively in their religious ceremonies because they duplicate the forest, and they suggest infinity:  you can’t count the stars or pine needles.  I also heard that each pine needle represents a person being prayed for.

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Obviously a fresh grave.

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Various foliated crosses with knobs on the ends

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And these were a favorite of mine, grazing in the graveyard, keeping things tidy (more or less).

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Vendors almost overwhelmed us as we got off the bus, mostly children saying in English, “Maybe later,” which is undoubtedly what all visitors say when presented with the huge number of items for sale.  Then we walked through a phalanx of stalls down to the church and its surrounding plaza; no vendors were in there.

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The San Juan Bautista (St.John the Baptist) church and its surrounding plaza.

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Because I was unable to take any photos, after we left the church, I sat down immediately in brilliant sun to write about what I’d experienced.  That account is what follows.

When I entered the church, I immediately burst into tears because I was totally overwhelmed by what I was seeing, hearing, and smelling.  There was no altar.  There were no pews, instead there were small groups of people kneeling on the floor and there were thousands of candles of every size, from birthday candle size (and even thinner) to dining room table taper size, and candles in glass jars.  Fresh, green pine needles were strewn everywhere on the floor.  (Talk about a disaster waiting to happen!  No wonder the other church burned.)  In areas of varying sizes, the floor was cleared of pine needles to make room for the candles.  The bottoms of the candles were dipped in already melted wax and then just stuck to the marble floor in lines, and then lit.  People were praying in front of the candles in their language, some crying openly, even men.  A man with a scraping tool and a plastic bag circulated, cleaning up the wax from the spent candles to clear the area for the next ceremony.

Kids with chickens in plastic bags under their arms, with heads peeking out.  Shamans with bags of eggs.  They passed the chickens and the eggs over the body of the person with the spiritual illness to absorb the evil, and then the eggs were thrown elsewhere into a pit, and the chickens sacrificed to eradicate evil.  (I did not see this step.)  No one would ever eat the chickens or the eggs as that would involve ingesting evil.

The fascinating role of Coca Cola in the ceremonies:  In the past, the sacred beverage, Pox, pronounced posh, a cane-alcohol beverage containing 38 percent alcohol, was brown and sugary.  When Coke came onto the scene in the early 20th century, it was very like the sacred beverage with value added, as it caused burping, which brought the evil up and out.  Coke quickly figured this out and first gave the product away free.  Early Coke was full of cocaine and other addicting ingredients.  The shamans sprinkle Coke now as part of the ritual.

We noted “disgraced” saints (covered) in glass cases.  The story on the saints is that when the “old” church burned, the saints survived.  The Western interpretation would be that it was a miracle (we were polled by Patricio); the indigenous take on the situation was that the saints failed to save the church structure and thus are being punished in the “new” church.  For several decades, they were placed with their faces towards the wall, and their hands were chopped off because they had failed to work to save the structure.  Eventually, when new cases were made for the resident saints, the old saints got the old cases and were turned back around.  New garments covered their lack of hands.  All the saints were wearing mirrors on their chests; one explanation is that they are to deflect evil.

There had been two baptisms earlier that day, so the plaza around the church was filled with celebrating families at tables with plastic chairs with food and live music.  The musicians wore rough white wool belted ponchos and woven hats.  Kids were running around being kids.

As I was writing in my journal, a boy of about 7-8 years approached me to ask what I was doing, and I told him that I was writing about what I’d seen inside the church since photos were not permitted.  He asked me for my pen and some paper.  I immediately gave it to him, as I had others.  Then he asked for my whole notebook, but I told him that I couldn’t give it to him.  Then he asked for a peso, and I also refused that.  He was not at all insistent, and went away.

We returned to our bus at the appointed time, again making our way through the eager vendors.  We were now off to San Lorenzo Zinacantán.  Zinacantán means “land of bats” in the Nahuatl language.  The people there would look different, we were told, as they had mixed with Aztecs.  Flowers are a main motif there, and flower-growing is a major source of revenue for the community.  We got as close as we could in our big bus to the women’s clothing cooperative we were to visit, and then walked the rest of the way through the community.

This young woman demonstrated the lap loom, and inadvertently in her blouse, some of their gorgeous embroidery.

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Samples of some of the traditional clothes the cooperative makes were displayed on the walls.

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This huipil is made with chicken feathers.

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This one, embroidered front and back, took eight months to complete, we were told.

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And look at this great piece of art to be worn.

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Several members of our group were dressed in local wedding clothes for our entertainment.

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This shrine to the Virgin of Guadalupe was in the room, too, and I was charmed to see that she was dressed in material they had decorated.

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This little creche scene was beneath the shrine and shows corn in the shape of the four points of the cross to symbolize the sun, the earth, the moon, and people.

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By then we were pretty hungry and were treated to tacos made from freshly-made tortillas by a girl probably not even as old as my grand-daughter.  They were make-your-own and we got to choose from chorizo, beans, red and green salsa, and cheese.

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Then it was to their showroom and let the buying begin!

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We again walked through the town to return to our bus, and just before pulling away, the head of the cooperative boarded to thank us in Spanish for coming and welcomed us to return any time.  I understood it all!

On the last of our five days in San Cristóbal de las Casas, those who wanted to could visit the cave of Rancho Nuevo, which was originally owned by a timber company, which, Patricio told us happily, was constantly involved in reforestation.  His father was one of the members of the first team to explore the cave in the ’60s.  Vicente Kramsy, a photographer, was the first “Westerner” to “discover” it in 1965.  The Tzotzils, of course, had used it for centuries for ceremonies.  Patricio told us that this team became addicted to exploring the cave and would spend every free moment in it.  Because it was huge — several kilometers long — and had many chambers in which it was easy to get lost, they occasionally came upon skeletons of people who never found their way out.  His father’s team would draw arrows on the walls in fluorescent paint as they went along to help themselves and others get out safely.  He told us a scary, but true, story about a terrible incident in the cave involving his father, who happily did finally get out of the hole he’d fallen into, but was found hallucinating after several hours in the dark, alone, waiting for his friends to return with the proper equipment to get him out.  That chamber is now called “Murphy’s Room.”   While I took dozens of photos in the cave, I’ll post only one here of us entering.  Patricio told us that as a kid, his dad would take him and his brother into the cave and of course in those days there was no electricity nor “boardwalk,” and what would take us 15 minutes took them three to four hours to traverse.   I was shocked to learn that a stalactite grew only one cm in 100 years!

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We spent a little time in a small museum near the cave that had pictures of some of the early explorers, including Patricio’s father, and figures dressed in some of the many costumes of the area, including the Zapatistas.  In and around San Cristóbal, there were many references to them, including photos (in ski mask, of course) of Sub-Commandante Marcos, and dolls and other souvenirs with Zapatista themes.  Patricio told us a lot about the history of the Zapatista movement, but I won’t repeat it here.

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There were some lovely stalls selling souvenirs outside the cave and I almost missed the bus buying a bag with an exquisitely-embroidered toucan and flowers on it.  I know David would not have left without me!  These darling children were the niños of one of the owners and busied themselves playing with the merchandise.

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From there we took the Pan-American Highway to a Tzeltal pottery-making village.  They have to go four km to dig up the clay, which comes in two colors, red and grey.  Again, we had to park the bus in a center square and walk through the village to the home/workshop of the potters we were going to visit.  In their compound, we immediately saw two ovens they use as kilns and some of many pottery pieces in various stages of completion.

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The creation process is complete here; the jaguar is resting and drying in the sun before going into the oven and having paint applied.

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Isn’t this positively exquisite?

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One delightful woman said she would show us how they make a representative piece, a jaguar.  She said she’d do it fast and then destroy it afterwards as it would not be of a fine enough quality to sell.  She was soon joined by another woman to speed up the process.  I was amazed at the beautiful clothing they were wearing to work with clay, even though they covered up with an apron.

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Ta-dah!

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I asked about the many large burlap bags of dried corn in their yard and was told that that was their tortilla makings for an entire year for a large family.  I asked about rats and was shown the many cats and kittens roaming around.  The naked, headless baby dolls added a certain je ne sais quoi!

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This is another favorite photo of mine from the trip.

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A young girl, who was too shy to let us see her face, came out of the house to show us a different kind of work that the family also does to sell.

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A couple of people bought some of the finished pieces from the family and then we spent about an hour going on foot to many of the places nearby selling pottery by the side of the road.  I feel we did our part for the economy of Mexico.

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When I saw these scenes as we walked away from the pottery demonstration, I felt that I was seeing the real Mexico.  San Miguel de Allende ain’t it, much as I love it.

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The church in the town.

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As a final treat that night, David had gotten us an appointment with Sergio Castro Martinez, who has put together an amazing museum of clothing and accessories from all of the indigenous groups of the area, on which he is an expert.  There was talk that he was doctor and in one of the rooms in his place there were dozens of certificates, but it wasn’t until after we’d left that I remembered seeing a documentary about him on NPR some years earlier.  He specialized in healing severe burns and worked almost exclusively in the indigenous communities.  I remembered him saying on the video that he had found a German ointment that worked exceedingly well to speed the healing of burns. He was and is an incredible humanitarian, devoting his life to helping the indigenous and to sharing parts of their lives with the outside world.  Below is a tiny part of what it said about him on Wikipedia:

Sergio Arturo Castro Martinez (born March 12, 1941) resides in San Cristóbal de las CasasChiapasMexico. He is by training an agricultural engineer, teacher and veterinarian. However, by nature he is a true humanitarian, ethnologist and polyglot (languages include Spanish, French, Italian, English, Tzotsil, Tzeltal and Mayan fluently). Sergio has spent more than 45 years helping to build schools, develop water treatment systems and provide wound care for burn victims for the many indigenous cultures and Mexican people of Chiapas.

He travels daily to the surrounding indigenous villages and marginalized urban areas to care for the health and social development needs of the underserved.

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This is a display of some of the pieces he’s collected or been gifted.  I have such admiration for this truly humble man.

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Our time in San Cristóbal had ended.  I must return, as there are so many more places there I want to visit:  the Jade Museum, with pieces from the Olmec, Teotihuacán, Mixtec, Zapotec, Maya, Toltec, and Aztec cultures; the Museum of the History of the City; the Museum of the Popular Cultures of Chiapas; the Maya Medicine Museum, and others.

We left the city the next morning for Chiapa de Corzo, returning again to the lowlands and hot and humid weather.  Our bus could get nowhere near our hotel, La Ceiba, so we had been instructed to bring just overnight bags, and to leave our big suitcases on the bus.  I absolutely loved this hotel in its jungly setting.

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It had a pool, which made us all very happy.

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But there was no time to use it just then.  We were off by foot to a dock on the Grivalja River to take a boat trip in the Sumidero Canyon.  It was exceedingly hot, but we were game.

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We were trussed up in life jackets,

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put into two speed boats,

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and off we went for about an hour ride to a dock-side restaurant where we would eat lunch.  The canyon walls rise 400-1200 meters.  It took 30 million years for the water to carve out the canyon.

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We saw some pretty incredible things along the way, including lots of wildlife:  vultures, cormorants, herons, snowy egrets, kingfishers, pelicans, ducks, crocodiles, iguana, and howler monkeys.

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This is called Vulture Beach, or as Patricio called it, “The Mexican Congress.”

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You cannot imagine how hot and humid it was down in the canyon.  Happily, we were traveling at a high rate of speed most of the time, which generated a breeze.  When we slowed or stopped to look at something interesting, it was stifling, plus the smell of the diesel fuel almost caused some of us to up-chuck, including me.

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I imagined that these diving boards (!) were placed there to discourage people from using the bridge as one.

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An altar to the Virgin of Guadalupe tucked into a crevice.

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A not-so-pretty sight of floating plastic bottles and other debris.  People are hired to drag the junk out of the river, but they just can’t keep up.  Patricio said that in the rainy season, it was far worse, with huge floating islands of plastic clogging the river.  One of the problems, we were told, is that Coca-Cola doesn’t give enough of a return on its empty bottles to make it worthwhile for people to collect and redeem them.

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This formation is called the Christmas Tree, and it is formed, as at Agua Azul, by the calcium in the water creating out-croppings over the millennia.

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A memorial to the workers who died in the building of the dam in 1980 that was put in to generate electricity.  There are four dams now that generate 30 percent of all the electricity in Mexico, and more will be built.  The river only became navigable when the dam was put in.  Unfortunately some caves which contain archeological treasures are now underwater.

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This was our destination, a restaurant serving those who take a boat ride through the canyon.

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This little girl provided amazing entertainment to us diners.  She is the daughter of one of the employees, and entertained herself beautifully.  She rode for a long time on this little merry-go-round, but it made a screeching metal-on-metal sound the whole time she used it.  When she had to go to the bathroom, she pulled down her panties and ran with her bare butt to the women’s bathroom, causing a lot of hilarity in our group.  When she came out, she had tucked her dress into her panties.

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But the funniest of all was this parrot and another, who just walked around the restaurant.  This one tried to play with the girl’s shoe laces as she swang.  When I went ino the women’s room before we were to leave, I discovered that one of the parrots was in there with me, and was pulling on my shoelaces.  The next woman to come in screamed, because the parrot had bitten her big toe, which had bright red nail polish and was in open-toed sandals.  Only in Mexico!

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We rode back in our boats and walked — now very hot and tired — to our lovely hotel and its waiting pool.  Here is how it looked at night, so lovely.

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The next morning we left that charming place at 10:30 a.m. for the Tuxtla Gutierrez airport and our 12:45 flight back to Mexico City.  We met up again with Ruben and our bus for the ride back to SMA.  We stopped at a very nice rest stop for dinner, and reached our destination at about 8:30 p.m.  Then into taxis for most of us, and home sweet home.

It was a very good trip, one that I would recommend to anyone.  I will definitely travel with Vagabundos again.  I met many lovely people, had incredible experiences, learned more than I ever dreamed possible about so many things, and continued my love affair with Mexico.

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