Guardians of La Selva Lacandona

©Robert Leon

… an intense laughter full of wild spirit. The sound is one of true freedom, one scarcely if ever heard in the day to day bustle of modern life …


Documentary photo of Lacandon Mayan boy Pancho at Cascadas Lacanja in Montes Azules Biosphere Reserve, La Selva Lacandona, Chiapas, Mexico.

The Lacandon are descendants of the ancient Maya, from the thrones of the Old Empire of Palenque, Bonampak, and Yaxchitlan. The roots of the ancient Maya run deeper still, to 1200 B.C. within the Olmec civilization. The name Lacandon means “those who set up stone idols,” referring to the Olmec idols such as the gigantic stone heads found at La Venta in Mexico.

For the Maya, the physical, spiritual, and supernatural worlds comprised one universe, and within this understanding developed advanced knowledge in mathematics, time, astronomy, hieroglyphics, and the 365-day calendar. Their 260-day ritual almanac is a distinct system that combines mathematics, astrology, and astronomy with both physical and metaphysical phenomena, and was in use before 500 B.C.

During the conquest of what is now called Mexico by the Spanish conquistadores, the Lacandon Maya escaped devastation by retreating into the Selva Lacandona jungle, in the far Southeastern part of Chiapas. Most of the recorded history of their great civilization was erased when many books were burnt by the bishop of Merida Fray Diego de Landa in Plaza de Mani. He felt that the books were written under the influence of the devil, and were destroyed in an attempt to wipe-out native beliefs, to be replaced by the Christian Faith.

Destruction of the Classic Maya cities severed economic ties: astronomers, mathematicians, nobles and warriors became peasants cultivating land, and what remained of Maya culture dissipated into the remote jungle. The Selva Lacandona’s flooding rivers and impenetrable forest, thick with mosquitoes, held back the conquistadores. In this way, the Lacandona survived a destruction that was widespread elsewhere in the Americas, preserving some of their ancient culture. These survivors remained undetected for centuries, and until recent times were completely untouched by contemporary civilization.

What remains of the once great cities are monuments, the so-called “ruins” that millions of tourists continue to visit, awe inspired as they attempt to piece together the mysteries of this lost empire.

Meeting the Lacandons I come face to face with the last surviving descendants of the ancient Maya…

Deep in the rainforest near Lacanja village my friend Pancho, a nine-year old Lacandon boy, runs barefoot through the lush terrain, jaguar-like as he outruns me. He slides under a fallen mahogany tree and hides behind the thick vegetation. He laughs innocently as he peeks out from behind the jungle plants to see me struggling along. I’m unable to go under the tree and so struggle over it. He laughs at me, an intense laughter full of wild spirit. The sound is one of true freedom, one scarcely if ever heard in the day to day bustle of modern life.

Twisting through the lush vegetation we cross over rushing rivers on improvised bridges of fallen trees, wading waist deep through hot and rain-swamped jungle, before finally arriving at the Cascadas Lacanja waterfall. The unending jungle canopy above us suspends over the falls like a protective den. We dive quickly into the massaging pool of bubbling water, and let the waterfall relieve us of the thick heat. Pancho splashes around in the water like a happy fish, and our friend, K’in Bor, fearlessly goes to the foot of the thundering falls. The wild Earth envelopes the Lacandon’s serene soul.

Refreshed, we leave the falls and head back into the jungle cover. The sound of the powerfully pounding water quickly dissolves into the increasingly loud buzzing of insects and calls of animals. We go deeper into the rainforest which the sun, filtered through the canopy, has cast in a soft and dim glow. K’in Bor stops and points to the ground – “Serpente,” he says. I look to the spot, my eyes not more than two feet from the vegetation, but it takes me awhile to see the camouflaged snake on the covered ground. I wonder that the barefooted Lacandons can so easily spot a deadly snake or spider in this concealing environment. As easily as K’in Bor can sniff the air and smell out a wild pig, or taste honey in the air and lead me to a beehive. There is a wholly different palate of smells here to explore. The Lacandons, as part of this jungle, have senses that detect things some people aren’t even aware exist.

Ruinas Lacanja emerges through the jungle veil. We circle around the ruin to the side where the dense bush reveals the temple. A massive tree grows from the roof lending a gauge of the amount of time that has passed since its construction. Here, we are alone for probably a ten-kilometer radius. The atmosphere is starkly different to the popular, crowded ruins with golfing green manicured grass. In the stillness of this place, I can sense a path through time connecting the ancient ruin and my Lacandon guides, blending the past and the present consciousness, making them indistinguishable. It is with a sense of the metaphysical that my companions and I visit the world of the Lacandon Maya centuries ago.

Pancho wears a long earth-colored white tunic, a xikul. Sitting on a tree in front of the temple, with his long black hair, bare feet, and serene look, he looks as if merged with the scene. A beam of sunlight passes through the canopy and touches him – in his innocence and smallness he appears to me as a Guardian Angel of the jungle. I hope that this is so, for who knows more about the ways of the jungle than one born here, whose parents and ancestors were born here. This place is the source of life and spirituality for these people, and its importance for all life on this earth is profound. The Lacandon Maya are at home here.

K’in Bor and I look at each other. I ask him, “How can people kill their life source?” He replies, “That’s what we have been asking the gringos for years.”

After a long time of misuse and ignorance about the importance of the rainforest, it is now partly protected by the Lacandon Maya and has been named the Montes Azules Biosphere Reserve.

 

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