On the Road to Chiapas | GeoEx
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On the Road to Chiapas

By Don George | October 28, 2021

Maya murals in Room 1 of Bonampak in Chiapas, Mexico

Last night I found myself in an ancient ruin, a resonant site of lush green grass, deep encroaching jungle, and time-worn stones. Serenaded by the cries of howler monkeys from the nearby trees, I walked up a steep stone stairway to three small rooms perched at the top.

When I reached the first of these, I stood in the entrance and peered into the shadows. As my eyes adjusted, brilliant murals leapt to life around me: In dazzling colors, they depicted a ceremonial procession, with dozens of noble figures in fancifully feathered and ornamented headgear and robes, and attendants bearing decorated umbrellas, gifts, and musical instruments.  A regal figure sat on a throne-like stage in one section of the murals, and in another, a baby was being held aloft before the nobles.  As I stared transfixed in wonder, one word thundered like an ancient chant in the air: Bonampak!

As this word echoed in my mind, I suddenly found myself looking around at my bedroom walls, searching for the marvelous murals, the humid jungle ruins. Where were they? Where was I?

Then I realized that I was home, in northern California, and that just before going to sleep, I had been absorbed in reading about the ruins at Bonampak and studying illustrated reconstructions of the murals there. For an hour I had been immersed in the world of the Maya in southern Mexico, and I had carried that immersion into my dreams.

This is one of the joys of travel.

In about a month, I will be embarking on my first international trip in two years! I’ll be boarding my first plane since November of 2019, flying from Los Angeles to Mexico City and then on to the city of Tuxtla Gutiérrez, capital of the Mexican state of Chiapas.

From there I’ll embark on GeoEx’s nine-day Mexico: Maya Traditions in Chiapas tour, visiting traditional Maya villages and rain forest communities, meeting weavers and ceramicists, learning about ancient religious ceremonies and modern indigenous movements, venturing into the hearts of canyons and jungles, and exploring the ruins at Yaxchilán, Bonampak, and Palenque.

In preparation for this trip, I have spent the past week traveling in my mind. I began by reading the GeoEx itinerary, then moved on to the guidebooks and maps I had bought. As seems to happen inevitably, as soon as I began this journey, serendipities emerged. I discovered that a college classmate of mine, Mary Miller, is considered one of the country’s preeminent scholars of Maya society and art, and wrote the definitive book on those marvelous murals at Bonampak. I was able to contact her, and her gracious emails enthusing about the wonders that await have made me even more excited about this adventure.

When we think of travel, we often focus on the act of traveling, the time that we spend on the ground in a place—but for me, the journey always begins well before I set foot in my destination. The trip starts with the preparation: I buy guidebooks and maps, research online, seek out other books that will illuminate the culture and landscape I’m about to encounter. For me, this preparation is an integral part of the experience. And so my journey to Mexico has already begun.

I study the GeoEx itinerary, and the trip begins to come to life in my mind. On the first day we “board a small boat to cruise through Sumidero Canyon National Park.” I feel the breeze as the boat moves, hear the cries of birds from the surrounding trees. I see the towering, vegetation-clad walls of the canyon and the river’s blue-green sheen.

We arrive in San Cristóbal de las Casas, and I feel the cobbled stones of the narrow, winding streets under my feet, admire the terracotta-tiled roofs and the grand yellow and red cathedral, absorb the vibrant market with its bright colors and pungent scents.

And in this way, detail by detail, the puzzle of an exhilarating new world pieces together in my mind.

For background I turn to a book recommended by Mary Miller, The Maya, whose authors, Michael D. Coe and Stephen Houston, passionately describe the extraordinary artistic and social richness of the Maya world. 

Then I open my Footprint guidebook and read, “Chiapas seems largely impervious to the intrusion of outsiders. The Lost World feeling is created by indigenous inhabitants and their villages which make everything seem timeless.” Through the book’s descriptions, I picture the black and pink tunics and blue shawls of the people in San Juan Chamula, and the elaborately embroidered red jackets and blue-purple shawls and navy skirts of the residents of Zinacantán. I read further about the countryside of Chiapas, and imagine the lush landscapes and pristine waterfalls.

When we get to the ruins, I feel the humidity and the antiquity, the sheer weight of history in the air. I examine the expressive lintels and hieroglyphs at Yaxchilán, and then we arrive at the murals at Bonampak, and I am astonished. I open Maya Art and Architecture, written by Mary Miller and Megan O’Neil, and read, “Perhaps the single greatest achievement of Maya art, the Bonampak murals are the finest paintings of the indigenous New World.”

Finally we come to Palenque, and my imagination soars. “The setting is incomparable,” The Maya’s Coe and Houston write. “Palenque lies at the foot of a chain of low hills still covered with tall rain forest…. Parrots and macaws of brilliant plumage fly at treetop level; on rainy days, the strange roar of howler monkeys can be heard near the ruins.”

As the afternoon cools and shadows loom, I wander the expansive ruins. I move as if in a dream, savoring the masterful stonework and stucco, imagining the elaborate ceremonies that took place on these very same stones 1,300 years before. I climb to the top of a temple stairway and survey the scene, and as the sun casts the site in a glorious golden light, I find myself spinning back in time, the Maya world revived before my very eyes.

And so the trip comes to life all around me, detail by detail, day by day, and my excitement grows and grows.

I am already on the road to Chiapas.

¡Viva México!

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How do you prepare for a journey? And what do you enjoy most about the preparation process? Please share your rituals and recommendations in the Comments section below! Thank you!

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To learn more about GeoEx’s small group trip to southern Mexico, led by Don George, contact our travel specialists at 888-570-7108.

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Mouhamadou
8 months ago

Hello from Senegal, West Africa! This is a great blog. I enjoyed reading it. I am a bird as some of my friends call me, very often on the road and in the river. I do travel for work but also mostly for social trips as I run a social educatiional startup.
I enjoy traveling.

Margaret Wagner
8 months ago

So evocative, Don! Such an interesting area. Enjoy your trip!

Byrdie keeler
8 months ago

Wow, been there. San Juan Chamula had chickens being sacrificed. Pepsi cola was being shaken then drunk to allow for burping to expel the devil. What a place. I was followed because I had a camera. Pictures strictly forbidden. Lots of primitive, very small werefor sale, charming. I remember how much they worship the sun

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