Leaving Villahermosa, a wide highway carries a seemingly inexhaustible convoy of trucks south into Chiapas and north into the Yucatán. After a few hours we turn off the main highway and trucks all but disappear, the road narrows and mountains appear in the distance. As the altitude increases, the sun begins to descend. The road turns to rock and dirt, and a mist hovers over the valley. We arrive at Top Che Eco-Lodge at twilight. After a dinner of organic vegetables and soup we are introduced to the Ch’an K’in family that operates Top Che. This is the remote and unique Selva Lacandona, the Lacandón Jungle, the last remaining tropical rain forest in North America.
Because of the area’s remote and inaccessible nature, the indigenous people who lived (or fled) here were the only native group in México never subdued by the invading Spaniards.
The buildings at Top Che consist of simple concrete slabs with post and wood plank walls and roofs are corrugated tin or thatch – a stark contrast with the luxurious hotel in Villahermosa we left this morning. But guest rooms have tiled floors and wood beamed ceilings. Bright paintings of tropical flowers adorn the walls. There is electricity and ample hot water, and a satellite dish provides WIFI to the main dining hall. Otherwise, there is a minimal carbon footprint. Cabins to house the family are scattered about the property. A small building down the trail serves as a store for those who crave outside goods.
The Lacandón have a deep reverence for the jungle and its inhabitants. In the dining room hangs the following sign demonstrating their relationship with the environment: “Hachakyum, God of the Gods, created the heavens and the jungles; in the sky he sowed the stars, and in the jungle he planted the great trees. The roots of all things are held in his hands. When a tree is cut in the jungle, a star falls from the sky.”
We are told that Don Enrique, the family patriarch, is not feeling well, but we meet his mother Chanuc, his wife Lola, daughters Chanuc and Ko and granddaughters Nicté, Chanuc and Topché. Each beautiful face sports an irrepressible smile. While the older generation speaks only Hach T’ana, the local dialect of Yucatec Mayan, the grandchildren and great-grandchildren are fully bi-lingual, and even the babies are learning Spanish as well as Mayan from the start.
We retire to our cabins for the night, and slip beneath the mosquito netting, lulled by the sound of the rushing Lacanjá River and the howler monkeys in the distance. We had traveled with Marina twice before, so we knew we were in for some extraordinary personal experiences here.
At daybreak, we awaken early to the rooster’s crow. Walking down to the stream, we see bridges, some of which have been washed out by the water’s surge. Following the trail on the other side, a couple is glimpsed briefly, but quickly retreats into the brush. Perhaps they are refugees from nearby Guatemala making their way to the promise of a better life. At a rest stop on the road to Top Che we were told that shopkeepers often provide food and water or temporary lodging to people making the perilous trek north. It is a matter of basic hospitality. In the same vein, we are given a wonderful breakfast of fresh fruits and eggs a la Mexicana before our visit to the ruins at Yaxchilán.
Enrique is feeling better today, and appears in the long white cotton tunic that has been worn by Lacandón for centuries. It is covered by a warm jacket against the morning chill, and he wears socks and crocs sandals, another example of the intersection of tradition and modernity!
When Enrique Ch’an K’in was a child, he first encountered archaeologist Frans Blom and his wife, photographer Gertrude Duby, sent by the Mexican government to document the isolated Lacandón. The Bloms spent 15 days traveling by mule from Comitán, and would maintain a lifelong relationship with this family. Photos of those early interactions hang on the walls, and we will see a much larger display of similar photos later in San Cristóbal. Enrique’s father resisted the efforts of Christian missionaries, and urged his clan to hold on to traditional religious and cultural practices. A half-century later the Lacandón have found accommodation with the outside world in the form of Eco-tourism. Numerous lodges similar to Top Che can be found throughout the jungle.
In the evening, Don Enrique glows as each member of his family is again presented and we have a chance to ask questions and learn more about their lives. This is the new generation of Lacandón.
Nicté is finishing sixth grade, and wants to be the first generation that surpasses primary education. She is studying the tourism and hospitality industry, and Internet access has opened a world of possibilities to her. We ask her what her goals are, and she responds in her beguiling manner that she enjoys meeting people from all over the world, and wants to expand her business. But when asked if she wants to travel, she replies that she has no such desire. Everything she needs is in the Lacandón. Her family is incredibly close, and there is obvious security for everyone that is part of it. But declining Lacandon population, now fewer than 1,000 people, has precipitated a more open stance with the outside, including marriage outside the clan, something that has been prohibited in the past. Change is clearly in the air.
The Eco-Lodge has been far more successful than anyone expected, and four new cabins were added last year alone. Success and rapprochement bring inherent risks. Is it possible to preserve all of the old ways and still accommodate such an influx of tourists with their attendant expectations? What happens when accumulation of new assets begins to affect the balance of relationships within the family, as it inevitably will?
Fifty years ago, the Lacandón were self-sufficient, but contact with outsiders has brought new-found interest in things not traditionally available, and has made them more dependent on the rest of Chiapas. But it is not just the allure of modern conveniences that threatens. The disastrous incursion of infectious diseases decimated the Lacandón in the mid-20th century. There is pressure from logging interests to harvest timber here, and farming interests want to expand cultivation operations on protected lands. All these threaten the fragile balance of this rare and important place. Will the Lacandón be able to resist the temptations and ravages of modern culture? Only time will tell. 1