Published in the Colorado Daily, May 3, 1993
Takin' the road to heaven in the middle of Maya country
This month, the Tightrope takes a vacation from the politics of bicycling, voting by telephone and freedom on the Mall for the kinder, gentler jungles of the Maya. We built a raft of balsa logs and cord and floated for eight days down three rivers, the Jatate, the Lacuntun, and the Usimacinta, which borders Mexico and Guatemala.
Our trip began in San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico where I met Peter Paul Boot, a Dutchman. Peter had volunteered at Na Balom there, and had lived several months with the Lacandon Indians in Naha, one of their three remaining villages. The Lacandon, numbering only about 600, are the last traditional jungle-dwellers in Mexico; they wear unisex long hair and white gowns.
I knew Peter was the guy to try this trip with. I'd heard of it two years before on my last bicycle trip in Mexico. When I was 16, we'd tried building a raft to float New York's Hudson River, but twisted trees, an ant nest, and the putrid smells and dioxin from paper mills scotched our Huck Finn fantasies.
With Ted and Steve, recent college graduates turned travelers, we bused to a hostel in the Lagunas de Montebello National Park. I explained the journey to Regge and Rune, a German and a Dane, who decided to try it on their own. They made their own raft downstream from us where we ran into them later (fortunately not literally).
We bused to Flor de Café (Coffee Flower), the end of the line, ate, and waited for the sun to ease. Bad mistake. The trail quickly turned to a quagmire churned by animal hooves, up to knee-deep. Three miles and three hours later, it was dark; the rising full moon saved us. We staggered into Pena Blanca (White Rock), population 200, and were given a nice palapa (palm roof) where we waited out the next day, Sunday, whil it rained and the mud deepened. We played songs and cards with the residents, Latinos who had established the town 11 years ago with a government contract to grow coffee. They felt ripped off and were negotiating new contracts directly with European dealers for their organic crop.
Monday, contrary to the estimates of those over-eager to hire out their burros, it was a relatively easy 45 minutes to Tenejapa near the Rio Jatate. Tenejapa was 150 Tzeltal indigenas (Indians) who had left a highland village of the same name with worn-out soil near San Cristobal. We hired Sebastiano, the local Conasupo (government-subsidized store) chief to help us locate balsa trees and build the raft.
Two-and-a-half days later, Fortress Jane was ready. The much-enlarged third version of our original Jane (Tarzan's mate), Fortie had 21 colcha (balsa) logs, seven meters long. These were green like the logs of Thor Heyerdahl's Kon Tiki. With machetes, we made oars of mahogany planks. Sebastian was called to a down-river Conasupo meeting, and left us the key to his house, his kids, and all but his wife, who was visiting back in old Tenejapa.
That evening, we climbed to a cave on the cliff above town the Tenejapans were afraid to enter. We went 100 meters in before the cave bent upwards, and found pottery shards and beautiful calcite formations. We climbed down as the tropical dark fell, fast. WE almost fell.
The next day, we loaded up and drifted down the Jatate. We ate sweet lemons and sour oranges, listening to the monkeys an birds. Howler monkeys are a lot like politicians: small, almost human creatures with loud, intimidating voices; you expect King Kong. They can sound like a lion, dog, or cow.
We camped that first night at the huge floodplain where the Rio Ixcan joined to form the Lacuntun. We stopped at Ranch Perto Rico and Loma Bonito, where the residents refused money for bananas, tomatoes, cacao, sugar cane, limes, tortillas, and beans they gave us. Regge and Rune joined us in the raft they'd just finished there.
Jane was built for speed, easily out-pacing the German-engineered Euraft with its nice, dry bamboo second layer. We figure we clocked 1.5 kilometer per hour on th Jatate, 4 km/hr on the Lacuntun, and 6 to 10 Kilometers km/hr
on the Usimacinta.
But Fortress Jane was too big for our own good; she tended to self-destruct when we hit snags. We abandoned her after four days in Pico de Oro. The Europeans had a plane to catch, and left with my companions on the 4 AM bus. I continued solo on the two-person Euraft.
After two more days of drifting, reading, and listening on the Lacuntun, things got exciting. Two teenaged fishermen guided me to a couple of Mayan figures engraved on El Planchon, a large limestone plate formation on a beach. Then the Lacutun joined the Rio Salinas to become the Usimacinta. Things sped up.
First, I passed a majestic symmetrical island and then came to El Chorro (the faucet), a magnificent set of waterfalls cascading off a limestone bench into the river. Six kilometers on, I stopped and stayed at El Chorrito, a smaller version. I strung my hammock in the trees by the falls and explained to a boy that in spite of my sandals, beard, and long hair, I was not Jesus returning.
Now the finale. On the Usimacinta, I could really only land the 500-pound raft by swimming to shore, and hauling it in with the 50 meters of cheap synthetic line.
Trying to stop at Bethel, Guatemala, to take a side trip to the ruins of Tikal, I put on my running shoes to land on the sharp limestone banks. The line tangled, and was now barely long enough to reach shore. I was being draggd from one landing attempt to another, weighed down by the wet shoes. I barely stopped her on the last rocky outcrop available. Two kids dashed up to help. If I hadn't made it, I'd have had to bushwhack back from wherever I could land her; I had no machete. If I let go, I'd arrive in Guatemala with two shoe and triathlete shorts. I never got back on that raft.
Tikal was gorgeous, and I saw more monkeys in one day there than in eight on the river. I was low on cash, as we'd expected the round trip to take a week. It took 19 days. So I passed by our original goal, the ruins of Yaxchilan, where the head of the Lacondon gods, Halchik'yum lives. I caught a bus back to Bethel, and a boat down river, entered Mexico, and lucked into a fast van ride down the long dirt road back to Palenque. For some reason, I got right on a bus to San Cristobal, bypassing several of my favorite haunts.
The next day turned out to be the last day of Carnaval and fiesta for 50,000 indigenas and 200 gringos in nearby Chamula, famous for severely disciplining photographers. Two gringos had their glasses thrown under the trampling crowds by costumed "monkeys." There something about our optics they don't like. Most of us gringos were caught between the fire the "monkeys" pranced on the toros who charged the crowd in spite of their ropes. We did some firewalking ourselves to escape.
I went in their famous church and stayed a long time, inhaling the vast quantities of copal incense and the fumes of at least 1,000 candles. Many of the female carved santos (saints) had mirrors reflecting their tearful supplicants. These mirrors were said to remind us of the road to heaven: God within us.
Evan Ravitz walks the not-so-tight rope summer eves on the Pearl Street Mall. This is his seventh trip to our southern neighbors, his third by bicycle.