Blog 6: Huaqueques & Panqueques

17 December 2012

The Lacandón Indians who hold title to the vast jungles bordering Guatemala in eastern Chiapas are mostly Presbyterians, Evangelicals, and Charismatics, though some witness for Jehovah and a few, presumably, remain Catholic. It stands to reason that all the varieties of Christianity as practiced in these parts incorporate vestiges (or even more substantial elements) of the Lacandón’s pre-European brand of pan-Mayan religion. To our knowledge, none of the Lacandón have become Jews, though if they had, and were serious about adhering to the kosher rules, they probably don’t eat huaqueques.


As I write this the Presbyterian church up the road from the Nueva Alianza eco-lodge is sharing it’s evening hymn service with this part of the town via low-fidelity loud speaker with a very powerful woofer. Before sitting down at the computer I walked for an hour through the trees above the high bank of the Usumacinta River here in Frontera Corozal, listening to the piercing laughter of the Corozal kids splashing each other in the shallows where the lanchas pull up on the sand, and to the even more piercing roars of the howler monkeys across the river in Guatemala. It is late afternoon, and the work of ferrying tourists an hour down river to Yaxchilán is over, and it is time for families to relax on the river bank, women, men, and older children stripped to their underwear, the toddlers clad in what they were born with, the kids playing tag in the shallows, the parents sitting on the sand snacking on fruit or bags of potato chips. I counted 55 lanchas tied up in a line, their pointed prows pulled onto the sand, the rainbow of their outboard motors bobbing in the current. The tourists we saw at Yaxchilán today would have fit into a half dozen lanchas at most. Business is bad. The media in Europe, as in the US, paint Mexico as the second most dangerous place on the planet, after Afghanistan, and if you’ve enlisted as a combatant on either side of the narco wars, maybe it is. But if you’re a non-target, then for most people, in most places, at most times, it’s a non-issue. Life goes tranquilly on. We feel as safe here as we do almost anywhere in the States.


Frontera Corozal is on a once-and-future paved road that descends twenty kilometers from the frontier highway to the riverbank. Bits of the road look like they may have been paved at sometime in the past, for there are occasional patches of what must have been asphalt, and when the sun hits the potholed track just right we think we see faint traces of a yellow line in the center. But it may just be our mind playing tricks. We’re sure this road will be (re)paved someday. Corozal is a good-sized town, a high school teacher named Rigoberto told me this afternoon. I met him down by the boats. His wife sat waist deep in the water while their three-year-old son, also named Rigoberto, pranced around her with a shaped stick he proudly exhibited to me as his boat. A high school and three elementary schools, he said. Corozal doesn’t seem that big to us, maybe because the only businesses along the paved street are three tiny abarrotes, convenience stores selling six cans of this, bottled water and soft drinks, toilet paper, and a few onions and tomatoes; but the houses spread out along a grid of yellow dirt roads, each one

on a plot large enough to hold a couple of fruit trees and a dozen chickens. Still, the town needs a paved road to the outside world. And besides, even though Corozal is in the remotest southern fringe of the country, the ruins of Yaxchilán are too valuable to the tourism economy for the government to leave this place frustratingly difficult to reach. It is understandable why there is no road to Yaxchilán itself. Part of the enchantment for tourists is Yaxchilán’s far-offness, and a key element in creating that sense of exotic isolation is that the ruins can only be accessed by river.


The Nueva Alianza eco-lodge, like the higher priced Escudo Jaguar, named for one of Yaxchilán’s rulers, which is on the river bank on the other side of Frontera Corozal’s singled paved street, is owned and managed by the Lacandón. As are the lanchas. The point is underscored when you roll into town: it costs 15 pesos for a one-day residence permit in Lacandón territory. If you recall the Zapatista National Liberation Movement [EZLN] of the mid 1990s in Chiapas, which was led by the elusive, masked, and mysterious sub-comandante Marcos and focused in large measure in stopping the ecological rape of Chiapas by outside loggers and cattle ranchers, you may remember that one of the outcomes was Mexico’s central government recognizing the Lacandón territory in Eastern Chiapas as a semi-autonomous region. So the Lacandón control access to the area’s major eco attractions (waterfalls and a remote lake), and archaeological sites. To get into Bonampak to see the best-preserved pre-Columbian painted murals in all the Americas, you have to pay 70 pesos each to jounce over fifteen kilometers of dirt road in a rattletrap combi owned and piloted by a Lancandon driver. To get to Yaxchilan, you go in a Lacandón lancha.


Which is what we did, this morning, sharing the lancha with Enrique and Jesús, two Mexican college students from Mexico City, and a second Jesús, closer to our age, a Catalán world-traveling businessman turned tax-assessor from Tarragona. Enrique, after looking into his thin wallet and conferring with the younger Jesús, negotiates the price down to 600 pesos. We descend the riverbank to the embarcadero and climb into the lancha, a long narrow boat with a pointed snout, benches along the sides and the center roofed like a thatched Quonset hut to shield us from sun and rain. We strap on our bright orange life vests, and our boatman pushes off from the bank, fires up the outboard, and putts into midstream where he pulls to full throttle. The banks rush by on both sides. The Usumacinta is Mexico’s largest river. In fact, it is the largest river between the Mississippi and Venezuela’s Orinoco, and even here, over a hundred kilometers from the coast, it carries a lot of water, water moving fast enough that when it hits a protruding snag it throws up a plume and leaves a roil that trails 20 meters downstream.


On the riverbank near Corozal groups of women are washing clothes, pounding them against flat stones anchored in the sand. But five minutes down river all we see on both banks is jungle, with an occasional gap allowing a glimpse of cornstalks gone brown or a row of fruit trees bare except for a few tenacious leaves. The trees at the edge of the jungle are sheathed in vines, closing the stage behind them like a thick green scrim. Behind them rise second-story trees, many of them covered with pale violet or yellow flowers. Every few hundred yards rises a massive upper story tree. These giants are supported by triangular shaped buttresses of roots, and their higher branches trail lianas that drop 80 or 90 feet to the ground looking for new places to root and spread. The stateliest are the ceibas, their round grey trunks, smooth as paper except for the bottom 3 meters or so that are covered with stubby thorns to discourage predators from reaching the world on top. On a gravel bar separated from the riverbank by a few feet of foaming water, a great blue heron stands motionless waiting for anything within his reach to twitch in a way that announces “Lunch.” The boat slows, the pilot points to a sand bar where a river crocodile, half as long as our lancha, eyes us warily and then slithers slowly into the river. There is no danger, but we pull in our hands and elbows. Tropical mockingbirds, boat-tailed grackles, and a raucous flock of squawking parrots pass overhead. Depending on the Usumacinta’s depth, we hug first the Mexican and then the Guatemalan banks.


After nearly an hour, through a break in the trees we glimpse the steps of a small pyramid. We round a bend in the river, and to our left there is a lancha pulled up onto the sand. Beside it a flight of concrete steps climbs to a narrow crack in the green wall. We dock, take off our life vests, and make sure we have our hats and cameras and water bottles. Our pilot will wait, telling us that he expects our visit to take about two hours.


We pass a small building serving as headquarters for the INAH staff (National Institute of Archaeology and History –by law they administer almost all ancient sites). We pause at a large site-map and a few informational placards, then start up a foggy, green-swathed trail toward the main ruins. In the distance we hear howler monkeys roaring. They could be a hundred or a thousand meters away: their roar is the loudest thing in the jungle and it seems to travel forever.

“Rooooaaaaaaarrrrrr: this is my family’s tree. You guys keep your distance.”

“Rooaaooaarrrrr: Alright, as long as you keep yours. And by the way, good morning.”


I haven’t taken ten steps when I hear three birdcalls I have never heard before. Their makers are so deep into the green that there is no point in trying to search with my binoculars. Then young Jesús points to something woodchuck size that is waddling out of the understory to the left of the trail. A minute later, it is followed by a second one. Smooth skin, pug nose, porcine eyes, long tail. To me they look like halfway between a stereotypical piggy bank and a rubbery pigmy hippopotamus. In a moment, before we can fumble our cameras into shooting position, they have crossed the trail and disappeared into the woods.


I walk back to the INAH headquarters to ask one of the two rangers who are sitting on plastic chairs in the shade.

“They’re huaqueques.”

“How’s that again?”

“Huaqueques. That’s what we call them around here. Fat? This big?” he measures with his two hands. “With long thin tails?”

We nod.

“Yes, huaqueques. Big rodents. Some people call them agoutis.”

“Hunh. Um, do people hunt them? Eat them?”

“Eat them? Well, yes, some do. Some people do.”

The some people probably are Presbyterians. People who when offered a fat little huaqueque with lots of meat on its bones don’t stop to think about kosher regulations.


Linda and I, Enrique, and the two Jesúses spend the next two hours wandering Yaxchilán in awe. Almost until the end, we have the site to ourselves. We are silent, but the central ceremonial plaza is as noisy as Times Square. Constant bird calls. The roars of howler monkeys from the hills in front, from our left, from right overhead. Flashes of color in the heights: brown jays, a fire truck red summer tanager, a striped aracari, the bird that would have the longest, t

hickest, brightest colored beak in the jungle if it weren’t for his cousins the toucans. And the site itself?


It sits on a horseshoe bend of the Usamacinta, on a hill from which its rulers dominated much of southern Chiapas and northern Guatemala. Its glory time was the eighth century, when Europe was still sputtering in the Visigoth dark ages. Yaxchilán’s site is militarily favored, strategically ideal, and Yaxchilán’s rulers grew rich from tribute extracted from subjugated peoples, and by trading with distant nations up and down the Usumacinta. But then something happened, and despite a century now of archaeology, no one knows precisely what. The last datable glyph here marks the year 810. Shortly after that Yaxchilán seems to have been abandoned as a city.


Not destroyed, abandoned. And, eventually, reclaimed by nature. In these parts, men never really conquer nature, they just briefly interrupt it. Liana covered trees rise from the middle of flights of stairs. The triangular buttress roots of ceibas push aside courses of foundation stones. The trails of leafcutter ants crisscross the ground where feathered princes walked. There are suburbs here, spreading for a kilometer into the jungle the surveyors say, but for us they are locked behind the green wall.


And though much has crumbled, and all is clothed in slippery green lichens, ferns, and mold, what’s left is pretty spectacular. Three, count them three, acropolis clusters, with temples atop near-vertical staircases that climb 30 to 60 meters above the open plazas at their feet. Yaxchilán’s architects decorated their temples with honeycombed stone screens, four, and five, and six layers high, each one situated, it seems, for maximum visual effect. In the plazas, steles: flat stone slabs ranging from the size of Ping-Pong tables to two-story buildings, carved in low relief with the figures of Mayan kings and deities. Most of the elements of Yaxchilán we’ve seen before, except perhaps for the honeycomb cornices. But, once again, what silences us is the interplay of light and shadow, of green and stone, of warblers and aracaris, of trailing lianas, yawning doorways, and a quail-like tinamous that scurries into the bush.


As we are about to head back to the embarcadero to look for our boatman, Enrique scampers excitedly to the top of a crumbling minor temple and points to the high spreading crown of the king ceiba in the middle of the plaza. It’s a family of howler monkeys: the little ones swinging from branch to branch, the mothers watching them warily, the men snoozing in the mid-morning dappled light. Then Enrique points to another tree, next to the temple behind him. It’s a family of spider monkeys, their arms and legs seemingly twice as long as the howlers’, lazily snacking on bits of green and the tiny fruits that hang from the highest branches.


A few more photos and it’s time. We cross the plaza, enter the green tunnel of the entrance trail, and point ourselves toward the blinding circle of light that announces the riverbank. Five sets of tourist eyes peer into the under story on both sides of the trail, but there are no tasty little huaqueques to be seen . . . They’d be safe from me, but who knows about my colleagues?


David & Linda