Shortly after we pulled into steamy Palenque, the group sat down for a delicious seafood meal and our leader Carlos told us we would shortly be joined by a local guide, a true “jungle boy” who would talk to us about an option for the following day. Carlos told us this was one of his favorite things to do in Palenque, something that would give us the opportunity to go off the beaten path, quite literally: a trek through the jungle surrounding the Mayan ruins of Palenque.
A few minutes later, the jungle boy arrived. His name is Gabriel May, a descendent of the indigenous Mayan people, and he grew up here in the jungle. Shorter than me with high cheekbones and long black hair pulled into a ponytail, he didn’t quite look like the jungle man I was envisioning. However, as soon as he started talking about what we could expect if we joined him the following day, we didn’t question his ruggedness again.
Gabriel explained that the main Mayan ruins of Palenque – the area “with the nice grass and signs and lots of tourists” – only comprise about 5% of the national park that fills the surrounding jungle. Most people that come to see the ruins skip the other 95% entirely. The rest of the national park contains over 1,400 Mayan structures, but most of them haven’t been excavated or reconstructed. Instead, the “jungle has taken them back.”
He offers us the opportunity to explore these ruins, to learn about the plants and animals that the Mayans lived with and to experience this jungle the way the Mayans did centuries ago. He warns us that if we want to go, we shouldn’t wear deoderant, sunscreen, or bug spray because those things scare off the animals. Oh, and he recommends not wearing shoes either, because the Mayans didn’t.
Sign me the fuck up!
The next morning, rain was coming down heavily as we met Gabriel and piled into the tiny van that would take us to the jungle. After about 15 minutes of driving, the van pulled over to the side of the road next to an opening in the fence and a path leading into the trees. We filed out, some of us took off our shoes, and followed the now barefooted Gabriel through the gate.
We stopped almost immediately. He tells us that our first step is greeting the jungle and asking permission to enter it’s boundaries, as is Mayan custom. We each place a hand on a tree and say a silent prayer to the jungle gods that our passage is safe and fruitful.
When we started walking, I felt a bit skeptical about how authentic this adventure really was. We were on a clear path that began on a clear trailhead, and we quickly reached a nice, signposted waterfall. We took turns admiring it, and then Gabriel suddenly turned left and veered off the path entirely, gently pushing low hanging branches and thorny obstacles aside.
Oh, ok, now is the part where we go off the beaten path.
I was intrigued watching the way Gabriel walked through the jungle, his arms outstretched to both sides to feel the passing trees and bushes. His bare feet lightly stepped, making no noise as he slowly made his way through the landscape he’d been playing in since he was a child. He seemed 100% at home.
We passed scattered mounds of rocks, which Gabriel pointed out as Mayan buildings that the jungle had claimed as it’s own. One such mound still had an opening at the top, which we climbed into. Inside, we could see a characteristic Mayan high arching vaulted ceiling, where bats had now taken up residence. They hung silently from the vault, sleepily watching us as we climbed in to have a look.
We passed a termite mound bulging out of a tree trunk. Gabriel stuck his finger into the mound, and termites began crawling out by the dozen. He took a few and ate them, telling us to do the same. “They taste like carrots!” We did, and he was right.In fact, Gabriel seemed to know what everything in the jungle was – every tree, plant, fruit, mushroom and creature – and whether or not it was edible. He shared with us all he knew of the knowledge of the Mayans, which was essential to their survival here hundreds of years ago.
After a bit, Gabriel asked us if we were feeling very adventurous. Me and a few at the front shouted an exuberant yes, but I think some of our group at the back were beginning to be eaten alive by mosquitos and were a bit more hesitant. Gabriel said ok, and made another turn, and we started making our way through an even thicker area of jungle. We passed several sections of aged barbed wire, which he told us were remnants of the old national park boundaries. After about 45 minutes I was worried even Gabriel was lost.
Finally, after several rounds of hopping over and under rusty barbed wire, he shouted that we were close to the pool, and suddenly we found a small square pool built in stone. About 10 yards away, there was a hole in some rocks where water was rushing in from upstream. I asked Gabriel what it was, and he grinned. “That is where we are going.”
I thought to myself there was no fucking way that was safe, and where the hell did it lead?
But since I’ve found saying yes is better than no 99% of the time, I followed Gabriel down into the hole, along with about half of the group. It was part of a submerged Mayan aqueduct, and water rushed through the narrow passage way at about waist level with frightening speed. But somehow we slowly made our way through it to it’s secret exit about 20 yards away.
Reading back that paragraph, it doesn’t quite sound as adventurous as it felt, but at the time, it was the closest I’ve ever felt to being Lara Croft! For reals.
When we were finally making our way back to the exit, suddenly Gabriel stopped and hushed us, gazing up at the trees. In the distance, we heard a throaty, grunty howl. Gabriel smiled and yelled “VAMANOS!” We followed him as he moved quickly between the trees towards the noise. He put his hands up to his mouth and started screeching along with the sounds we heard.
We got closer, and suddenly we found ourselves under a little pack of Howler Monkeys. Their throaty screams echoed out across the trees surrounding us. Gabriel reciprocated with a similar call each time, and suddenly the forest around us was alive with screeches.
It was unlike anything I’ve ever heard before. I can’t imagine what someone might think if they wandered into this jungle and heard this noise without knowing what it was coming from. It’s so sinister – it certainly doesn’t sound like it’s coming from a tiny monkey!
After we finally exited the jungle, we said our goodbyes to Gabriel and set off to check out the 5% of the ruins that everybody comes to see – and they did not disappoint.
The ancient city of Palenque was once a mighty center of trade and religion in the Mayan empire. The ruins today are massive and seem to grow out of the mountainous jungle around them. Or does the jungle grow out of the ruins themselves? Who knows. Either way, they were impressive, and the best part was there weren’t many other people there. We had free reign to wander the ruins, climb the structures and admire the steamy jungle surrounding them.
I was amazed to think that the Mayans, Gabriel’s ancestors, roamed the surrounding jungles with such prowess hundreds of years ago. Eventually, using the survivor skills they’d learned over the centuries, they settled and built up an incredible city here in the middle of the jungle, complete with pyramids, tombs, and palaces.
And then, for some reason, it all crumbled. They conquered the jungle, and then the jungle conquered them.
Thinking about the rise and fall of civilizations is a humbling undertaking. It forces you to consider what the future holds for your own society and culture. Will it someday lie in ruins too? Will tourists wander around what remains of our cities, taking photos absent-mindedly, trying in vain to reconstruct in their minds what your hometown looked like at its height?
I shudder to think what the city of Los Angeles will look like centuries from now. But I also do hope that there is a least one quirky descendent of ours that will take eager tourists on an unlikely adventure into the ruins and encourage them to open their minds to a different, once thriving way of life.
And I hope he or she is just a slice as cool as Gabriel!