Saturday, July 27, 2013

Climbing Cerro Garcia, Lake Chapala's highest peak

Cerro Garcia, looking southeast from the new bypass road above Jocotopec. The town lies on the extreme western end of the lake. Last Tuesday, I accompanied three other hiking friends on an ascent of the peak of Cerro Garcia. The experience was physically intense, but beautiful, so I decided to take a break from my Chiapas series to give you a look at the highest peak along the shores of Lake Chapala. The mountain is much taller than the other ridges and peaks visible from the North Shore of the lake, where most expats live. Its visibility makes it a landmark and an occasional topic of conversation when the summit is wreathed with clouds or its slopes are pocked with brushfires. Mexicans have a quirky sense of humor and it shows in the name they picked for this extinct volcano. In Spanish, Cerro Garcia it means Garcia Hill, but I am here to tell you that this is a full-grown mountain and no mistake about it. According to the Mexican National Institute of Geographical Statistics, the peak of Garcia hits 2750 m (9022.31 ft). The lake itself is at 1524 m (5000 ft), so the summit is 1226 m (4022.31 ft) above the water. We took a route up one of the ridges that rises near the South Shore town of San Luis Soyatlán, just visible in the left-center of the photo. If you look at the top of the mountain, you can see it has a false summit before you reach the real one on the right. More on that, later.

We set off up a farm road lined with old dry-stone walls. The thick summer foliage spilled over the walls and into the road. Above, from rear to front, are Gary, Frank, and Jim B. We left Jim B's high-clearance SUV at a small dairy farm when the road became too rugged and rocky for anything but horses or human feet. Lacking the former, we set off on the latter. Among the four of us, only Jim B had ever climbed to the peak of Cerro Garcia. At this rainy time of year, undergrowth almost literally explodes out of the ground, obscuring and even obliterating well-known trails. A GPS tracking device is very useful in finding and following indistinct trails. Jim B casually remarked that he had left his, which contained the Cerro Garcia trail route, hanging on the wall at home. I silently prayed to the god of the mountain that Jim's memory of the trail was better than his memory for bringing the GPS.

The Cuphea, also known as the Cigar Plant. The trail was lined with an astonishing variety of beautiful flowers, all the way to the summit. The one above has a very unusual appearance, with a long cylindrical body and tiny red flowers on the end, looking for all the world like the lit tip of a cigar. This flower is one of 260 species of the genus Cuphea. The plant grows in temperate to tropical regions. Aside from being raised as ornamentals, oil from the Cuphea is used for the same purposes as coconut and palm oil. Farmers in temperate regions are being encouraged to grow them for biodiesel fuel, thus reducing destructive logging. Not being a flower expert myself, I depend upon my friend Ron Parsons who is an expert on Mexican flora. Ron always comes through for me, even when I give him ridiculously short deadlines. All the flowers I show in this posting were identified for me by him. To view his excellent website, click here.

Lacking a better name, my hiking friends call this a Zulu Shield Bug. They are generally about 5 cm (2 in) long and most are as colorful as the one you see here. We named it for its  resemblance to the markings on a Zulu warrior's shield. The colorful back actually comprises a pair of wings. Although ferocious-looking, the insect is completely harmless and very docile. With sufficient prodding, it will spread its wings and noisily buzz off to a nearby branch. If there are any bug scientists out there who can identify this little guy, please let me know in the Comments section below.

After following a jungly trail, we stopped for a breather at an overlook. Here, you get your first good look at my three companions. Gary, the tall guy on the left, is from New York, and recently moved down full-time. A very friendly and generous guy, he lives here with Marina, the delightful Mexican girl-friend he met shortly after he arrived. Jim B, in the background, came from Texas equipped with a deep drawl, a fishing rod, and a bicycle. He has lived full-time in Ajijic with his wife for a bit longer than Carole and I.  Jim has a soul-deep love of Mexico and has become my regular companion on expeditions to find old haciendas. Frank, on the right, is another newcomer to the area. He got here by way of Montana, Utah, and then Phoenix, AZ. He and his wife Jan are giving the area a "test-run" of several months to see if they might want to make it full-time. They rented a place in the condo complex next door to me and found out from one of my blog fans here that I regularly hike. Frank is a very strong hiker and has completed 1,400+ miles on the Appalachian Trail. He seems to be enjoying Mexico immensely.

These delicate flowers are of the genus Commelina. The common name for Commelina is "dayflower" and--less commonly--"widow's tears." The dayflower name comes from the short lifespan of the flower. We were apparently lucky to happen by when we did to catch it in its full glory. Commelina are herbs and are eaten as vegetables in Southeast Asia and Africa. The Swedish taxonomist Carl Linnaeus, who invented the system for naming species, gave them their names in honor of two Dutch botanists 

On and on, up the ridge we toiled, passing through this sunny grove of scrub oaks. In the background, the bluish ridges of the Sierra del Tigre stretch away into the distance. The mountains lining the South Shore of Lake Chapala, including Cerro Garcia, form the northern limits of the Sierra del Tigre range, which stretches to the Pacific. Cerro Garcia is in no way a technically difficult mountain. There is no rock climbing or need for ropes. The mountain is simply a whole lot of endless up, switchback after switchback, with only a few level stretches to give relief. The higher we got, the thinner the air, so I was panting a good deal even before my legs began to ache. The other three seemed to be doing ok, so I gritted my teeth and pressed on.

As we gained altitude, the views became more expansive. Here, you are looking northeast toward the North Shore. Directly across the lake is the town of Chapala. Eight kilometers (5 mi) west of Chapala is Ajijic, where I live. At this point, Lake Chapala is about 19.3 km (12 mi) wide. Below Garcia, small farm fields checker the landscape. Along the shore in the center-right of the photo is San Luis Soyatlán, a town with a population of about 3,100 people and a history that goes back to pre-hispanic times. The Spanish established a chapel here in 1564, after naming the town for San Luis. The general practice of the early Franciscan friars who evangelized here was to take an indigenous town's name, and precede it with a saint's name. There were three saints named Luis (or Louis, since all three were French). One of them was Louis IX, King of France, but in this case they were referring to St. Louis of Toulouse. In Nahuatl, the indigenous language of the original inhabitants, Soyatlán means "place of the soyates." The soyate fibre was used by pre-hispanic people to create mats and baskets, and the people of the town still make them for personal use and sale. The white structure in the lower right quadrant of the photo is the dairy farm where our car was parked.

Even the "level" stretches have their hazards. Emerging from some woods, we picked our way through a jumble of large boulders. At this point, we are about 1/3 of the way to the summit. The ridge here is not as steep but is only about 27.4 m (30 yards) wide. There is a very steep drop-off on the left, just out of view. We had to make our way carefully through the boulder field because a twisted ankle--or worse--would be extremely inconvenient. I made a mental note to watch my step coming down, because by then I would be very tired and gravity works against you when descending. Notice the low clouds gathering in the upper left.

Hiking in the clouds gives one an eerie feeling. As we pushed on, clouds rolled in, bringing cool, moist air. This was a pleasure, since the day was warm and humid. I always prefer to hike when it's cool, especially when climbing. Loss of visibility is the downside of cloud-hiking. Sometimes, clouds wreath the summit of Cerro Garcia so that it appears to be wearing a Mexican hat. Then, local people will remark that "Señor Garcia is wearing his sombrero today." The trees in the foreground and the ones in back are separated by a ravine many hundreds of feet deep. 

My companions make their way up a steep slope through the thickening fog. Fortunately the terrain was relatively open and free of undergrowth. Wildflowers grew everywhere among the scattered trees. Jim B's trail-tracking capabilities were being stretched to the limit. When I lose track of a trail, I ask myself "if I were a trail, where would I be" and then I go there. It sounds silly, but it nearly always works. People who make trails will usually select the easiest route. Once you develop an eye for that, you can usually find your way. Usually...

This flower is part of the large Rubiaceae family, and is related to coffee plants. The Rubiaceae family is indeed huge, containing 611 genera and 13,000 species. This makes the family the 4th largest by number of genera and the 5th largest by species. These flowers were so perky and visible that they almost cried out for a photograph.

For a bit, the clouds lifted and we could see Cerro Viejo across the lake. Here, you are looking northwest toward San Juan Cosalá. It is another dual-named, North Shore town and is about 8 km (5 mi) west of Ajijic. Above, you can see a long east-west ridge rising directly over the North Shore. Looming up behind that ridge is the dark bulk of Cerro Viejo, partially covered by clouds. Cerro Viejo, at 2960 m (9711 ft), is the tallest mountain in the general area of Lake Chapala. Most of the time it is not visible to those living on the North Shore because it is masked by the lakeside ridge. I have yet to climb Viejo, but I'll probably get around to it. Garcia, on the other hand, I see every day. The fact that I had not yet climbed it nagged at me for years.

The view directly to the east, down the South Shore toward Michoacan State. While the South Shore has its high mountains and ridges, their bases are generally a fair distance from the shore. There is thus much more arable land on this side of the lake than on the North Shore. As you can see in the green area on the lower right of the photo, the tops of some ridges spread out into broad plateaus containing fields and pastures. Continuing further south (to the right) the plateaus drop off precipitously down into the valley just to the south of the ridge. Even at this altitude, the far end of the lake is very difficult to see because Lake Chapala is 80.5 km (50 mi) long.

The clouds close in again, blocking the great vistas. Things cleared up on our return trip down the mountain, but for almost the entire time at the higher altitudes, we were "socked-in" Still, there was plenty to see a close range. Just beyond the tree above is a big drop-off into a ravine between ridges.

Frank takes a break, while leaning on my "loner" stick. Not knowing what to expect, he had arrived in Ajijic somewhat ill-equipped for serious hiking. He managed to find some hiking shoes in his rental unit, but that was about all. I lent him a spare stick and a bellypack to carry water and a snack. I always urge newcomers to these mountains to bring a stick for balance and support. Almost all of the experienced local hikers here use one, or even two. The steep rocky trails, often covered with loose soil and gravel, can be very difficult to negotiate without a third point of balance. One hiker memorably described one of these sections as akin to traversing slick glass covered with ball bearings. Frank is a quiet, steady, no b.s. kind of guy, with a good sense of humor. When he noticed I was tiring during our climb, he hung back a bit to keep an eye on me. Those sorts of things are important in the back country.

This burned out tree stump was one among many signs of a big, recent fire. Although the area has much new growth, we repeatedly found half burned trees and maguey plants, as well as patches of scorched earth. Several months ago, fires raged over a huge section of Cerro Garcia. These often occur during the hot dry season of Aril through mid-June. In preparation for planting, local farmers burn their fields to get rid of crop debris and insects, or to open up scrub land for cultivation. Sometimes these "controlled" burns get out of hand. Mexico has little in the way of resources to devote to these fires, so they are often just allowed to burn out. We had little fear of fire, since the rainy season had arrived many weeks ago and the cool, moist air around us would not be conducive to a wild fire. However, I would not have wanted to be hiking here when this fire roared through.

Tigridia multiflora-iridaceae is commonly known as the Tiger Flower, or Peacock Flower. I have only seen them at high altitude, once on a trek to the summit of Cerro Chupinaya, and once on this hike up Cerro Garcia. Both times, I found them strikingly attractive. Probably their insect pollinators agree. There are 35 species of Tigridia multiflora that grow from Mexico to Chile. The roots are edible and were eaten by the Aztecs, who called the flower oceloxochitl (Jaguar flower).

At last, the summit! Or is it? A long pull up an especially steep slope ended at this cross set in a grove of trees. The clouds obscured anything beyond a few meters. Not much of a view, but we had arrived! I was about done-in at that point and my only thought was to sit down, gulp down some water and gobble my sandwich. I was relieved to see that the others looked fairly bushed too. Summits in these mountains are often topped with crosses like this. They are set up for religious pilgrimages held at fiesta times. It gives the idea of penance a whole new meaning. After I had caught my breath, I casually surveyed my surroundings. Suddenly, I noticed that the fog had lifted a bit, and the ground seemed to rise to the west. Surely not! I mentioned my discovery and Frank and Gary also took notice. We turned to Jim B and inquired if we were truly on the summit. "No," he said casually, "it's a little bit further on."  Stunned, we looked at each other. "How much further?" we asked, a bit tentatively. "Oh, about another hour, I guess," said Jim B, "and another 400 feet higher." At that moment, I remembered one of my father's old sayings about "beating yourself over the head with a hammer because it feels so good when you stop." 

Gary and Frank, digesting the news that we are not actually at the summit. Frank said later "when I heard that, my heart sank." Gary, above left, is smiling gamely, but looks pretty tired. However, all of us were determined to make it all the way, having come so far. Gary is a very upbeat person, and his reaction to Mexico strikes me as similar to that of a kid let loose in a candy shop. Every new experience is a thrill. To top it off, he managed to find a girlfriend almost immediately after arriving. Marina is smart, energetic, and fun-loving, and her personality seems to fit Gary's perfectly. 

Looking back down one of the final hills up to the summit. The area is almost park-like, with widely-spaced trees and almost no underbrush. The ground is covered with flowers, ferns and tufts of grass. Through a break in the clouds, beams of sunlight streamed down to the forest floor. Even though I was short of breath and my legs were burning, I couldn't resist a photo of this delicately beautiful scene. 

Very near the top, we passed through a grove of trees covered with green fur. At least that's what it looked like as we approached. The "fur" turned out to be thousands of ferns growing on every surface and crevice of each tree. The yellow sunlight passing through the green fern leaves made each tree seem to glow. The moisture from the constant swirl of clouds at this altitude provides a perfect environment for ferns and similar plants.

Frank, Jim B and I relax at the summit, for real this time. Again there was a cross, if a bit smaller.  It was propped up among the boulders and festooned with blue and white crepe. The colors are indicative of a particular religious fiesta. I am smiling, but the only thing keeping me upright is the big boulder behind me. Beyond the boulder is nothing but empty space and swirling clouds. On a clear day, we could probably see the outskirts of Guadalajara, far to the north. A few yards away, a square metal shed for relay tower stands on a slight rise. The shed is probably located a couple of feet higher, but this place is a much more attractive spot from which to enjoy our summit experience.

Jim B communes with the weather gods. The constant swirl of clouds around the summit was impressive. However, we could hear rumbles in the distance and high, exposed places are not recommended during a thunderstorm. I reminded my friends that the pre-hispanic god of rain was Tlaloc. He had several helpers, kind of like Santa's elves, called Tlaloque. They kept the rain in large clay pots and the sound of thunder resulted when they broke the pots to release the rain. The far-off rumbles indicated that the Tlaloque might be preparing a gully-washer for us, so we decided to get off the mountain.

Shortly before we left, we discovered this solar panel hidden among the boulders. It was only a few feet from the cross and we speculated about a possible connection between them. Jim B suggested that someone had decided to light up the cross so it could be seen from afar. In fact, we had passed a couple of abandoned auto batteries along the trail a few hundred yards back, and there seemed to be some possibility that these had been intended for storage of the electricity generated by the solar panel. The idea seemed a bit far-fetched to me, but then it wouldn't be the first of such odd arrangements I have encountered in Mexico.

Well, in the immortal words of Bugs Bunny, "th-th-th-that's all folks! The hike down was every bit as scenic as the one coming up, and the further we descended, the fewer the clouds to block the view. By the time we got back to Jim B's car at the dairy farm, my legs were about shot. Without the ibuprofen that Gary supplied me half way down, it would have been a very painful experience. We all made it, though. Over dinner in San Luis Soyatlán, Jim B remarked that now, every time we looked across the lake at Cerro Garcia, each of us could say "I climbed that!"

This completes my posting on Climbing Cerro Garcia. I hope you found our adventures and tribulations entertaining. If you would like to comment or ask a question, either use the Comments section below or email me directly.

If you leave a question in the Comments section, PLEASE leave your email address so I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim

Monday, July 15, 2013

Chiapas Part 7: Na Bolom and San Cristóbal's own "Indiana Jones"

Frans Blom, a real-life "Indiana Jones," shown as a young man. The original photograph is dated 1922 and is located in the museum at Na Bolom (House of the Jaguar), his former home and expedition headquarters. Na Bolom is one of the must-see locations in San Cristóbal de las Casas. My Danish friend Erik had previously urged me to visit the museum and to feature Blom and his wife Trudi in one of my postings. Carole and I took his advice and stopped by Na Bolom while exploring the area northeast of San Cristóbal's Zócalo (main plaza). To locate Na Bolom on a Google map, click here.

Frans and Trudi Blom's amazing story

In 1924, while still a very young man, Blom was inducted into the famous Explorer's Club. The late 19th and early 20th Centuries were an Age of Exploration. Intrepid men launched expeditions into the snowy wastes of the Arctic and Antarctic, the deserts of Mongolia and southern Libya, and into the jungles of the Congo and the trackless forests of the Maya heartland. This was the era portrayed in the popular "Indiana Jones" film series, and the much earlier movie "King Kong". Frans Blom's work in the jungles of Yucatan, Chiapas, and northern Guatemala gained him international recognition and membership in the Explorers Club, an illustrious society founded in 1904. Its early members included Roald Amundsen (first to the South Pole), Robert Peary (first to the North Pole), and Roy Chapman Andrews (Gobi Desert explorer). Later members have included Edmund Hillary (conqueror of Mt. Everest), and Neil Armstrong (first man to step on the Moon). The Explorers Club is not just a back-slapping group of adventurers, however. It supports the scientific and educational aspects of exploration, and Frans Blom himself was an internationally recognized archaeologist and anthropologist as well as an explorer.

Blom, in middle age, leads his horse through Chiapas' Lacondon jungle. With his square jaw and piercing eyes, he looks every bit the intrepid explorer. I suspect he was trying for that effect in this photo. Frans Blom was born in 1893 into a family of middle-class antique merchants in Copenhagen, Denmark. He was a restless young man and traveled to Mexico in 1919 to work for the oil industry. During his work as a paymaster, he had occasion to visit many remote posts in the Yucatan and Chiapas. Becoming intrigued with the ancient Maya ruins he encountered, Blom made drawings of them and documented his findings. His work so impressed the Mexican National Museum of Anthropology that they financed further explorations, thus launching his career. Through this work, he met the famous archaeologist Sylvanus G. Morley who persuaded him to attend Harvard University. There, Blom achieved a Masters Degree in Archaeology, apparently his first formal education in the field. After accepting a job with Tulane University in New Orleans, he continued his expeditions into the Maya country all through the 1920s and into the '30s.

An exhibit of Frans Blom's personal effects includes his hat and saddles. Through the 1920s, Blom's career was meteoric. During his expedition to Palenque in 1923, he documented a number of features missed by previous archaeologists. Trekking into the vast and roadless Petén jungle of northern Guatemala in 1924, Blom performed the first detailed investigation and mapping of the ancient city of Uaxactun. The area where southern Yucatan and northern Guatemala meet is so trackless and wild that as late at 2013--almost 90 years after Blom's expedition--archaeologists have only just discovered Chactun, a large and previously unknown Maya city. But Frans Blom didn't confine his work to the Maya areas. He also explored the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, where he uncovered various Olmec sites.  When Tulane University created a new Department of Middle American Research in 1926, Blom was appointed to head it. This was only seven years after first setting foot in Mexico as an oil industry employee.

A much older Frans Blom camps in the jungle with his wife Trudi Duby. Blom had an earlier marriage, from 1932 to 1938, to the American Mary Thomas. Their divorce may have been due, in part, to his developing problem with alcohol. Alcoholism eventually brought about Blom's retirement from Tulane University. However, he continued to work with the Mexican National Museum of Anthropology, which financed more expeditions into Southern Mexico. While on a trek to visit the ruins at Bonampak, he met Gertrude "Trudi" Duby. She was a Swiss-German photographer who was documenting the Lacandon Maya, a very isolated group who had never been conquered by the Spanish. Trudi Duby was an extraordinary character in her own right. As a young woman, she engaged in dangerous anti-Nazi work in Germany and Paris until she was deported by the Nazis in 1939. She joined the mass exodus of Europe's leftists, pacifists, labor leaders, and Jews to Mexico at the invitation of President Lázaro Cárdenas. Duby took a job with the government documenting the conditions of Mexico's indigenous people and joined several expeditions to research the Lacandon Maya. During the second of these trips, she met Blom and teamed up with him for several more expeditions. This cooperation resulted in the two-volume study called La Selva Lacandon (The Lacandon Forest). In 1951, they married and moved from Mexico City to San Cristóbal de las Casa in order to set up a headquarters for future expeditions. Their new home and headquarters became Na Bolom.

No trim laptops for Frans and Trudi! Viewing the huge old typewriter, I pitied the poor horse or burro that had to lug this monster through the jungle mud. In addition to co-authoring La Selva Lacandon, both Blom and Duby wrote numerous books and articles on their own. Blom's include In the Jungle: Letters from Mexico; Tribes and Temples; and Conquest of Mexico. Duby wrote (among many other books) Bearing Witness; Heirs of the ancient Maya: a portrait of the Lacandon Indians; The Lacandons, their past and present; Indigenous Chiapas; and Lacandon Images. Trudi's writing productivity was substantially greater than Frans because she was essentially a photo-journalist, while Frans focused on his explorations and archaeology. Of, course, it helped that she outlived him by twenty years.

Trudi and Frans in their later years. Though the two seem mellow enough here, they must have had a tempestuous relationship. They both had very powerful personalities, and between Blom's alcoholism and Duby's reportedly fierce temper, life must have been interesting at Na Bolom. All through the 1950s and early 1960s, the pair continued searching for Maya ruins and working with the Lacandon Maya. Na Bolom was not only a home and a base for their expeditions, but they also used it as a cultural and scientific center. Over the years, they collected materials for a huge library and made it available to outside researchers. Always looking for ways to fund their activities, they accepted paying guests at Na Bolom. These included not only visiting archaeologists, but notables such as Diego Rivera, Francois Mitterand, Helen Hayes, and Henry Kissinger. Trudi sometimes acted as a paid guide for various expeditions looking for Maya ruins. In 1963, at the age of 70, Frans Blom died. During the twenty years after his death, she was extremely active. Trudi became one of the first modern environmentalists as she led the fight against deforestation of the Lacandon jungle. She worked incessantly to support the Lacandon culture, giving lectures in Mexico, the United States, and Europe. During this period she wrote hundreds of widely-published articles, appeared on numerous television programs, and distributed thousands of free trees for replanting the forest. A film on her life, called Reina de la Selva (Queen of the Jungle) was made in 1989. Trudi Duby Blom died in 1993, at the age of 92, and was buried in the tiny village of Naha, Chiapas. She rests next to her husband and their best friend, Chan K'in Viejo, a Lacandon Maya.

Na Bolom is a museum, hotel, and research center

Na Bolom occupies most of a block in northeast San Cristóbal. The entrance to Na Bolom is on Calle Vicente Guerrero, just north of Calle Comitan. The museum hours are 10:00 AM to 6:00 PM and there is a small entrance fee of approximately $44 pesos ($3.50 USD). For a bit more you can take the tours scheduled at 11:30 AM and 4:30 PM.  The facility is located in the Cuxtitali Quarter, an old indigenous neighborhood established in 1528. The building was originally a mill for grinding corn, but in the 1891 it was rebuilt as a Seminary College. When Frans and Trudi bought it in 1950, the old Seminary was in ruins, possibly as a result of the government repression against Catholics during Cristero War of the late 1920s.

Like many old Mexican buildings, Na Bolom was built around a series of open courtyards. Entrances to the various rooms are located under the covered walkways behind the arched portales. Above, one the indigenous staff walks toward the building entrance. Local Maya often make and sell their crafts in this cobblestone courtyard. I took the shot while sitting at a table of the small café facing onto the patio. The café serves excellent Chiapas coffee as well as pastries and light lunches. There are 22 rooms in the facility, including the museum, the library, and some rooms rented to guests. Other rooms are kept available for the free use of visiting Lacandon Maya. In 1986, the Mexican government designated Na Bolom as an historical monument.

A beautiful old marimba graces one of the hallways. Marimbas are very popular in Chiapas and San Cristóbal boasts a Marimba Orchestra that plays regularly in the Zócalo (see Part 3 of this series). The marimba originated with African slaves who brought their traditional instruments to the Spanish Caribbean colonies. Its use migrated to Central America and from there to neighboring Chiapas.

Another of Na Bolom's sunny courtyards, complete with a colorful mural. Frans and Trudi officially named their home/headquarters The Institute for Ethnological and Ecological Advocacy, but visiting Lacondon Maya dubbed it Na Bolom (House of the Jaguar) because of the similarity to Blom's name. Bolom, or jaguar, is a common name among Maya. The jaguar, because of its great size, speed, strength, cunning, and reputed connection with the Underworld, is viewed with great respect by the Maya. The name they gave conveys their respect for their lifelong champions and benefactors.

Fray Bartolomé de las Casas Library has 10,000 volumes in its collection. The library contains many important works on Maya history and culture and on the Lacandon people. It fell to Trudi to manage Na Bolom, even before Frans' death. It was a big job that consumed much of her time for 40 years. By the time she was in her 80s, the effort beyond her and supporters in the community persuaded her to form a non-profit organization to take of the day-to-day responsibility of running Na Bolom.

I found this colorful, hand-painted iguana lurking on a niche. The Maya have been talented craftspeople for thousands of years. Today, many of them support themselves by making and selling artifacts like this. Na Bolom continues to operate as a museum, a hotel, a restaurant. and a center for research. Volunteers run the operation, and money raised through fees, room rentals, etc. go towards various projects to help the Lacandon Maya.

The Museum's ancient Maya artifacts

The museum contains many ancient artifacts, including this bust of a proud Maya noble. Many of the artifacts come from a Classic Era site near San Cristóbal called Moxviquil, an area also famous for its orchids. The Maya were among the best sculptors of Mesoamerica, and were particularly noted for their "sculpture-in-the-round".

Two female heads, with wild hairstyles. These were undoubtedly noblewomen, since the commoners generally didn't engage in such elaborate hairdos. The smaller bust seems a bit more finely made and the face is very lifelike.

Male and female heads. The male, on the left, has an elaborate tattoo on his cheek. Neither of these shows the long sloping forehead caused by deliberate deformation of the skull in infancy. This was practiced by the noble class in many Maya areas, but not all. The female has her head cocked, as if she were listening.

Pot adorned with the rather fierce face of a nearly toothless old man. This piece closely resembles sculptures of Huehueteotl, the "Old, Old God". He was one of the most ancient of all the gods worshiped throughout Mesoamerica. Fire, of course, was one of the most fundamental and important aspects of the ancient world and it is not surprising that worship of a god associated with it would have started in very early times. Another interesting aspect is the unmistakeable goatee beard. It is firmly believed by some that since indigenous Americans have very little facial hair, they don't grow beards. The ancient sculptor who crafted this piece would seem to disagree.

A bird's face adorns this nicely crafted, three-legged pot. Pottery was often crafted with animal as well as human themes.

Human jaws and incised pottery from burial sites located by Frans Blom. He discovered many caves throughout Chiapas that will filled with bones and skulls, and others that contained large jars full of human ashes. In a monograph he wrote about these finds, he couldn't resist complaining that although his discoveries were being cited by other archaeologists at Tulane University, his name was never associated with the finds in their papers. Apparently, many years after he departed from Tulane in an alcoholic haze, he was still considered persona non grata.

Ball game marker in the shape of an elongated human head. This carved stone head, shown in profile, was used as a marker in a ball court. The head was inserted into the wall of the court using the flange at the back side. The head shows the deliberate skull elongation seen among many noble Maya families. Parents tied special boards against the heads of their infant children to deform the skulls in a manner that was considered a mark of beauty and status. While this might seem barbaric today, think about the plastic surgery practices flourishing in our time.

Copper axes, rings, and ear spools from the Post-Classic period. Items like these didn't appear in the Maya area until fairly late. They may have been imported through trade networks from the Tarascan Empire in Michoacan and  Guererro where metallurgy flourished.

The Hach Winik, or Lacandon People

Statue of a Lacandon Maya stands in a traffic circle in San Cristóbal de las Casas. The figure wears a hach huun, the typical white tunic worn by traditional Lacandon. The Lacandon are great hunters in their thickly forested world. Although many now use guns, some still hunt with bows and arrows. The Lacandon Maya call themselves Hach Winik, meaning "True Men" or "Real People". They avoided conquest and conversion by the Spanish by simply retreating into their nearly impenetrable wilderness. According to an undated, hand-written sign at Na Bolom, there are two groups of Lacandon, the northern and the southern. At the time the sign was written, the northern group of about 200 people was the most traditional and had preserved the ancient Maya culture and religion. The southern group of about 80 people had recently been Christianized and had given up much of the old culture. The sign is apparently out of date, because a more recent report states that most of the northern group has now also been seduced away from the ancient religion, although they do preserve some aspects of the old culture. Today there are about 650 Lacandon speakers still living in the forest.

The traditional hach hunn was made of tree bark beaten into a fibre. It somewhat resembles a Mexican serape, with a split in the middle to fit over the head and the sides sewn up, leaving armholes. The hach hunn extends down to mid-calf. In modern times, cotton has replaced the beaten tree fibre. This would usually be the only garment worn by a man. A Lacandon woman would wear a skirt in addition to the hach hunn, as well as jewelry made from seeds gathered in the jungle. Both men and women traditionally wore their hair long, with the women sometimes braiding theirs.

A traditional Maya na (house) sits in the Jaguar Garden across the street from the main museum. This house is typical of the highland Maya, but there are some similarities with the Lacandon. Both use thatched roofs and poles cut from jungle trees. The Lacandon na generally do not have walls since the climate in their lowland area is very hot and humid. Many Maya still live in houses like the one pictured above.

Tools of life among the Lacandon. The grooved wooden object in the lower left is baxak. The woman in the display photo is using it to beat tree bark into shape for use in a hach huun. The bowl with the long-handled spoons was used to prepare paints and dyes for decorating the hach huun. A typical Lacandon na, with its thatched roof, can be seen in the background of the display photo.

Balché pot used for preparing the fermented and mildly alcoholic drink. Balché is consumed ceremonially as part of the ritual for worshiping Kanankash, the main deity who protects the forest. Numerous, lesser gods are honored as well. The drink is made from a mixture of bark from the balché tree and sugar cane. Large quantities are prepared before the ceremony and left to ferment in a canoe. Each family that still follows the traditional beliefs builds a "god house" next to the main house. The god houses are used to burn pom (copal) incense and other small sacrifices and also for meetings.

This completes Part 7 of my Chiapas series. I hope you found the story of Frans and Trudi Blom as intriguing as I did. I encourage feedback, questions, and corrections and if you would like to make one, please use the Comments section below or email me directly.

If you leave a question in the Comments section, PLEASE leave your email address so I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim