Travel: Great civilisations of the world 6: The Maya: Ruins of the rainforest: The ancient temples of Central America, rising through the jungle canopy, still have the power to stir. Oliver Tickell gets there before a dam's floodwaters engulf them

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The Independent Culture
THERE IS NO such thing as a best way to Yaxchilan, that remote complex of Maya pyramids and temples deep in the Selva Lacandona, the rainforest of the Lacandon Indians in southern Mexico. You can fly - a quick enough trip by light aircraft from San Cristobal or Palenque - but this is expensive, potentially hazardous, and only gives you a few hours on site before being whisked away.

Or you can catch a bus up the red earth road that corrugates and disintegrates its way over the hundred wearing miles from Palenque. This is certainly a cheap option, but only the last hour, a boat ride down the mighty Usumacinta river that divides Mexico and Guatemala, could be thought pleasurable.

My own journey was by boat from Sayaxche, a day away upriver in Guatemala, where I had been looking at lesser-known Maya ruins in the Peten forest. The boat ride through the rainforest had promised to be fun, but the burning sun, the incessant roar of the engine and the need for continuous bailing soon dispelled any sense of enjoyment. And as for the rainforest itself, that had nearly all been cleared long ago for cattle ranches.

Still, having survived the attentions of several gangs of teenage hoodlums armed to the teeth with automatic rifles (the Guatemalan army), we rounded a last wide loop of river just as dusk was falling. There, under the darkening forest, lay the ruins of Yaxchilan. Tying up the boat on the muddy bank, we penetrated the gloom to a warm welcome from the resident caretaker, apparently glad of company.

His wife later served a wholesome dinner of beans and tortillas washed down with Coca-Cola, after which we all slept soundly in our hammocks under a palm-roofed shelter. I awoke early the next morning, and as I strolled off towards the ruins the caretaker materialised from the shadows, altruistically volunteering to guide me around the maze of scattered temples and pyramids.

Yaxchilan is exceptional, not for its scale but for its peacefulness and its pervasive sense of history. One contributing factor is the total absence of tourist buses and tacky souvenir stalls which afflict Mexico's other main sites; another is the delicate balance between the restored buildings in their clearings, and the intact forest that lies around and between, roots snaking over mossy piles of unturned stones. The ancient Maya seem closer here than at most sites - a notion less fanciful than it might seem. Yaxchilan is sacred to today's Lacandon Indians, descendants of the ancient Maya, whose elders at times perform ceremonies and burn incense in its temples.

We began our tour by climbing first to some well-restored buildings whose relief-carved limestone lintels, commemorating the military exploits of Yaxchilan's rulers of 13 centuries ago, remain so sharp and gleaming they could have been worked yesterday. Then we climbed through the forest to Yaxchilan's highest point, where three temples sit on squat pyramids along the ridge, their original painted stucco in places still clinging to the stonework.

Halfway down the hill, we paused at a richly carved temple with a soaring roof-comb and panels depicting the sacred ball-game of Meso-America, players in elaborate ceremonial dress. From here a broad stone staircase leads down to the main plaza, like a football pitch but surrounded with temples and studded with stelae - great monoliths carved with the images of ancient rulers and the Maya glyphs that record their dynastic history.

With the air resounding to the haunting cries of howler monkeys high in the canopy, I mused angrily on the plan to build a giant dam downstream on the Usumacinta river. Its impact would be devastating, flooding Yaxchilan and other lesser Maya sites, as well as several million acres of rainforest.

The dam was first proposed decades ago, but was long blocked by a dispute between Mexico and Guatemala over the division of the electricity. But now, it seems, a deal has been struck, and fresh studies are under way - reportedly looking at three dams not one. But one problem the dam builders have yet to overcome is the likely reluctance of major lenders like the World Bank to give themselves a bad environmental name by financing the project.

The fate of other sites, too, is hanging in the balance. One is Piedras Negras, about 30 miles downstream of Yaxchilan on the Guatemalan side of the river, one of the greatest of all classic Maya cities with many of the finest sculptures uncovered. But its preservation may not be a high priority to the Guatemalan government, all the more so as the surrounding forest is home to an obdurate band of guerrillas.

At least Bonampak, another Mexican site marked on my map as right next to Yaxchilan, is expected to escape flooding. But that closeness was entirely deceptive - at least to those without an aircraft at their disposal. My 24-hour journey began with a boat ride to the riverside village of Benemerito, followed by an afternoon spent failing to get a ride out, and a night suspended under the tin roof of the only eating house. The bus left at dawn, once the driver had spent half an hour attacking the engine with a hammer.

After a few hours we reached my destination, the village of San Javier. The bus drove away and I looked around, wondering what I was doing in this pitiful collection of wooden cabins. Then a young man, dressed in the traditional white bedshirt and with straight black hair worn long in the Lacandon style, invited me home to join his family for breakfast.

Leaving my bags in his care - and stocking up with hot tortillas - I set off on foot to Bonampak, three miles of stony road and six miles of knee-deep rainforest mud away. Was it worth the slog? The paintings, which completely cover the inside of a three-chambered temple, are indeed extraordinary for their clarity, superb preservation and natural expression, quite unlike the highly stylised Maya carvings. But the replica in Mexico City's Museum of Anthropology is quite good too.

The real fascination of the paintings is in their subject matter: highly costumed rulers holding court; a battle between rival Maya kingdoms; the capture of slaves and sacrificial victims; and tortured prisoners spurting blood from where their fingernails used to be. So much for the old ideas about the ancient Maya as a race of peaceful astronomer-priests.

On my way back to San Javier I was joined by a red-haired Lacandon man who led me on a winding path through the forest, telling tall stories about shooting wild boar with his bow and arrow, and complaining furiously of the government's refusal to permit the sale of the remaining cedar and mahogany trees.

I joined my Lacandon family at San Javier in their dinner of excellent if unadorned tortillas. Afterwards, I settled comfortably in my hammock and a throng of beautiful children came to stare at me, and to sell me their necklaces of forest nuts and monkeys' teeth. My host tried ineffectively to keep them at bay, and when I asked him how many chidren there were, he gave a gentle smile and shrugged his shoulders. I had a feeling that the Lacandon, their numbers once reduced to 300 or so, might at last be on the increase.

The next morning I felt unaccountably sad as I waved goodbye and caught an early bus to Palenque and civilisation. After a short time the forest was reduced to cloud-shrouded remnants on distant hills, the intervening plain a green sea of unbroken ranchland. After eight bumpy hours the bus rolled into town - an unexpectedly alien place of noisy traffic and ugly concrete buildings. I was glad to escape, chatting up some young Mexicans at a petrol station and inviting myself into their VW bus for a trip to the Maya ruins outside town.

The Palenque ruins have a wonderful setting, on the forested foothills of the Chiapas mountains, just where they break out of the flatlands. This alone makes them the most impressive Maya site of the region, and far more beautiful than the later, more grandiose centres to the north on the Yucatan peninsula. It is no place to be in a hurry, as it takes a full day to explore the rambling palace, the unique four-level tower, the great temple and pyramid that houses the tomb of Pacal - Palenque's great seventh-century ruler - and the dozen or so smaller temples, including several left under forest cover. A host of memories came flooding back from an earlier visit 10 years before: of coming up to the silent ruins one moonlit night, of bathing under the waterfall in a nearby stream - just as the ancient Maya must have done centuries before.

TRAVEL NOTES

GETTING THERE: British Airways (081- 897 4000) introduces direct flights to Mexico City at the end of March; return fares start at pounds 603 (low season), pounds 688 (high season). Trailfinders (071-937 5400) offers return flights to Mexico City from pounds 330.

GETTING AROUND: To get to Yaxchilan, fly from Mexico City to Tuxtla Gutierrez (around pounds 170 return, book in London with Trailfinders), take the bus to San Cristobal and charter a small plane (prices negotiable on the spot). Alternatively, the Mexican Tourist Board suggests flying to Villa-

hermosa (around pounds 182 return, book with Trailfinders) then taking the bus to Palenque, a 1 1/2 -hour drive away (fare dollars 20-dollars 25), and another bus to Yaxchilan.

TOUR OPERATORS: Journey Latin America (081-747 8315) has an Aracari Tour which concentrates on Mayan remains, with prices starting at pounds 2,320 for 23 days; JLA also specialises in tailor-made itineraries and flights for independent travellers. Other operators include Explore Worldwide (0252 319448) and Dragoman (0728 861133).

FURTHER INFORMATION: Mexico Tourist Office, 60/61 Trafalgar Square, London WC2N 5DS (071-839 3177).

(Photograph omitted)

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