A Detour Along La Ruta Maya

This article is from the April 2002 The Mexico File newsletter.

A Detour Along “La Ruta Maya

by Jane Onstott

Jane Onstott is a writer, translator, and editor who has covered Mexico for more than a decade. Her book National Geographic Traveler Mexico, with more than 300 color photos, was published in November 2001.

I recently found myself ambling toward the ruined city of Toniná along a beaten dirt path. Bowers of lacy, sweet-smelling, cream-colored blossoms lined my path; the sun shone deliciously hot on my back and head. The only sounds were the twittering of unruffled birds and the clank of cowbells – truly a sweet sad sound unlike anything heard in the city. Horses and cows grazed in overgrown pastures, while ahead the path snaked over a series of rises. At the horizon, three layers of mountains bathed in various shades of blue. Although I was headed for a major Maya ruin, no tour buses roared past as I walked down the two-lane track, and no cars passed. Despite having one of the tallest “pyramids” in the Maya world, Toniná sees just a trickle of tourists each year. The ruins are located in the Ocosingo Valley, due south of Palenque. The magnificent Maya ruins at Palenque attract hundreds of thousands of visitors a year. Most of these head south and west to San Cristóbal de las Casas, a gorgeous alpine gem of a town at some 6,300 feet above sea level. That’s the next official stop along the ruta Maya – the trail of archaeological sites and cities in southern Mexico (Chiapas, Tabasco and the Yucatan) that continues into Guatemala and northern Honduras. But tucked between chilly San Cristóbal and sweltering Palenque, the little-visited site of Toniná enjoys a privileged location in the temperate Ocosingo Valley. And while these Maya ruins are definitely worth a visit, it’s the subtropical valley itself that I find so alluring. Each time I come I vow to make Ocosingo my base instead of a whistle stop along the way.

This time I’m staying in the valley for two days. This allows me plenty of time to relax, stop worrying, and slow the whirring in my brain – caused, of course, by the race through space and time we call life in these United States. It also allows time for my leisurely stroll to Toniná.

A contemporary of the better-known kingdoms of Tikal, Palenque, and Copán, Toniná flourished during the Classic era, roughly AD150 to 900. It was, like those other great cities, abandoned for unknown reasons before the end of the first millennium. It was the last of the great Maya cities to be deserted.

More than a thousand years after its demise, I arrive at Toniná’s back gate to find Sr. Germán Martínez guarding the site from a reclining position under a broad-leafed tree. Having dawdled so long on the road, I arrive just an hour before closing time. So I ask the gatekeeper for permission to do an informal reconnaissance of the ruins, bypassing the official entrance at least a half a mile beyond.

But rule-bending is apparently not Sr. Martínez’s thing, and he cheerfully sends me packing to the official entrance. There I decide to visit just the museum, returning to explore the site the following day. As there were no other visitors, a young guide eagerly described the displays at no charge.

The museum is new and well designed. Signage in Spanish only is a stumbling block for many visitors, but the air-conditioned building has a good number of intriguing stelae and discs of stone and stucco carved in high relief. Complex cosmology and precise historical data are revealed (or to the lay person, concealed) in glyphs on these monuments from the classic Maya world.

The afternoon shadows are lengthening but the air is still warm as I walk back through the site. I say goodbye to the guard and his kids, still stationed beneath the trees. Returning along the back road, I greet a couple of working men going home after a day of labor, machetes hanging down by their sides. The people of the Ocosingo Valley are mainly mestizo – mixed-race descendants of indigenous people and the Spanish conquistadors and colonizers.

One of the men I’m walking with proudly tells me his ancestors are not the Maya, but the Cheneck people. I had never heard of the Cheneck, but according to archaeologist Juan Yadeum, director of the Toniná archaeological site, this group acquired Toniná when it was abandoned by the Maya oligarchy in the early 10th century.

After the Maya deserted Toniná around AD 910, the Cheneck used the structure as an elaborate burial ground, purposefully destroying some of the previous owners’ artifacts, tombs, and edifices. For the Spanish, the entire city served as a massive quarry, providing precut stones for buildings and roads.

Ocosingo Valley – a place for simple pleasures

Except for chats with the campesinos, the park guard’s adorable kids, and the museum guides, I’ve had the day entirely to myself. And despite it being one of simple pleasures, I’m still wearing the same silly grin that has been plastered to my face all day.Part of my euphoria is anticipation of a few idle days at Rancho Esmeralda, the guest house and working farm where I had installed myself that morning. It is owned by American transplants Ellen Jones and Glen Wersch.

Like their neighbors who have lived there for generations, Glen and Ellen often forget to lock their doors. For security, they have watchdogs. And like the farming families throughout the valley, they own mouse-hunting cats, horses that do work, and chickens and a sheep or two. There are no freeloaders; everyone and everything here serves a purpose. Ernesto Zedillo, the fluffy sheep I remember from my last visit, was sent to the stew pot at the end of the last administration.

Unlike their neighbors, however, Glen and Ellen offer visitors accommodations in nine simple but truly cozy wood cabins, each with an open porch dripping in brilliant yellow blossoms. They also permit tent camping and have recently built a covered gazebo for those who prefer to travel light and sleep in their hammocks. There are no flush toilets, and the doorless privies are screened by a jumble of banana trees and unmanageable flowering vines. Separate men’s and women’s bathhouses revive weary travelers with streams of hot water.

A gas generator provides limited electricity, but for the most part, the glare of electric lights and whirring and ticking of electronic devices is absent. A welcome dependence on circadian rhythms prevails. The thatch-roofed dining room and guest cabins are softly illuminated by hurricane lamps lit just before dark by the friendly staff. Phone lines have yet to reach the area, so Ellen heads into the town of Ocosingo most mornings, about 15 minutes by car, to send and receive email and purchase supplies.

Their Piece of the Pie

The Idaho-based couple began scheming to buy their own piece of subtropical pie as Peace Corps volunteers in the Dominican Republic. “While everyone else on the island was sweating to death at the coast, we had a beautiful spot right on a river, in the transition zone between the tropical jungle and the highland pines,” Glen told me. At that time the country’s minister of agriculture was pushing macadamia nuts as a lucrative form of intensive agriculture. After finishing their Peace Corps commitment, Glen and Ellen began a sojourn of several years, wandering southern Mexico, Guatemala, and Honduras before finding this idyllic valley. It fit their prerequisites perfectly, located in a lush valley at 4,000 feet above sea level, and surrounded by dusky mountains. Seven years after planting, their 500 macadamia trees have just yielded their fourth small crop.Tourism was an afterthought for the down-to-earth couple, an idea they developed when their initial plan – to work six months of each year in the States – proved impractical. They built a few cabins in 1996, and since then the number of both accommodations and visitors has increased, the latter from a trickle to a steady flow. Many come as part of outdoor adventure or birding tours; the valley is home to hundreds of avian species. Birders have sighted at least 150 species around the ranch.

While Ellen supervises the cooking and the correspondence (among myriad other duties), Glen maintains the ranch. He and his crew have constructed nine cabins, several outhouses and bath houses, a kitchen, office, and dining room. Most recently he’s built a snug new bungalow where he and Ellen can retreat from the near-constant demands of the guest ranch.

But Glen’s real passion is gardening. In addition to the nut trees, Rancho Esmeralda produces its own coffee, which appears at each morning’s buffet breakfast. There’s a huge veggie and herb garden whose contents also find their way to the kitchen and dining room. Speckled yellow and red and green crotus surround the Tahitian-style dining room; bright yellow copa de oro (alamanda) climb and drape across the open patios of the charming casitas. Glen says every plant on the place comes from cuttings from his neighbors’ plants. Whether it’s his skill or the enviable climate, everything on this 26-acre ranch seems to thrive.

Back at the Ranch

When I return from the ruins to the ranch, several trekking groups have arrived and are pitching their tents. After settling in, the new guests begin to wander in groups of twos and threes into the dining room, helping themselves to sodas and beer at the honor bar. I do the same, and Ellen introduces me to Allen and Dale Hermann, a friendly American couple who divide their time among homes in Portland (Oregon), San Cristóbal de las Casas, and Puerto Escondido, on the coast of Oaxaca.Somehow Dale manages to conduct business as a U.S. lawyer no matter where they are living. He assures me his cell phone bill is outrageous! Meanwhile, his wife Allen manages their rental apartments in both San Cristóbal and Puerto Escondido. Soon I am grilling Allen and Dale about their favorite restaurants and watering holes in the places they live. (The result of that conversation is what comes to be known as “the Ruta Maya pub crawl,”… but that is another story.) We’re soon happily gabbing away over a round of margaritas.

I had skipped lunch in favor of my walk to the ruins, and about the time my head begins to rush, an excellent buffet-style dinner arrives. Generous and varied, the meal consists of perfect rice, chicken in prune sauce, veggie casserole, cucumber and tomato salad, a lovely green salad, and homemade bread and tortillas. After second helpings of a few of my favorite dishes, dessert is out of the question for me, although Ellen’s double chocolate brownies have at least a dozen takers.

One hundred percent sated, I spend just a few moments on my porch before crawling contentedly into bed. The ticked sheets remind me of my grandmother’s summer cottage, but the bedspread is Guatemalan fabric and the blanket, which I pull on during the night, is a typical striped affair from northern Mexico. I leave the screened windows unshuttered to enjoy the night noises made by hooting owls and creaky frogs. And although I am rather dismayed to require a trip to the outhouse during the night, the full moon softly lights my path.

Ladies and Gentlemen, Let’s Ride!

The morning dawns full of promise for a much anticipated horse tour of the valley. Long-time ranch foreman Valentín is in charge of the 2 ½ -to-3-hour morning rides (for guests or non-guests by previous arrangement). Most of the trekking group is riding, and our group consists of British, German, Swiss, a pair of Aussies, and me.My horse, whose name is “Dólar” (Dollar), has a lot of get-up-and-go, although I am advised to keep him reined in more than I’d like. I fancy flying through the undulating land like a wild cowboy or Indian, cantering through the shady groves of old oaks and moss-covered cypress. Instead I allow the horse to maintain his steady walk or bumpy trot as I focus on the scene around me and attempt (unsuccessfully) to take some photos that aren’t blurry.

We pass pastures and farmlands stretching away to the mountains; fields of corn are ubiquitous. Along with beans and chili peppers, maize has formed the cornerstone of the Mesoamerican diet since long before conquistador Hernán Cortés was a gleam in his papa’s eye. Coffee does well in this temperate valley, as do mangoes and citrus.

I abandon Dólar (both the horse and the money: the ride costs 200 pesos, or about $22) and the rest of my group at the official entrance to Toniná. After paying the nominal entrance fee, I head straight to the ruins, where a few small structures and two ball courts dot an artificial plateau. But the main event is a labyrinthine structure containing the remains of palaces, temples, and altars. Added to by succeeding generations over hundreds of years, this 233-foot building dominates the site physically and figuratively.

Although it seems to be one large entity accessed by a central staircase, the massive building was used for several distinct purposes. On the right were the royal living quarters. The center area was used by priests in their holy rituals, and contains the remnants of tombs as well as altars for sacrifice and prayer. Rooms on the left are thought to have been military barracks and defensive installations.

Each of the building’s seven levels has something of interest. On the first level, “I”-shaped windows are thought to represent the cosmos. A “T” represents the heavens, while the upside-down “T” superimposed upon it represents the underworld. The Palace of the Frets occupies the fourth platform, its façade decorated with the staggered spiral design that gives it its name. Up a few stairs, figures dance across a mural depicting an attempt to pass through the nine levels of the underworld.

One of the most interesting pieces is the stucco “Mural of the Four Suns,” on level six. In Maya cosmology, the four suns correspond to four eras of creation, each thought to have ended catastrophically before the dawning of the next. But it’s hard to imagine anything that momentous or calamitous happening in this peaceful valley. The view is outstanding even from the pyramid’s lower levels. Uninterrupted by modern buildings, the scene is dominated by Ocosingo’s cerulean sky, more often than not punctuated by perfect white clouds.

Many of the structures on the site are unlabeled, or labeled in Spanish, and it’s helpful to have a guide. You can hire one with loads of stories (and limited but usually adequate English) at the museum, or, if you speak Spanish, ask one of the knowledgeable park guards for a tour, tipping as you think appropriate.

I stayed two nights at Rancho Esmeralda, and that’s enough for most travelers. Some people, however, linger for days, playing cards, board games, or bocci ball while spending quality time with family or friends. This would be an ideal spot for a smallish wedding, or an all-out family reunion – for Mexicophiles, of course.

Not Yet on the Tourist Track

Although the town of Ocosingo has few (if any) “attractions,” the typical mestizo town makes an excellent base for those who want to practice their Spanish or just soak up some Mexican culture, undiluted by foreign influence. Backpackers (mainly Europeans) do wander through, but most spend the day at Toniná, and many end up at Rancho Esmeralda, leaving Ocosingo virtually tourist-free. So if your goal is to immerse yourself in Mexico, you’ll find a refreshing dearth of Carlos Anderson chain restaurants, English-language menus, and other distractions in this small, prosperous trading town. There are several inexpensive hotels and a couple of pretty good restaurants. Most recently, two internet cafes, an ATM, and even a travel agency have appeared.Small planes can be chartered at Ocosingo’s tiny new airport. Arrange a flyover of the beautiful valley, which is downright affordable when split among four people. You can also charter a plane to visit the spectacular ruins at Palenque. A wonderful day trip from Palenque is a visit to the waterfall at Misol-Ha and the incredible falls and pools of Agua Azul.

Another excellent excursion out of Ocosingo is a chartered plane trip to Yaxchilán and Bonampak, two archaeological sites near the Guatemalan border. Once accessible exclusively by small plane, these jungle-clad ruins are a must-see for lovers of ancient Maya civilizations. Yaxchilán’s name means “Place of Green Stones,” and its moss-covered buildings and numerous commemorative stelae are inscribed in intricate scenes and hieroglyphics in high relief. The setting itself is stunning and wild, with howling howler monkeys and flocks of strident parrots sharing the forest canopy above. Less spectacular but still far from the madding crowd, Bonampak’s main attraction is three rooms of faded but still outstanding murals.

The Ocosingo Valley and the ruins of Toniná make a great stop along la Ruta Maya. If you eschew the oppressive heat of lowland Palenque, or the chilly climate San Cristóbal, consider making Ocosingo your base of operations. I’m definitely going to do that next time.