The mysterious and more remote jungle ruins of Yaxchilan // © 2012 Paul Ross
Yolanda Ruanova is a rare blend: a Mexican-born Mayanologist, archeologist and tour operator. With her connections to the Maya past and the living Maya, Ruanova is the ideal person to lead a trip to ancient ruins and living Maya villages.
Ruanova — who is also the CEO of tour operator Ecoaventura Mexicana — often starts her trips in Villahermosa, Tabasco. At the Comalcalco ruins, while talking about the faces at the Temple of the Masks and climbing to the main palace with its porch, vaulted ceilings and circular walls, Ruanova points out the special characteristic of the cooked bricks that were used in the site’s construction.
Parque Museo de la Venta, an Olmec archeological site, is the best place to see the world-famous huge stone heads that were constructed during the pre-Classic period, which began about 3,700 years ago and continued to the second century B.C. The Olmecs are generally considered to be the “mother culture” of Mesoamerican civilizations, including the Maya.
After Villahermosa, it’s on to Chiapas, where Palenque, one of the most celebrated ancient Maya sites, emerges dramatically from the jungle. In the museum, visitors can see an exact replica of the tomb of the famed leader Pacal. Then, they can explore the elaborate royal palace, where carved figures are so individualized and lifelike that they look ready to speak.
The next stop is the murals of Bonampak. The walls of three rooms are covered with large, brilliantly colored, realistic images of gods, the famed leader Chan Muan, nobles, a procession, musicians, war, priests and prisoners.
About 20 miles away are the ruins of Yaxchilan. After climbing an ancient stone staircase, visitors admire the lintels, stelae (Maya monuments) and terraces of this once mighty empire which is now an evocative ghost town.
After the spectacular ruins, Ruanova takes visitors to spend the night in the jungle at Escudo Jaguar, a resort owned by a local Lacondon Maya community. Because Ruanova has cultivated relationships for more than l5 years with Maya people, they are especially friendly to her and her guests.
The following day, Ruanova stops at Lacanja Chansayab, a living Lacondon Maya village where some of the inhabitants still dress traditionally in long, white tunics. Lacanja attracts visitors who are interested in cultural exchange and eco-tourism in the jungle. They offer clean, rustic cabins alongside the river, a restaurant, rafting, walking and archeological tours. The average price for a cabin is $50 per night.
Enroute to the city of San Cristobal de la Casas, where most visitors to Chiapas go, Ruanova stops at San Juan Chamula, a fascinating Maya town with a lively Sunday market in front of the church. Inside the church, visitors often gasp: Hundreds of candles point the way to healers, who sit on pine leaves on the floor, and offer healings of the body, mind and spirit. If an affliction is serious, they may even sacrifice a chicken.
In San Cristobal de las Casas, which offers good quality, centrally located hotels and restaurants, Ruanova takes her guests to the museum of religious sculpture at the luxurious Parador San Juan de Dios. The museum features pieces from the 16th to 18th centuries, which were formerly in private homes, and were gathered from different parts of the world. The Parador’s gift shop is first-rate and has some of the finest textiles in the city.
For traditional food, Ruanova heads to El Fogon de Jovel in the historic center of San Cristobal de las Casas. It’s a casual, upbeat, safe place to try some unusual Maya drinks like posh (a sugar cane and corn alcohol drink) and tascalate (made from roasted corn spiced with cinnamon, achiote and cacao seeds).
Ruanova also includes a visit to the little-known Museum of Maya Medicine. Next to dioramas that depict healing ceremonies, a live healer brings well-being to locals, and guests can sit quietly and watch. There is literature in English and, as they walk through the rooms, visitors learn about Maya beliefs and healing.
Most people knew little about Chiapas before it popped into consciousness in 1994, when the Zapatistas — in black ski masks — galvanized the international press. The armed conflict ended that same year and, today, the Zapatistas continue a peaceful and passionate campaign to achieve indigenous rights and a truly participatory government.