Travel Journal #6 — Over the River and Through the Jungle

Chichen Itza pyramidWhat a blessing we have been given as Centre students studying abroad in Mexico! I want to start this entry with a grand moment of thanksgiving to the study abroad office and professors that have developed such a remarkable program here in Merida.
When we first arrived we were swept off for a tour of the Caribbean coast of the Yucatan Peninsula. For a second time, we were guided on another wonderful journey. This time we headed in the opposite direction — to the Mexican state of Chiapas.
Isla Mujeres
Late on Sunday night, we filed onto a charter bus toting pillows, blankets, and the warmest clothes we had (which didn’t consist of much more than a pair of jeans and light jacket). Eight hours later, after experiencing a heavy thunderstorm and a thousand new sleeping positions on a bus, we were in the land of our next adventure.
Palenque, a Maya ruin, was our first stop. Comparing the extreme contrast of architecture with the Mayan cities we had previously seen, I could partially begin to grasp the diversity of the great ancient Mayan culture. Despite the differences, there is one aspect I’ve never doubted — the phenomenal intelligence and determination of a people to build such grand structures without the help of domestic animals or the wheel. The city of Palenque is surrounded by jungle, making for a breathtaking environment of thick, overhanging trees and trickling waterfalls. We’d soon become personal friends with this same jungle.
Losing contact with modern civilization, we drove away from the cities and into the deep cover of trees. The jungle would be our first host, welcoming us into its beautiful land of deep green leaves, rushing clear waters, and a population of insects certainly far from any risk of extinction. Rushing over rapids while rafting, hiking through the leaf-packed trails, and climbing up waterfalls with the excitement of a child venturing through Disney World, our fears and worries of the not quite five-star accommodations dissolved just as fast as the mosquitoes enjoyed their first long taste of Kentucky-student blood.
From La Selva Lacandona, the curving roads took us through the multiple small villages of this state known for its indigenous communities. We saw log huts, thatched roofs, and many crop fields still smoldering from the slash and burn agriculture. Even on the bus we were witnessing some of the most gorgeous land of Mexico and the true faces of its people going about their daily business.Merida handcrafts
San Cristobal de Las Casas welcomed us with busy cobblestone streets and remarkable artísenias (handcrafts). Nestled in a cozy valley and surrounded by enticing mountains, San Cristobal de Las Casas is what one would get by combining a historical European city with a general Mexican city. It still strongly emits its original colonial ambience. From this base, we ventured out on many different adventures for the next four days.
The religion of San Cristobal de Las Casas and the surrounding villages developed through the means of syncretism. The people have created a very unique religion that is unknown elsewhere. It combines Catholicism and traditional indigenous beliefs. The result is very intense, ritual-rich practices. We were visiting during the very important Semana Santa (Holy Week), and therefore we were able to witness multiple interesting ceremonies, including a cleaning of an image of Jesus Christ, the large consumption of pox (an alcohol produced from maiz) as part of the rituals, and a sedated chicken brought for sacrifice. Unfortunately, the churches and people won’t allow any photos to be taken inside the churches for fear that they’ll be criticized for their rare practices. The churches were remarkably exquisite, nevertheless, filled with candles and sweet pine incense.
After weaving lessons, horseback riding, and trips to national park lakes, we took a short jaunt across the border to Guatemala, shopped for remarkable handcrafts and amber jewelry in the daily mercado, and climbed 1,000+ stairs up to Velo de Novia (Veil of the Bride) waterfall. That was followed by a boat tour through Canon del Sumidero which included a monkey and large hungry crocodiles free of charge. I returned to Merida pondering how blessed I am to have amazing camaraderie among our group, professor Julie James, and our wonderful tour guide David. “Remarkable” and every synonym of that word can’t begin to describe the venture I’ve been experiencing within and the opportunities to grow as a student, human, and global citizen. The abundance of memories will sprinkle a smile over my heart for the rest of my life.
by Demi Landstedt ’14, currently participating in the Centre-in-Merida study abroad program. Learn more about study abroad in Merida.
PHOTOS (top to bottom): A woman preparing handmade tortillas at a home in Zinacantan, Centre students after climbing an ancient Mayan ruin in Palenque, and orange-peel jewelry and hand-stitched stuffed animals at a San Cristobal market.

By |2012-04-20T13:20:16+00:00April 20th, 2012|News, Music, Travel Journals - Mexico|