Ungodly growls and menacing shrieks pierced the sweltering stillness of the jungle. "What's that? Jaguars?" asked my wife, Claudia, grabbing my arm.
We were at the upper acropolis of the Mayan city of Yaxchilan, a sprawling complex of vine-draped ceiba trees, limestone staircases and towering edifices that was abandoned to the Lacandon Jungle more than 1,200 years ago. The journey here involved navigating winding roads for hours to the border with Guatemala, hiring a boatman to take us 40 minutes more down the Usumacinta River and hiking in. We were alone except for two watchmen at the entrance, two kilometres back, and whatever was howling. Confused, I tried to think of the sound a jaguar might make, then bent down to pick up a stick.
We had wanted to get off the beaten path, but this was more than we had bargained for.
Chiapas is known to most of the outside world for the 1994 armed uprising against the Mexican government by the Zapatistas, a socialist revolutionary group fighting for indigenous rights. Since that rebellion was quashed, the group has pursued its political agenda peacefully. The southernmost state, which is roughly the size of New Brunswick, is mostly free from the drug violence that plagues the northern border region of the country, yet sees a trickle of tourists compared with more popular areas. Of the nearly 1.5 million Canadians who visited Mexico in 2010, only 25,000 went to Chiapas. With a multitude of adventure travel options, and a lack of megaresorts, Chiapas attracts those seeking to escape wet bars and all-you-can-eat buffets. And that's what brought us to Yaxchilan.
To get back to our boatman, whom we hoped was still waiting, we would have to hike through the jungle in the direction of the growls. With sweat-soaked shirts, we reached the main plaza, as the sounds abruptly subsided. In the trees above the path, monkeys ate fruit and scratched themselves.
At the entrance, my wife, who speaks Spanish, told the caretaker what had happened. " Monos aulladores!" he said, laughing. It was howler monkeys; the ones we had just seen had caused the commotion. It was hard to believe that such a small animal could produce that horrendous holler.
While monkeys may be the only inhabitants today, in the seventh and eighth century, Yaxchilan was the dominant city of the region. Under such colourfully named rulers as Shield Jaguar II and Bird Jaguar IV, it waged bloody battles with its enemies, including the city of Bonampak, 30 kilometres to the south, which we had visited earlier.
Bonampak, which was also abandoned around the year 800, was discovered in 1946 by a pair of American adventurers. The 2.4-square-kilometre site has an open and airy feel and the grounds are well tended. Here, the jungle surrounds the ruins rather than encompassing them.
A terraced complex rises 50 metres above the main plaza and contains Bonampak's prime attraction: three chambers of murals depicting life in the Mayan city. One shows the ruling family presenting its heir, surrounded by dignitaries. Another contains the scene of a fierce battle, and the final chamber shows a victory feast and dancers. They are vividly coloured and in remarkably good condition. Considering these are regarded as the finest pre-Hispanic murals in existence, it seems unlikely that they will remain open to the public indefinitely. Fewer than a dozen other people were here when we visited.
The trade-off for visiting world-class archeological sites without crowds of camera-clicking tourists and trinket-toting vendors is that they require effort to reach. Infrastructure is good in Chiapas, but any itinerary involves several hours of driving each day on winding mountain roads. Bus tours exist, though for more flexibility a private vehicle and driver can be arranged for around $50 to $60 (U.S.) a day – but you will need to know some Spanish. The major towns are great bases and many are interesting in their own right. A favourite was San Cristobal de las Casas, a stunning highland city of cobblestone streets, colonial architecture and colourful markets.
Keen to see how the modern-day descendants of the Maya lived, we visited the town of San Juan Chamula, an indigenous Tzotzil community. The church is an odd and mystical place, which blends ancient Mayan customs with Christianity. Inside, it was dark, there were no pews and the floor was strewn with pine boughs. Paintings of the saints and the virgin Guadalupe lined the walls. Small groups of women, wearing black wool skirts and brightly coloured tops, sat on the floor around candles chanting prayers in Tzotzil. In the doorway, a man was lighting firecrackers, apparently to announce a wedding. Every few seconds, a deafening bang reverberated through the building that sent me jumping. The women on the floor never flinched. I was glad to leave.
Besides steamy jungles, Chiapas also has refreshing diversions. A lovely surprise was El Chiflon, a series of waterfalls and natural turquoise swimming pools set in the forest. The site, which is a community-managed co-operative, is clean and well-run. A trail meanders along the river, climbing a succession of impressive falls until you reach the Velo de Novia, or bride's veil, which at 120 metres is one of the highest and most powerful waterfalls in Mexico. Standing on the viewing platform, after climbing 970 steps, we were rewarded with an invigorating mist, before cooling down further with a swim in one of the pools that was so perfect it seemed to have been made for a tourist brochure.
We spent our final day at Palenque, Chiapas's most popular archeological site, and one of the great Mayan cities. We arrived early to beat the tour buses, and wandered in the warm, morning light among the ruins and haze-shrouded foliage. The Temple of the Inscriptions, a 12-storey terraced pyramid, containing hieroglyphs describing the deeds of the seventh-century ruler Pakal and the history of the city, dominates the site.
In 1952, a passageway was discovered that led – King Tut-style – to his hidden tomb. In 1993, a crypt containing a prominent but unknown woman was revealed, her remains covered in red cinnabar with a large offering of jade. She became known as the Red Queen. Like her, all of Palenque was once painted red, the colour of life and power to the Maya. I try to imagine what these crumbling stone structures might have looked like then. While the paint may be lost to time, the power is still present.
If you go
The main airport in Chiapas is located in Tuxtla Gutierrez. Daily flights are available from Mexico City.
Where to stay
San Cristobal de las Casas
Real City Hotel San Cristobal is well-placed in the centre of town. From $88. ciudadreal.com.mx
Real City Hotel Palenque. From $96. ciudadreal.com.mx
Special to The Globe and Mail