Friday, June 15, 2012

Tenejapa & Mammoth Cave, Chiapas

The area around San Cristobal is a fractured block of limestone, riddled with faults and cave systems. One cave south of town is called la Gruta after the stream that springs inside and flows out. It is popular and easily found on the highway between San Cristobal and Teopisca.  Other caves can be found east of town on the road towards Tenejapa.

Mayan Cross in front of
the Cathedral in San Cristobal

My friend Jon has a car, so I was delighted when he was interested in driving up to Tenejapa to take photos. Along the way we passed a wonderful Mayan village with a massive old graveyard, many of the graves long forgotten as the wooden crosses have rotted. At the crest of the hill was a row of blue and green Mayan Crosses. I've seen this cross form in some of the old ruins, it's usually more of a plus-sign, but the modern Mayan cross has a longer limb at the bottom making it resemble a Christian cross. Originally I think the sacred cross symbol signified the four directions, the four seasons, the four stages of human life, etc, four being itself a sacred number. The crosses are always associated with the colors blue and green, and accompanied by pine branches and long slender pine needles. In the Tsotsil and Tsetsal villages, the church has a Christian Cross and then usually three Mayan crosses opposite the church's front door.

This cemetery is the scene of many parties during the Day of the Dead festivities, where children play around the graves, and a carnival is set up down along the road. It's the day when families come to visit their dead family members. Everyone has a good time and then they share the sad times as they sit vigil all night with candles and prayers. The family brings the dead people's favorite foods to share memories and stories of them. How nice to be dead eventually knowing your family will come year after year to tell you how much they miss you and loved you when you were around, how your great grandchildren will play on your grave and then everyone will spend the night with you. What a way to teach children the meaning of death and how to deal with it.
Mayan Crosses

Jon and I went on to Tenejapa where they have market day every Thursday. I'd heard it was a good market, but in fact it was just a regular people's weekly market where they can buy the stuff they need like toilet paper, laundry soap, plastic containers, fresh chickens (sold dead and alive), fresh dripping beef or lamb (the live ones were outside the market in the backs of pickup trucks or tied to trees nearby), fresh fruits, vegetables, and beans. There were no artesanal items for sale. These townspeople aren't the artists' main customers. There were, however, many booths with material, threads, and other supplies for making crafts, and many indigenous women were crowded round picking out what they needed for the coming week's work. I purchased a huge bag of black and red zarzmoras, a type of raspberry, very small and very tart.
The grave of someone
obviously richer than most

The town itself was pretty typical of indigenous towns. The plaza was surrounded by municipal buildings and offices, the church was open for business, and dozens of stocky men stood around in their black hairy tunics with billy clubs slung over their shoulders, looking mean and tough. They were the police. What made Tenejapa unusual was it's location in a narrow valley surrounded by high forested mountains. It's such a pristine location, much higher in elevation than San Cristobal, colder in winter, and lovely during the summer. Most of the women were wearing sweaters over their normal satiny blouses, though I'd stripped down to just a t-shirt by that point in the morning. The road to it and back was through country green from all the recent rains, weaving through gorgeous valleys and along the edges of steep hillsides.

On the way back we stopped at La Cueva del Mamut, Mammoth Cave. The road down to it was completely washed out, but the exit road was open down the hillside into the small river valley where the cave entrance was. There was no sign saying it was ok to go down the exit road, I guess they figured if you wanted to come in, you'd figure it out.


Formations in Mammoth Cave

As is the case with many privately owned and operated attractions, the facilities are in some early stage of development with minimally trained employees. We parked in a big grassy area, because much of the "road" appeared to be a sucking mud pit, and because there was one other car parked there. It was quite a distance to what looked like the cave entrance. On the way to the ticket booth, a kid on a bicycle asked for a parking fee of ten pesos and gave Jon a reciept. At the cave, entrance was also ten pesos apiece but then a guide came following after us. He had a flashlight which was quite handy because much of the entrance was muddy, fitted with boards to walk on, and unlit. Deep inside the cave, this man asked for a propina, a tip. We put together our coins and he was clearly disappointed so he actually demanded thirty pesos. So I gave him a fifty peso bill and he never offered change, he just smiled. There were no signs or explanations inside the enormous cave room. I asked questions and he said he didn't know. Finally I asked if Spanish was his second language and he said no, yet he had no idea what the kind of rock the cave was made or or even how a stalactite forms. Didn't know the word for stalagmite, or any of the other formations like flow stone. He just pointed his little laser dot at formations and said silly things about them, like "Look, it's a rabbit". One formation looked like a bunch of skulls. I asked what was the name for a head that is nothing more than bone without hair or skin, and he said "Cara" (face). Oh brother. I know my Spanish isn't perfect but this guy wasn't listening or trying. Jon asked him to pose for a long distance picture, and afterwards he wanted another ten pesos. I told him we'd already paid him a lot but he just smiled and kept saying "ten pesos for the picture".

Light from a hole in the ceiling

None of it cost us a lot of money, that wasn't the issue. It was the total lack of communication and the charging of fees after the fact that was so irritating. No sign said a word about sending a guide with us, nor did the guys at the entrance mention it, the guide never said a word about charging until we were deep in the cave, the whole experience felt like extortion. The cave itself was quite amazing and huge, well worth a thirty or forty peso entrance fee, if that fee would have covered the hidden fees like a guide.

Jon on top of a large block of limestone
that had dropped from the ceiling

Outside we explored the grounds a bit and walked over a bridge to the other side. There were palapas and picnic tables, and way off across the muddy field, bathrooms with flushing toilets. A tiny hand-lettered sign said to pay three pesos at the entrance and to get toilet paper there. Of course at the entrance there was no mention of paying for the toilets or TP. The place was just very poorly organized and I doubt seriously if it will get any better, there's so little concept of customer service. I went ahead and used the toilet, I always carry TP with me. When I came out, the kid on the bicycle was there wanting three pesos.

Palapas and picnic tables






View of San Cristobal from
a tiny house along the road

The river next to the cave entrance