The river journey to Yaxchilan from Frontera Corozal

Map of Usumacinta River Route to Yaxchilan

This area of Mexico is extremely isolated and remote, with few roads. Therefore, the easiest and most magical way to visit the ruins of Yaxchilan and Piedras Negras is by colorful boats called lanchas, operated by the Maya Ch'ol Cooperative out of Frontera Corozal.

First glimpse of Río Usumacinta from Frontera Corozal, Chiapas, Mexico

Rio Usumacinta from Corizal Frontera

Frontera Corozal is a border town, with the Usamacinta river constituting the border between Chiapas, Mexico and Guatemala. Downstream on the other side of the river is Bethel, Guatemala.

Frontera Corozal was founded in 1976 by Ch'ol migrants from northern Chiapas. The town celebrates the Fiesta del Elote (Festival of Corn) in August, and a ceremony to ask for rain is celebrated in the Tsolkinse caverns in May.

Colorful lanchas hug the shore near the Escudo Jaguar, where we stayed

Boats on the Uxamacinta

Yaxchilan is situated in an ox-bow bend of the Usumacinta River, where it regulated commerce in this part of the river — a portion of a huge circular trade route stretching from the central Mexican highlands to the Atlantic and south to Honduras and El Salvadore.

Even today, visitors to Yaxchilan come by boat.

Transport to Yaxchilan is via colorful lanchas on the river

Boats on the Uxamacinta

Owned by the Ch'ol Maya Cooperative at Frontera Corozal, colorful forty foot rib-and-plank boats called lanchas provide transport to the ruins of Yaxchilan and Piedras Negras.

A Maya boatman in his motorized lancha

Boats on the Uxamacinta

Heading for Yaxchilan via the ancient Usumacinta river route

Boats on the Usamacinta

"The classical Maya Maize God, also called First Father rode a cosmic cayuco across the path of the sun to set in place the three cosmic hearthstones near the constellation Orion.

There, he separated earth and sky at the dawn of the fourth creation cycle — ours, which approaches its end in the second decade of the twenty-first century. Two gods accompanied him whose images crop up frequently in classical depictions of birth, death, and royal accessions, kneeling at opposite ends of the galactic canoe.

By the classical period, canoe travel had long been perceived as a first principle of creation, preexisting the world itself. Voyaging the rivers, ancient paddlers recapitulated the journeys of gods and ancestors, retracing and thereby consecrating the Maya terrain.

In the process of "entering the road" — the Watery Path — and transforming themselves from yeomen into pilgrims, they delineated and held together the world, and the land-based identity of the people.

The mental maps of the classical Maya, their cosmographs, were composed of mountains and lakes laced together by rivers. In practical terms, these rivers represented highways of war, commerce, and cultural exchange — the Usumacinta above all."

Christopher Shaw, Sacred Monkey River: A Canoe Trip with the Gods, p. 29

A Ch'ol Maya boatman steers our craft

Boats on the Uxamacinta

Denizens of the Río Usumacinta watch from the riverbank

Boats on the Uxamacinta

A crocodile watches from the shore. His ancestors were portrayed in carved images at the ancient city of Yaxchilan.

The beautiful Río Usumacinta dressed in morning mists

Boats on the Uxamacinta

"The light left the water, casting a reflective sheen over the surface. A pure white hawk spiraled overhead. We entered the ninety-degree bend to the east that signaled the edge of Yaxchilan's protected area, and the approximate extent of the ancient city's ceremonial precinct.

For the next three miles the river described an enormous omega, a nearly circular bend narrowly pinched at the neck. The peninsula's narrow neck and its prominent heights made it one of ancient Mesoamerica's most formidable defensive positions."

Christopher Shaw, Sacred Monkey River: A Canoe Trip with the Gods, p. 266

We approach the mysterious ruins of Yaxchilan from an oxbow bend in the river

Boats on the Uxamacinta

Photo courtesy of Tom Canavan

A little about the town of Frontera Corozal and the Maya Ch'ol Cooperative

Frontera Corozal was founded in 1976 by Ch'ol migrants from northern Chiapas. The town has several cooperatives which run tourism related business, but otherwise is very isolated and remote. Another cooperative, the Sociedad Cooperativa de Bienes y Servicios Nueve Alianza, supports wildlife and has a nursery for crocodiles, lowland pacas and deer.

The town is located in an area of the rainforest badly damaged from to overexploitation and clearing and is adjacent to the Montes Azules Biosphere Reserve. The Maya, with their cooperatives, are seeking to retain possession of their ancestral lands and restore the rainforest in their area.

Museo Regional de la Cuenca del Río Usumacinta

The museum is run by the Comunidad de Frontera Corozal, Chiapas, Mexico. Part of the impetus for founding the museum was finding two Maya stele at a small site in the area called Dos Caobas.

After dinner one night, our hosts offered to open the museum so we could see the two stelae and other objects in their collection. It was difficult to photograph because the museum was quite dark and we were not allowed to use flash, but here is a little of what we saw.

Stela 1 or Stele of the King

Frontera Corozal Museum: Stela 1 or Stele of the King

This is Marion, the genius behind all of our trips, admiring the B side of Stela 1 in the collection

Stela 1 dates from the reign of Itzam-Balam the Great (Shield Jaguar III) who governed Yaxchilan from 681 to 742 A.D., a long reign of 60 years. He was known as the Warrior King and was the father of Bird Jaguar IV, Yaxchilan's most prolific builder.

Although the political history of his reign is not well understood, it apppears that Itzam-Balum extended the political influence of Yaxchilan to control more of the rich downriver Uxamacinta traffic. It is interesting that this stela was found in Dos Caobas and not in Yaxchilan proper.

Side A shows Itzam-Balam on the right with an elaborate headdress and holding a large lance. An assistant on the left grabs an unfortunate prisoner, probably about to be sacrificed, by the hair.

Stela 1 Side A, with the second stela in the background

Stela from Museo Regional de la Cuenca del Río Usumacinta

The second stela is only worked on one side. The only figure visible in this photo is a man who may represent the ruler of Dos Caobas, presenting his overlord from Yaxchilan with a flower. Itzam-Balam, outside the photo, stands on the right, richly attired in jewelry and feathers.

Side B of Stela 1 portrays Itzam-Balam in a magnificent feather headdress

Frontera Corozal Museum: Stela 1

Itzam-Balam's feather headdress was probably resplendent with iridescent green quetzal feathers, and his jewels undoubtably were jade and polished shell.

A full view of Side B, Stela 1 showing a small figure sitting at Itzam-Balam's feet

Frontera Corozal Museum: Stela 1 Side B

An ancient Maya flute from the museum showing human figure with bird headdress

Frontera Corozal Museum: Flute

Note the blow hole, with tone holes in the owl headdress. Possibly the figure's mouth also played a part in tone production.