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Digital Subscriptions > National Geographic Traveller (UK) > May 2017 > A MESSAGE FROM THE GODS

A MESSAGE FROM THE GODS

Whether lost in a bat-infested underground labyrinth or caught up in an unexpected sacrificial ritual, you can feel the hand of the Maya on your shoulder in Chiapas, southeast Mexico

MEXICO

IMAGE: ALAMY

IVE DESCENDED INTO THE MAYAN UNDERWORLD,

A SWEATING, CALCIFYING MAZE BUILT DEEP WITHIN THE LACANDON JUNGLE, DARK AS OBSIDIAN AND THICK WITH TAILLESS WHIP SCORPIONS.

“Keep moving!” Mildred Lucas hisses, her usual Mexican lilt replaced by a more urgent tenor. Up ahead, the feeble beam of my budget torch has stirred life into a canopy of bats. Their sinewy wings unfurl to reveal crumpled faces and parted jaws convulsing in rubbery squeaks. “Take this left… No, wait; go straight.” The air is putrid, the fauna terrifying, and it occurs to me, not for the first time, that my guide may be lost. I’m truly in hell.

“We know from carvings and deciphered glyphs that this labyrinth — one of the largest of its kind ever discovered — was built to symbolise the underworld. It was a place for Mayan royalty to commune with the gods.” Mildred’s voice reverberates along the stone passageway. “They would pierce their tongues, their flesh, their genitals, and burn the blood-splattered tissues, re-entering society with messages from the gods.”

Petite, polished and raised amid the urban chaos of Mexico City, Mildred Lucas may not be an archetypal tomb raider, but in the days we’ve spent together she’s introduced me to some of Mexico’s most preciously guarded treasures: the vine-strangled, ancient Mayan cities of its southernmost frontier state, Chiapas.

It feels like Mexico at its purest; there’s something so distinct and purposeful about the tapestry of this region it feels almost distilled. Its canyon-pitted, pine-crested highlands dissolve east to sultry jungle and south to fertile Pacific plains in bold strokes — its biodiversity outranks nearly every other state. The people are gregarious and warm hearted; their cuisine is hearty and spiced with centuries of tradition. Towns are pristine: paintbox-coloured, colonial and sleepy. And while travellers have cottoned on to these delights, Chiapas attracts but a fraction of the international attention its charms merit.

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About National Geographic Traveller (UK)

Walk this way: Lofty passes through volcanic lunar landscapes; ancient pilgrim pathways strewn with churches and ruins; sumptuous forested trails opening out onto vineyards. a rambler’s reward is culture, ambience and wild scenery on the walking routes through Italy, France and Spain
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