Maya Marvels at Risk

The noonday sun beams down on us as our lanchero, Gabriel Maldonado, artfully slips our boat between boulders and raging whirlpools. It is the last patch of class II whitewater we will encounter before reaching the 1,500-year-old Maya city of Piedras Negras, the remains of which blanket a two-kilometer-long stretch of rugged terrain on the eastern shore of the Usumacinta, the largest and longest river in Mesoamerica and the natural border between Guatemala and the Mexican state of Chiapas. With one swift gun of the 75hp engine, he brings the craft about, gently nosing its bow into a steep, soft sandbank where we unload our gear in preparation for an afternoon of exploration.

Our visit to this ancient city marks the third stop on a whirlwind journey that has taken us—Norma Barbacci, WMF’s director for Latin American field projects; Ken Feisel, ICON’s creMaya Marvels WMF launches a program to preserve an at Risk extraordinary cultural legacy ative director and an intrepid photographer; and I—throughout the Petén region of Guatemala to check on the progress made at a suite of sites WMF is currently working to preserve. Joining us for this leg of our trip is Javier Marquez of Defensores de la Naturaleza, a Guatemala City-based NGO that manages the Sierra del Lacandón National Park—the rainforest preserve in which Piedras Negras is located—and one of WMF’s partners in supporting conservation work at the site. Marquez knows the park well, having served as chief ranger here before assuming his current post as park director a year and a half ago. As we make our way along a narrow path, troops of howler monkeys scamper in the forest canopy, their cacophonous chorus echoing through the jungle. Marquez is quick to point out fresh jaguar tracks and a variety of exotic plants, among them the Tepejilote palm.

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