Instituto Cientifico de Na Bolom: a magical place in Chiapas for Maya studies

articles Travel & Destinations

Larry Freeman

For an exotic place and a surprising destination, I strongly recommend The Instituto Cientifico de Na Bolom, the Scientific Institute of Na Bolom (House of the Tiger). It is located in the State of Chiapas, 8000 feet high in the breathtaking mountains. It was established in the ironically-named San Cristobal de Las Casas, the fastest growing city in all of Mexico.

While the American State Department has issued an advisory about Chiapas, I have never seen, or even heard of a situation in which any Maya connected to the rebellion has threatened or harmed a tourist. Yes, there is crime in Chiapas, but certainly less than in any American city.

The city is generally clear and cold despite being in Southern Mexico, almost to Central America down by the Guatemalan border. It was founded in 1528, 7 years after the fall of Tenochtitlan, as a Spanish colonial city which had retained most of its charm and character throughout the five hundred years of its existence.

Founded by the Spanish military as a point of control for the fractious Maya of Highland Mexico, it was originally called Villa Vicioso, because it was a garrison from which marauding Spanish Conquistadores ranged over the countryside.

San Cristobal de Las Casas is ironically-named because the city was later re-named for the sainted 16th Century Spanish Friar who came to be called The Protector of the Indians for his tireless fight on their behalf.

If you’re coming in from the States there are a number of interesting ways to get there. I came from San Diego, California, all the way by bus. I’d actually wanted to take the train, but alas, Mexico has pretty well suspended passenger service, with a few exceptions.

Once I got across the border, I went to the Inter-City terminal in Tijuana and took the bus to Mexico City where I transferred to the bus to San Cristobal de Las Casas, a two-and-a-half day trip, stopping only at fast-service restaurants that are scattered throughout this wonderful country.

To me, the Mexican bus system is one of the only things that works according to the American standards of efficiency in Mexico (sorry, it just happens to be true). It really is a marvel, with beautiful luxury buses that, at the very least, compete economically with their airlines for passengers.

I’m not saying that the ride is a walk in the park, because it is a grueling, uncomfortable, mostly sleepless journey, with lousy food to boot. There is no place to take a shower and while the seats recline, it is no way to really sleep. If I were to do it again, I would probably break up the trip and sleep in a hotel overnight.

But it is the greatest way to really see Mexico. Even better than driving your own vehicle, because driving in Mexico can be pretty adventurous, and sometimes downright hairy!

I have taken buses all over Mexico, and rather than seeing Mexico through clouds at 30,000 feet, I see the country, meet the people, and smell the smells of Mexico, although there were times when I would have passed up that part.

Of course you can also take an American or a Mexican Airline to Mexico City, and then take a Mexican carrier to the Capital of the State of Chiapas, Tuxla Guttierez, and then a three hour bus trip to San Cristobal de Las Casas. There is an airport in SCLC, but it hasn’t been operating very long, and doesn’t have much of a record yet. One way or the other that’s the way you come to SCLC.

Today, with approximately 250,000 inhabitants, SCLC is composed of two very different factions that together make it the fastest growing city in all of Mexico.

Much of the growth is thanks to religion.

For centuries los Indios had at least been nominally Catholic, even though their Catholicism actually incorporated many of the ancient gods. Into this rock-ribbed conservatism plunged the fervent Protestant Evangelicals. They converted many to the ‘new’ religion, in an unholy ‘numbers’ game.

This conversion set up a viable opposition to the existing order and threatened the status quo, and so in some of the villages the Elders, known as Cargos, took the drastic step of expelling the conversos from the villages. They used the grounds that these upstarts could no longer be allowed to participate in the land inheritance system because they were no longer part of the community.

This move, pushing the conversos out of their ancestral homes, swelled the ramshackle outskirts of SCLC to the breaking point, and refugees fleeing the sporadic warfare and banditry along the Mexico-Guatemalan border added to the soaring population, causing a veritable invasion of child Chiclet sellers onto the cities’ streets. A startling anomaly, returning the processed gum to the place where the chicle, the sap of a tree, is actually found.

This displaced and poverty-ridden population provided fertile ground for recruitment into the revolutionary EZLN. The rebels had actually seized the city for a whole 24 hours in 1994, and the Chilangos, the westernized rulers that answered to Mexico City, viewed the Zapatistas as a serious threat to the unity of Mexico.

Outraged by another Maya revolt, the Government had determined to put down the revolution, and 70,000 soldiers were transplanted into the sparsely-populated State of Chiapas to control 700,000 Maya speakers. Ironically, many of the soldiers had originally been Maya.

The world looks upon the recent Zapatista uprising as a new phenomenon, but it is simply the most recent display of the Indigenous anger at the centuries-long continuing foreign invasion. (For further information see The Maya Civilization Historical Conflict Part 1)

For Chiapas, Maya resistance began in Canyon Sumidero where the Spanish thought they had defeated the Maya in a pitched battle in 1547, twenty-four years after they had defeated the Aztecs. The next full battle happened at Peten Itza at Tayasal in1697 where they thought they had conquered the Maya again, but it was not until 1850 that the Maya were driven back to the east, to Chan Santa Cruz, and that was during the Caste Wars.

In 1869 there was another Caste War and a siege of San Cristobal de Las Casas that did not end until 1871.

Even today, there are still many places in the Maya kingdoms where a Mexican or foreigner may go, but never return. Over the centuries, the Maya regions have seen one revolt after another, with a new uprising about every 50 years.

The most recent explosion of Maya outrage started in 1993 when two Mexican Federal Officers were found dead in the cloud forest of Highland Chiapas, and soon after the EZLN, the Ejercito Zapatista de Liberacíon National, the Zapatista Army of National Liberation that the world knows as the Zapatistas, delivered the Declaration of the Lacondon Jungle.

The Declaration said that the Maya had no more to lose, that the Mexican government had stolen their land, killed the people, enslaved them, and denied them even their rights as Mexican Citizens, and that it was over.

Soon after that, in 1994, the Zapatistas took over the capital of Chiapas, San Cristobal de Las Casas, and several nearby towns and held them for 48 hours, retreating to the jungle without incident or injuries.

The Mexican Army then went on the offensive, and heavy fighting lasted for 12 days, the Mexican troops and their auxiliaries killing 150 people. The fighting continued with the Mexican troops invading village after village, and then in 1997, the Army invaded a Catholic Church in San Cristobal and killed 45 people, 21 of them women.

Since then the killing has been more limited because the eyes of the world’s news organizations had been opened and were watching. In Chiapas, even the hint of any tourist participation in any Zapatista demonstration or event rapidly results in expulsion from the Country. A word to the wise, there are Oreillas (the Ears) throughout SCLC, just looking and listening for tourist missteps.

The Mexican Government often cites the danger to foreign tourists as a reason to restrict movement in the State, but the fact is that no foreign tourist has been injured during the uprising, although many have been hassled and even expelled for relatively innocent actions.

The treatment of the Maya has not improved much even today. They are still third-class citizens, after the Chilangos and the Ladinos. It was not until 1960 that the Maya were allowed to walk on the sidewalks of San Cristobal, and until 1965 Maya were not allowed to stay overnight in the city. Maya are still treated as scum by the Ladino lords of the city, and many Maya still live in conditions of slavery in the coffee plantations of Soconusco.

But enough of the history . . .

The Instituto Cientifico de Na Bolom is world renowned as a center for Maya studies. Originally a monastery, and then a private residence and then the Institute, Na Bolom was recently run by a Mexican Trust under the direction of an ex-Governor of Chiapas, referred to as El Jefe, a rigid man of military bearing, he could fix you with his piercing cold glacier-blue eyes, his gray hair bristled, cut en brose. With a Heidelberg saber scar across a prominent cheekbone, He could have been a model for a Prussian General.

The Institute occupies thirty-three acres on the Northernmost edge of the city of San Cristobal de Las Casas, the complex consists of an Administration patio; a small theater; the art gallery; a gift shop for indigenous Maya arts and crafts; a Museum; the Chapel with its own collection of religious art; the Comedor, (Dining room) and its annex; the kitchen; a studio for the Visiting Artist-in-Residence; the Photo archive; the Photo Museum; the library, with four rooms full of books and an upstairs for rare materials.

In another wing was Trudi’s room, which was the original room of the founder, complete with all her memorabilia and an extensive native costume collection.

In the south wing was a food storage room; a laundry; a large office for Tourist Services; an office for the Institute Director; and a number of rooms which were available for the hotel guests lucky enough to have made reservations, for staying at Na Bolom is counted a rare privilege.

In the rear garden area is a series of rooms set aside for visiting Lacondon Maya who are in from the jungle, usually for medical procedures; there is also a separate group of hotel rooms; a large house in the back of the garden used for visiting V.I.P.s; a model Maya hut used for ceremonial purposes; two tree nurseries with several thousand fledgling trees; then there are extensive Indigenous plantings along the garden paths.

There is little money available from the Mexican Government, in spite of the fame of the Institute and even though it is affiliated with the prestigious Universidad del Sur, located just on the outskirts of the city.

The Institute must struggle along on grants, gifts and tourist largesse, through guided tours and the gift shop, helped along by the small hotel facilities and a restaurant where, although reservations were required, it is often filled with people who had taken the tours.

There is a skeleton local staff, paid very little, and so the Institute has to rely on volunteers, and they come from all over the world, young, highly educated, intelligent, idealistic and eager to work, drawn by a glittering sociological, archeological and ecological reputation.

There are thirty-two volunteers, and mostly they stay (for a nominal fee) at the fairly rudimentary volunteer house some distance away in downtown San Cristobal de Las Casas, enjoying the close camaraderie of a hard-working and unappreciated group.

They’ve all been captivated by Casa Na Bolom from afar, and some of them conduct the visitor tours of the Institute that raised the money to pay the day-to-day expenses , while others toiled in the gardens or the nursery, the library, or in many other positions around the grounds.

Aside from the volunteer house, these volunteers are completely responsible for their own transportation, room and board, although it is quite reasonable (cheap!) In Chiapas.

The Instituto Cientifico de Casa de Na Balom, The Scientific Institute of The House of The Jaguar, is at the same time, less grand and also more grand than its name might imply. In truth it was the home of Trudi and Frans Blom, although when they bought it in the early 1950’s, it was languishing as an abandoned monastery with cows ambling through the patios. They were a strange couple, he an eminent Dutch explorer of the Yucatan, quite well-known in the field of Maya-Olmec archeology, and at the same time a failed academic with an severe alcohol problem. She an escapee from Nazi Germany and a renowned photographer documenting the life of the isolated Lacondon Maya.

Together they purchased an abandoned monastery located on a large parcel of land in the central city. With Frans Blom’s reputation and Trudie’s genius for organization, Na Bolom soon became the center for Maya exploration, the base camp for the many expeditions that fanned out through the entire Maya region, the Yucatan, Chiapas, Campeche, Tobasco, Guatemala, Belize, even Honduras and El Salvador.

And when the explorers returned with their handwritten notes and hand-drawn maps, they stayed at Na Bolom to refine and transcribe their raw notes into a more finished and more acceptable form. The notes were then archived into the library at Na Bolom. The notes are still there, in their raw form, with all the personal asides, and all their ‘unacceptable’ findings.

The library had originally been Frans’ study, and still contains his own personal books and notes, and, over a period of time, many books in several languages that had been used by the researchers working there, as well as many archived materials, dating all the way back to the 16th Century. It is a magical place, set there with a view of the patio-garden, and facing the colonnades across the courtyard.

It is an old-fashioned library, with paned-glass-fronted dark wood bookshelves and green baize-covered oak library tables lit by green-shaded banker’s lamps. A giant stone fireplace dominates one end of the room and usually has a cheery fire burning brightly, the only method of providing warmth for the room.

It is an enchanted place, a space inhabited by the ghosts of all the souls that had passed through there, and the ghost of the connection to the world of the Maya. The warmth of the fire encourages sitting in the large raw-leather chairs that surrounded the fireplace. The chairs that had been hand-made by Frans. The library has been graced by Mayanists from all over the world, and dinner at the huge refectory table in the dining room is often the scene of spirited discussions among academics and simple tourists (reservations required).

The religious practices in Chiapas are fascinating, even more so if you know some of the background.

Sociologists talk about the H’men, the legendary religious leaders of the Maya. The academics treat the H’men as antiquated relics of another time, somehow not realizing that the Maya religion is as alive today as it has ever been, maybe even more so because it has been driven underground, figuratively as well as literally.

Oh, there are giant ornate Catholic churches that had been built by the conquerors, and they are filled to the brim with Indian worshipers, but the churches and their saints only serve as masks for the secretive worship of the old gods, and there are more ceremonies deep within the jungles, in places where non-Indians go in but never came out.

Even the Catholic Churches in relatively large communities are hardly immune. The Church at Chamula, a village of the Tzotzil Maya, had run the priest out of town years earlier and he had been forbidden to return by the Cargos, the Civic Council for the town.

Though still nominally Catholic, the services are conducted by the locals, and are like no Catholic services anyone ever saw. There are no pews, and services are conducted in small family groups sitting on a floor strewn with pine needles, and surrounded by candles.

Usually there is a sick family member in the center, attended by a Curandero, a healer, who passes a chicken or an egg over the sick person and then kills the chicken or breaks the egg, to show the noxious substance inside that they claim has been in the body of the patient. Then the family drinks Coca-Cola, their burps expelling the bad spirits from their bodies.

There is so much that is exotic and fascinating in this little town that it cannot all be included here. In fact, this article only lightly brushes the surface, and in a coming article we will explore more of this wonderful place and its many sights, sounds and smells.

Published or Updated on: June 1, 2004 by Larry Freeman © 2004


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