In search of the ‘white jaguar’

Source: Science Magazine

CHIAPAS STATE IN MEXICO—About 7 hours by kayak up the Tzendales River, our GPS receiver falls overboard and vanishes in the deep blue water. We are on the fourth day of an expedition deep into the Montes Azules Biosphere Reserve, one of Mexico's largest, most remote protected areas. On the side of the GPS was an SOS button that we could press to contact emergency services or even summon a rescue helicopter. Now, traveling up a river no one else has navigated for at least 10 years, our small group of archaeologists, guides, and observers is cut off.

But maybe that's fitting, as we are seeking a lost city. Called Sac Balam, it was founded more than 400 years ago by the Lacandon Maya, one of several Indigenous groups in southern Mexico and Central America who resisted Spanish colonial rule for centuries.

It wasn't the kind of Maya city tourists flock to today. Sac Balam didn't have majestic stone temples, elaborate tombs, or intricate sculptures. In fact, it was probably so unassuming that its ruins might elude an untrained eye. But hundreds of Lacandon once lived there, hidden from Spanish eyes and free to continue a way of life their ancestors had practiced for centuries: planting corn and beans, raising turkeys, weaving strong thatched roofs to resist the tropical rain, and leaving offerings to their gods in nearby caves. The Lacandon had looked at this impenetrable, remote jungle and had seen safety.