Home to the Lacandón indigenous tribe, the Lacandón Forest is known for the extraordinary diversity of its flora and fauna. The Montes Azules Biosphere Reserve encompasses much of this rainforest natural region, home to important Mayan archaeological sites, including Yaxchilan and Bonampak.
The Lacandón Forest, also called the "Lacandón Jungle" (Selva Lacandona), is a region of rainforest stretching from Chiapas, Mexico, south to the border with Guatemala. The heart of this forest, one of the largest montane rainforests in Mexico, is located within the Montes Azules Biosphere Reserve.
This forest region is also home to several important Mayan archaeological sites, including Palenque, a World Heritage Site, Yaxchilan and Bonampak, and numerous smaller sites that remain partially or fully unexcavated.
Although much of the jungle outside the Reserve has been cleared, the Lacandón Forest is still one of the largest montane rainforests in Mexico. It harbors approximately 1,500 tree species, 33% of all Mexican bird species, 25% of all Mexican animal species, 56% of all Mexican diurnal butterflies and 16% of all Mexico's fish species.
It is the habitat of a species endemic to Mesoamerica, Baird's Tapir (Tapirus bairdii); of rare species, such as the Harpy Eagle (Harpia harpija); and such emblematic species, such as the Jaguar (Panthera onca), Geoffroy's Spider Monkey (Ateles geoffroyi), the Mexican Black Howler Monkey (Alouata pigra), Morelet's Crocodile (Crocodylus moreletii), Kapok (Ceiba pentandra), and Mahogany (Swetenia macrophylla).
The Lacandón people are Maya natives who live in the jungle. This is their homeland. They are one of the most isolated and culturally conservative of Mexico's native peoples. Almost extinct in 1943, today their population has grown significantly, yet remains small, at approximately 650 speakers of the Lacandon language.
The Lacandón are divisible into two major groups, the Northern Lacandón (who live in the villages of Najá and Mensabäk) and the Southern Lacandón (who live in the town of Lacanhá Chan Sayab, near the ancient Mayan ruins of Bonampak).
The jungle is also home to some of Mexico's most numerous and impressive archaeological sites, all of which belong to the Mayan civilization. The most important of these sites are Palenque, Bonampak and Yaxchilan, but there are many more sites and ruins that still lie unexcavated under the vegetation.
Palenque lies on the edge of the Lacandon, where the Eastern Mountains meet the Gulf Coast Plains. It is not the most significant Mayan archaeological site, but it has some well-preserved sculptures and architecture the culture produced.
Significant structures include the Temple of Inscriptions, the Temple of the Sun and the Temple of the Cross; however, only a small fraction has been excavated. Away from the ceremonial center and on the way to the site museum are smaller buildings around the Otolum stream with a small waterfall.
Other protected areas in the Lacandón Forest include:
Nahá-Metzabok Biosphere Reserve (134.53 sq km) protects two natural lake systems and surrounding forested areas.
Chan-Kin Flora and Fauna Protection Area (121.85 sq km) protects an enclave of lowland rainforest between Lacan-Tun Reserve and the Usumacinta River.
.Palenque National Park (17.72 sq km) protects the ancient city of Palenque and the surrounding rainforest
Bonampak (43.57 sq km) and Yaxchilan (26.21 sq km) archeological sites are designated natural monuments.
Montes Azules Biosphere Reserve
The Montes Azules Biosphere Reserve is located in the Selva Lacandóna region in the State of Chiapas in southeast Mexico, between the Lacantún and Locania rivers. It comprises 331,200 ha (818,400 acres) inside the forestry protection area of the Lacandón Jungle.
It is part of three contiguous UNESCO-recognized biosphere reserves, including the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve in Yucatán and the Maya Biosphere Reserve in northern Guatemala. It is one of the largest areas of humid tropical forest in Mexico and Central America, with areas of pine forest at higher altitudes along with mountain rainforest.
The Montes Azules Biosphere Reserve and surrounding forest contain some 500 species of trees. More recently, the forest has been exploited for chicle and mahogany but has not been seriously altered, even though wood clearing is recognized as a severe threat. It comprises a mixture of federal and communal systems and private lands.
Rather than viewing this overlap of the protected area and indigenous territory as a threat, Tzeltal, Chol and Lacandon Maya communities see the Montes Azules reserve as a buffer against outside threats to their land. Some 75,400 people (2002) live in the Reserve, mainly in local agriculture.
The Montes Azules Biosphere Reserve is the northernmost distribution boundary for many biotas proceeding from the Pleistocene refuges of Polochic in Guatemala and Chiriqui in Panama. It contains relevant species such as Lacandonia schismatica and is the last refuge for vulnerable species such as the Scarlet Macao (Ara macao).