Something else just occurred to me that must have contributed to the sense of awe I got out of the natural settings of the Yucatan.
The distinction between ‘old growth’ and ‘new growth’ that exists elsewhere in the Americas–that phenomenon which causes nature lovers of the pacific coast to scorn us easterners and our baby forests where none of the trees are any more than seventy years old–is completely inapplicable in the Yucatan. The soil here is so porous and so thin that the only time you ever see a tree older than fifty or sixty years is when it was cultivated to grow that way.
I had been, until I arrived in the Yucatan, perhaps mildly unclear on the distinction between rainforest and jungle. Rainforests are old-growth. When you come in with the gas-powered buzzsaws and cut down the glorious mahogany to make tables for the wealthy imperialist, that shit doesn’t just grow back. The trees are hundreds of feet high, and the canopy so thick it blocks out most of the light and limits the types and the density of undergrowth capable of surviving beneath it. I’ve hiked in a rainforest before in Hawaii, and while bushwhacking one’s way around might not be the wisest idea, it could certainly be done.
A jungle is nothing but undergrowth. The trees don’t grow taller than 25 feet. I considered a few times, while traveling in Yucatan, the possibility of exploring some of the jungle on my own, the way I would in a woods in New England. Considered it for about twenty seconds, from the safety of a nice, cleared path, before giving the notion up as insane. Foot travel in a trackless jungle is well nigh impossible. Cutting a path through jungle with a machete would be like snipping a path through a cornfield with a pair of swiss-army scissors. Nobody cuts down a jungle, except to make space for farming, or maybe to construct a shamanic temple, or to clear off one that was already there so you can invite white people to it and swindle them. And when you do cut it down, you better not look away for twenty years or it’ll all grow back just the way it was.
The result of all this is that when you are walking around in the jungles of the Yucatan, they look exactly the same as they did a thousand years ago.
Except for, you know, the occasional corrugated metal cerveza shack.