Chan K’in Viejo, sometimes known as Chan Bor Kin, was the last to’ohil (spiritual and civic leader) of the Lacandon tribe in eastern Chiapas, known for his generosity, wisdom and devout faith, as well as, according to legend, a penchant for cigar smoking and fathering multiple children. Here’s why Chan K’in Viejo remains such a respected indigenous leader to this day.
Who was Chan K’in Viejo?
Chan K’in Viejo was born in Najá at the turn of the century and took over from his father as the community to’ohil in his teens. Despite outsiders having romanticised Chan K’in Viejo as a shaman, in possession of otherworldly powers, the truth of the matter is he was simply a highly respected and knowledgeable leader who ruled for more than 80 years.
In fact, simplicity, religion and tradition were the keys to his life as the Lacandon leader, qualities which helped him unite the people through his cosmological tales and encourage his community to maintain their traditions, values and culture, even as modernity encroached into their territory and threatened their way of life. It was ultimately his influence that helped the Najá based Hach Winik community stave off external influence for so much longer than surrounding areas.
However, as well as being a spiritual leader amongst the Hach Winik, as the Lacandon are known in their native language, Chan K’in Viejo was also a fairly political figure too, denouncing theft and tree felling in their community at the hands of outsiders. He was also a proponent of the Lacandon language.
After his death in December 1996, Chan K’in Viejo was survived by his 21 children and two of his wives, Koh and Maria Koh, according to a New York Times report from 1997, although varying sources claim he had either 13, 17 or 21 children and up to four wives in his lifetime. Similarly, reports of his true age vary wildly; some claim he was 96 when he passed away, although others say he fathered his last child aged 99 or 100, and one of his sons suggested he was 104 at the times of his death. Various legends surrounding this fascinating figure even claim he lived to be as old as 120, and never sprouted a grey hair.
Despite some asserting that Chan K’in Viejo converted to Christianity before his death, his community and family strongly deny that ever having happened, and he remains somewhat of a Pagan icon for the Lacandones, who dismantled his house and refused to elect a successor to the position in a mark of respect.
Chan K’in Viejo and Trudi Blom
However, although he was a highly revered figure in Najá’s (Nahá) Lacandon community, it wasn’t until the arrival of Swiss photographer Trudi Blom in the 1940s that the instantly recognisable appearance of Chan K’in Viejo with his long hair and white tunic was brought to a wider global audience. Her five decade long photographic documentation of both the Mayan cultures of Chiapas, as well as the man she considered her best friend (Blom and her husband were eventually laid to rest next to Chan K’in Viejo in the Lacandon jungle) was legendary and, from an anthropological standpoint, invaluable.
Modern day Lacandon Mayas
The Lacandon tribe still exists in eastern Chiapas to this day, and Chan K’in Viejo’s sons continue to be part of it. However, modern day Lacandones lead a far less isolated jungle life of hunting and farming, instead dwelling in fewer but larger groups and switching bow and arrows for guns and televisions. Similarly, their religious lifestyle, which involved regular pilgrimages to sites such as Bonampak and Yaxchilán, has all but been forgotten due to the meddling of North American evangelist groups, despite the Lacandones having resisted Hispanicisation and the loss of their indigenous culture for centuries.
Therefore, due to his devoutness, wisdom and preservation of traditional culture, Chan K’in Viejo has been immortalised in popular culture as the last true spiritual leader of the Hach Winik and one of the most respected indigenous figures in Mexico.
Volcanic Iceland Epic Trip
meet our Local Insider
HOW LONG HAVE YOU BEEN A GUIDE?
WHAT DO YOU LOVE ABOUT YOUR JOB?
It's the personal contact, the personal experiences. I love meeting people from all over the world... I really like getting to know everyone and feeling like I'm traveling with a group of friends.
WHAT DESTINATION IS ON YOUR TRAVEL BUCKET-LIST?
I have so many places on my list, but I would really lobe to go to Africa. I consider myself an “adventure girl” and Africa feels like the ULTIMATE adventure!
Every CULTURE TRIP Small-group adventure is led by a Local Insider just like Hanna.
KEEN TO EXPLORE THE WORLD?
Connect with like-minded people on our premium trips curated by local insiders and with care for the world
Since you are here, we would like to share our vision for the future of travel - and the direction Culture Trip is moving in.
Culture Trip launched in 2011 with a simple yet passionate mission: to inspire people to go beyond their boundaries and experience what makes a place, its people and its culture special and meaningful — and this is still in our DNA today. We are proud that, for more than a decade, millions like you have trusted our award-winning recommendations by people who deeply understand what makes certain places and communities so special.
Increasingly we believe the world needs more meaningful, real-life connections between curious travellers keen to explore the world in a more responsible way. That is why we have intensively curated a collection of premium small-group trips as an invitation to meet and connect with new, like-minded people for once-in-a-lifetime experiences in three categories: Culture Trips, Rail Trips and Private Trips. Our Trips are suitable for both solo travelers, couples and friends who want to explore the world together.
Culture Trips are deeply immersive 5 to 16 days itineraries, that combine authentic local experiences, exciting activities and 4-5* accommodation to look forward to at the end of each day. Our Rail Trips are our most planet-friendly itineraries that invite you to take the scenic route, relax whilst getting under the skin of a destination. Our Private Trips are fully tailored itineraries, curated by our Travel Experts specifically for you, your friends or your family.
We know that many of you worry about the environmental impact of travel and are looking for ways of expanding horizons in ways that do minimal harm - and may even bring benefits. We are committed to go as far as possible in curating our trips with care for the planet. That is why all of our trips are flightless in destination, fully carbon offset - and we have ambitious plans to be net zero in the very near future.