Chiapas - Mayan legends say the God of Death torments those who die tragically by forcing their souls to wander the earth for four years.
Each morning, their spirits turn into butterflies to help the sun move across the sky. At sundown, they return to the Land of the Dead. At other times, they appear near rivers as voices to trap the living. Rainbows, symbols of destruction and sickness to the Maya, are a sign of their presence.
If all that's true, I'm in big trouble. Hiking a jungle trail, I've lost sight of my companions and am alone in the mist. Around me flashes a cloud of butterflies, some tiger-striped, others bright canary yellow and several with black polka dots.
Beyond me, a thick vapour billows from a low series of waterfalls that parallels the trail. Sunlight slices through the trees and hits the mist like a Laser Quest game, creating rainbows that arch from one side of the river to the next. My objective is to hike one of Mexico's newest eco-parks - one that holds a rich, mythic history dating back to 2000 BCE. Located in the state of Chiapas in the southernmost part of Mexico, it boasts a mountainous elevation that makes it a waterfall lover's paradise.
El Chiflon, a series of cascading waterfalls formed by the San Vicente River as it passes through steep limestone canyons, is one of the most dramatic. Located in the jungle 30 kilometres west of the colonial town of Comitan de Dominguez, it is also one of the most remote.
In 2003, an ejidario, or Mayan community cooperative, created an eco-tourism park around the waterfalls to preserve them for future generations. Its remote location means most visitors are locals who enjoy the hiking trails, stone barbecues and natural swimming holes on weekends.
This is a weekday, so I'm alone except for some informal hiking companions - a young couple from Milan. Fortunately, they stop to smooch or smoke whenever the trail gets steep. Soon, we reach the next waterfall, Cascada Ala del Angel, or Wing of an Angel. It empties with a roar into a wide pool of water that swirls and eddies until it continues its winding journey downward. Smooth slabs of rock protrude into the water, and a light spray undulates and dances across the surface.
The heat builds as the trail climbs more steeply. Graceful stands of tall bamboo bob in the slight breeze. I duck under an arch of copa de oro - yellow trumpet flowers - and see an opening in a limestone mound hidden in the undergrowth, one of hundreds of caves in the region. For the Maya, cave openings are portals to the underworld and places of worship for their rain deities. Dwarves who guard the forest are believed to live within.
Resisting the temptation to explore further, I catch a glimpse of a white snowball above the treetops. It's the Velo de Novia, or Bridal Veil Fall, and, like a mirage, it sparkles with reflected sunlight. It's all I need to motivate me up the gruelling, steep trail.
An observation platform juts out over the rapids at the base of the waterfall, allowing a safe point for viewing. Tall and slender like a needle, the falls drop a dramatic 120 metres into these churning rapids. A rainbow the size of a football field stretches across the gorge. The couple from Milan disappear into the thick, heavy mist.
The rocks are slippery as I meander down the trail to get closer to the falls. The mist blasts like a fire engine hose, and I grab tree branches to climb a wooden platform at the base. Once I get closer, I realize I'm no longer alone. A group of young men, bare to their waists, their shirts tied about their heads like turbans, are facing the falls, hanging onto the handrail and riding the blasts of spray as though water-skiing. Their bare skin glistening with sparkling droplets, they holler with each new gust.
"Give me your hand," yells one. As much as I'd love to join them, I'm blown back down the trail, my hair, clothes and camera bag soaked in a minute.
This waterfall is no timid bride. With her white, watery veil streaming into the churning river, she blows and bats until I'm forced to run gasping back to the relative safety of the path at the jungle's edge. She sparkles and roars - perhaps proclaiming her devotion to Chac, the Mayan rain god.