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February 18, 2018

Charles Frey – The man who discovered Bonampak


Believing he had been touched by evil, everyone watched silently as the starving and exhausted hunchback, joined the dogs at the market looking for food scraps. With a crazed look in his eye and carrying a small bag slung over his shoulder with his only belongings, the skinny fair skinned hunchback had walked for six days through southern Mexico’s wildest jungles, from San Cristobal to Ocosingo, wearing his only clothes.

My name is Carlos Frey. I first arrived in Chiapas in 1941. I traveled throughout the area inhabited by the Lacandon indians on foot along the Tenosique trail and still on foot, I explored the ruins of Yucatan. Then, I traveled on foot from Peto, Yucatan, all the way to Chetmul in Quintana Roo and returning through Cozumel, I passed through Tulum and Cobá”.

Nothing interrupted his footsteps. It took him a few months to get to Mérida, where he survived on one of the $20 dollar bills his mother sent him occasionally, hidden in a letter. He always slept outside, sometimes in the rain, huddled up to a tree and often collapsed from hunger.

INVESTIGATION © J. Russell – Guatemala Chronicle, June 01, 2016
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That journey took Frey a year and effectively, he covered all the jungles of southeast Mexico. He passed through Chiapas, Tabasco, Campeche, Yucatan and Quintana Roo walking on his own along trails hacked out of the dense jungle by the chicleros (chewing gum harvesters) and native Lacandon indians, carrying all his belongings in a single sack.

He then crossed the Yucatan peninsula, till he got to the bay of Chetumal. Winding his way back through Peten, he passed through Quiriguá in the departments of Alta and Lower Verapaz in Guatemala.

With no clothes or shoes, when he arrived at civilization on the border between Guatemala and Mexico, he was detained for a few days, accused of vagrancy. Sick with malaria, but full of illusions, Charles Frey was 26 years old when he began this great journey of initiation.

Herman Charles Frey was born in Staunton, Illinois. His parents were miners who had emigrated from Switzerland and during his childhood he was known to his friends as Humpy Herman, because he had been born with curvature of the spine.

He worked for a while at the World’s Fair in Chicago, engraving the Lord’s Prayer on pennies for twenty five cents a piece and tried his luck as an amateur aviator at other fairs. Towards the end of the 1930’s and broke, he headed to San Francisco where he worked as a guide on a tourist train, towed by a Burmese elephant. Incapable of staying put, Frey lived constantly on the move, just like his more famous beatnik contemporaries, Kerouac and Ginsberg.

Nobody knows how, but in 1939 he arrived at the isthmus of Tehuantepec in Mexico, probably by boat. The experience changed his life, as he had discovered his destiny. Returning to San Francisco, he lived in a warehouse rent free, until he managed to save the USD$1 thousand dollars he needed to return to Mexico, for ever.

He wandered around the mountains of Chiapas for a few months till he got to the town of Ocosingo. Undernourished, exhausted and drained, he smelt bad and only smiled with his mouth closed to hide his teeth which were completely rotten. He was pathetic really, but at the same time fascinating, as he was a driven person.

With help from his parents who sent him a cheque for USD$600 dollars, Frey purchased some land beside the Jataté river, where he planted corn (maize), kept chickens and a herd of swine (pigs).

He had a daughter with a 14 year old Lacandon indian girl called Caralampia Solis (who everyone said was “dumb as shit”), that lived with her parents in the village of San Carlos.

Much later, he wrote a letter home knowing that things weren’t going well in Staunton, Illinois. His father who only had one eye, had broken his arm and fractured his foot in the coal mine where he worked and their house had burned to the ground in a fire.

Things were bad in Staunton, but not as bad as Frey was doing when he wrote home; “So much has happened to me that I haven’t felt like writing. I found the Lost City, the largest ruin of all of them but I have no money. Everyone has promised to help, but nothing. When I returned to my ranch it was destroyed. Forty piglets dead and I lost my crop because the neighbors drove their cattle and mules across my corn fields”.

Meanwhile, his child was sick and being cared for by some missionaries. “I have never been so down financially, or in any other way. I have no idea what to do for the future. I abandoned my ranch and I think I’ll go and live with my in-laws at San Carlos”.

So as to be accepted by his Lacandon indian in-laws, he asked his parents to send him a Sears Roebuck radio that ran on batteries; “If I can take a radio with me when I move in with my in-laws, I’ll be more welcome. As long as the radio keeps working, they’ll be happy to have me”. Charles Frey, couldn’t have sunk much lower.

Even so, Frey had decided to spend the rest of his life living in that corner of Mexico. In another letter he wrote; “Mummy, I want you to understand that I have changed my name. I know that Herman is Daddy’s name and also mine, but when I think about it, I think about Humpy Herman. That’s why here, I have changed it. My name now is Carlos(Charles) Frey”.

Meanwhile, archaeologists were beginning to explore the southern jungles of Mexico and a number of them met Charles (Carlos) Frey as he lived on the other side of the Jataté River.

His house was unbelievably filthy and he stunk beyond belief, cause he never bathed”, wrote the Danish explorer Frans Blom in his diary, who had the bad idea of hiring him, seduced by “his great journey on foot from Ocosingo to Yucatan and back through Quintana Roo”.

The experience was a disaster. Frey had no idea how to load mules, forgot the mail and gave confusing instructions on how to get to the ruins; “He’s the stupidest man I’ve ever known”, Blom’s diary notes with irritation;“He’s beginning to smell again. What a strange man, I don’t understand him”.

When the local landowner Pepe Tárano met Frey for the first time one April morning in Ocosingo, he was sitting on a stone altar left at the market by an archaeologist from Toniná. He was starting to lose his hair and was so undernourished that he looked like a lunatic, with his long Toucan like curved nose.

Tárano was a mature man, with gold teeth, who’s nickname was el Toro (the Bull), owing to his strength. Originally from the mountains in Asturias, Spain, he had worked there in the coal mines as a child and had arrived at El Real in Mexico, owing to family ties with the Bulnes family, the owners of the hacienda.

Frey’s meeting with Tárano coincided with the arrival of the first archaeologists in those years, who were beginning to explore the Lacandon jungles of Mexico. They chatted for a while and feeling sorry for him, Tárano invited Frey to spend a few days with him at the El Real (The Royal)hacienda, at the eastern edge of the Lacandon jungle.

At El Real, Frey met an American couple that told him they were searching for the ruins of The Lost City from the air, in a light aircraft, just as Charles Lindbergh had done in his Spirit of Saint Louis, in the twenties, a fact confirmed by the monteros (riders) of the hacienda.

As Charles (Carlos) Frey listened to these stories, his face glowed with certainty; “I now know Mummy, what I am in this life” he wrote; “I’m an archaeologist”. It was the 8th of May 1941 and shortly after, he disappeared into the jungle, where he spent the rest of his days.

A good friend of Charles Frey was the Lacandon indian José Pepe Chan Bor. Only 4 ft tall, he had light skin and finer features than the other Lacandon indians and was considered to be “unusually intelligent” as noted in the diaries of various jungle explorers and was well respected by all of them.

He had had a savage life up till 1946. He had seen the stone monuments to his gods, his father killed by a poisoned arrow, suffered with his sisters, married his niece and set up house on the edge of the Chanacté creek.

On the 1st of February 1946, Chan Bor was sitting on his haunches along with other Lacandon indians on the edge of the jungle next to the airstrip at El Cedro and everyone was looking at the huge wooden crate with something that looked like a metal flower in the center, from which invisible voices emerged in the night.

It was an opera by Verdi and their faces illuminated in the candlelight, watched in fascinated silence as the Bakelite disk revolved on the phonograph. Some tapped the device to see if it would react and others placed their ears against the speaker.

John Bourne a wealthy American, had brought the wind up phonograph and a recording device with him from Mexico City. That night they listened to Caruso, operas, band music and dance music, accompanied by the sound of millions of crickets of the Lacandon jungle. It was a huge success.

They recorded the indians playing their flutes, their songs and their voices, which they listened to afterwards; “It was like an explosion, everyone talked at the same time, they were amazed” wrote Frey. “We spoke to Chan Bor separately and told him we would give him the phonograph if he showed us a really large ruin. He was happy and agreed”. Thus began the search for the Lost City.

The discovery of Bonampak

After trepsing all day through the jungle, on the afternoon of February 6, Charles Frey and John Bourne reached the site on their maps they called the Lost City. With them was Chan Bor their guide, who took them to meet some chicleros who had a camp near the ruins on the Lacanhá river.

From the early 1940’s, the chicleros had arrived at the jungle during the rainy season to scrape and cut the bark of the chicozapote tree. They worked in pairs so as not to get lost and at the end of each day, collected the sap and made it into blocks which they took to the depot at El Cedro. Each pair produced some 500 pounds of chicle per month.

The word chicle comes from the original tzictli in the Náhuatl language and was shipped in huge packs to the Wriggly Chewing Gum Company in the United States, and made into chewing gum.

Many important Maya sites were discovered in the 1940s, whilst searching for chicle. Bonampak, because of it’s paintings which are spectacular, is the most important of all. Frey, Bourne and Chan Bor didn’t know this at the time.

They stayed various days with the chicleros, surrounded by boots, machetes, ropes, jars of iodine, cotton bandages and quinine tablets to fight the malaria. There were six men in the camp and a woman who prepared the frijoles and tortillas and who for 100 pounds of chicle, would often sell her favors behind the bushes. Their boss was a Maya from the Yucatan peninsula.

Each morning, the explorers explored the ruins, They took photos of the stones and measured the buildings that they saw, all covered in vegetation.“We found seven constructions in good condition, all at the top of the pyramid”, Frey told the magazine Vida (Life), “Below was a great building that looked north. When I visited the zone, I was able to confirm that the “great building” was only 38 meters from the temple of the paintings, 138 miserable meters, but no one had seen it!”.

Frey continues; “The day we decided to leave, the chicleros were in conference and refused to let us go, saying we had “discovered the treasure of Cuauhtémoc. We opened our packs for them to see we hadn’t taken anything, but they didn’t believe it. When I told Bourne what was happening he got scared and had me ask them how much they wanted to let us leave. Acasio Chan, asked for 750 pesos”.

Emerging from the jungle, Frey and Bourne flew to Mexico City to report their discovery of the Bonampak ruins to the National Institute of Anthropology and History.

A few days later, John Bourne disappeared with the photographs and records of the measurements of their great discovery and Charles Frey was abandoned to his own devices. Without any money, he had to return to El Cedro.

What Charles Frey heard later, must have been very painful for him and tortured him for the rest of his life. He heard that an American had visited the Lost City and had seen a Stella of the Lord Chaan Muan and that the ruins that he had explored for the first time only months earlier; a Maya temple full of paintings and frescoes, had been discovered by someone else and not by him.

Charles Frey and his death 

In the spring of 1949, the first Mexican government expedition arrived to study the Bonampak site and Charles Frey the expedition guide, was“looking for a bit of glory” as he said, as he had contributed to the original discovery of the Bonampak ruins.

It was the 3rd of May 1949, Santa Cruz Day (Holy Cross Day), and the camp at Bonampak was paralyzed, owing to the disorder at the camp site, all blamed on Frey by the others. The 14 people at the camp included painters, architects, medics, photographers, chemists archaeologists and journalists.

All the equipment was scattered around the jungle. The electricity plant and gasoline cans had been left behind at El Tumbo, because the mules couldn’t cross the river with such a big load and Frey had decided to take a canoe that day and bring it all down the Lacanhá river.

The surviving photographs, show Frey consumed by tiredness; “He looks like a wooden Christ” wrote Anguiano, “His clothing is filthy and ragged and he’s grown a beard. He has been working without rest for days before we got here to facilitate our transport and comfort. He comes and goes from Bonampak to El Cedro”.

At 9am Frey left Bonampak and headed to where he kept his canoe. He had less than 3 hours left to live. He was accompanied by Luis Morales the cameraman of Noticiero Mexicano (Mexican News), Jorge Olvera, the director of the School of Plastic Arts of Tuxtla, who’s job was to copy the murals of Bonampak and Franco Lázaro Gómez, a young timid and superstitious native who suffered from constant diarrhea attacks.

Olvera watched the three depart in the canoe and stayed behind to take a full bath complete with soap, in the Lacanhá river.

A few hours later, one of the porters Pedro Pech, originally from Yucatan, saw a herd of zenzos rummaging amongst the ruins of Bonampak and took his rifle, mounted his mule and set out to follow their tracks towards the river.

At 1pm Pech returned to the camp on foot, followed by his mule. He was petrified and his face was yellow with fear. He had followed the tracks of the Zenzos to the river where he had found an oar floating in the water so he followed the river downstream and found the American Indian style canoe that Frey had purchased at Sears Roebuck in Mexico City, jammed against a tree trunk. Beside the canoe was the straw hat that belonged to Gomez.

Everyone left the camp immediately and proceeded to the river. Searching the river both upstream and downstream, they found the bodies of Frey and Gómez at the bottom of the river holding on to each other; “They appeared and disappeared in the reflection of the last rays of the sun”.

It was too late to rescue the bodies and nobody could sleep when they returned to the camp that night. Next morning, as they headed to the river once more, they found Luis Morales who was alive and well, but lost in the jungle. He told them what had happened the day before.

The three were in the canoe. The did some filming and the river turned calm. Morales asked how much further and Frey said they would have to sleep at El Tumbo and return the next day.

Morales got upset at this as they didn’t carry mosquito nets or provisions, but Frey just kept rowing in silence. Morales was also upset about a previous incident that had occurred at the camp.

A few days earlier, Frey had arrived at the Bonampak camp with Margarita Nakin, a 16 year old Lacandon girl that was lusted after by the both the chicleros and the explorers. She was so good looking that Álvarez Bravo, sketched her many times.

That same night, Margarita made love to Charles Frey in his hammock and her moans were so loud that that the whole camp listened to them in silence. No one complained except for Luis Morales who said “While some fuck, others lose sleep” and the moaning continued.

We were crossing a rapid that looked OK” said Morales, “when suddenly the front of the canoe was raised and tipped us over before we could do anything and we fell in the water, I with my camera and all my film. What happened to the others, I don’t know as I was in the front of the canoe. The water sucked me down and down”.

Morales, let go of his heavy equipment, managed to float to the surface and reach the shore. Searching for his companions he found Frey’s boots and hissarakoff helmet. Looking for his companions the rest of the afternoon, he didn’t find them so he headed into the jungle, where he spent the night in the hollow of a tree, wet, hungry and frightened until he was found.

Charles (Carlos) Frey was buried alongside Franco Lázaro Gómez in a clearing on the shores of the Lacanhá river. His companions improvised a wooden cross on which they wrote his name with a carbon pencil.

Luis Morales left the jungle a while later and headed to Mexico City along with the members of the expedition. Once there he disappeared from sight for ever.

As they all returned to the campsite, everyone remained silent except for Margarita who went white when she saw Luis Morales arrive. Julio Prieto, the head of the expedition wrote; “She looked at him with an indescribable expression, full of hate and resentment and she said to him in her language, but very clearly; “Better you were dead than him”. As she moved away from us, she was crying”.



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