Palenque is a small city in the Chiapas region of southern Mexico on the border of Guatemala. There’s not much going on in the city itself with the city’s recognised monuments all being covered for restoration while I was there. But it’s not the city that draws people to this region, it’s the nearby ruins of the same name only 20 minutes away.
The Palenque ruins aren’t the only ones in this area though, there’s also Yaxchilán nestled on the Guatemalan border and Bonampak a further 40km south. It’s not difficult to get to any of the sites, with regular collectivos – taxi buses – going to the Palenque ruins every few minutes and daily tours leaving to the other two sites.
I began with a tour to Yaxchilán, a two and a half tour bus ride south of Palenque. The tour picked me up from my hostel at 6am and delivering me home at 7.30pm, so I prepared for a long day. The roads in Mexico are no better than anywhere else in Central America, but because of the early start I slept through the bumps and regular speed humps. There was even a stop for breakfast along the way, all included in the tour. We eventually arrived at Rio Usumacinta, the river that separates Mexico from Guatemala, and boarded a river boat for a 45 minutes trip.
The river is wide and deep and is said to contain five metre crocodiles, but we only spied two small ones that were shy at our approach.
After another nap, we eventually arrived at the Yaxchilán ruins. To get into the site you need to walk through some dark tunnels made by the Mayans around 700AD. The tunnels are said to travel 30-40km to Bonampak to the south, but most are closed. There’s also an ancient ritual associated with the tunnels which involved the ingestion of magic mushrooms and walking through the tunnels in the dark being casted depending on which exit you emerge from.
On the other side of the tunnels is the Grand Plaza stretching 750 metres in length with temples and buildings along each side. It was originally an open plaza, the trees have grown in the 14 centuries since the city was built.
The Mayans had a fascination with ball games, where inevitably one of the players gets his head cut off. If it’s the captured leader of another city and he loses, chop chop and his head becomes the ball, if he wins he’s set free. If the match is between people from the same city then it’s the winner that faces the chop, that’s right, the winner. It’s an honour for him to be beheaded, as he goes forth into the underworld in style.
In the Mayan world the royal family and priests had to be the fittest people, as they were the only ones allowed to climb the many steps to the temples or to the Grand Acropolis.
Dotted around the Grand Plaza are several Esteli – carved stone blocks. Most depict members of the royal family in different poses, often giving blood sacrifices such as the queen piercing her tongue and running a two metre rope through it, or the king having his penis pierced. Lovely.
After a couple of hours at the site, we travelled back along the river to the bus then set off to Bonampak, which also has a grand plaza, although smaller than Yixchilán.
Bonampak was a ceremonial site important to the Yixchilán kings. Bonampak means ‘painted walls’ in the ancient Mayan language as on the inner walls of one acropolis are several full colour paintings.
We only had an hour at Bonampak before it was time to head back to the city. We were thankful for the air-conditioned tour bus as the last couple of hours of the day became quite humid.
The following day, a couple of us caught a collectivo to the Palenque Ruins.
But since we arrived an hour before closing, entry was free but meant we had to rush around the complex. Still it was a wondrous place to visit and thankfully quieter near closing time. Similar to Yixchilán they have a grand acropolis, several temples and a palace boasting a tall watch tower.
Next, I head north to the city of the Merida on the Yucatán to explore the ruins of Uxmal.
The World Wanderer