PALENQUE


This archaeological site takes its name from Santo Domingo de Palenque, a town probably founded in the seventeenth century. As early as the end of the century, the site's mounds were identified as vestiges of a once great metropolis.
Further knowledge came to light in 1774 thanks to one Antonio del Rio, who with Antonio Bernasconio and Jose Antonio Calderon journeyed there from the city of Guatemala to report his findings to the Royal Audience. From then onward more and more specialized scholars visited and published studies on Palenque. At present, therefore, we have much accumulated knowledge about the site, its inhabitants, culture, and central political role in a large part of the Mayan area.
What makes Palenque a major community in the Mayan world is its evolved architecture and vast trade networks which linked it not only with the Mayan sphere, but with more distant Meso-American domains as well.
The ancient city holds over 200 buildings of varying size and complexity, all adapted to a landscape extending 2,800 yards from east to west, and 1,100 yards from north to south, giving it a total area of some 620 acres.

Palenque is one of the grandest Mayan ruins you will ever see. It easily ranks with Chichen Itza, Uxmal and Tikal in architecture and majesty. Even though it is over 400 miles (650 kilometers) away from the Riviera Maya, Palenque is doable, though definitely off the beaten path for beach lovers. Count on two full days driving for the round trip, and at least a full day there to see Palenque and nearby Misol Ha falls and Agua Azul (mimimum two night trip). We were blessed with good weather and made the non-stop drive from Akumal to Palenque in about 7½ hours, stopping only for gas and a couple of snacks. This was our "vacation" from the beach and the flat lands of Quintana Roo, to the exotic mountain state of Chiapas in southern Mexico; land of waterfalls, cascades, Mayan ruins, caves, canyons, lagoons and extraordinary wildlife.
Palenque is perched on the first rise of the Tumbalá mountains, looking out over a vast carpet of green that stretches north to the Gulf of Mexico (photo above). This is the alluvial flood plain of the Usumacinta river, a fertile sedimentary flatland that could have fed many in ancient times, as it does today. The Usumacinta would have also provided a means of transportation via canoe, facilitating trade with others.
The high canopy jungle and landscaped plazas of the ruins are as powerful as the ruins themselves in emotional impact. There is a tranquility that envelops you as you walk from temple to temple, enjoying the beautiful setting and the towering trees that surround the site. With abundant shade at every turn, it is easy to hang out at Palenque most of the day, exploring the jungle trails that lead to other smaller plazas and temples, and to the travertine cascades that carry water down the mountain during the rainy season.
There has been much written about Palenque and its known history. Undoubtedly, many secrets remain. For now, just enjoy these images of our day at Palenque, and consider that this place deserves to be on your personal "must see" list, because Palenque is unforgetable. Below, two temples of the Crosses group.
(below) The Temple of Inscriptions is perhaps the most significant structure on the site because it contains the tomb of Pakal the Great, the mightiest Mayan ruler of Palenque, who sanctioned the building of the temple to be accomplished after his passing. The stairway from the top of the pyramid down to the tomb was discovered by Alberto Ruz in 1952. He solved the mystery of the holes in the stairway capstone which had baffled archaeologists for 112 years, since Stevens and Catherwood "discovered" Palenque in 1840.
The stairway descends vertically 80 feet to Pakal's burial chamber where a great ornately carved stone slab was used to seal his tomb. The humidity down there is intense, and the walls literally weep for Pakal.

Traveling into Palenque


Arriving into Palenque bus terminal, small hotels line the roadside. No shortage of tourists here - in fact the bus is full of them. Beyond the hotels, nothing is visible except palm trees, fields, and jungle.
For $4, a taxi takes us to 'the best campsite' close to the ruins. We're told to pitch our tent anywhere 'green'. We select an RV site (with power point) that happens to be green. The campsite is only about half full so I don't any problems with robbing an RV slot.
The weather is warm but not suffocating. To allow ventilation in the tent, I decide not to bother with the waterproof flysheet. The main body of the tent is nylon mesh, so hopefully it won't get too hot inside. I've some reservations about leaving my laptop in a 'see-thru' tent but calculate the risk to be minimal. The crowd is mix of RVing Americans and European 'peace & love' hippy types - both hopefully harmless.
We head off in the direction of the ruins. A combi passes by and takes us all the way for $1.
The cost of a guide is $35 for up to 7 people. Unfortunately we can't see anyone around to share with, so we go it alone. The time is 14:15 and the tour will take 2 hours.
The guide is extremely interesting and well worth the investment. Draped around the ruins are scores of dreadlocked tourists, apparently trying to pretend they've just 'discovered' the ruins and therefore have the right to scale the ancient, unprotected, walls. It is little wonder that the site is in a constant state of deterioration. It is also hard to understand the mentality that can treat a site as ancient (zenith 600AD), and as beautiful, as this, with so little respect. The irony is that the clamberers probably feel like they're becoming 'one' with the ancients and absorbing their 'vibes' or energy. The guide doesn't see it that way. Nor do we.
All around is the chatter of birds. We are fortunate to see a few bright yellow toucan beaks streaking the sky, as birds return to nests.
At the end of the tour the weather has cooled slightly and drops of rain start to fall, building up to a tropical downpour. Refreshing and welcome. Until Monica remembers our open tent! (And I remember my laptop inside the open tent!)
A mad dash is made for the exit. An empty combi is waiting outside. Unfortunately the driver can't be persuaded to move off till he's broken the record for 'most people in moving VW camper van'. It's about 15 minutes later before we get back to the tent. Mercifully, a tree has protected the part of the tent with our bags, and no damage has been done.
Five minutes later, the tent is secure and we're in the campsite restaurant, both famished after an exerting day with little food. The meal is good and we're able to take stock of our beautiful location. The site is completely surrounded by large trees and undergrowth. We're now truly in the jungle. Exciting. After dinner we explore a little.
The rain continues on and off as we busy ourselves lying outside our tent. The gravity is strong today.
As the sky darkens, we climb inside the oven. That is, our small tent. Despite stripping off, we feel like we're on slow broil. When the rain stops the temperature rises.
To make matters worse, somebody is enjoying 'the great outdoors' by playing their drum at full, monotonous, wallop. More irony from the 'back-to-nature, peace, love, and harmony' set. So much for listening to exotic jungle sounds - maybe the call of a jaguar on the prowl - a lousy night club is closer picture!
When the drumming finally stops, it turns out to be nothing more than an intermission before a session of 'Mr World Music gets wild on the digeridoo'! Then back to drumming. Now, while it's quite possible that the ancients were amused, for a month or two, by a drum going 'Do-do, do. Do-do, do. Do-do, do. Do-do, do', us westerners have been 'poisoned' by millennia of musical evolution. Sorry friends, but the old, repetitive, drum solo with random chanting is back there in history, along with the dinosaurs.
No sooner do I write these words, when a a cappella rendition of "Don't let me down" drifts our way. Hey, progress!
Luckily the music dies down and the temperature drops a little, allowing odd moments of sleep. The rain comes and goes. The noise of jungle surrounds us - insects, toads, monkeys, and who knows what else. At one point I'm aware of new mosquito bites on my feet. Strange. I check the tent door. Slightly open. Damn!