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Traveling Mexico - Mayan Ruins

Palenque, Bonampak, and Yaxchilán

"Like the pharaohs of Egypt, he built a pyramid tomb as though it was his direct gateway to the underworld."

"Noble white robed ladies draw blood from their tongues next to pot-bellied dwarves."

K.L. Moore

The Maya have eluded scientists and researchers for many years now. Their language, their religion, their societies, basically their way of life, can only be pieced together by physical remains. But these ruins of ancient powerful cities inspire awe in any visitor.

The Maya civilization was grand and spread its fingers of power throughout the Mexican states of Chiapas, Tabasco, Campeche, Quintana Roo, and Yucatan. They were the ancient society of the entire country of Guatemala, Belize and parts of Honduras and El Salvador.

Their cities rivaled those of ancient Rome, Greece and Egypt. They practiced an astronomy so exact that their calendar is the same we use today. Their priests could predict eclipses and the movement of planets to perfection. Their great city/states were built to capture the lights of summer and winter solstices. They had the concept of zero, in fact they pioneered it. So why did they vanish? What happened to them?

Through the dedication of a hand-full of scientists, we have learned that the Maya were not a quiet, peaceful, agrarian people. But, were a violent warring advanced people who traded with and raided their neighbors with zest. Their agricultural methods were so advanced that they could routinely feed their numerous people and still trade the remains with the rest of their known world.

To visit all their ruins could take years, so, here, I have profiled three that are fascinating in their own right and offer the humble visitor a meager glimpse into an infinite past.


Palenque is located in the state of Chiapas 100 miles north of the border of Guatemala. You can fly into the town; there is a small airport. Or, if you want to see some of the beautiful countryside of Chiapas, take a bus. I arrived early in the morning after taking a night bus from San Cristóbal de las Casas. There are many hotels ranging from very cheap to very expensive. The ruins are about 5 kilometers from the town and can be reached by a short bus ride. Just a quick note. This is the jungle. It is hot, steamy and there are a lot of mosquitoes. I went in the rainy season, the hottest, steamiest time of the year. But, the ruins were not crowded and the lush green color was beautiful. Arrive to the ruins early in the morning, not only to avoid the heat of the day, but, in order to have enough time to explore the whole area.

Palenque to the Mayans, was a spiritual Mecca. It is the westernmost city of the Mayan Civilization and therefore, the location of the setting sun, representing the death of a day. Death and the underworld had a very profound significance to these ancient people and the location of this city was no accident. If you stand on the top of the tower of the Palace on the winter solstice, the sun seems to plunge down straight into the earth leading the way to the underworld. It was in this exact location that the most powerful of all the rulers of Palenque, Pacal, had his tomb constructed. Like the pharaohs of Egypt, he built a pyramid tomb as though it was his direct gateway to the underworld. It is speculated that many other nobles had their pyramid tombs built in Palenque, as it was the city above the underworld.

The thing that strikes you most about Palenque is its size. However, once you enter and start to learn about the palaces and other locations, you realize that the jungle has consumed the other 80% of the city. Only a dozen of the other 500 known buildings have been excavated and opened to the public. When you walk into the ruins you are struck by the contrast of white color of the buildings against the lush green background, but, in its splendor, Palenque was painted red, the color of blood. The function of the excavated buildings of the ruins of Palenque, will never be known exactly, but research and theory allows the tourist to imagine that the temples and palaces were burial sights and worship areas. The tower on top of the Palace is thought to be an observation deck, as well as a look-out point. We will never know.

Palenque is full of steps and slopes, jungle paths and elaborate water systems. After a couple of hours of exploring, find the waterfalls on the pathway to the museum and take a dip. The water is very refreshing and you can imagine yourself to be a Mayan prince or princess bathing in sacred waters. All of the palaces have wall carvings and inscriptions that tell the stories of the leaders and the life of Palenque. Some are still being deciphered. Palenque evokes a feeling awe and respect. It was a religious power and its splendor is still evident today.

From the town of Palenque, there are many organized tours to the ruins known as Bonampak and Yaxchilán. The sites are remote. Bonampak is about 6 miles off the main highway, deep in the jungles of Chiapas, in the flood plains of the border-river of Mexico and Guatemala, the Rio Usamacinta. Yaxchilán is located deep in the jungles on banks or the Rio Usamacinta. It is accessible only by boat, there are no roads. For about 40 - 50 USD you can take a ride in an air-conditioned van to the ruins of Bonampak and then dropped off on the banks of the river for an hour long boat ride to the ruins of Yaxchilán. There are also overnight camping trips offered to the sites. All of these tours can be arranged in the various travel agencies in Palenque. Getting to the sites is well worth the trip.


This city was considered small and insignificant compared with the other great city/states of the Maya. However, the murals discovered here are significant with respect to the violent warlike history of the Maya. The murals are located in a small three-room building at the base of the main temple. The richly colored red, yellow and blue murals tell the story of a raid and capture of a neighboring town. They are violent and graphic. Fingernails ripped off as a torture ritual, severed heads lie at the feet of the ruler Chaan-muan. Noble white robed ladies draw blood from their tongues next to pot-bellied dwarves. At different times in its history, Bonampak was a rival to the near by Yaxchilán. However, in these murals, the conquest and sacrifice of the prisoners seems to be in honor of the son of the king. A son of a ruler of Bonampak and his queen, the daughter of the rulers of Yaxchilán. Some historians seem to think that the paintings are presentations and consecrations of the male heir for a joint throne between the two cities. Another quite fascinating aspect of the murals are the positions of the hands, feet and heads of the onlookers. Like the ancient Egyptian murals, the heads and feet are in profile, but their bodies face forward. And, the hands seem to be telling a story in sign language. A lost sign language we will never know. There is also a large stone carving (a stelae) in the main plaza depicting the rise to power of one of the ancient leaders.


You are driven to the banks of the Usamacinta River. You get into a long thin dugout canoe, with a palm frond shade and are motored up the river through crocodiles and dense jungles. You are on your way to Yaxchilán. And, traveling by river, which were the roads and highways of the Maya, you can not help but feel a little bit like a Maya yourself. About an hour up the river you arrive at the ruins. Yaxchilán was a large city of commerce. Because of its bank-side location, it was a main city of trade and markets. It is also the location of inscriptions on stone tablets and various temples of the site, of related stories and escapades of two of the most illustrious rulers in American antiquity, Shield Jaguar and Bird Jaguar. According to researchers of Maya glyph writing, Shield Jaguar lived to be more than 90 years old. There is one stelae which remains in Yaxchilán that vividly relates the obituary of Shield Jaguar and three females. Anthropologists attempted to move this mammoth stone carving to the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City, but it would not fit in any boat. It was later decided to leave it at Yaxchilán. The main plaza and ball court were leveled out with limestone nearly 1200 years ago and to this day remain level. Be careful if you travel here. There are large monkeys in the canopy of trees above the site that drop down branches trying to scare away visitors. If they are above you, walk away quickly.

There are many more Mayan sites and ruins. Some are more famous than others. Palenque , Bonampak and Yaxchilán are close in area and can be visited in a three to four day period. If you are somewhat of an adventure traveler and do not mind a little sweat, visit. The Maya were a race of great power and by studying them and wondering of their demise, perhaps we can see a small bit of ourselves. We, too, will not last forever. And, someday, scientists will examine our ruins, wondering about us.

December 2000

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