Honestly, you never know what those wacky Mayanist scholars are going to say next. In their book The Maya, authors Michael Coe and Stephen Houston describe a stone relief as “God L, the patron of warriors and traders, smoking a cigar,” The minute I read this, I knew that I had to see it. I mean really – a one-letter god that sounds more like Rambo than an important Maya deity.
God L and his stogie are impressive, but he’s only one of many reasons to visit the majestic and extraordinary ruins of Palenque in Chiapas, Mexico. Surrounded by dense rainforest in the foothills of the Usumacinta Mountains, the mysterious ambience of this archaeological all-star made it one of our favorites. And even though it’s smaller and less well-known than many other Maya sites, the discoveries made here prompted archaeologist David Stuart to call it the
“American equivalent to King Tut’s tomb.”
Your introduction to Palenque’s mountainside ruins begins with a taxi ride up a narrow, zigzag road that ends in a small parking area clogged with trinket vendors and tour touts. But once through the gate all the hubbub ends, and a well-groomed, jungle path leads up to a mesmerizing view through the trees to the main plaza.
Lining the right side of the clearing is a series of terraces with steep stairs leading to temples which barely seem to be winning the battle against the rainforest’s towering trees and choking vines.
Directly in front of you is the creepy-sounding Temple of the Skull, which is named for the carved skull at the base of the building. Experts claim that it’s the skull of a rabbit, but given its sinister look, I’m not buying it.
This part of Chiapas is one of the rainiest areas in Mexico and it shows on the facade of this temple. Compared to the rest of the ruins, this building doesn’t look like much. But an ancient grave discovered here contained a rich cache of 700 pieces of jade which has helped archaeologists unravel some of the mysteries of the ancient city.
At the end of this line of impressive temples is what’s recognized as the most famous building at the site: The Temple of the Inscriptions. It’s an outstanding Maya temple and the tourist anchor of the ruins. But what makes it exceptional is the 1952 discovery made here by Mexican archaeologist Alberto Ruz – who, BTW is buried under the tree across the way.
The initial discovery began with stone panels covered in hieroglyphs – 620 to be exact! The project morphed into a four-year excavation of a stairway, deliberately clogged with rubble, leading to a chamber with skeletons of sacrificed victims. Inside the well-hidden crypt was a grandiose, relief-carved sarcophagus containing the remains of Pakal the Great and a treasure trove of his funerary riches. Indiana Jones would be jealous, and the comparisons to King Tut are apt.
The other large building on the main plaza is the lower profile, larger footprint Palace. This royal residence is open to tourists, and after a climb up the not-too-grueling stairs it’s fun to wander the labyrinth of rooms and courtyards. It’s a rare chance to feel like an insect on an archaeological ant hill. The reward on the top level is a 360° view of the rest of the ancient city and the valley below.
Just east of the Palace and main square the footpath meanders through a gauntlet of local craftsmen hawking their wares, over a lovely mountain stream called the Rio Otulum, and up through the forest to a small hill with a trio of temples known as the “Palenque Triad.”
This group includes the Temples of the Sun, Cross, and Foliated Cross. There’s some disagreement about the purpose of the original buildings, and depending on which theory you like, they were either sanctuaries for the gods or steam baths for pregnant women; which should be an indicator of how many questions about the Maya remain unanswered.
If you want to see God L indulging his tobacco habit, you’ll have to hike up to the Temple of the Cross. You can’t miss it because it’s the one with the tallest, steepest set of stairs. And of course, stud that he is, he’s at the very top.
Each of the maya ruins we visited had its own unique feel. Palenque is smaller and has fewer temples than Uxmal and Chichen Itza, but the characteristic that sets it above the rest is its dramatic location. The hillside setting is breathtaking and the rainforest closing in all sides gives it a mysterious feel that was missing in the other ruins we visited. It truly is a gem in the jungle that shouldn’t be missed.
James & Terri
Tip for Visitors: After touring the ruins, hike down the jungle path to the museum at the bottom of the hill. It’s small, but has a reproduction of Pakal’s sarcophagus, informative exhibits, and an excellent collection of Maya artifacts.