February 29, 2016: And now for something completely different.
OK, not completely different – we are going to talk about more Mayan ruins. But even those look pretty different from anything we’ve shown you to date. And the surrounding scenery is outstanding.
Chiapas is the southernmost and poorest state in Mexico. It was in the news recently, as Pope Francis made a stop in San Cristobal de las Casas (more about that later) during his visit to Mexico. He pointed out the poverty and poor treatment of the indigenous people of Chiapas to the world. But Chiapas is also an incredibly beautiful place, full of jungles, Mayan ruins, mountains, waterfalls and historic cities.
We’ll start with the jungles and waterfalls. On February 16, we made the easy drive from Campeche to Palenque. Along the way, we saw local governments working to protect their population of howler monkeys. This is a monkey bridge crossing the highway:
We entered Palenque National Forest and set up camp at Hotel Mayabell. Mayabell has been around for 40 years, starting out as a site for tent campers. It’s now a pretty cool hotel with a nice restaurant, bar and pool. Also, howler monkeys. We heard many in the surrounding jungle, and one day a group, including some babies/juveniles, came right to the edge of the campground. We’re fairly certain that there weren’t howlers in this area when we were here before, because . . . well, if you’ve ever heard them in the wild, you wouldn’t forget it.
Mayabell has full hook-up sites for RVs at a very reasonable rate, and a large area for tent campers. They also have a nice little restaurant with a cool bar and live music regularly. We would definitely stay here again. Here we are among our much larger RV brethren.
Almost all of the other RVs that you see towering over ours belong to a group of 6 RVs traveling together for 90 days in a caravan. They are a mixed group of Canadians and Kansans. They had been to many of the same places on the Yucatan that we told you about in prior posts, and some we will need to check out in the future. The coordinators of this group were Dan and Lisa Goy, who run Baja Amigos, a company that specializes in leading RV caravans down the Baja California peninsula all the way on the other end of the country from the Yucatan. We have job envy. But on this excursion, Dan and Lisa are traveling as vacationers rather than wagonmaster/tour guides, and they’re traveling with friends they met on prior Baja trips. They were a really nice group of people, and it seems they’re having quite a good adventure themselves.
The next day we got up and walked the mile or so to the ruins of Palenque. You might have heard of this one, as it was featured in an old IMAX film, Mystery of the Maya. We visited it once before, in 1995. Here’s a little then and now:
We wanted to recreate the original photo, but when we got to the site, we found out that the Temple of the Inscriptions, where we were standing in 1995, is no longer open for climbing, so we had to improvise.
The Temple of the Inscriptions holds the tomb of Lord Pakal, who took the throne in 615 AD and ruled Palenque for 68 years, building the city into a serious regional power. While much of Mayan history is lost, or pieced together from remnants, the inscriptions that give this temple its name contain a wealth of information about Pakal and his rein. That is, now that archeologists have discovered how to read Mayan glyphs.
Here’s a picture of the lid of his sarcophagus, from this site. (Note, we do NOT agree with the paleo-astronaut theories of this site, or the crackpot Erich von Däniken who theorized that this image represents Pakal piloting a spaceship. Fun, but entirely contra-evidence.)
The story of the discovery of this tomb is really interesting, and we are lucky that we had the opportunity to visit (in 1995) before the temple was closed. We were able to see the inscriptions at the top up close, to see the stone floor segment that hid the tunnel down to the tomb:
And to descend into the heart of the building and see Pakal’s tomb itself:
While normally a relic as important as the sarcophagus would be moved to a museum and a replica put in it’s place, the temple was built around this tomb, and the sarcophagus lid is far too large to be brought up the stairway.
Next to the temple is the Temple of the Red Queen, containing a tomb (not excavated when we first visited) thought to be Pakal’s wife. The tomb’s discovered inscriptions do not clearly identify the inhabitant. At first it was assumed that it was his mother, a very powerful figure in Palenque (Pakal took the throne when he was 12) but DNA samples from Pakal and the Red Queen show they are not biologically related. Archeologists hope to find tombs containing Pakal’s sons in yet to be excavated temples at Palenque and use DNA to identify the Red Queen. Her tomb is currently open to the public:
The setting for this site is incredible, in the heart of the jungle with thick vegetation all around. Like just about everywhere we have visited on this trip, there are a lot more people around than there were in the past. During our first visit, we saw just a handful of other people. Today there are hundreds or thousands of visitors per day, depending on the season. In spite of the heavy current use, Palenque is well preserved and beautiful.
Unlike some of the Mayan sites on the Yucatan, water was no problem here as it rains 10 months of the year.
We love this site and could go on and on, but instead, we’ll show you more pictures.
In some of the temples are surviving friezes depicting important events or people:
Heading to the exit, we encountered this waterfall.
Palenque has a great museum just outside the site, housing and protecting valuable finds.
Some of these discoveries were made quite recently. Work is ongoing. Here’s an article that describes these objects:
And here’s an article describing the 2002 discovery of this very interesting panel:
It depicts Pakal on his throne, a minister on either side of him (his sons?) deals with a god of the underworld. Probably. The articles and the museum information are not completely aligned. Anyway, the ministers are wearing feathered capes, the gods are wearing jaguar skins, and seem to have jaguar paws for hands. Here are some detail pictures:
Here is another excellent website about Palenque. We tried (in vain) to avoid going into too much detail. There is a ton of information out there if you’re interested. And, of course, we suggest you go there yourself!
Well, that’s it for now. Don’t forget to click on “follow” to get email updates of our blog. As always, we like to hear your comments, questions, and suggestions. Thanks for reading!