25 February 2015
Both Gill and Kirstin have unfortunately succumbed to Montezuma’s revenge overnight and have to miss today’s activities. The rest of us assemble after breakfast (liberally covered in sunscreen and insect repellent and with all our jungle gear) to take our collective (local minibus) to the Palenque site. Edgar has had a better offer so we have Luis (who says we can call him Jose because it is easier???) as our guide instead.
Palenque was one of the most wealthy and powerful of the Maya city states in Pre-Columbian Central America. It was located in the foothills of the Chiapas mountains, on a site where several rivers come together, with waterfalls and pools; the name of the site in modern Mayan is Lakamha, or “big water.” [Palenque means pallisade in Spanish]. Palenque is now a National Park, the site is huge with only a small part of it cleared. NASA have taken satellite images of the site and mapped out the structures (mostly still buried). It is primarily a ceremonial site: the two main structures are the Temple of Inscriptions and the Palace. As with Chichen Itza, everything is laid out with mathematical precision and particularly to celebrate May 7 – which signifies the start of 100 days of crop growing – as well as the solstices. Sunlight lines up to shine through windows to illuminate key carvings on significant days.
Palenque is really different from Chichen Itza because it is still surrounded by jungle. We all agreed that we liked it better: it had quite a magical feel just being at the site. As well as the amazing ruins, the ‘grounds’ were just beautiful with huge trees all around, and include a ball court. The growing conditions are so good that some trees we thought must be hundreds of years old were in fact only a few decades old.
Temple of Inscriptions
The temple is a pyramid with a temple on top and is 26m high – the most spectacular of all the buildings. The hieroglyphic inscriptions on the walls give a detailed list of the kings of Palenque with their dates. A burial chamber was also discovered down a long sealed passageway containing the tomb of King Pakal, who was the greatest of all Palanque’s rulers. He was wearing a mosaic jade death mask with shell and obsidian eye insets and his body adorned with jade jewellery. The tomb was covered with an extraordinary sarcophagus lid carved with an image showing King Pakal descending into the underworld, Xibalba. We aren’t able to go inside but there is a reconstruction of many of these at the museum (and of the sarcophagus lid at our Hotel Xibalba).
Tomb of the Red Queen
Although we couldn’t go inside the Temple of Inscriptions, we did get to go inside the relatively recently discovered Tomb of the Red Queen – so called because she was covered in a red cinnabar powder. This is a precursor of mercury ore and it is said that it was intended to poison anyone who tried to rob her tomb. Some artefacts have been stolen and others removed to the museum for preservation.
The palace is a complex of buildings with courtyards, passages and tunnels surrounding a square tower. The tower has been reconstructed – it is thought to have been an observatory and/or watch tower. The walls of the palace and courtyards are covered in carvings, hieroglyphs and sculptures. We were lucky to be able to go through the palace because it is likely to be closed off next year to protect it.
The Palace was used by the Mayan aristocracy for bureaucratic functions, entertainment, and ritualistic ceremonies. It had communal latrines and various bathing facilities supplied by aqueducts, and there is evidence of various bedchambers.
Apparently the royalty interbred to a high degree, causing all sorts of congenital defects (such as 6 fingers) and eventually madness. It is believed that the people rebelled and overthrew the royalty (the heads were removed from all the carved portraits) after a 10 year drought when all the crops failed and all the bees disappeared (shades of global warming??).
Temple of the Cross Complex
We climb to the Temple of the Cross complex (consisting of 3 separate temples) that allows us a magnificent view back across the main site. There are all sorts of theories around the cross symbol e.g. that the Mayans were one of the lost tribes of Israel – but these are unlikely to be true.
After our site tour we embark on a jungle walk in which we see howler monkeys – who take great delight in giving messy ‘blessings’ to people underneath: keep your mouth closed when you look up!! – and a range of medicinal plants. But the key attractions are the recently discovered “Forgotten Temple” that is believed to have been a prototype for the Temple of Inscriptions as it has all the same alignments although much smaller, and a Royal Swimming Pool that uses the Mayan arch format but downwards. The pool is also lined with sand that is believed to have been carried all the way from Cancun. We saw the still-functioning aqueducts that carried water to and from the pool (which is still clear despite centuries of non-use). We also got to take off our shoes and walk through a section of the aqueduct by torchlight (and saw the ‘Jesus Christ Spider’ – that walks on water).
On the walk, Hugo and I see a tiny hummingbird and its tiny cup shaped nest. There are many dragonflies and butterflies flying around.
Lily, Anne and I are dropped off at the museum on the way back to see the artefacts (including the main sarcophagus that had been discovered). We are surprised that it is not included as part of the tour because the museum is small but has some amazing pieces and it really rounds off our tour.
The usual attraction for the afternoon would have been to visit the Misol-Ha and Agua Azul waterfalls but a week ago a Russian tourist was shot in the hand by a local Zapatista group as a protest so we are not allowed to go. Gill is feeling a bit better but still nauseous. Some of the group are heading down to the river for a swim but I decide to have a quiet afternoon. I sit at a table overlooking the street and enjoy a beer while writing my journal and watching the world go by and then head off to find the post office to buy stamps to send our postcards.
In the evening, Anne, Lily and I have dinner again at the Seafood Restaurant next door after our 7pm briefing. Everyone else seems to have been exhausted by the day’s activities. Anne and I share a Brocheta des Camarones (prawns and vegetable kebab) and Lily has ceviche.
For this and other similar trips see:
Peregrine Adventures Travel Destinations (Comfort and independent tours)
Geckos Adventures Deals for South & Central America (for 18 to 30s)
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