Although only a few hours apart, the ruins of Palenque are very different from those at Tikal. Both sites are awesome in their own way. Both are huge.
Tikaboast of beautiful, mighty temples. Both are set in a lush jungle. But both served rather different functions. Whereas Tikal was one of the most important urban Mayan centres, Palenque was a massive cemetery. Most of the temples were used as ceremonial burial chambers.
Areas of Palenque
Temple of the Skull
This temple is named after the stucco relief of a rabbit skull on the front of it.
The remains of the Renia Rosa were found here in 1994. The bones are thought to have belonged to a 40-year-old woman, and were preserved in red cinnabar. Although the bones have now been removed [booo], we were allowed to visit the sarcophagus in the inside the temple and could see the red pigment still in it.
Temple of the Inscriptions:
A 26 meter high pyramid with 9 levels, so-named because of the inscriptions discovered inside its walls. In the 1950s a Mexican archaeologist, Alberto Ruz Lhuiller, was exploring the deep in the heart of the temple, removed a stone stab in the floor of a back room and discovered a big tomb. It turned out to be that of King Pakal, one of the most important Mayan rulers. He ruled from 615AD- 683AD, and lived to the ripe old age of 80.
Apparently he was really tall as well, unlike most Maya who are super tiny [exhibit A–all of the pyramids they constructed…have you seen those steps?]. Some historians debated whether he was actually Maya at all. One theory was that came from Europe. Although most now agree that he was probably just big because he got to eat all the best food. [It is good to be king]
He’s still in his mausoleum in the temple. Sadly, tourists aren’t allowed to go inside the temple anymore. There is, however, a replica of the tomb in the site museum. We were also shown a video with some footage of the sarcophagus as Lhuiller discovered it – all covered in centuries of stalactites and stalagmites. Just seeing the pyramids from the outside is amazing. It must have been absolutely mind-blowing to find all that stuff inside.
Unlike the others, people weren’t buried in this one. Instead it was an administrative and residential block. It’s an intricate maze of courtyards and corridors leading into rooms with some old beds and some old Maya toilets. The tower on the top is thought to have been used for astronomy. The top part of it was reconstructed in 1930. The used the idea a French archaeologist but now they reckon it probably would be just flat. Oops.
This group is made up of the Temple of the Cross, Temple of the Sun, and Temple of the Foliated Cross. One has a cross on the top, although it’s not actually a cross, but supposed to represent the tree of creation. We also walked along a jungle trail where Jose pointed out various different types of tree (cedar, mahogany, sapodilla, avocado, mango and almond), we got to swing on vines Tarzan-style, and also saw several examples of un-excavated ruins.
The city was so huge that they reckon only about 5% of the structures have actually been uncovered. I noticed a huge mound behind the Cross group of temples that is in fact another temple which must have dwarfed all the others. There are no plans to uncover it at the moment though as the jungle it is buried under is so rich in wildlife that a lot of poor spider monkeys, howler monkeys, pumas, jaguars, toucans, parrots and other birds would be made homeless if they cut it down. So we’ll just have to make do with the 5%, which is plenty impressive as it is.
This ancient city is quite older than some and it dates back as far as 226 BC . While Palenque seems quite small in comparison with some other ruins, it’s thought that the majority of the city remains undiscovered, hidden in dense jungle. What is there is incredibly well preserved for a city of more than 2000 years old.
Palenque stand out in my mind for several reasons. This is the only ruin I visited where I had family with me. My dad, who has since died, met me in Guatemala City on a complete whim [what can I say, spontaneity runs in the family]. We traveled together on a rickety old school bus to the Mexican border, stayed in quite possibly the worst hotel [and I use that word cautiously] I’ve ever been in [and that’s saying a lot], nearly froze to death in San Cristobal de las Casas, and once of us [hint: not me] angered the travel gods and suffered Montezuma’s Revenge. By the time we reached Palenque, one of us was very nearly dead. The other wanted to finish the job.
The heat and humidity of Palenque is no joke. Having come straight from the mountainous San Cristobal, it was nearly impossible to adjust to the heat and humidity of Palenque. I did what I rarely ever do: I rested. I woke up with the howler monkey screeches at 5 am, siesta-ed in the hottest middle part of the day, and prowled around like an ocelot at night. [Ocelots and howler monkeys do live in the jungle, but I never saw either of them]. On the third day, we tackled Palenque.
The entrance to Palenque is a giant parking lot filled with people selling everything from refreshments to hats and souvenirs. Many of the paths within the gates are also lined with vendors. At the entrance to the site, official guides vie for your attention. They may mean well, but you can get almost as much information from plaques dotted around the site. And it’s much more enjoyable to explore the ruins at your own pace [even if you have to leave your dad sitting on the steps with the jaguar]
Who even knows where my dad is at this point; Mayan architecture was not all that exciting for him.
Shout out to the great John Willam’s for today’s post inspirational title.