Brutal sun blazed down on the Palenque Ruins in Chiapas, Mexico. Heat penetrated the thick rubber soles of my boots and crept up my pant legs as I climbed steep stone stairs of the Palacio – the Palace. At the top, I dabbed my beaded brow with a too-wet tissue and blinked away sweat stinging my eyes. Beneath me lay the powerful city that once ruled over a large part of the states of Chiapas and Tabasco in southern Mexico. For miles in every direction, ancient temples poked through dense vegetation. The wonder of this place is not how it grew to be such a powerhouse of Mayan culture. The wonder is how it existed at all.
Seeking respite from the suffocating heat and humidity, I descended into the Palacio’s inner chambers and wound through narrow passageways to ancient living areas kept blissfully cool by stone walls. Slabs of the same stone served as royal beds; keyhole windows in the thick block provided vistas of the funerary complex. Life and death. Eternity inextricably intermingled with everyday existence.
Back outside I circuited the upper walls of this structure that was both royal residence and political-administrative center. One side of the Palace looked down upon the ball court, a swath of lush green grass bracketed by ancient stone bleachers, where Mayans gathered to watch their favorite sport. The other side overlooked tombs where members of the royal family were interred: the Temple of Inscriptions, Temple of the Red Queen, and Temple of the Calavera. Life and death, appropriate bookends for a city battling to exist in a vine-choked jungle that daily threatened to swallow it whole.
In the distance, the Group of the Crosses thrust majestically skyward. Conceived as an image of the universe, this compound was the most important ritual space in Palenque. Its trio of temples symbolized the mythical places where the gods had been born. The Temple of the Cross was devoted to the celestial god, while the Temple of the Foliated Cross honored K’awiil, protector of agriculture and the ruling dynasty. The Temple of the Sun paid homage to K’inich Ajaw Pakal, also known as “The Shield of the Lord of the Sun Face,” who embodied the sun during its voyage through the underworld each night.
Making my way across the compound, I climbed to the shrine at the top of the Sun Temple to view the Sun Panel, an impressive carving depicting the ascension of Lord Serpent-Jaguar II to the throne. The ruler is seen on the right-hand side of the scene in front of Lord Pacal, his deceased father. Life and death.
Can’t view the above slide show of the Mayan ruins at Palenque in Chiapas, Mexico? Click here.
Heat finally drove me into the jungle. I sat on a low stone wall and gazed up at lesser ruins carved out of tangled undergrowth, grateful for the dense canopy that blocked the searing sun. Myriad hues of brown and green emerged in the dappled light: sinewy vines climbed leafy trees with mottled trunks, chartreuse moss covered toppled stones, and gigantic elephant ear philodendron sprouted from rock crevices. Birds sang exotic songs from perches hidden in treetops and giant iguanas scurried through the leaf litter, pausing to bob their heads in a threat display as they caught sight of me.
Suddenly, a growl pierced the air. And then another. And another, until the jungle reverberated with screams. Conscious of being alone and unprotected, I was on the verge of fleeing when a groundskeeper came around the corner carrying a bamboo rake. “Is that tigers growling?” I asked. No, he shook his head. “Monos.” Monkeys. This part of Mexico is home to howler monkeys who, despite their tiny size, make a fearsome sound. I desperately scanned the treetops hoping to spy one but they eluded me. Their camouflage is just too good. But perhaps this is for the best. Having never spotted one, my imagination can still run wild at my memory of their fierce growls, which seemed so fitting in this life and death world.