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.
19 thoughts on “Palenque Ruins of Chiapas are a Mystical, Magical Wonder”
Can’t wait, we’ll be in Palenque in about a week. When I was there in ’93 it was magically. Hopefully it still get that feeling.
Hi Barbara: I hadn’t thought about precognition of future adventures 🙂
I am one of those people who had a fully-awake out of body experience when I was a child, so when people mention previous lives I can’t help but think of the oddity of this one.
‘Who knows’ and ‘I don’t know’ are my most favorite statements.
I am enjoying your articles very much. I found your blog today and I feel like I have been acquainted with it for a while, which I think is a testament to your writing.
Lovely article – Your photos took me back to when I visited Palenque – I did not carry a camera then, so your photos brought back memories.
I especially recall walking down the very steep staircases and thinking about the dreams I had when I was a child – of being on a very, very steep staircase that disappeared into the mist above and below.
Hi David: Interesting bit about your dreams. Do you ever wonder if that was a recollection of a previous life or a precognition of your adult travels? And if the latter, did you have a deja vu experience when you finally visited Palenque?
This temple looks more pleasant to visit that the last one with the grass and trees surrunding it. Liked your video there – now you have a bit of naration – but I challenge you to get in front of the camera if you can!
Heather: Uh oh, another challenge 🙂 As you see, I managed to figure out the narration part, but getting in front of the camera means tripods, doesn’t it? I just cannot carry that all around with me!
Awesome pictures and narrative. You really bring this magical and powerful place to life in your post. Thank you! Adri Pedersen
Great photos! When you mentioned the heat and the dense vegetation, and how you wondered how the city existed at all, it reminded me of the Spanish explorers having an incredibly difficult time when trekking through Mayan territory. It’s fascinating how hundreds of years later, long after the conquistadores first set foot on the land, we still have a very real connection to the past. I guess the Maya had the last say after all.
Glad to be sitting in air conditioning while reading this! The temples and ground look really well kept! It’s just too bad there weren’t some clouds!
Wonderful post Barbara and fantastic photography. I visited Chitzenitza (sorry for the bad spelling) many years ago, and loved. it. This looks like a much larger complex.
This is highest on my list of ruins to visit (not yet visited). Luscious descriptions of what must have been an extraordinary site in its day.I love the mystery that every building, window and niche had a reason for being.
I love all your posts, but I must say that this one is very special. I positively ache to be there!
Excellent descriptive writing, Barbara. Love the howler monkeys comment. Perhaps I will see these “tigers” one day.
Thank you Nancy! The fact that you read my blog always surprises and gratifies me, since I consider you to be one of the finest travel writers I know.
I really enjoy your travel blogs and this one, too, is special. You may want to read The Last Lords of Palenque sometime in the future. A professor of literature at UCSC wrote it and I helped edit it. He made many trips to the jungle and his stories are amazing. Victor Perera
Hi Zoe: Thanks so much – glad you enjoyed it. I will definitely pick up The Last Lords of Palenque. I think Palenque was my favorite ruins, so I’m anxious to know more about it.