Midwesterner in Mexico header image

Picturesque Palenque

A few weeks ago while Julie was stuck in class a few friends and I whisked off to spend a long weekend in Chiapas, where we visited the archelogical sites of Palenque, Yaxichilan, and Bonampak – a perfect three-day weekend.  We flew into Villahermosa (in the state of Tabasco) late afternoon on Friday, grabbed a rental car, checked in to the very nice but not overly exciting Crowne Plaza just off Av. Ruiz Cortinez, and went downtown to the Zona Luz, near the river, to check things out.  Paseo Tabasco, the main drag heading downtown to the Zona Luz, has a number of higher-end restaurants and shops.  The Zona Luz itself has some nice pedestrian streets with shops and restaurants, and was bustling with locals on a Friday night; an interesting wander for about an hour, but nothing breathtaking.  While we spent little time there, we found Villahermosa to be a decent jumping-off point catering largely to businessfolk associated with the oil industry, with few tourist highlights except for the Parque-Museo La Venta, a neat museum. 

Heigh Ho Silver, AWAY!

Heigh Ho Silver, AWAY!

We got up fairly early on Saturday and made the ~2.5 hour drive East and South to the archeological site Palenque, a few miles SW of the identically named town.  About 2/3 of the drive is on 186 East, about half of which is four lane; they’re working to expand more of it to four lanes as we speak.  The rest is South on 199 to Palenque.  One highlight of the drive was the frequent and unexplained display of horse statues. 

Palenque, at its height from AD 630 to around 740 and unknown to the Western world until 1746, is noted as a mid-sized site (compared to Tikal and other huge sites), known for its architecture, sculpture, roof comb (more later) and bas-relief carvings.  While a good portion of the central area, assumedly containing the majority of the high-profile buildings, has been excavated, the site exceeds 15 sq km and is less than 10% excavated.  Heat, humidity, and frequent rainfall?  Check. 

Templo de las Inscripciones

Templo de las Inscripciones

The site is amazing, particularly in light of the fact that everything was built without metal tools, pack animals or the wheel.  The precision of the engineering and the scale of the buildings is stunning.  Among the many impressive buildings is the Templo de las Inscripciones, the mausoleum of Pakal, a key ruler from AD 615 to 683 who lived to the incredible age of 80.  Unfortunately, the public can no longer climb this pyramid and descend to his crypt deep inside.  Note the nine levels of the pyramid, consistent with nine elements/levels of Maya mythology.  

Underground river, anyone?

Underground river, anyone?

The present-day structures are impressive in their own right; I can only begin to imagine how amazing they must have been in the height of Palenque’s glory – covered in stucco and elaborately painted in strikingly bold blood-red, blue, yellow, and other colors. 

A couple of decent-sized streams/small rivers flow through the site; in the central area the Maya built an underground channel for the river, then covered it with a vaulted ceiling which was approximately at ground level.  I’m unclear whether this was used as a source of drinking water, sanitation system, etc. 

The Palace

The Palace, with its signature tower, is the largest building, with tons of carvings, multiple courtyards, levels, and undergound passages!

One of Palenque's famed roof combs

One of Palenque's famed roof combs

As mentioned previously, many of Palenque’s temples have roof combs made of stone, then covered with stone carvings, and/or stucco and paint.  Some of these grid-like structures are more than 30 feet tall; on some buildings, all that remain are the footings. 

Temples, Temples everywhere!

Temples, Temples everywhere!

The classical Maya arch

The classical Maya arch

The courtyards are another impressive but little-noted feature of the site – one thing you quickly notice is that very little of Chiapas is flat, so the construction of these broad, open courtyards must have been a hell of a lot of work.  The Maya arch is an archtectural feature found at all three sites we visited.  Many buildings are rectangular; upon entering you find yourself in a Maya arch hallway that runs from left to right; larger buildings employ more complex forms. 

One of the many bas-relief carvings

One of the many bas-relief carvings

Given sufficient demand I might be convinced to post entries on Yaxchilan and Bonampak, but for now I’m all Indiana Jones’d out!

Bookmark and Share
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...

6 Comments on “Picturesque Palenque”

  1. #1 Dave from Hingham
    on Apr 6th, 2009 at 9:01 am

    Count me among those who are interested in your observations about the other sites you visited.

    Do they have live interpreters at the sites, or alternative sources of info? If no metal tools, pack animals or wheels, how did they move/work with the stones and other building materials? Re the vaulted ceilings over the underground river(s): do any remain, or are the channels all open as per the picture? Re the roof combs: were they purely decorative, or was there some utilitarian purpose (speculative though such an answer must be)?

    Very much enjoyed your excellent narrative!

  2. #2 Jesus Chairez
    on Apr 6th, 2009 at 10:44 pm

    Great post – well written, exciting and nice photos too. AND you have moved me to go too.

  3. #3 John
    on Apr 6th, 2009 at 11:22 pm

    Hey Dave, Glad you enjoyed the post; I’ll try to post on Yaxchilan and Bonampak in the near future. A fair number of the larger buildings have small descriptions of their believed function/history (Spanish/English/Nahuatal). There are also guides/interpreters that you can hire.

    None of the guidebooks/on-site resources spoke to their methods for working with/moving the stones/other building materials, and I haven’t yet researched it further. If memory serves me correctly, at least part of the vaulted ceilings over the river remains, and in poking around briefly, a couple web sites mention that the decorations and iconography indicates that each icon had specific sacred meanings…plus they made the buildings look taller/more impressive.

    Jesus, Thanks! I just checked out your blog – very cool – now on my must-read list! If you’re going to go to Palenque you should really visit Yaxchilan and Bonampak too!

  4. #4 Lori
    on Apr 24th, 2009 at 1:20 pm

    AT LEAST IT LOOKS LIKE YOU ENJOYED YOURSELVES.

  5. #5 Roberta Anderson
    on May 2nd, 2009 at 12:15 am

    I really loved this post. I spent three wonderful weeks in Palenque in February, and really appreciated both your photos and writings about the ruins. Thank you!

  6. #6 Getting to Yaxchilan in Chiapas – Midwesterner in Mexico
    on Jun 11th, 2009 at 10:07 pm

    [...] been slacking off a bit of late, I decided to revisit my promise made in my original post on our trip to Chiapas to check out Palenque with a rundown of our visit to the Mayan archeological sites of Yaxchilan and Bonampak southeast [...]

Leave a Comment