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