If you read the previous post, you know that we’ve finally arrived at the Maya archeological site of Yaxchilan on the banks of the Usamacinta river. There are more than 120 structures in the central area, distributed in three complexes at different elevations. Yaxchilan shares similar characteristics with other regional sites, including roof combs, stelae, carved lintels, alters and murals, among others. As I noted in the previous Palenque post, much of the ornamention was done by painting the layer of stucco covered the exterior of many buildings. Very little remains, but what does is breath-taking; it must have been simply amazing. Make sure to bring your flashlight! We were the only group there for the majority of our three-hour visit and I was by myself much of the time. It was pretty awe-inspiring to wander around alone and imagine what life must have been like over a thousand years ago. Let’s start the photo essay, shall we?
Since Julie’s 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 of Palenque.
Yaxchilan, on the west bank of the Usumacinta River which forms the border between Mexico and Guatemala, was a large regional center and a rival of Palenque (fought in 654), among others. It seems war wasn’t its forte as I believe they were dominated pretty badly on at least a couple of occasions. Yaxchilan was at its zenith during the long reigh of King Shield Jaguar II, who lived into his 90s (unthinkable at that time) and died in 742; the city was abandoned around 810 AD. Yaxchilan is known for excellent sculpture including carved stela and narrative stone reliefs on lintels (the top of the door frame which spans temple doorways). If you visit, make sure to crouch down in the doorways and look up – some of the coolest and best-preserved carvings are on the lintels.
Getting to Yaxchilan is half the fun. First, one makes the ~2.5 hour drive (we had our own car) from Palenque to the town of Frontera Corozal, largely by way of the Carretera Fronteriza before taking a really cool 30-45 minute boat ride to the site. The road is very nice compared to others we’ve driven, though be sure to start from Palenque with a full tank or make sure you hit the one gas station we saw on they way…it’s in a small town 30-45 minutes from Palenque; I believe it’s also the location of the first military checkpoint we hit – and where I took the below photo.
Like most of Mexico, it’s inadvisable to drive at night to avoid hitting animals, people, topes (speedbumps), and lastly (and likely the smallest threat) because a handful of signs along the road proclaim that this is EZLN territory (the Zapatista Army of National Liberation, a revolutionary group comprised largely of indigenous Maya folks whose 1994 uprising was quickly put down by the Mexican Army). To be clear, we felt completely safe and no one we talked to in Palenque or elsewhere offered warning, but as we joked, it’s all good until dudes with guns jump out of the jungle.
Escudo Jaguar may be the only gig in town for lodging; it offers cute, if basic bungalow-style rooms at very reasonable rates which start around $20 and go to $60 for a triple w/ 3 double beds. The grounds are very well maintained and folks are friendly. We only ate there given our one night stay; the food was fine but runs no danger of being labeled gourmet.
The river and embarcadero (boat launch) is just a couple hundred meters away, and you can arrange a boat to depart at your leisure. I HIGHLY recommend leaving at or just before sunrise; we left around 6:30 am and Escudo made us box-breakfasts for dining on-board. Watching the sun rise and fog lift from the river was magical, and there’s no gate at the site, per say, so if you get there before the caretaker you can just pay when you leave, after all, it’s one way in, one way out and a looong walk back to Escudo!
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!