In the southern Mexican state of Chiapas lie the remains of an ancient lost civilization. Giant stone cities, buried for centuries in thick jungle and rainforests, wait for adventurers to discover their secrets. Some of these cities are easily accessible to travelers, while others are still buried deep in virgin jungle, and must be reached by boat or long jungle hikes.
Mayan civilization is broken up into three distinct periods, Preclassic, Classic and Postclassic. Preclassic began around 1800 BC with the civilization steadily growing until around 150 AD, when major city centers were abandoned for some unknown reason. Around 200 AD, the ancient Maya began a massive building campaign centered in the area of what is now Chiapas, Mexico and the Peten, Guatemala. They built massive pyramids and cities, and connected them with white limestone roads called sache. This second stage, known as the Classic Maya civilization and centered around Chiapas, flourished until about 900 AD. Suddenly, at what seemed to be the peak of their civilization, the Maya once again mysteriously abandoned their cities and disappeared. It is estimated that between 90 and 99 percent of the Maya population perished at the end of 900 AD. The ones that were left re-settled outside of the Classic Maya sites in the Yucatan area of Mexico and their numbers slowly increased. This period, from 900 to 1521 is known as the Postclassic Maya civilization. In 1521 the Spanish arrived, bringing guns and unknown diseases, and many of the Postclassic Maya died during the years that followed, with the survivors retreating deep into the jungles of Guatemalas Peten and the jungles of Chiapas, Mexico.
Chiapas today is home to several groups of Maya, including the Chol Maya, the Tzeltal Maya and the Lacandon Maya. The Maya alive today are descendants of the ancient people that built the stone cities that lie abandoned hidden deep in the jungles of Chiapas. These indigenous people still make pilgrimages to the ancient pyramids to burn copal incense (a type of tree resin) and offer prayers to the deities they believe inhabit the ancient stone cities. Many still wear as their daily garb styles that pre-date the Spanish arrival – traditional skirts, called cortes, and intricately sewed blouses, called huipiles. Most speak an ancient native Maya dialect as well as Spanish. And they are all part of the living archeological record and offer us some clues to the ancient past.
Palenque is one of the most beautiful, and most visited, sites in Chiapas. Huge, graceful pyramids and a wealth of Mayan glyphs and texts carved in stone and worked in stucco make this Classic Maya period site fascinating for both casual explorers and researchers of the Maya civilization. Pottery shards found at the site date it back to as early as 100 AD, however, the city’s written history begins at 431 AD and ends in 799 AD.
Palenque is built on a series of hills overlooking the almost flat Rio Usumacinta valley. This strategic location, crossed by six year-round streams, made Palenque an important trade center between the Highland Maya and the Lowland Maya. Palenque´s ancient architects built a series of aqueducts complete with foot bridges for ease in traversing the city. The water from the rivers was funneled just below the site, through man-made channels that end in a beautiful series of waterfalls. Giant ceiba trees, which the Maya considered sacred, grow along the channels and the roots of some have completely grown over several stone structures, giving you an idea of just how ancient these structures really are.
Palenque is perhaps best known for the discovery of the tomb of its most famous leader, Pacal Votan. Votan’s tomb was discovered in 1947 by archeologist Alberto Ruz Lhuillier who had noticed small holes in the floor of the temple at the top of the Pyramid of the Inscriptions. The holes were in fact lifting holds and upon lifting out the giant stone slab he discovered a rubble-filled staircase. After several years of work, the stairway was cleared and the tomb revealed. The giant stone sarcophagus was intact and held the remains of Pacal Votan, still wearing his jade funeral mask. The room was decorated with painted stucco, which depicted the ruler’s transition to the Mayan underworld.
The lid of Pacal Votan´s sarcophagus is an intricate carving that has been the subject of much speculation. The incredibly detailed, very technical scene shows Pacal Votan in the middle of what looks to be a machine, with his feet pushing levers while his hands work some sort of knobs. Most archeologists believe that the scene is that of Pacal Votan descending down to Xibalba, the underworld, through the world tree. There are glyphs of the Sun, Moon and Venus, as well as other constellations, along the outer edges of the scene, indicating that this event took place at a specific coordinate in the nighttime sky. This led Erich von Daniken, an infamous rogue ancient researcher and writer, to theorize about an “ancient astronaut” origin for the mysterious Maya. You can judge for yourself by viewing a reproduction of the lid in the Palenque Museum. Unfortunately, the real one is off limits, as it rests in its original location inside the Pyramid of the Inscriptions.
Palenque is quite compact and you can see it all in under half a day. Prepare for some moderate hiking and hot conditions. Early morning is a great time to go, but as the sun rises so does the heat and humidity. Bring water, wear comfortable shoes and dress light. You can buy water and food on site. It is open daily from 8am to 5pm. At the entrance, don’t miss the museum (admission included in site entrance fee, approx $19), which is full of beautiful stele and carved pieces that were removed from the site for preservation.
Reaching the site is fairly easy. The site is located near the present day city of Palenque, which is equipped with its own air strip. There are regular buses that arrive from San Cristobal and other nearby Mexican cities. If you have a car, there is ample parking outside the site.
Palenque offers many accommodations in a wide range of budgets. You can stay in either the modern town of Palenque or in numerous accommodations that are located along the road to the site. An area known as El Remete is a popular hangout with several budget accommodations and restaurants offering nightly musical entertainment.
Bonampak is an interesting Classic Maya site located a short drive from Palenque. It is in fact associated with Palenque and archeological evidence suggests that it even subdued it once, in 600 AD. Bonampak was also allied with the town of Yaxchilán, 18 miles northeast, and a white limestone sache found in Bonampak heads in the general direction of Yaxchilán, its assumed destination, although the road has not been excavated.
The famous Bonampak murals cover three walls in one of its buildings, aptly named Temple of the Paintings, and were created around 790 AD. The first scene depicts a celebration of perhaps the event in the second scene, which is a gory battle with a rival Mayan town. The Bonampaks were the victors and the third scene depicts a ritual bloodletting of the prisoners from the battle. The scene is both eerily grotesque and incredibly fascinating, as it is the most well preserved pre-Hispanic painting ever found. The ancient artists used paints made from natural sources, including clays, hematite, and ash. Today the murals have lost much of their original brilliance in part due to the now outdated archeological technique of applying kerosene soaked rags to the paint to intensify the colors. Bonampak was abandoned before its famous murals were even completed, around 800 AD.
A day visit to Bonampak can be arranged in Palenque or in Frontera Corazon. Visitors can now drive directly to a Visitors’ Center at the site. Another way to visit the site is by arranging a jungle hike from one of the nearby villages. You can arrange for a Lacandonan guide in San Javiar or Lacanja Chansayab. During the hike they will fill you in on traditional medicinal plants growing in the area, wildlife and provide a Mayan perspective on the history of the site’s murals and paintings.
Accommodations are limited in the Bonampak area, making Palenque and Frontera Corozol the best options. You can also choose to camp in one of the several Lacandon owned campsites in Lacanja Chansayab.
There is no charge for admission to Bonampak, but you will have to pay for transportation to the entrance site about 1 kilometer from the actual ruins. Combis make the drive for about $5.50 or you can rent a bike for 3 hours for about $4.75. Bonampak is a rustic site so bring lots of water and food as you won’t be able to purchase much once you are there. Be prepared for hot and humid conditions.
Still overgrown with jungle, Yaxchilàn is a remote Classic Maya site that makes visitors feel like Indiana Jones exploring a lost temple. Yaxchilán has a wealth of Mayan hieroglyphs and 60 carved lintels, 5 hieroglyphic stairways, and 34 stele have been discovered here so far by archeologists.
Lintels are stone slabs that lined the underside of doorways of the major buildings. The ones at Yaxchilán depict its steady line of rulers, which were mainly father to son successions between 320 and 800 AD. The carvings detail ceremonial visions, as well as Maya warfare and ceremonial bloodlettings.
The location of Yaxchilàn appears to be of importance for two reasons. One is that it is located on a series of tall hills on a meander of the Rio Usumacinta, a highly defensible position. The discovery of two piles of uniformly shaped stones mounded in the river in front of Yaxchilán have led archeologists to believe that ancient Maya engineers constructed a three-span suspension bridge across the river. According to structural engineer and amateur archeologist James O`Kon (website), the bridge, which would have been over 600 feet long, may have connected Yaxchilán to its affiliated site, La Pasadita, which was directly across the river in what is now Guatemala.
Yaxchilán is also important for its celestial alignments. The buildings at Yaxchilán are oriented to the summer and winter solstices. It is believed that the Maya used the hills here for years as observatories, tracking the movements of the planets and stars, information that would have allowed them to calculate the length of the year and other celestial events.
Lacandones, the indigenous Maya that live in the area, still make religious pilgrimages to the site, burning copal incense on top of the ancient stone altars. They believe that the True Lord, Hachakyum, once lived in Palenque but now lives in Yaxchilàn. The Lacandones pay special attention to a headless statue that is a life-size depiction of the ruler Bird Jaguar IV, one of the city’s last rulers. On the summer solstice, the rising sun illuminates this statue, which sits Buddha-like in the middle of the structure’s main room. The head is in a niche to the right. The modern day Lacandones say that this figure represents a deity named Hach Bilam, and if the head is ever replaced on the statue, the world will end.
Yaxchilám is an amazing site to visit due to its remote location. The surrounding jungle is full of monkeys, birds, lizards and an incredible variety of plants. It receives few visitors, so often you will have the entire site to yourself.
The best way to travel to the remote Yaxchilám is by river. Make your way to Frontera Corozal, a few miles up river from Yaxchilám, where you can hire a Chol Maya boat and river pilot to take you to the site. Transportation is in long, painted wooden plank boats, many of which have canopies for shade. The pilots will wait for you while you explore the ruins.
You can also travel overland to Yaxchilám by hiring a guide in the Lacandon communities of San Javier or Lacanjá Chan Sayab. If you have extra money and want a quicker route, Yaxchilám does have a private air strip, and you can hire a single-engine plane to fly you there from San Cristobal de las Casas, Palenque, or Comitán.
Admission to Yaxchilám is about $3.50. A boat ride from Frontera Corozal to the ruins and back is roughly $50 pesos for up to 3 people. Prepare for hot, humid conditions and pack in water and food as there are no provisions available at the site.
Located high in the mountains between Palenque and San Cristobal de las Casas, Toniná is an especially impressive site, with towering citadels and a mysterious labyrinth. This Classic Maya site was contemporary with Palenque, and in fact Toniná captured Palenque´s ruler K´an Joy Chitam II in 711 AD.
Toniná became known in ancient times as the Place of the Celestial Captives since its chambers held captive many Maya rulers who were held for ransom or decapitated in religious ceremonies. A decapitation altar sill stands near the Temple of the Cosmic War.
One of the most remarkable features at Toniná is a sculpture entitled “Mural of the Four Ages”. The Maya believed that they were living in the fourth age, which continues today and which they called the fourth sun. The fourth sun is that of winter and it mirrors the direction north and the end of human life. The three worlds before were each destroyed by a natural catastrophe. The first mural has been lost and the three that are left depict the upside down head of a decapitated prisoner with blood spurting from the neck forming a ring of feathers and a sun. These morbid murals are still onsite for visitors to admire.
Located about 9 miles from the modern day city of Ocosingo, Toniná is very accessible as a short drive from either San Cristobal de las Casas or Palenque. Ocosingo has many hotels and camping sites available for travelers. Admission to the site is about $3.
Ocosingo is located high in the mountains, at a slightly lower elevation than San Cristobal de las Casas. The air is fresh and cool, but be prepared for some hiking. Drinks and food can be purchased at the site.