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Published: June 14th 2010
We arrived in Palenque yesterday. Coming out of the bus station we were confronted by a large billboard across the road declaring our hostel to be 10 minutes walk this way. Not wanting to drag our bags we hopped in a taxi. We soon found our hostel at the bottom of 'Hostel Street'. Bizarrely here in Palenque none of the hostels are situated in the actual town but in a seperate traveller's world where hostels and their attached cafes and restaurants line a road surrounded by jungle plants and replica stone statues of Mayan gods and monsters to give it that authentic look!
We went into the hostel, walking down a corridor rather like a cave, that smelled remarkably like Colchester Zoo to my mind. We were escorted to our room and for once splurging on a nice room has really been worth it. The room is huge, has a large television with numerous English stations, air conditioning, private bathroom (with HOT water!) and a nice balcony area with a hammock and view of the trees. I'm quite happy to be staying here for a few nights!
After trying out the shower and TV we asked for directions to the supermsrket
and meandered off to the main street. As we walked along the main road we spied a strange large rodent looking creature rooting around in the grass. Unfortunately in the poor evening light I couldn't get a proper look at it and have no idea what it is. It's definitely cool and exotic though! We soon saw a large supermarket on the main road, but then I saw a sign for Bodega Aurrea and after shrieking 'hey we have that supermarket in Sahuayo' decided to head for the familiar. We bought food and lugged it back to the hostel. Fortunately en route we found a short cut and walked up a dusty path between houses until we reached the hostel street. We had a quiet evening cooking and alternately relaxing in the hammock listening to jungle(ish) sounds or watching TV. (I know it's pathetic, but somehow after not seeing TV for a while being able to sprawl on the bed and watch pretty moving pictures which actually speak English is quite a treat!)
Getting back to history, culture and all the stuff that exists outside of the hostel room we planned to visit Palenque ruins today. Walking up to the
main road we hailed a taxi and set off. At the 'entrance' we paid our fees to enter and rather than being left there as I expected we found the ruins were still a fair way off and the taxi took us upward along winding roads. We passed many parked vehicles and many more exhausted looking hikers as well as occasional glimpses of a rather spectactular view in between the dense foliage. Eventually we stopped in a crowded area filled with milling touts and tourists, market stalls, and a large queue for the ticket office. Fortunately the queue went down rapidly and we were able to join another, thankfuly much smaller, one by the actual entrance.
Set in the foothills of the Tumbalá mountains of Chiapas Mexico, Palenque is situated on a ledge overlooking the swampy plains that stretch northward all the way to the Gulf coast. It was the flood plain of the Usumacinta to the north that most likely provided Palenque's inhabitants with the resources to construct their extraordinary city. Blessed with the highest average rainfall in Mexico, this fertile alluvial plain could have been successfully farmed with raised beds, and would have produced a harvest that not
only could sustain a large workforce but would also have provided an abundance that could be traded along the great Usumacinta.
While the name Palenque comes from a nearby village, it is possible that the village was named after the ancient city or something similar sounding - bahlam kin - jaguar sun - the place where the sun descends into the underworld, the realm of the jaguar. People lived in this area as early as 300 BCE, leaving behind pottery as evidence. But it was in the Mayan Classic Period (300-900 CE) that Palenque became an important ceremonial center. It peaked around 600 to 700 CE, when most of the temples of Palenque were built by King Pakal and his son Chan-Bahlum. After years of rumors of a lost city in the jungle, the ruins were first visited in 1773 by the brother of the canon of the cathedral in San Cristobal de las Casas. In 1786, the Spanish monarchy ordered that the site be thoroughly searched for gold and treasures. This was done with the help of locals with pickaxes, and resulted in significant damage to the Palace. When John Stephens first visited the site in the 1840s, the
ruins were mostly still buried under centuries of accumulated earth and a thick canopy of jungle.
The main temples have been cleared, but the dense jungle still surrounds the site and covers unexcavated temples, which can be easily spotted beneath the foliage. It is estimated that less than 35% of this important ancient site has been excavated.
We walked up the path and were soon standing in front of The Temple of Inscriptions, the iconic temple of Palenque. Palenque is often considered one of the most beautiful of the Mayan sites. Situated amongst steep forested hills the ruins are enclosed by dark green foliage, a stream running through the centre and in the early mornings white mists curl around the jagged edges of the crumbled temples and palaces. Unfortunately for us the atmosphere was somewhat spoiled by tiredness, intense heat and hordes of tourists all cursing each other for choosing the same day to visit.
Still the Temple of the Inscriptions was without doubt, a stunning sight and it was quite a while before we retreated back into the cool of the shadows.
In 1948, Alberto Ruz investigated four curious stone plugs in the floor of the temple and discovered
a secret passage filled with rubble. It took four long seasons to remove the rubble from the steep and slippery stairway that came to a landing then changed directions and continued on for 80 feet below the temple floor and 5 feet beneath the level of the central plaza.
Behind a triangular slab door, Ruz made a discovery that would change the world's view of Maya pyramids -- an amazing stone chamber that housed an elaborately carved sarcophagus and the remains of a royal person along with a multitude of jade and other artifacts. It was not until epigraphers learned to decipher the glyphs on the sarcophagus and the inscriptions in the temple above that these remains could be identified as Hanab Pacal.
It was Pacal himself who had this magnificent pyramid built and his heir, Chan Bahlum who completed it. The temple rises 75 feet high and the roofcomb would have added an additional 40 feet.
We walked onto the palace. Like the Temple of the Inscriptions the palace was begun during the reign of Hanab Pacal and added to by his sons, Chan Bahlum and Kan Xul. The palace was certainly fun to explore, with it's maze of
passageways often ending in a small window hole giving partial views of the other structures. We came out into the courtyard, dominated by the impressive tower, and walked a circle around the area, seeing carvings and more amazingly paintings still on the walls.
We moved on and crossed the stream meandering through the site and then got waylaid as even we succumbed to the touts lining the pathway with souvenirs. Then we climbed some stone steps and found ourselves on a higher plateau with another group of temples. The first of these we saw was the Templo del Sol (Temple of the Sun). It has a three tier pyramidal structure and when we climbed up and went inside we discovered the carved panels that are displayed within. The panel commemorates the birth (635 CE) and the ascension to the throne (684 CE) of Lord Serpent-Jaguar II. Also depicted on the panel is his deceased father, Lord Pacal.
Also in the same area we saw Templo de la cruz (temple of the cross) which is one of the highest buildings on the site and the Templo de la cruz Foliada (The Temple of the Foliated Cross) which was consecrated in 692
CE. Also beside the Temple of the Sun was another, named on the information plaque as 'Templo XV' in which were discovered the skeletons of 18 people all of whom had been aligned in a northward direction. An assumed royal burial site was also discovered with a skeleton in a sarcophagus.
Feeling the heat we retreated back into the shadows of the trees once more and spied an impressive carving on a stone panel balanced on some steps. It may have been a replica, it seemed too unweathered to date from the same time as the temples.
Guzzling some more water we marched onward across the plaza of the 'cross group' and down the path towards the ball court. From there we explored the Grupo Norte. The Northern Group consists of four temples, aligned on an artificially leveled terrace. Most notable is the small structure with a pagoda-type roof which inspired some early explorers to connect the site with the Orient.
We also visited the impressive Templo del Conde, which owes it's name to Count Waldeck who used the temple as his living quarters during his stay in the first half of the nineteenth century. We pushed aside our tiredness
to once again mount the steps to the top. I was really worried by the number of children scampering up and down as the steps are high, narrow and uneven. I tok far longer than them to reach the summit.
We finished our tour at the small Templo X which dates from a very early construction date at Palenque, and then walked slowly back towards the Temple of Inscriptions and back to the main entrance.
We found the mini bus back to the town centre and called for a halt as we recognised the large Mayan head on the roundabout of the main road. We walked home, put the air conditioning on high and passed a lazy afternoon in front of the TV again. Ah this adventuring is hard work!
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