Thanks to our early set off from San Cristobal and my foot, our first afternoon in Palenque was pretty quiet. The town itself has little to offer (aside from another round of tacos); the principle reason it exists, and the reason for our visit, is the proximity of the incredible Mayan ruins set deep in the adjacent jungle.
By the time we were due to set off on our tour of the ruins and a jungle hike, however, I and some of our fellow diners from our last evening in San Cristobal had fallen very ill. So, once again, I’m handing over to him to tell you all about his exciting day with those left in our group who were not quarantined, while I was left feeling sorry for myself stuck in a hotel room.
The archeological zone at Palenque is astonishing. The UNESCO World Heritage site looks so impressive amongst the jungle, and became even more so when our guide explained that surveys have revealed only 5-10% of the site has been uncovered so far, with thousands more structures still absorbed by the jungle. Walking around you can see huge temples rising from the jungle, the largest of which are still totally engulfed in dense foliage.
There are many carvings amongst the palaces and temples which are said to depict captives from neighbouring factions and also faceless carvings of the ruling classes which once were thought to have been stolen by thieves but were more recently found buried a short distance away and are now believed to have been literally defaced by angry Maya protesting the lack of effected leadership in asking the gods to grant rainfall and successful harvests.
We saw the palace in the centre of the ancient city, which has great examples of Mayan architecture and we were able to explore courtyards used for bureaucratic functions, entertainment and ritualistic ceremonies. The palace even has it’s own ‘leaning tower’, which was intentionally constructed at an angle such that at midday on the summer solstice the building casts no shadow. We learned that the Mayan’s were incredible astrologers and it’s quite mind-blowing to think how they may have managed to calculate this, all those years ago. We also wandered down to the sleeping quarters, kept cool and ventilated beneath the surface of the building.
Alongside the vast Pyramid of inscriptions which is the tomb of ruler Pakal the Great, we were able to explore the tomb of the so-called ‘Red Queen’. Discovered in 1994, the name comes from the fact that the sarcophagus and objects within the chamber were coated in bright red cinnabar powder (more commonly known as mercury), a dealt point to curse those who came to plunder. The current theory is that the Red Queen was the wife of Pakal the Great and lived well in to her 60s, becoming a hugely influential figure in Mayan culture.
Exploring the jungle later that afternoon we got to sample the woody flavour of the local termites and have our first encounter with spider monkeys before we we came across several lost temples, some of which were duplicates or ‘practice builds’ of those in the main plaza, but with huge trees and vines growing amongst their crumbling remains. We even had the opportunity to explore a section of underground aqueduct that the Mayans are believed to have constructed between 226BC and 799AD to provide pressurised fresh water across the settlement.
It was incredible to think that the site had barely any vegetation in its heyday due to the intense deforestation. The Maya burned limestone and trees in vast quantities to produce stucco for the construction of their buildings. Some theorise that this may have contributed to the civilisation’s downfall as the absence of wildlife and insects may have lead to crop failures, as well as crippling droughts.
That night we were due, once again, to take on a dreaded overnight bus. Those in our group who were suffering dosed themselves up and we all braced ourselves for the journey to Merida…