Located 150 km (93 miles) from Villahermosa and 189 km (117 miles)
north of San Cristóbal de las
Casas, Palenque is one of the most noticeable ensembles of classic
Maya architecture. Built on the foothills of the sierra covered
with jungle and dominating a huge humid plain, Palenque is one of
the gates to the Maya culture, one of the most brilliant cultures
Mayan people conceived the universe as an ensemble of layered plans.
The earth, square shaped, was held at each corner by "Bacabs"
set at the cardinal points and characterized by a specific color.
Above, the Heavens, made of 13 steps : the Oxlahuntiku formed a
kind of broken arch made of 6 ascending steps (sun from sunrise
to zenith), a top level (zenith), and 6 descending steps (sun from
zenith to sunset). Under, the Underworld made of 9 steps : the Bolontiku,
4 descending steps, a bottom level and 4 ascending steps. Every
Heaven or underworld was the residence of a divinity. Above the
Heavens, there were stars, comets and galaxies (the Milky Way was
represented as an iguana or a snake unrolling in the sky). Under
there was a crocodile shaped monster supporting the universe. The
Oxlahuntiku and the Bolontiku maintained a ceaseless fight with
imperious Gods of death. But the death was considered as the beginning
of the new life which started again the next morning with the sun.
The last underworld, the Xibalba, was thus the prelude of the rebirth.
The physical universe of the Mayas was often a practical representation
of their Cosmology. Many cities were divided into 4 neighborhoods
built around a center. The same is true of the ensembles made of
a place surrounded by 4 constructions where the orientation plays
a very important role.
Some researchers say that the political Maya universe was also a
map of the cosmos with Tikal as the center. Copán, on the
east, was the city where life was born and Palenque, on the west,
towards the sunset, was the closest place to the underworld. Palenque,
because of the numerous tombs, is considered a sacred necropolis.
For the Mayas, possessing the life meant possessing also the death.
The history of Palenque
Part of an ensemble 5 miles long, the ceremonial zone is spread
on a 37- acre area. Palenque reached its peak from the seventeenth
to the nineteenth century, before vanishing like the other Maya
cities, for still unknown reasons.
The abundance of the inscriptions found in the tombs and other buildings
in Palenque allowed the archaeologists to translate some glyphs
and interpret some historical texts. They discovered, among others,
the names of the kings who governed the city. In King Pakal’s
tomb, they found the portraits and names of his ancestors as well
as the dates of their reigns.
Pakal, the club-footed king very often portrayed in sculptures,
was the great builder of the city. He reigned from 615 to 683. After
his death, he was succeeded by his son Kan Balam. This one has 6
fingers and 6 toes. The dynasty seems to have started in 501 with
Chaacal I, born in 465 and dead in 524.
The archaeological excavations confirmed the texts and the dates
of the inscriptions. No building anterior to the sixteenth century
has been found but the site might have been occupied because of
the presence of local pottery as well as pottery imported from Peten.
The first constructions are part of the north group (with different
temples, among them the temple of the Comte (named after the Baron
de Waldeck who stayed there), the ball Court and the first stages
of the Palace). Then, it was the time of splendor : the palace had
been finished and they also built the temple of the Cross, the temple
of the Sun and the temple of the inscriptions which houses Pakal’s
tomb. Afterwards, they experienced some external influences and
in the early ninth century, Palenque started to decline like the
The temple of the Inscriptions
Construction the most important of the site, this nine story pyramid
(corresponding to the nine levels of the Maya underworld) support
a temple in which there is still the "tablero" with the
longest Maya inscriptions.
Inside, a stone slab covers stairs which go down to the crypt located
1.5 m (5 feet) below the base of the pyramid. The crypt is 7m (22
feet) long and 3.5m (11 feet) wide. It is closed to the public.
It housed a huge stone sarcophagus covered with a carved slab 2
m (6.5 feet) wide and 3 m (10 feet) long. Under the 4 ton slab,
the sarcophagus holds the remains of King-Priest Pakal wearing a
mosaic mask and surrounded with a multitude of jade jewels. While
studying this ensemble, the archaeologist discovered that the crypt
has been built before the pyramid that covers it and before the
temple. It was Pakal himself who had this pyramid built. He had
been reigning sixty eight years before being buried there. This
is unique in the Maya culture.
The jade treasure and stucco masks discovered in
the crypt are now preserved in the Museum
of anthropology of Mexico City.
The palace is built on a base of 330 feet long, 260 feet wide and
33 feet high. It is an ensemble of palaces from different times
surrounding four courtyards. In the middle of this ensemble stands
a four story tower of almost 66 feet high. Each courtyard, with
a different shape, is surrounded by galleries and embellished rooms.
The walls are carved with mysterious personages. Then, some rooms
have been divided with inner walls and toilets have been added in
one courtyard. The tower was used as an observation tower and an
astronomic observatory. See the patios de la Torre and de los Esclavos,
with a stairway decorated with glyphic inscriptions.
In the southern part, the underpasses, which linked the palace to
the south façade, form rooms with altars. Even if it was
mutilated by looters and treasure hunters, the palace still has
marvelous relief stone and stucco sculptures for which Palenque
is famous. The bases of some walls are adorned with carved slabs.
The pillars are decorated with remaining of stucco sculptures; you
can still see macaroons, frescoes, realistic patterns as well as
murals in some rooms.
The temple of the Cross, the temple
of the Foliated Cross and the temple of the Sun (Cross group)
Between the Palace and the Eastern Mountain, across the creek, there
are three unrestored temples built on mounds around a partially
cleared place. Unlike any other Maya site which have many steles,
Palenque has instead "tableros" (big stone slabs covering
the walls of the temples) carved with signs and symbolic scenes.
These three temples were named after the "tableros" found
there. The tablero of the Sun, one of the best preserved, represents
an adoration of the sun. The sun is represented with one shield
and two folded spears put on a throne supported by two slaves. On
each side, priests or kings present offerings. Several columns of
glyph stands on the sides : you can read the date : 642. The original
of the "tablero" of the temple of the Cross is currently
at the Museum of anthropology
of Mexico City. In the entrance way, magnificent bas-reliefs
represent priests and glyphs.
The temple of the Foliated Cross is facing the temple of the Sun.
It represents a cross whose ends are transformed into corn and human
heads (in an ear shape). Above it are the symbols of the Sun and
the Rain God. By the side, priests present offerings. A lot of ink
has been spilled over these two "tableros": it means that
the Maya would have known the symbol of the cross. To complete your
tour, visit also the Templo del Conde and the juego de pelota.
Many other small temples, especially in Grupo Norte, more or less
well preserved, are disseminated in the jungle. Others have not
been excavated. A lot of treasures wait for the archaeologists since
only 10% of the buildings have been dug.
Facing the temple of the Inscriptions is the mausoleum where lie
the ashes of Alberto Ruz Lhuillier, who discovered the site of Palenque.
This site is inscribed on the Cultural World Heritage
list of UNESCO since 1987 :
daily, 8 AM-5 PM, $57 – free on Sundays – Guides available
on the premises (about $550 per group). See also the museum open
from 9 AM to 4 PM, from Tuesday to Sunday without extra fee. It
is worth the visit. Admire among the 300 objects and sculptures
of the site : jade and obsidian jewelry, the fantastic censers of
the Cross group, the Tablero del Palacio and the polychrome stucco
panel of temple XIX. Complete explanations in Spanish and English.
To get there, take a combi (transports Chambalu) from the village
to the archaeological site (8 km or 5 miles), every 10 min from
6 AM to 6 PM (both ways).
The history of the state of Chiapas :
Map of the archaeological site :
These two sites are contemporary of Palenque and Tikal. It is difficult
to get there and you need two days to visit them because of the
Located between Palenque and Tikal, Yaxchilán gets the influences
of both sites.
The city spreads out between the Usumacinta River which flooded
several buildings and many hills where numerous constructions were
The site is invaded by the jungle but it is worth the visit because
of the interesting monuments which are as important as the ones
of the big Maya cities. The buildings with smooth or adorned facades
are crowned with openwork roof combs as in the temple of the Sun
in Palenque. They discovered thirty steles showing the influence
of Tikal as well as door lintels carvings showing inscriptions and
personages. The many texts allow putting together the history of
the reigning dynasty, the "Jaguars". These warlike kings
had relations with the neighbor cities. They are carved on the monuments
in Yaxchilán, in Bonampak, where the glyph symbol of Yaxchilán
is painted by the side of the portrait of a high ranked woman, and
in Piedras Negras, Guatemala, on lintel number 3, where a king of
Yaxchilán is depicted leading a meeting to elect the next
ruler of the city. Several bas-reliefs depict the exploits of such
kings as "Jaguar-Shield" and his son "Jaguar-Bird"
who succeeded him in 752. The most important constructions are the
Labyrinth (structure 19), the Gran Acropolis (edifice 33) and the
South Acropolis where the edifices 39, 40 and 41 dominate the forest.
The most noticeable elements of Yaxchilán are the elegant
roof combs and the mansard roofs supporting an anthropomorphic stucco
decor. The numerous lintel and stele carvings describe the important
historical events and the diverse rites of the ceremonial life :
The epigraphists identified glyphs symbolizing the access to the
throne, the dates of birth and the matrimonial alliances.
Famous for its murals, Bonampak is located about 25 km (15 miles),
as the crow flies, from Yaxchilán. The name Bonampak means
“murals” in Yucatán language. However, these
paintings had lost a lot of their brightness since their discovery
in 1946. The site is set in the Valley of Lacanja River, affluent
of Usumacinta River. The temples, as the ones of the neighbor sites,
were worshiped and the Lacandóns Indians are maybe still
worshiping them with offerings and burning incense.
a big place surrounded by constructions, the temple of the paintings
(Templo de las Pinturas), stands on a terrace reachable
by a huge stairway. It has three rooms entirely covered with frescoes.
The scenes describe a very important event for Bonampak. This event
took place in the late eighth century. The local army, ready for
fighting, (the soldiers wore armor and helmets with feathers) seems
to wait for the conclusion of a meeting presided by the King.
Musicians accompany the troops. The second episode corresponds to
the fight where warriors show their skills and force that led to
the victory. Then, after the triumph, the captives, naked and tortured,
are presented to the king.
The third episode shows the personages of the court with their most
beautiful clothes, accompanied with musicians. Finally, to celebrate
the victory, a ceremonial dance is performed to the sound of long
trumpets. Women pierce their tongue to thank the Gods. Notice that,
above each door, the inner face of the lintels is carved with bas-reliefs
depicting the capture of the prisoners. The best preserved, in room
3, shows the winner, crowned with a skull, holding a captive by
the hair and piercing him with a lance.
These frescoes are reproduced in the Museum
of anthropology of Mexico City. Close to Bonampak is Lacanja,
where live some families of Lacandóns, last survivors of
the inhabitants of the forest. Other temples and palaces of the
Gran Plaza and the Acropolis can be visited with a Lacandón
Isolated from the Spanish and other Indian groups, the Lacandóns
still keep many elements of their ancient Maya culture. These Indians,
native to Yucatán, are not
the descendants of the builders of Bonampak, Yaxchilán and
Palenque, (they were the Chols), but they are descendants of the
Maya Indians of the peninsula who fled the Spanish domination.
How was this place discovered ?
This spectacular discovery was made in 1946 by Gilles Healey, a
photographer of the "United Fruit Company". He came to
meet the Lacandóns.
This tribe, with long hair and white tunic, seems to send you to
a Pre-biblical innocence. In one temple, Healey saw frescoes as
bright as if painted the previous day. The myth of Maya pacifism
is gone. On these admirable blue backgrounds, there are only scenes
of mutilation – women piercing their tongues with a barbwire,
men making their genitals squirt blood- or scenes of war prisoners
waiting to be killed. The few hundred remaining Lacandóns
are there to manage the site.
Open daily from 9 AM to 5 PM, for Yaxchilan
($55) and for Bonampak ($46).
How to get there ? Coming from
Palenque, the combis of Rio Chancalá and Chamoan run several
dozen times day from Palenque to Frontera Corozal (3 hours) and
Benemérito (4 hours). To go to Bonampak, go off at the crossing
of San Javier. It remains 2 km (1.2 miles) to get to the entrance
of the reserve Montes Azules (you can take a combi) and 9 km (5.5
miles) to reach the site (taxi : $90 or bike : $70). To go to Yaxchilán,
go off at Crucero Corozal and take a colectivo to the pier.
Take a lancha ($140) for the last part of the ride to Yaxchilán.
The best way to visit these two sites is a car or a tour via a travel
agency in Palenque or San Cristóbal
(see tourist offices).
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