Wednesday, July 29, 2009


23rd June

Biting the bullet, we become tourists and take a tour bus from San Christobal to the ruined Mayan site of Palenque. We were going to ride, but we have already overstayed our Mexican visas by a month and another 6 days for the round trip starts to look like taking the Michael. As it's a side trip we feel OK at not riding, but that's a point of view that is set to change. Especially when we need to leave at 6am in the morning. I hate mornings!

A few miles into the journey, Sue also changes her mind. The road is a lurching, rolling series of hairpins that goes on for 220kms as the road descends the mountainside down to the sticky jungle plains 2000 metres below. She does not travel well on buses and spends the 6 hour journey turning various shades of green.

For those of thus that can look out of the windows, it's just a fantastic series of views as we descend in the early morning light through cloud filled valleys. Later the clouds lift and and are shredded by the hot sun to reveal stunning vistas. It would have been a great ride.

On route we stop at 'Cataratas de Agua Azul' (blue waterfalls) - a beautiful series of cascades with inviting sapphire pools of cool crystal water where you can swim....

Fine smelling restaurants within earshot of the babbling waters invite us to linger, but the bus is leaving soon so we take the lovely walkway at the side of the river instead....

Next stop is the 35m cataract of 'Mizol-Ha'....

Where you can walk behind the falls and up a winding stair to a dark grotto....

Palenque is one of the most extensive and best known of the Mayan ruins. Fifteen square kilometers of jungle hid over 1400 buildings for nearly a millenia until a Spanish priest discovered the site in 1773. Now over 500 buildings have been unearthed from beneath tropical leaf and vine....

Palenque was first settled around 100BC and saw the height of it's power with approximately 8000 people living here around the 7th Century when 'K'inich Hanab Pakal' ruled over all. He and his son 'Snake Jaguar' built many of the most inposing temples and plazas. This is The Temple of the Inscriptions where Pakal's tomb was discovered. With 8 levels and rising 25m, the stair is the tallest here and is hugely impressive. You can almost imagine the firelit ceremonies carried out by masked high priests on the high altar, below a thousand heads thrown back to gaze upwards in awe. If Mel Gibson in Apocalyto is to be believed, these were ritualistic human sacrifices - a blood offering to the gods, with the bodies cast down the stair, bloodied and beheaded....

Scholars debate the meaning of Mayan art carved into stone tablets, and of the glyphs found in many of the building and on the sarcophagus of Pakal's tomb....

Amazingly (I think), you are free to climb the stairways and wander inside some of the ancient temples, though not all take the opportunity in the 100 plus degrees of mind melting heat. This is the view from atop the 'Templo de la Cruz' (Temple of the Cross) towards the Palace complex with it's observatory tower and gives some idea of the scale of this massive site....

'Templo de la Sol' (Temple of the Sun) set against the ever encroaching jungle backdrop has Palenque's best preserved roof comb.

We have just two and a half hours at the site - including time for lunch, and this is the main reason I hate coach tours. You could easily spend an entire day here and jogging through the site taking snaps on the move so you can catch a bus seems at odds with the gravitas and history of this civilisation defining setting. There is no time at all to visit the on site museum for an insight into the culture, and maybe some explanation for the mysterious abandonment of the site around 900AD.

It's a bit tragic really and the fact you can camp here increases our regret at not having the extra days to cycle here and spend enough time to do it justice. Still they have some nice flowers to rush past in the botanical gardens....


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