Digging Palenque out from under the Jungle

Digging Palenque out from under the Jungle

There are more than 300 Mayan cities in existence, though MOST HAVE NEVER BEEN EXCAVATED AND ARE COMPLETELY COVERED IN JUNGLE. . .  Having spent days in the community in the jungles/rainforest of Chiapas at El Panchán, it was finally time to explore the Mayan Ruins of PALENQUE. Renowned for its size and stunning architecture and for the fact that is was hidden for longer than many other Mayan cities, we call it Palenque because the first Spaniard to visit the site in 1567 called it palenc (a Catalán word/una palabra catalana) meaning fortification. To the Maya it was LAKAM HA (literally meaning Big Water). Palenque’s Archeological Site is the legacy of an important Mayan empire, whose ruins date from as early as 226 BC until about 799 AD. There is a lot of evidence though in the site’s carvings and inscriptions that the era with the most fascinating and powerful dynasties was the 5th-8th centuries. There were some glorious times and other periods wrought with war against rival empires. Through it all, some Mayan leader ruled here until the beginning of the 9th century. This is when the city became nearly abandoned, except for some who remained and used the land for agricultural reasons. Lakam Ha, or Palenque wasn’t truly disrupted by outsiders until the 18th Century when Spaniards returned and began doing the usual: Search and Destroy. Whether intentionally or not, the damaging of important structures and sacred buildings happened under the Spanish military Colonel Antonio del Río.

 Why were the Spanish always fucking shit up? And apparently, my very very extremely distant important Spanish relative? (a certain colonel del Río). . . POR QUÉ? That’s bad for the del Río name

In del Río’s expedition there were also architects and surveyors along, so at the very least, these more sensible men prevented worse damage. They saw the importance of this place, documenting Palenque in sketches and noting what remained here albeit it buried. Archeologists in the later centuries were faced the monumental task of digging out Palenque from under the Mexican Jungle. When I was physically there staring down from one of the pyramids on site, it was blatantly evident how immersed this City/Archeological Site is in its natural setting and that’s certainly part of its attraction now.  

Jungle covers Palenque, Mexico
Edge of the Temple of the Cross, covered by Palenque Jungle
Palenque's jungle, Chiapas Mexico
Jungles of Palenque
Temple of the Sun, Palenque Mexico
Looking down at Temple of the Sun, from the steps of the Temple of the Cross
Temple of Inscriptions, Palenque Mexico
Templo de Inscripciones
Mayan Palace/Palacio in Palenque, Mexico
Inside the Palace/Dentro del Palacio
Mayan temples in Mayan Archeological Site in Palenque, Mexico
Mayan legacy, the temples of Palenque
Inviting, isn't it, Mayan city of Palenque Mexico
Are you intrigued?

I’m going to tell you now that I didn’t get much of the history while at the site. I decided not to hire a guide as my friend Kalimba offered to show me around, though he never claimed to be an expert on all things Palenque. Didnt matter to me. It was nice to be visiting another Archeological site in México, one that was full of Mayan Magic. Magic you say? Because when you are there standing atop those structures or temples, you feel so connected to something higher than yourself.

Whether it’s because you are physically higher and therefore closer to the heavens, or because every direction you turn has jungle views that make you swoon, I felt the MAGIC!

Temple of the Inscriptions/templo de las Inscripciones Palenque
Stunning Temple of the Inscriptions/Templo de las Inscripciones

Why not a little history now?

This temple pictured above in Mayan is called B’olon Yej Teʼ Naah, which means House of the 9 Sharpened Spears/Casa de las Nueve Lanzas Afiladas. The Mayan names are much more interesting don’t you think? This temple cannot be climbed. It stands 75 feet tall and contains an important crypt inside because it was built in honor of the ruler K’INICH JANAAB’ PAKAL, who ruled here for 68 years. He’s often called PAKAL or PAKAL THE GREAT, which means shield in Mayan. In 1948 they found what they thought could be his tomb in the pyramid, and 4 years later they accessed it after careful excavation. Pakal’s body was there, his bones and rich adornments to accompany . . . I realized while standing there in front of Pakal’s empty tomb that years ago I had seen something similar. 8 years before I had seen the replication of this tomb in the Museo Nacional de Antropología e Historia en D.F., México / Nacional Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City.

Mayan Ruler Pakal's tomb, Palenque
Pakal the Great’s tomb in Palenque
Pakal en Museo de Anthropologia, Mexico
Pakal’s Tomb replication in the Nacional Museum of Anthropology, D.F.

The tomb displayed in Mexico City’s Museum is a replica, but the JADE MOSAIC MASK of K’inich Janaab’ Pakal is the original one dug up in Palenque. So 8 years ago I saw Pakal’s real burial mask and the precious jade adornments, photographed them (sorry for the quality it was pre-iPhones and before I owned a DSLR) and in the summer of 2015 I happened upon the original site, Pakal’s original burial tomb, in a city that had never even planned to come visit in Chiapas.

That’s life reminding me that I am doing something right. That’s life knowing better than us and always taking us where we will learn and grow the most and for that I am grateful.

Temple of the Cross, Palenque Mexico
QU-EEN atop the Temple of the Cross

This structure is known as the Temple of the Cross/Templo de la Cruz, and can be climbed. Look really closely and you’ll see that I’m that tiny speck at the very top. This temple is the biggest and most important in this zone, built by K’inich Kan Balham II (Snake Jaguar). Inside the temple he had sculptures/carvings/hieroglyphs made to tell of his divine lineage. Nothing like tooting your own horn to let the people know why you rule, DIVINELY CHOSEN of course. The Temple of the Cross was dedicated to the Mayan god GI, or Hunahpu. This photo doesn’t do justice to just how massive this pyramid is. Massive pyramid means Massive Climb, one that made my heart palpitate rapidly as I took each step with caution, creating the intention to not trip or fall. Once I reached the top I had to catch my breath too, but that was the easy part. After all that effort though I didn’t care to come back down. I could have stayed up there hours for those views. In its most prosperous time Palenque reached 25 square miles in size. If you google Palenque you’ll find that about only half of one square mile has been unearthed. In 10 or 20 years we might discover much much more about the Maya of Lakam Ha, and that’s an exciting thing. Archeologists and historians keep coming back as more of this site becomes revealed, and so too do the tourists.

Magic Connection in Mayan Lands

Palanque Sites, Ruinas Maya, Mexico
Side angle of Temple of the Cross; excavated carvings; and Frida and I pointing to the Temple of Inscriptions
Maya sculpture of Lakam Ha/Palenque, Mexico
Various stages of preserved sculptures/carvings in Palenque

Mayan sculptures found at Palenque's Site

Mayan carvings in Mayan Archeological Site in Palenque, Mexico
Carvings in the Temple of the Sun
The Smoking God, or God L, Temple of the Cross Palenque Mexico
The Smoking God, or God L, represented in the Temple of the Cross

That’s something I haven’t mentioned yet. I was really lucky to have seen the site with relative peace, **ahem in other words with minimal tourists and distracting selfie sticks. We didn’t arrive very early, it was just a whim to go in the afternoon one day, but it felt like we had the place to ourselves. I also was in Mexico during low season, end of September to early October which meant less tourists in all the cities I visited throughout the Yucatán and Chiapas. From El Panchán it’s just a 10 minute drive to the Archeological Site and you can take a cheap Colectivo/Combi (a shared van) or walk. If you walk it’s over an hour, but we saw people doing it. I just don’t advise you do it during the hottest times of day. Remember it’s a tropical/rainforest climate here. It’s humid. It’s downright hot and sweaty which is why my unofficial guide Kalimba was shirtless for most of the day. I too thought about taking my shirt off more than once, not exaggerating. I had a bikini top underneath. I was ready. . . But something told me to just ride it out, and when Kalimba told me he’d take me to some waterfalls near the site afterward I was thrilled.

This Goddess comes alive in HA / WATER !!!

Some facts about the MAYA you may not know

Out of thousands of Original Native Manuscripts that existed, only 3 Maya texts survived (and 12 Aztec ones). . . because the Spaniards BURNED THE REST.

WOMEN WERE ALLOWED TO RULE absolutely in some cases, like the Mayan Yohl Ik’nal (ruled 583-604 AD) and Sak K’uk (ruled 612-615 AD and then passed title to her son).

Aztec Resistance lasted only 2-5 years from when Spaniard HERNAN CORTES arrived on their soil. Inca Resistance was 40 years.

The Last Mayan city was taken by the Spanish in 1697… MAYA RESISTANCE was 180 years, lasting until 1697 when the Mayan city of Tayasal in Guatemala fell. In 1622 it was documented that Maya here were sacrificing Spaniards atop a pyramid. In various Mayan cities they burned and destroyed the Spanish Catholic churches too, as demonstration of their resistance to be subjugated.Palenque Mexico's Mayan Legacy, carvings and sculptures

I have so much respect and love for this beautiful culture and love learning more and more about them. There will be a few more posts in the “GET LOST IN. . . ” Series that are not to be missed. My heart is always somewhere in my MÉXICO LINDO and I’m glad I can bring you along.

Next up:Yaxchilan and Bonampak, Chiapas, Mexico


15 Responses

  1. Leticia del Rio

    What a beautiful place to explore!♡

  2. Wow, there is so much history here, simply amazing! Would you recommend using a guide?

  3. Ellie Cleary

    These look absolutely stunning from your pictures! Thanks for sharing so much about the history of the ruins too. I will definitely make sure to visit these when I make it to mexico (one day :-)). Happy travels!

  4. This is great read to know some of the history of all these places. Hoping to be visiting them someday.

  5. This look soooo interesting! Are there typically a lot of people and you just happened to catch it at a time when the crowds were low or is it usually not a very popular destination?

  6. Very informative and elaborate. Shows how much you have learnt from your travels. I have gone through your site and can say your work is real quality with great descriptions. Following your site as I can learn a lot and visit these places

  7. I wish I spent more time in Mexico to see this, I’ll have to back for sure. I’ve always been interested in Palenque. I had a Nancy Drew game when I was younger that took place there with all the ruins and things. It was one of my favorites so I’d love to actually see it!

  8. Holy shit. This post is amazing. I’m saving it and also following your blog bc I plan to spend a month in Mexico exploring Chiapas and was wondering how to get to Palenque. The history was awesome and how you described your feelings made me feel like I was there. Awesome post!

  9. I love that the ruins are still surrounded by jungle, and the relative lack of tourists! I visited Teotihuacan and had to get up at 5am to avoid the big crowds! I love Mexico so much, thanks for sharing this place I hadn’t heard of.

  10. Wow, what a great trip. It brings me back to the time I was in Turkey and Pammukale, looking at all the historical sites. I love the detail you put into doing the research after you got back 🙂

  11. Thanks for taking us to these amazing historical sites through your detailed descriptions. Nothine like historical accounts to make us appreciate a place.

  12. The history behind the place is amazing, would love to go there and experience it. although I feel that if you get lost there for real then there is no chance of people finding you any soon! Haha!

  13. The jungle setting behind the Mayan ruins of Palenque is absolutely stunning. Nice that you got to explore the ruins on a less crowded day. And how neat that you saw Pakal’s real Jaded Mosaic burial mask.

  14. Wow your pictures are inspiring! This looks like such a cool place to visit, I can’t believe out of all their texts, only 3 survived! Thanks for sharing insights into this temple!

  15. The Palenque ruins were my most favorite in Mexico, loved exploring these ruins, especially with the sounds of howler monkeys haunting the trees…Did you go further down into the jungle were there is that incredible waterfall?

Leave a Reply