Palenque: graceful jungle ruins

 

palenque sign“A qué hora es el próximo bus a Palenque?”

This was my MO for getting from one place to another in Mexico (and in South America, for that matter): Arrive at the bus station and ask for the next bus to wherever I wanted to go. One was usually leaving in a few minutes.

In this case: “En diez minutos.”

Bingo!

In ten minutes, I was settled on the Palenque-bound bus, a fairly quick trip up highway 199. When we pulled into Tuxtla, however, I felt that nervous  tingle signaling that something was awry. I consulted the paper map I’d carried throughout Mexico which, in the absence of GPS, had been pretty handy.

Yup. Tuxtla was in the opposite direction of Palenque. This bus would go in a big circle before landing in Palenque, in oh, an unknown number of hours from now.

Crap. Note to self: always ask for the next direct bus to…wherever.

I was going to see a lot of the lovely state of Chiapas

About eight later, the bus pulled into the town of Palenque, gateway to the iconic Maya ruins of the same name. While San Cristobál had been in the highlands, Palenque was jungle.

I didn’t want to stay in town, which seemed busy and unremarkable. I was aiming for a place on the highway to the ruins, as close as I could get. My fantasy was to wake up in the morning and walk there. I wanted to stay someplace where the jungle crept through the windows, and the howler monkeys filled the night with eerie wails. Also, as it turned out, where large flying cockroaches dive-bombed my pillow.

I arrived at Mayabell with sweat dripping down my neck. This was more from humidity than heat. Who needs a pool when you can swim in the air? I snagged a private room with a shared bath and paid too much for a basic chicken with rice meal, eavesdropping as those damned Europeans conversed effortlessly in three languages at the neighboring table.

Twice while I was there, I overheard guides telling their Europeans groups, “Oh, the Americans are all shopping on the beaches in Cancun.” Not sure why this was a selling point for Palenque. Besides, it was so patently untrue. Look! Soy aqui! Americana!

But I digress.

The morning was blessedly cloudy. I walked along the road to Palenque, enjoying the strange jungly vegetation that seemed scarcely contained by concrete and asphalt.

palenque-jungle flowers

Palenque is one of the most studied and iconic of the great Maya ruins, even though it’s much smaller than other major sites like Chichen Itza or Tikal. Set in the emerald jungle and saturated with flowing watercourses that gather into pools and waterfalls, it has a mystery and beauty completely unlike the hot desert ruins in the Yucatán.

The Queen's Pools, a peaceful series of shady waterfalls and pools.

The Queen’s Pools, a peaceful series of shady waterfalls and pools.

Palenque began as a village in about 100 BC and reached its zenith as a dwelling place of kings in 650 AD. It was ultimately abandoned in about 800 AD, long before the Spanish conquest. Despite so much scientific attention, most of the site still lies buried by the jungle. There may be 1000 buildings still uncovered in Palenque.

Palenque was not crowded on the cloudy day I visited. Howler monkeys screeched continuously in the background enhancing the mysterious vibe of the place. I wandered around the complex, not really understanding what I was looking at, but absorbing the atmosphere of peace and antiquity. I was selective about which pyramids I invested the effort into climbing. (Those pyramids with their narrow, uneven steps are scary to climb.)

Water is a hallmark of the jungle, and the ancient builders planned their way around (and over) various streams and babbling brooks. (Nine of them around the site, actually) They created aqueducts to control the flow and conducted some of it underground. Some was diverted to the palaces for bathes.

 

Probably the most recognizable building in Palenque--the Temple of Incriptions, which is a mausoleum where the fantastic tomb of Pakal was found. The temple also contains large block of Maya glyphic writing that helped linguists decipher Maya writing.

Probably the most recognizable building in Palenque–the Temple of Incriptions, which is a mausoleum where the fantastic tomb of Pakal was found. The temple also contains large blocks of Maya glyphic writing that helped linguists break the Maya code.

A sprawling complex of courtyards, baths, and rooms where nobility lived and various ritual and bureaucratic functions took place. I did climb this pyramid. So worth it!

A sprawling complex of courtyards, baths, and rooms where nobility lived and various ritual and bureaucratic functions took place. I did climb this pyramid. So worth it!

Roof combs are a characteristic architectural element in Palenque. This structure is part of the 3-pyramid Cross Complex.

Roof combs are a characteristic architectural element in Palenque. This structure is part of the 3-pyramid Cross Complex.

A view from the back--this is only one part of the complex.

A view from the back–a royal road. Imagine these buildings as they once were–stuccoed and painted in bright colors.

Reclaimed from the jungle

Reclaimed from the jungle

Detail of characteristic Maya bas-relief stone carving.

Detail of characteristic Maya bas-relief stone carving.

I wandered in and through the buildings for hours until the skies finally opened and the rain poured down. I was hoping to visit the small museum that houses some of the precious artifacts from the site, but I was so quickly and completely drenched that I changed plans and caught a bus back to Mayabell.

It was full. The receptionist was unsympathetic.

After cogitating on my options, I ended up at El Panchán, about 2 km up the road. It is a meandering, topsy-turvy hippie hangout  with tumbledown cabanas and a storied past. I scored a private, ensuite room for about $12, and considered my damp self lucky. Yes, the electricity and water went out randomly, and someone had to jiggle the pipes and cords outside my princely accommodations. Yes, the place was full of young people doing their young people things, but it was a thatched roof overhead and shelter from the storm.

Hippy hangout. But dry.

One of the rooms at El Panchan. Hippyesque but dry and actually pretty welcoming.

I ended up with food poisoning from chicken soup (!), which scuttled my plans for visiting Agua Azul, a nearby series of pools. My memories of Palenque, however, are of graceful, ancient buildings carved from intense green jungle set against the eerie calls of howler monkeys.

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5 Responses to Palenque: graceful jungle ruins

  1. J 27 June, 2016 at 10:15 pm #

    Lovely post that transplanted me from the tree house room to Palenque and reminded
    me of the reason travel is so important. Love you!

  2. Hollito 27 June, 2016 at 10:06 am #

    Kate, when you visit Agua Azul, also make a short stop at the Misol Ha waterfall, if you can – it´s really nice. And you can go swimming there. :-)

  3. CherylJ 20 May, 2016 at 2:55 pm #

    Your story made me ooh and aah, and chuckle and wonder at ordering chicken, ever, in those environs, and then, the final comment, and oh no!
    Love your words and your pictures, oh you Wander Woman, you.

  4. kate convissor 20 May, 2016 at 9:21 am #

    Thanks Hoz. It’s so fun swapping tales, no?

    I think you’re generally safe with sopa de pollo. This was a fluke. I’ve had lots of it since. Sort of my go-to.

  5. Hoz 20 May, 2016 at 7:05 am #

    Beautiful Kate, I really appreciate your writing and pictures. BTW, I’ve been concentrating on sopa de pollo here in Peru in the hope of avoiding the flux, best laid plans…

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