A Visit to Palenque

March 27, 2010 in Mexico, North America, Travelogue


Three connected temples, The Temple of Inscriptions is in the foreground, under the palm hut is the tomb of the Red Queen

Mist wrapped and nestled in the jungle, Palenque is one of those magical places where time seems to stand still.  Of course upon arrival one must run the usual gauntlet of tiny children selling beaded necklaces and Mamas, with babies tied on their backs, selling woven belts and blankets.  It was more than a little amusing to watch Tony, determined to develop his budding Spanish, work to clarify to the swarthy fellows laden with buckets and sponges that we wanted ONLY to park, NO car wash.  Their expressions said it all, “How could his gringo NOT want a car wash with three months of accumulated dirt caked so thick that the license plate can’t be read?”  “No way,” Tony snorted as he locked up the van and brushed off a teenager selling peanuts and those revolting, tasteless potatoe puffs that Tony says are just chile delivery devices, “Who knows what THAT would cost me on the way out!”  The crushed stone pathways that wind through the jungle shade are lined at every turn with blankets spread out to display local wares, from pottery to leather work, to every manner of kitschy beaded nonsense meant to grab the eye of the tour bus crowd.  It’s a time honored tradition and, with the exception of the car wash crew, I suspect that in 650 AD, when Palenque rose and flourished, the scene was similar.

Jungle elves

Of all the ruins we’ve clambered to the top of since I was eight, I think this one is my favourite.  The architecture is so beautiful, and unique and the buildings are amazingly well preserved and varied.  The location is stunning, surrounded by lush green jungle, tucked into the fringe of the mountains of Chiapas, a pale reflection of the Guatemalan highlands farther south.  And then, there are the tombs.



Pakal's jade mask

I’ll never forget the heavy, dank scent of the stale air or the oppressive weight of a thousand and a half years building slowly as we descended the narrow, damp staircase down into the bowels of the Temple of Inscriptions.  I was just Hannah’s age and had to duck a little and turn my shoulders sideways at the points where the tunnel narrowed and changed direction as we journeyed down.  The tomb of Pakal is the first tomb of a Mayan lord that was ever discovered in the ancient cities of Mexico.  He was king of Palenque for over sixty years and lived to be over eighty.  His intricately carved stone sarcophagus was found guarded by stucco warriors and laden with jade treasures.  The inside looks like it’s covered in ice beginning to drip from the ceilings and walls, but really it’s a layer of lime, built up over the centuries as rain water has seeped its way into the inner sanctum of the pyramid and added it’s own glory to the tomb of the ancient king.  Of course it’s closed to the public now.  Many of the great pyramids are not as accessible as they were twenty years ago.  On one hand, it makes me sad not to be able to take my children to the exhilarating tops of these big rock piles and down into the underworld hidden beneath; on the other hand, the steady increase in tourism would soon wear these treasures away to nothing as the sweat, body heat and many feet ate away at antiquity.  Instead, we contented ourselves with the replica in the museum; still plenty impressive to eyes who’ve never seen the real thing.  We studied the carvings on the heavy stone lid of Pakal’s grave and I told the children about the Mayan creation story that it is said to represent.  I also told them about the folks who believe the far fetched notion that these ancient cultures were birthed out of their interaction with visitors from some other world and we noted the striking similarity of the carvings to our modern images of a space ships.

View from the top of a temple

I sat beneath an old Ceiba tree writing postcards and talking with the little children who inevitably find me.  I must have explained to five separate little people that the red and blue metal bottles we’re carrying are for water.  This always generates wide-eyed surprise in the local kids.  I haven’t figured out why, as water bottles are not uncommon.    I doled out cookies and heard the excited stories brought back to me from my little mountain goats, who scale these big rock piles at dizzying speed wherever we find them.  “Mom!  That one is the palace and the government complex!  Daddy showed us all around and he told us where to get our donkey licensed and where to pay our parking ticket and everything!” reported Ezra with a goofy grin.  They carefully transported me between Ceiba trees and stone benches, installing me with cookies and a water bottle before exploring the next set of ruins.


The crypt of the Red Queen

Having fallen hard yesterday and twisted my left ankle and right knee pretty significantly, I could only muster the strength to climb one.  I saved my energy for the tomb of the Red Queen.  She was buried in the pyramid next to Pakal’s tomb, and is called “the Red Queen” because the inside of her sarcophagus and her entire body were covered in a fine red dust that looks a lot like the achiote spice I take home from here to make pollo pibil.  Her tomb is still open to the public and the inside of the stone crypt is still frightfully red.  While Pakal was left in his grave, the Red Queen is gone.  All that remains is her echo in red silt.  The kids were slightly non-plussed, but for me, she was worth the climb.