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Dave and Jan's travels, day 249:

23rd January
Palenque is a nice enough little town, but there are only two reasons to be there. One involves a coffee shop that actually serves fresh coffee, and the other is a Mayan ruin. What's that, you've had enough Mayan sites? Tough luck, because Palenque is the base from which we saw both the Palenque ruins and from which we mounted an excursion into the jungle to see two more ruins, named Bonampak and Yaxchilan.

Palenque is one of the better understood Mayan ruins, largely because its rulers chose to record vast amounts of information about themselves and their deeds, by having it inscribed on every available surface. Oddly, one of the more frequently used spaces seems to have been the underside of door lintels. Why there? One theory is that the inscriptions were reserved for the eyes of nobles, who would see this as the plebs carried them around on palenquins. I'm not buying that, but I have to confess that I don't have a better idea.

The site is reminiscent of Tikal, nestling in the jungle with mist swirling all around. The site includes a many-roomed Palacio where the nobles used to live, a group of three beautifully carved temples each atop its own hundred foot mound, and the Temple of the Inscriptions, aka the big king's burial chamber. All beautiful, but you really have to have been there to appreciate it.

The next day saw our trip down toward the Guatemalan border and the two other sites. Part of the charm of these is that they are three hours by bus down a bumpy dirty cul de sac, and one is a further hour down the crocodily river. All this means that they don't get a lot of tour buses and are consequently peaceful.

Not that they aren't also spectacular. Bonampak is quite small, but contains a unique mural. It's colours are stunningly well-preserved, but it's the subject matter that is most surprising. Now, I'd always assumed that a Mayan nobleman would have lived in the lap of luxury, but there was,as it turns out, quite a price to pay. Your obligations to the common people included bleeding yourself for them. For women, a spiked cord was passed through the tongue: for men the mutilation happened somewhere else altogether more concerning. And the murals that aren't showing this stuff show wars, and the post war treatment of captives. This consisted of removal of the fingers prior to death. Lovely people, but until this mural was discovered the consensus was that the Mayans had been pacifists. It makes you wonder how many more of the "facts" we know about the Mayans are one discovery away from debunking.

Yaxchilan is notable for its carvings, some of which appear at the right. Otherwise it's a quiet, peaceful and wistful collection of buildings buried in deep jungle.


   (click thumbnails for a larger picture)


Mayan head, Palenque

Mural, Bonampak