Kim Tours starts our day with a big breakfast.
Cattle are hustled down the road.
Boats waiting to take tourists to the ruins upriver.
We all piled into our boat for an hour's journey
We spot Yaxchilán through
Hiking up to the
The "Little Acropolis."
Entering "The Labyinth."
Light at last…!
We emerge in front of "The Labyrinth."
Green moss clings to everything.
Note the boxy hieroglyphs carved
in the lintel above the doorway.
Structure 33. When built by Bird Jaguar (who reigned
752-772 AD), this made quite a sight from the river.
King Bird Jaguar IV plays ball amid symbolism and hieroglyphs about his rise to power.
King Bird Jaguar IV's mother,
We're faster than that croc, aren't we?
Van ride for our leg into the Lacadón Forest.
Bonampak's main plaza.
Three doorways lead into three rooms of
matchless Mayan murals.
Room 1: Pomp and circumstance surround the presentation
of King Chan Muan II's infant heir.
The detail -- nearly 1200 years later
-- was astonishing.
Celebrating with trumpets.
Room 2: Prisoners are tortured by pulling out their fingernails.
Room 3: Noblewomen pierce their tongues in ritual blood-letting.
Lintel above Room 1's doorway: Chan
Muan holds a captive by the hair.
She got a kick out of taking a
photo of Mark.
Yaxchilán & Bonampak, Mexico
March, 2012 - There are many beautiful things to see in the Palenque area and, for most tourists, rather than struggling to
drive on the little winding roads, the easiest way to see them all is by van tour. Van tours are a big business in this region, and
almost all the vehicles on the small roads outside Palenque are vans filled with tourists. Our van from Kim Tours picked us up at
7:00 a.m. for a 12-hour tour to the remote Mayan ruins of Yaxchilán and Bonampak. After several hours on the road, everyone
in our group was grateful when the van stopped mid-morning for a sumptuous breakfast at a casual open-air restaurant.
Besides van tours, farming and agriculture play an important role
here too, and we watched with amusement as two cowboys on
horseback hustled a herd of cattle down the road while we were
getting back in the van after breakfast. Those cows could trot
After another hour or so of negotiating skinny, speedbump filled
roads, we finally arrived at the river that defines the border
between Mexico and Guatemala, the Río Usumacinta. Here we
boarded a small outboard-driven boat with a canopy top for an
hour-long boat ride up the river. Talk about remote -- these ruins
are really out there!
We were five
couples all together.
Two couples hailed
from Mexico City
and Argentina, and
they gabbed away in
Spanish with each other
and the guide. The other
two couples were from
French Canada and
France, and they
chatted easily in
French. We mostly
listened and enjoyed
The narrow river
thick jungle greenery along its banks. At long
last we spotted a tall pile of rocks between the
trees heralding our arrival at the ruined Mayan
city of Yaxchilán.
We climbed a steep, moist hillside trail and
suddenly found ourselves staring at the
familiar pyramid shape of a huge Mayan building, the "Little
Acropolis." This building was extensive and had rooms and
windows and unroofed hallways that begged to be explored.
However, we were given only an hour to see the whole sight
and the "Great Acropolis" complex of buildings awaited us
further on. If only you could go to a place like this easily on
your own and hang out for a few days...
Hiking back down and then up again,
we came to "The Labyrinth," a crazy
maze of winding tunnels that is pitch
dark inside. We relied on flashes
from our cameras to light the way.
Finally shafts of light penetrated and
we emerged on the other side,
standing in front of a series of doors
into the Labyrinth and looking out
into the Grand Plaza.
The jungle here has been
conquered, seeded with grass lawns, and swept back to reveal these
impressive ruins. But mossy overgrowth clings to everything. As we
wandered past sturdy walls and rows of doorways, two thoughts kept
swirling through my mind: what did this place look like when it was
newly constructed and filled with inhabitants? And what did the
European discoverers think when they first found this large complex of
buildings in the tight grip of the
jungle in the mid-1800's?
It is mind-boggling to think that this
little bend in a nondescript, brown
silty river was once a very important
spot, a destination, a port for trade.
Today it would be indistinguishable
from the rest of the jungle
riverbanks if it weren't for the
sprinkling of tourists
arriving every few
hours in colorful
Who built this stuff
Fortunately, Yaxchilán is loaded with doorway and window
lintels that are covered with square-shaped Mayan
hieroglyphic text, and they tell the story. Unraveling the
meaning behind Mayan hieroglyphs began in the late
19th century, when the numeric system was first
deciphered. Major breakthroughs came in the 1980's
(while studying lists of rulers in Palenque), and now
90% of Mayan writings can be read. The history of
conquests, defeats and transfers of power in Yaxchilán
are surprisingly well known, right down to specific days
and years due to the detailed Mayan calendar.
The area was likely settled by 250 AD, but
the first historic text points to 359 AD when
Yaxchilán's first ruler ascended the thrown.
Rulers with evocative names like "Bird
Jaguar" and "Moon Skull" reigned for
centuries, each date of ascension to the
throne carefully recorded in stone. One
ruler's wife, Lady Pakal, lived to the ripe old
age of 98. That may not have been a typical
ancient Mayan lifespan, but the ruling class
obviously lived well.
The city reached its peak in the early 8th
century, and most of the ruins date from that
time period when the reigning king (who lived
into his nineties) went on a building spree.
The amazing thing at this site, besides the expansive
grounds filled with 120 or so ruined buildings, is the
detailed carvings on the lintels. Passing under a
doorway you look up and see the most beautiful and
intricately carved stone just overhead. The images are
clear, and archaeologists have sorted out what almost
all of them depict -- with the help of the descriptive boxy
hieroglyphs that accompany each one.
One relief shows King Bird Jaguar IV playing ball in the
ball court, a game that had deep mystical overtones in
Mayan culture. The text around the images makes reference to
both blood letting and the decapitation of three deities leading to
three "dawnings." Two dwarfs are marked with the signs of Venus.
It is thought that they figuratively sweep the path for this rising king
as Venus sweeps the path for the rising sun.
Now it helps to know a little background about this guy Bird Jaguar IV. He was not born
in direct line to the throne, being the son of the 2nd wife rather than the 1st wife of the
king. It seems his mother, Lady Eveningstar, was quite ambitious for her son, however,
and there might have been a power struggle after her husband's death. She may have
even ruled Yaxchilán temporarily while she waited for her boy to grow up and take
over. After nearly ten years her son was finally crowned King Bird Jaguar IV.
Another relief shows this woman, the ambitious Lady Eveningstar, dressed to the nines.
Yaxchilán and its neighbors alternated between being friends and enemies, making
alliances through marriage, and taking each other's kings captive by turns. Victory
seems to have rotated between the city-states for a while, but Yaxchilán seems to have
come out on top in the early 9th century AD before
the entire ancient Mayan world slipped away into the
grasp of the jungle (possibly due to deforestation and
One of the nearby rivals was Bonampak, and
fortunately for us, its unique ruins were our next stop.
First, however, we had to take another river boat ride
back to the van. Waiting to see us off at the river's
edge was a very large, grinning crocodile. Our
boatman took us pretty close to this fellow so we
could get a good look, but he assured us our
outboard engine was
faster than the croc!
The ruined Mayan city of Bonampak is situated in the
Lacandón Jungle where a very special group of
indigenous people, the Lacandones, make their home,
deep in the rainforest. When the Spanish arrived in the
16th century, the Lacandón people retreated further
into the rainforest and were never discovered.
Although they had frequent contact with other Mayan-descended groups through the centuries, the rugged lands around them
helped them keep the world at bay, retain their identity and avoid the fate of most other indigenous groups for a long time.
Numbering just 650 or so native speaking Lacandón people today, it is only in the last fifty years that relentless logging,
ranching and tourism development have invaded their space and forced them to go through the conversions and changes that
the rest of Mexico underwent four hundred years ago. Besides learning Spanish, many converted to Christianity (mostly
Protestantism). Conversion was a change the men largely frowned upon because of its intolerance of polygamy. But the
women favored the idea because there was very little ritualistic cooking involved (unlike their own traditions). Ironically, the
recent introduction of TV and popular culture has largely brought an end to spiritual rituals of any kind among the younger
Today the Lacandones hang onto their traditions as best they can while
participating in the modern economy by working within the tourist trade.
They offer a peak into their world selling hand-crafted items, shuttling
tourists to ancient Mayan sites, taking them on tours of the rainforest, and
hosting them overnight.
At the edge of their land we were transferred into a van driven by a
Lacandón man in traditional dress (a white sack-like garment with wide
short sleeves). He spoke perfect Mexican Spanish and wore an official
badge. As I watched him behind the wheel I wondered what his
grandfather would have thought of his grandson chauffeuring international
tourists into his homeland in a van. Would his own future grandkids want
to stay in the forest, hosting tourists and preserving the memory of a
vanishing culture, instead of joining mainstream Mexican society?
The main plaza of the
Bonampak ruins are
very compact. A few
large, carved stelae
under shade canopies
are sprinkled across a
wide lawn. An
with small buildings
fills a hillside at the far
We climbed the stairs and poked our heads into the first doorway of the little white
building half-way up. Holy mackerel! We were absolutely blown away.
Inside was a single room with a steeply vaulted ceiling, and every single square inch of
the interior was painted with extraordinary, brightly colored frescoes. In the images
encircling the room people were engaged in all kinds of activities, wearing loincloths and
The side-view stance of each figure looked like those of the ancient Egyptians with the
feet placed one before the other and head in profile. But unlike the Egyptians the
shoulders were shown in side-view rather than twisted with one shoulder forward and
We moved on to
the next doorway
and found another similar room with a
totally different story to tell, and likewise
inside the third doorway. Wow!
Bonampak's construction began in the 6th
century, but the paintings were completed
in 790 AD. This was the same time that
Charlemagne was rising to power in
Europe and the Vikings were beginning
their raids in England.
These murals were "discovered" in 1946
when a Yale researcher was brought to
them by a Lacandón guide. The
Lacandones had revered the murals and
worshipped at the site and never shown
them to outsiders before. Sadly, in an
effort to document and preserve them
(hadn't they been preserved already for
1,150 years?), the scientists covered the
brought out the
but weakened the
plaster so it started
to flake off. They
mad, but today the
photos they took
incomplete and Yale
has renewed their
efforts to document the
Standing there, jaw agape, however, I didn't
care how much the paintings had faded in
the last 60 years. They are magnificent.
The expansive story-telling nature of the
paintings and their incredible detail had all of
us visitors oohing and ahhing to each other
in the doorways.
We later learned that the first room depicts
the presentation of the son and heir of King
Chan Muan II and Lady Rabbit (a
noblewoman from nearby Yaxchilán), in 790 AD, with great processions, trumpet playing and fanfare.
Unfortunately the city was abandoned before the infant came into power. The second room depicts the
violent conquering of an unknown enemy. Among several gruesome scenes, the unfortunate captives are
being tortured by having their fingernails pulled out. The third depicts a royal celebration, including ritual
blood-letting that the noblewomen performed by piercing their tongues.
Like Yaxchilán, the lintels over the doorways are highly decorated,
and the image carved over the first door shows King Chan Muan
holding a captive by the hair. Not only is the carving beautifully
executed, but the original blue painted background and some of the
red trim can be seen even today. Astonished by their good
condition, I had to ask the attendant if the lintels were original -- and they
While I was standing in awe of all this, trying to twist my body so I could
get the best possible shots of the murals despite the restrictive tourist
barriers, Mark had wandered off down the hill. When I caught up to him
he excitedly showed me a photo of a little Lacandón girl he had taken.
These ruins were her playground, and she climbed among the trees and
played with sticks in the dust as she watched the tourists coming and
going. At first she had been shy about having her photo taken, but when
Mark handed her the camera and asked her to take a picture of him first
she eagerly agreed. They giggled looking at the images on the back of
the camera together.
We got back to Palenque exhausted but happy. It had been quite a day.
But after a rest day in town we were ready to go again to see the famous
Agua Azul and Misol-Ha waterfalls.
Find Yaxchilán and Palenque on Mexico Maps.