Yaxchilan and Bonampak – Haunting Ruins in the Jungle

Sail blog post - the remote Mayan ruins of Yaxchilan and Bonampak in Chiapas, Mexico were highlight of inland trip from Marina Chiapas.

Kim Tours starts our day with a big breakfast.

Yaxchilan & Bonampak Tour - Cowboys on horseback hustle cattle down the road.

Cattle are hustled down the road.

Yaxchilan & Bonampak Tour - Boats waiting to take tourists to the ruins upriver.

Boats waiting to take tourists to the ruins upriver.

Yaxchilan & Bonampak Tour - Boats waiting to take tourists to the ruins upriver. Yaxchilan & Bonampak Tour - We all pile into our boat for an hour's journey to Yaxchilán.

We all piled into our boat for an hour's journey

to Yaxchilán.

Yaxchilan & Bonampak Tour - Boats waiting to take us to Yaxchilan Yaxchilan & Bonampak Tour - Our guide.

Our guide.

Yaxchilan & Bonampak Tour - We spot the edge of the Yaxchilán ruins through the trees.

We spot Yaxchilán through

the trees.

Yaxchilan & Bonampak Tour -

Hiking up to the

"Little Acropolis."

Yaxchilan & Bonampak Tour - The

The "Little Acropolis."

Yaxchilan & Bonampak Tour - Entering

Entering "The Labyinth."

Yaxchilan & Bonampak Tour - We emerge...

Light at last…!

Yaxchilan & Bonampak Tour - ...in front of

We emerge in front of "The Labyrinth."

Yaxchilan & Bonampak Tour - Green moss clings to everything.

Green moss clings to everything.

Yaxchilan & Bonampak Tour - Yaxchilan & Bonampak Tour - Yaxchilan & Bonampak Tour - Yaxchilan & Bonampak Tour - Note the boxy hieroglyphs above the doorway.

Note the boxy hieroglyphs carved

in the lintel above the doorway.

Yaxchilan & Bonampak Tour - Structure 33.  When built by Bird Jaguar (752-772), this made quite a sight from the river.

Structure 33.  When built by Bird Jaguar (who reigned

752-772 AD), this made quite a sight from the river.

Yaxchilan & Bonampak Tour - Structure 20.

Structure 20.

Yaxchilan & Bonampak Tour - Yaxchilan & Bonampak Tour - King Bird Jaguar IV plays ball amid symbolism about his rise to power.

King Bird Jaguar IV plays ball amid symbolism and hieroglyphs about his rise to power.

Yaxchilan & Bonampak Tour - King Bird Jaguar IV's mother, Lady Eveningstar.

King Bird Jaguar IV's mother,

Lady Eveningstar.

Yaxchilan & Bonampak Tour - Yaxchilan & Bonampak Tour Yaxchilan & Bonampak Tour -We're faster than that croc, aren't we?

We're faster than that croc, aren't we?

Yaxchilan & Bonampak Tour - Yaxchilan & Bonampak Tour - Van ride for our leg into the Lacadón Forest.

Van ride for our leg into the Lacadón Forest.

Yaxchilan & Bonampak Tour - Bonampak'a main plaza has shaded stelae and an enormous stairway with small buildings.

Bonampak's main plaza.

Yaxchilan & Bonampak Tour - The three doorways leading into the matchless rooms of Mayan murals.

Three doorways lead into three rooms of

matchless Mayan murals.

Yaxchilan & Bonampak Tour - Room 1: Pomp and circumstance for the presentation of Chaan Muan II's infant heir.

Room 1: Pomp and circumstance surround the presentation

of King Chan Muan II's infant heir.

Yaxchilan & Bonampak Tour - Mayans bound their foreheads to flatten them.

The detail -- nearly 1200 years later

-- was astonishing.

Yaxchilan & Bonampak Tour - Yaxchilan & Bonampak Tour -

Celebrating with trumpets.

Yaxchilan & Bonampak Tour - Yaxchilan & Bonampak Tour - Room 2:  Prisoners are tortured by pulling out their fingernails.

Room 2:  Prisoners are tortured by pulling out their fingernails.

Yaxchilan & Bonampak Tour - Room 3:  Nobelwomen pierce their tongues in ritual blood-letting.

Room 3:  Noblewomen pierce their tongues in ritual blood-letting.

Yaxchilan & Bonampak Tour - Lintel above Room 1's doorway:  Chan Muan holds a captive by the hair.

Lintel above Room 1's doorway:  Chan

Muan holds a captive by the hair.

Yaxchilan & Bonampak Tour - Modern day Lacandón girl.

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

pretty fast!

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 views.

The narrow river

meandered between

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

canopied boats.

Who built this stuff

and when?

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

overpopulation).

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

generation.

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

enormous stairway

with small buildings

fills a hillside at the far

end.

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

elaborate headdresses.

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

one back.

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

murals with

kerosene which

brought out the

colors temporarily

but weakened the

plaster so it started

to flake off.  They

photographed like

mad, but today the

photos they took

are considered

incomplete and Yale

has renewed their

efforts to document the

paintings.

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

were.

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.  Mark tried to talk to her, but Spanish and English got him nowhere.

Then he handed her the camera and showed her how to take a picture of

him and she grinned.  They traded taking pics of each other and giggled

at the images on the back of the camera, all language barriers gone.

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.

Click here to see more from our adventure travels in Mexico.

Find Yaxchilán and Palenque on Mexico Maps.