19.12.2007 - 22.12.2007
The night bus from Merida to Villahermosa went all ok. Once in Villahermosa, we hopped onto a second class bus to Palenque and we were checked into our Palenque accomodation by 2 pm. In Mexico there are two bus systems: first class, comfortable, incredibly expensive and prone to hibernate the passengers, and second class, consisting of buses of medium-low standard which tend to make more stops and do not send people into hibernation. Second class buses tend to cost much much less than the others, sometimes half the price or less, and, as far as we are concerned, they are perfectly fine for short journeys say under 7 hours.
In Palenque we decided to stay in El Panchan, a cluster of accomodation and restaurants a couple of kilometers from the ruins. According to the Lonely Planet, El Panchan is the epicentre of Palenque's alternative scene and home to a Bohemian bunch of Mexicans and foreigners including a number of archaeologists and anthropologists. Well, it is all true. The place is really nice, in fact, with different places offering cabana-style accomodation all situated around a centre area with tables and chairs where people can choose from a couple of restaurants. We picked Margarita & Ed, a really nice and clean place. The 'bohemian' residents are well visible and there is live music every night, as well as drums and fire dancing. Also a few travel agencies and an Internet cafe', making it practically perfect for any traveller. Last night the place was so packed that there were no tables left. We ended up sharing the table with two innocent-looking older American ladies and soon after with a strange fellow from Norway as well, who simply turned up and started to speak to Gregory. People do this quite often, to just look at Gregory and start talking to him. It turned out that the strange fellow was indeed strange - Gregory and he spoke about astronomy for a good half an hour, till we gathered from here and there that he was some sort of acupuncturist with a business in San Marco La Laguna in Guatemala, and into scientology and other strange things. Then, when the restaurant we were in just stopped making pizzas (it was 11 pm) and after having been sitting there for a good couple of hours, he left us to go to the other restaurant to eat pizza. Doh?? Soon after he left, the two ladies started complaining to the waiter that their cocktails contained no alcohol and were given a complimentary drink: by then they had started a heavy discussion around the Maya, with one stating that the Maya kings were all about power and were using their knowledge for their own personal power, and the other lady insisting that it was not the case whatsoever, they really all believed in all the gods and the sun and they were out for the people etc. When we asked one of them if she was an archeologist or astronomer or what, she replied that she was into 'Maya studies', specifically 'archeoastronomy'.... The restaurant shut and we were practically thrown out, so the discussion came to a quiet end.
The ancient Maya city of Palenque, with its jungle setting and many well-preserved temples, is one of the best ever. We went in at opening time again, 8 am, however, unlike Chichen Itza, most guided tours here start at this time, so we did not gain much advantage in terms of crowds. Overall, however, there were no real crowds and people were well distributed around the site without making it feel too packed. It was a fairly clouded day, which apparently was a very good thing, since the sun here is very strong and the place hot and humid. We heard the howler monkeys all around us, but saw none. In total we managed to spend another four hours of wandering time here, going up and down the temple staircases and finally visiting the nearby museum, which stocks finds from the site including an incredible, huge stone sarcophagus belonging to Pakal, the most important ruler of Palenque. Pakal lived to the then-incredible age of 80!
Palenque flourished during what is known as the Classic period (about AD 250 to 900) and was abandoned in 900 AD, after which time it was quickly overgrown by the jungle and discovered again in 1746. In 1831 the European Count of Waldeck went and lived up in one of the temples for two years!! The ruins are still very much in place, but the humid environment of the jungle is a real issue around their conservation, with much of the marginal temples covered in green moss and mould.
Just like Chichen Itza, though less spectacularly, like our American friend explained to us last night, all the Palenque temples are aligned around solstices and equinoxes and the stars in general. We did not take a guide here or in Chichen Itza and so maybe we have missed some bits and pieces. Generally, we have gone into the ruins wandering around and enjoying the place, taking pictures according to estethics and not other important astronomic or so factors.... But we have done a bit of basic reading in the guide and we now know a little more than before. For example, the Maya were not so gruesome like it appeared back in Chichen Itza. They certainly did not practice a lot of sacrifices during the Classical period, when they were flourishing, but they did so in the post-Classical one, when they were declining and were being taken over by other civilizations. Chichen Itza in particular was the product of both the Maya and the Toltec people, where lots more human sacrifices took place (nothing much noticed in Palenque to this respect) and where the feathered serpent god - Kukulcan - was introduced by the Toltecs, who were really bloody. From there it went even worse, with the Aztecs taking over power in Mexico in the 14th century and sacrificing their prisoners right left and centre, where they had warrior gods who 'demanded' a diet of hearts of the sacrificed captives. The Aztecs believed that they lived in the fifth world, whose four predecessors had been destroyed by the death of the sun and humanity. So their human sacrifices were designed to keep the sun alive!!! Apocalypto by Mel Gibson is meant to describe the Aztec, not the Maya.
What is interesting is that the most credible theory about their disappearance says that they declined due to over-population and a general over-exploitation of their resources, as well as a prolonged draught...
Here are some of our favourite pics.
All this architecture was carried out without the use of the wheel, metal tools or pack animals. The temples were originally painted red with blue and yellow stucco details.
Today we took a day trip to some spectacular water attractions: Misol-ha, a 35 meter waterfall which frankly did not impress us; Aguas de Santa Clara, a beautiful turquoise river with a suicidal swing bridge which is crumbling apart and which Gregory refused to pass, fearing that the wood would give way under his weight; and finally Agua Azul, an amazing site of white waterfalls thundering into turquoise pools a little bit like in Semuc Champey, but with much more force. The current is quite strong and it is not possible to bathe in all the pools or in all areas of the pools - nevertheless bathing is really pleasant, especially given the strength of the sun and the outside temperature in a jungle setting.
Aguas de Santa Clara Photos
Agua Azul, almost more spectacular than Semuc!