Thursday, March 20, 2014

Palenque

Welcome to yet another side of Mexico: Palenque! We are now in Chiapas, Indian territory, and even though it's officially a part of Mexico, the people living in Chiapas clearly don't see it that way. For tourists like us it's more different from the rest of Mexico than you might think. Even Spanish, which is the main language in Mexico, is no longer spoken here. People's faces have changed yet again too. The Indians are in general of much smaller built, differently dressed, menus have changed, credit cards don't work anymore at petrol stations and the only link to Mexico seems to be the peso. 

Visiting the Mayan ruins of Palenque today, it became clear why. For thousands of years the Mayans lived in an area that comprised Honduras, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Belize, Chiapas, Michoacán and Oaxaca,  roughly up to Mexico City. Further north, the area where we were before, was inhabited by the Aztecs. The Mexican borders as we know them today were drawn in much later and are not recognised by the Mayans. Hence all the troubles in southern Mexico, which is similar to the situation with the Basques in Spain.

So far we haven't been caught up in any problems between Indians and the Mexican Government, apart from seeing an enormous military presence everywhere. I'm wondering what we can expect in Belize and Guatemala though.

Palenque is at the moment known for 3 things. The ruins, the Howler Monkeys and more recently: trouble! The troubles seem to be over for the moment, but my gut feeling tells me it can re-start any moment. Having said that we haven't encountered problems so far, but the people here are clearly not as happy as in Nayarit for instance.

The Mayabel campground is a good spot to camp. Walking distance to the ruins, good place to stay and a restaurant on the campground. The Howler Monkeys can be heard here all day and even more clearly at night. They make a weird almost primeval sound. It's hard to explain, they sound almost like an old asthmatic vacuum cleaner. It's not only the Howler Monkeys that caught our eye (or ear..), cockroaches are everywhere too, mosquitos are a plague, it's sticky hot and everything is green from mould. Welcome to the tropics I suppose :-)

We took a collectivo to the top entrance of the Palenque ruins. For 20 pesos a head we were dropped at the top entrance with a minivan and only had to walk down from there, instead of walking to the south entrance and climbing up all day! As usual in Mexico, people were selling copies of artefacts before we had even entered the archaeological site itself. Some of the artefacts were made on the spot, in front of our eyes and quite beautiful. Several guides offered their services too but some 'guides' were as young as 15, which makes me wonder how much they actually know of the place. Then again some of the sellers were a lot younger than that.

For some reason March seemed to be the tourist bus season and we found quite a few groups of mostly French and German nationality being guided around. Not a problem, well, apart from one group of German tourists that thought it was quite acceptable to swamp around our carefully selected picnic spot and almost stood on our shoes… Jeanette said I couldn't kick them down the stairs… why not I wondered, it would solve our problem quite effectively I thought :-)

The ruins are impressive. Well cared for, very accessible and the size of the whole complex is huge. The Palenque ruins are one of the most important ruins of Mayan cities in the world. Walking through them I can't help but being impressed. The building style, the architecture and the structurally sound building practises are amazing. They used corbel vaults to support roof structures, worked with central bearing walls, lintels and friezes… in 250AD! Building anything this big from stone without cranes, hoists etc is impressive, but the way they built it is much more than just that. There is more and more evidence that the Mayan had a written language too, using a highly developed glyphic system with pictograms. Up until 50 years ago most of the system remained a mystery and it was only recently discovered that the glyphs represented proper syllables. Since that discovery the names and dates of various Mayan rulers have come to light. How they lived, important events that happened in their lives and when. 

The Palenque ruins comprise over 21 temples, a palace, residential complexes, a ceremonial complex and it has 5 different walking routes to see it all The artwork and tablets on display are impressive. Some are 'as-is' while others have been repaired sympathetically. There is a lot of conservation work being done all the time. The level of maintenance is high. Seeing it all in one day is possible but is hard work, which isn't all that easy as it's in the tropics and thus decisively humid and sticky. Bring plenty of water, there is non for sale inside the ruins, only outside. In the museum, which is also very much worth a visit and included in the entry fee, there is a booklet for sale 'Guide to Palenque' which is a collaboration between Arqueología Mexicana and the Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia. For 70 pesos (US$ 5.5) it gives a wealth of information on everything there is to see.

Palenque is known for its quality of architecture, sculptural work and the many in scripted tablets. Walking through the enormous site I'm surprised at how cultural this part of Mexico is. Which is in a way double surprising as I was already very much impressed with Mexico's history and culture we have seen so far. At school we were only told about the Romans, the Greek and the Egyptians as being advanced for their time.

The palaces, the written language and high quality artefacts I saw here give me the impression of a strong and advanced Mayan culture. A culture I knew nothing much about. At school I was simply taught the Mayans were the biggest tribe in Central and South America and that they used to have lots of gold… nothing much else. For real advanced cultures we had to look at Greece and Egypt… now that I'm here, I see pyramid like structures, palaces, written history, high quality architecture, advanced building practises, sarcophagi type burials, temples, Mayan Gods, high quality artwork and beautiful and elaborate decorations… and I wonder. The Mayans also had a calendar and had worked out there are 365 days in a year. According to the Mayans a year has 19 months, 18 months of 20 days and one month of just 5 to make up the gap to 365. So how advanced were the Mayan? They were a lot more than just another tribe, that's for sure!

One of the funnier things, I thought, was the Red Queen. Officially she is known as Lady Tz'ak-bu Ajaw but because she was buried with a considerable amount of cinnabar (bright red coloured mineral) covering her, the skeleton has turned bright red and she became known as the Red Queen. When she was born, construction of her grave also started… of course you never know how long person will live and the Mayans wanted to be sure they could bury her when she did, so they started right away. Must be funny seeing men and women working on your grave every day. The official booklet says the building was finished in the same year as she died, 672, which makes me wonder… Did they keep working on it until she died or did they simply kill her when the building was finished :-) One thing is for sure, she was buried with her servants and it seems somewhat unlikely that they died at the same time of natural causes…! The Mayans weren't all that fussy when it came to human life. Sacrificing and killing someone was apparently as common as having lunch.

The ruins are impressive, the road from Theothiuacán via Puebla, Catamaco and Villahermosa had been a long and boring one in some stages, but it has been worth it. Being able to see this is another highlight of this trip, a trip that
has shown us so many amazing things already. As I'm writing this the Howler Monkeys have woken up from their siesta and howl through the forests with their unique sound. What an amazing place!


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