III. Ruta Maya

Before we took over Jinja Island, my girlfriend Casey and I embarked on a shotgun tour of 11 different Mayan sites spread out over 4 Central American countries. This is our RUTA MAYA.

(NB: these blog entries are set to display in chronological order)

Ruta Maya 1 – A Glitch In The Matrix

Graham Hughes : April 7, 2014 11:59 pm : Ruta Maya

What is the Ruta Maya?

I don’t take over Jinja Island until May 1st, so Casey and I have a spare month to go and explore Central America, one of the areas I rushed through on the Old Odyssey Expedition. The plan is for us to race north and visit at least ten Mayan sites spread out over Belize, Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras.

So after a few days on the island we said our farewells to Ian and Vanessa for the moment and returned to Bocas Town, where we stayed for a week, chilling out in the Mundo Taito backpackers.

Much of which was out of focus.
Much of said week was out of focus.

Then it was time to hit the road. Panama to Belize overland? Hell yeah! Why am I getting this strange feeling of Deja Vu…?

Casey and I left Bocas Town on April 5 and began our journey by taking the ferry boat over to Almirante and the mainland of Panama (Bocas Town is on an island). Then it was a typically hair-raising minibus ride to the border with Costa Rica.

Crossing the rickety old bridge at the border was as hilarious as ever, but at least we weren’t trundling our suitcases over it this time. From now on it’s backpacks all the waaaaaaay!


On the Costa Rican side of the border a group of backpackers coming the other way recognised me from such medical movies as “Mommy, What’s On That Man’s Face?” and “Alice Doesn’t Live Anymore.” Photos were taken…

Graham Hughes and Fans, Panama-Costa Rica border

..and photos were photobombed.

Graham Hughes Photobombed on Panama-Costa Rica border

I thought I had timed our border crossing really well, arriving at 1.55pm for the 2pm bus for San Jose… but I forgot that Costa Rica is an hour behind Panama (Panama, formally part of Colombia, syncs up its timepieces with Bogota) – and so 2pm Costa Rica time wouldn’t be for another hour. Case and I grabbed a dreadful burger from a (tellingly) deserted cafe, but before long we were well on our way to the capital via Puerto Viejo, Puerto Limon and – yes – the Del Monte town of LIVERPOOL, Costa Rica!

It exists!!

A few miles west of Puerto Limon…


We arrived in San Jose around 10pm and headed to a bar that would be open late, near the bus station. The bus up to Guatemala left at 3am. Madness I know. I think it’s something to do with the fact that buses don’t like driving at night.

We got online and went to the Tica bus site to book our tickets for tonight’s bus, but the website don’t wanna let you do that.

So I left Casey in the bar with our backpacks and walked the streets of Costa Rica’s capital, late on a Friday night, to the bus terminal.

One of the most irritating things about travelling around Central America is that each bus company tends to have its own terminal, as opposed to the MUCH BETTER system in South America, in which there is ONE bus terminal and all of the bus companies operate out of it.

I walked for ages, and I just couldn’t find the damn place. Bad map reading skills? Not on your nelly! It’s not 2009 anymore. My memory (and my Lonely Planet guidebook) was out of date. The station had moved to the other side of town. Only, San Jose doesn’t think much of road names either, so finding an address for the new place was nigh on impossible.

I decided to take a cab, hoping he’d know where it was, and luckily he did. I arrived, asked my cabbie to wait outside, queued for half an hour only to be told the 3am bus was sold out.


I returned to the pub to let Casey know what was going on, and then walked the street trying to find somewhere to stay the night. Nearly all the places marked in my 2008 Lonely Planet had either closed down, moved, or didn’t take guests after midnight.

In desperation, I checked us into Pangea Hostel, a former jail that I’ve heard nothing but bad things about. And I can happily say that they didn’t disappoint!

For thirty dollars, we slept in a dorm room (cell) on bunk beds. In the morning we drank our tiny cups of free coffee whilst having pop dance music BLASTED into our eardrums at 120dB. At 10am we had to not just check out but leave the premises entirely… or else stump up another $15 to stay for a few more hours.

To add insult to injury, the staff were surly as hell (except for one guy who was nice but tellingly utterly exasperated by it all) and seemed to have gone to the Basil Fawlty school of hospitality.


Wow. Way NOT to run a hostel guys! Check out the reviews on Trip Advisor…


“Scathing” would be an understatement.

Luckily, there’s a lovely little bar a few buildings down the same road that’s cheap, cheerful, has wi-fi, the food is grrrrreat and it’s open until 2am.

We stayed all day and late into the night.

Till 3am, actually.

At 3am we left the city on our way up though Nicaragua, Honduras and into El Salvador.

Nicaragua not only has some amazing natural treasures, it’s also obsessed with Smurf hats. There’s one on the flag AND on the coins. Don’t believe me? Look closely…


We arrived in San Salvador at around 2am and the connecting bus to Guatemala would be leaving at 5am. We imagined we’d just stay up, but the bus company had thought of that…! They gave us no choice but to stay in their crappy little hotel, so we wound up paying for an entire night even though we were only there for 3 hours.


Tica Buses = EVIL

So then onward to Guatemala City! We arrived around noon and took a taxi to the bus station for Puerto Barrios on the caribbean coast… from whence we could take a boat to Punta Gorda, Belize.

These place names are not meaning much, are they? Would a zoomable map of our journey help?  YOUR WISH IS MY COMMAND!

I know, I know, I’m far too good to you.

I managed to do this same journey much quicker on The Odyssey Expedition, but on this trip we didn’t arrive in Puerto Barrios until nightfall – there were no ferryboats until tomorrow morning.

So we checked into a sweet little guesthouse and went out to get ourselves a couple of mountains of yummy grub.


In the morning we paid our ‘exit tax’ and were stamped out of Guatemala. Onto the morning speedboat… next stop… BELIZE!!!



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Ruta Maya 2 – Gingdom of the Crystal Skull

Graham Hughes : April 10, 2014 11:15 pm : Ruta Maya

After a few days of sleeping on buses, border controls, passport stamps and terrible food, Casey and I arrived in the wonderfully ramshackle town of Punta Gorda in Belize.

“Hola!” “We speak English here” “D’oh”

I had wanted to stop at the Garifuna village of Livingston along the way and see if my old friend Wallander from The Odyssey Expedition was still knocking around, but we were late getting this show on the road, so we had to buzz past on our epic speedboat ride up the coast.

Punta Gorda was my one and only stop in Belize during The Odyssey Expedition – something I hoped to make up for on this trip. We stayed at the rather pleasant Nature’s Way Guest House. Along the way we passed a bunch of rather jovial US migrants drinking at a local bar – they invited us to join them, so we did. And that’s where we met the indomitable Jerry L Shaver, distributor of hilarious business cards.

Guaranteed to make Patrick Bateman cry.

After a beer or two, we went on a little explore. On the waterfront, we met Malcolm, a local kid who educated Casey and I about all the different shells we could find and the best places for fishing. This boy was more articulate and knowledgeable than most people twice his age – he’ll be President of Belize someday, you mark my words.

Can we do the “me shell” joke now?

Later, we headed south along the coast road until we found Asha’s – the soul-food joint recommended to us by Jerry and his chums.

Seafood AND Barbecue?!! You’d have to hold me back.

Now we’re talkin’!!

Just like my mom used to make, had I been born Jamaican.

While we were eating, a HUGE storm broke. Wowsers it knows how to storm in The Caribbean.

Apologies for the picture quality, but it’s hard to get a good shot in a hurricane.

Because of the downpour, Asha, the owner, gave us a lift back to our guest house in his car. Seriously starting to love love love Belize.

The next day we hopped on the old school bus (all the buses here are old schoolbuses)…

Otto in the driver’s seat, probs.

And hit our first stop along the Ruta Maya… LUBAANTUN!

Looney Tunes 7 mile.

Take it away Wikipedia…!!

Lubaantun (also Lubaantún or Lubaantán in Spanish) is a pre-Columbian ruined city of the Maya civilization in southern Belize. One of the most distinguishing features of Lubaantun is the large collection of miniature ceramic objects found on site; these detailed constructs are thought to have been charmstones or ritual-accompanying accoutrements.

This one looks like Boba Fett.

The city dates from the Maya Classic era, flourishing from the AD 730s to the 890s, and seems to have been completely abandoned soon after. The architecture is somewhat unusual from typical Classical central lowlands Maya sites. Lubaantun’s structures are mostly built of large stone blocks laid with no mortar, primarily black slate rather than the limestone typical of the region.

Anyone for Three Dimensional Cricket?

Several structures have distinctive “in-and-out masonry”; each tier is built with a batter, every second course projecting slightly beyond the course below it.

Ah, the old in-out.

Corners of the step-pyramids are usually rounded, and lack stone structures atop the pyramids; presumably some had structures of perishable materials in ancient times.


The centre of the site is on a large artificially raised platform between two small rivers; it has often been noted that the situation is well-suited to military defence. The ancient name of the site is currently unknown; “Lubaantun” is a modern Maya name meaning “place of fallen stones”.

Plenty fallen stones.

At the start of the 20th century inhabitants of various Kekchi and Mopan Maya villages in the area mentioned the large ruins to inhabitants of Punta Gorda. Dr. Thomas Gann came to investigate the site in 1903, and published two reports about the ruins in 1905.

The next expedition was led by R. E. Merwin of Harvard University’s Peabody Museum in 1915 who cleared the site of vegetation, made a more detailed map, took measurements and photographs, and made minor excavations. Of note Merwin discovered one of the site’s three courts for playing the Mesoamerican ballgame, which had stone markers with hieroglyphic texts and depictions of the ballgame.

In 1924 Gann revisited the ruins, and then led adventurer F.A. Mitchell-Hedges to the site. In his typically sensationalistic fashion, Mitchell-Hedges published an article in the Illustrated London News claiming to have “discovered” the site.

Being hipsters, we discovered the site before it was cool.

Gann made a new map of the site. The following year Mitchell-Hedges returned to Lubaantun as a reporter for the Illustrated London News, accompanied by his companion Lady Richmond Brown. Anna Mitchell-Hedges, the adoptive daughter of F. A. Mitchell-Hedges, would later claim that she not only accompanied her father on the expedition, but also that it was she who found the (in)famous crystal skull there.

Oh for Heaven’s Sake…

But there is no evidence that Anna was ever in Belize, and if the skull actually had been excavated at Lubaantun it would be hard to explain why none of the official reports mention it, why other expedition members deny that it was found there, and why the publicity-loving Mitchell-Hedges did not publish even a single mention of the skull before the 1950s. Possibly because it’s utter bollocks??

Lubaantun, Belize
Grandstand, Mayan Style


More importantly, it is clear from investigations by Joe Nickell and Norman Hammond that the skull was not found at Lubaantun at all, but was actually purchased by Mitchell-Hedges at a Sotheby’s auction in 1943. The skull had previously belonged to the collector Sydney Burney, and photographs of it had been published in the journal Man as early as 1936.

I want my garden to look like this!!


So the crystal skull thing turned out to be a big hoax OF COURSE. A bit like the world ending on 21 December 2012. Which it didn’t. Of course. STOP BEING SILLY.

Also, what's wrong with that kid's face?

That didn’t stop George Lucas from making the travesty that was Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. This was a man who also thought the Mayans lived in Southern Peru, four thousand kilometres south of here.

A bit off.

The British Museum sponsored investigations and excavations at Lubaantun under T.A. Joyce in 1926 and 1927, establishing the mid to late Classic period chronology of the site. Many of the artefacts from this expedition can be found in the British Museum’s collection.

Typical British archaeologist.

After this Lubaantun was neglected by archeologists (although it suffered some looting by treasure hunters) until 1970, when a joint British Museum, Harvard, and Cambridge University project was begun led by archaeologist Norman Hammond.

We rock this town.

Getting back from the site wasn’t easy. We walked for about an hour along a dirt track in the blazing heat, then though the village of San Pedro Columbia.

A local guy opened up his bar for us (the only one in town) while we waited for a school bus to take us back to Punta Gorda. I particularly liked the signs stencilled onto the wall.

Rough crowd.

That night Casey and I went back to Asha’s soul food place and once again stuffed our faces with the yummiest food this side of Mexico. The next day it would be UP AN’ ATOM and a long bus ride (in an old school bus) off to Orange Walk in the north of the country.

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Ruta Maya 3 – Orange Walk This Way

Graham Hughes : April 11, 2014 9:46 pm : Ruta Maya

We left Punta Gorda in the morning, a bit sad to leave. I didn’t really get a measure of the place when I visited for a few hours back in 2009, now I have a deep affection for the sleepy little town – incredibly friendly locals, great food, good times guaranteed. But I didn’t get my two Guinness World Records by sitting on my arse.

I got them by standing and pointing at things.


As the crow flies… on the way back from the pub.

Off we jolly well popped on an old yellow school bus up through the new capital of Belmopan and then through the old capital of Belize City. Belize City was abandoned as the capital in the 70s after a particularly nasty hurricane that did its best to level the city in 1961. We arrived in the town of Orange Walk a few hours later.

Case and I quick-footed it to the nearest hotel that was within our budget – the Akihito, named – rather improbably – after the Emperor of Japan. After slinging our backpacks down, we headed out into the warm night air in search of a clever way we could get to the Mayan city of Lamanai the next day.

The first place we went to was just off the main square, a poky little office, narrow and covered in papers and trash. We knew that to get to Lamanai would require us to take a long boat ride down the river (Lamanai is inaccessible by road), and we really wanted to go with somebody it looked like we could trust. I’m not one to judge a book by it’s cover, but if the cover says ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ then I can hazard a guess at its contents. These guys would not be taking us to Lamanai, not if there was any other option whatsoever.

Happily, there was.

Our Lonely Planet was a good six years out of date, so we were taking everything with a pinch of salt, but there seemed to be another option on the road that ran parallel with the river. Only it was dark, not very well lit, and a bit off-putting.

I’m all for putting myself in ridiculously compromising positions, but I’ve got somebody else here to worry about, and worry I do. When a big fuck-off pick-up with blacked-out windows pulled up along side us, my Spidey-Sense started tingling.

“You looking for a tour?” asked the guy in the pick-up.


“Okay, come with me.”

Oh bloomin’ eck, now I’m in trouble.

The Englishness chip in my brain that forces me to not appear rude no matter how threatening the situation went into overdrive.

“Where are you going?”

“Just up this path here! Come on, get in!”

“It’s okay, we’ll follow you.”

So we didn’t get into the car, but we did walk down a long dimly lit pathway after the car. This kind of situation happens all the time when you’re travelling, the trick is to always have an exit strategy. For me, that’s usually RUN LIKE HELL! You can’t do that in a car.

Turns out Lance, the guy in the car, was the owner of the Lamanai Riverside Retreat, a gorgeous little hideaway situated right by the river. When we got to the bar, I soon realised we’d made a good call following him down that road (and possibly came across as a little rude for not getting in the car, but hey-ho). Lance sorted us out with tickets for the boat trip the next day, as well as (delicious) dinner and copious amounts of beer.

After we’d eaten, Lance came and joined us at our table overlooking the river below. He regaled us with tales of life in the jungle, as a guide climbing up mountains with suicidally stupid tourists. We laughed, we drank, it was good.

The next morning we were up bright and early and back to the Retreat for our drip down the New River.

Do you like wildlife? I like wildlife. The boat journey down to the ruins was SPECTACULAR.

Tiger Heron
A Tiger Heron – check out them stripes!

Jesus Lizard
He’s not the Messiah, he’s a very naughty lizard.

Spider Monkey. The only kind of spider I find acceptable.

Look closer. There are bats on that tree.

The elusive Jabiru – the tallest flying bird in Central America.


Crocodile at Lamanai, Belize
Submerged Crocodile

When we finally arrived in Lamanai, the wildlife show was far from over – on the way to the ruins we met up with a gang of howler monkeys.


Howler Monkey Mother and Child

Best not to get too close. They like to throw things. And by ‘things’ I mean ‘poo’.

Very soon, we were at the site. Take it away, Wikipedia!!

Lamanai (from Lama’anayin, “submerged crocodile” in Yucatec Maya) is a Mesoamerican archaeological site, and was once a considerably sized city of the Maya civilization. The site’s name is pre-Columbian, recorded by early Spanish missionaries, and documented over a millennium earlier in Maya inscriptions as Lam’an’ain.

I like that they must have had another word meaning “crocodile that is not submerged”.

Lamanai was occupied as early as the 16th century BC. The site became a prominent centre in the Pre-Classic Period, from the 4th century BC through the 1st century CE. Lamanai continued to be occupied up to the 17th century AD. During the Spanish conquest of Yucatán Spanish friars established two Roman Catholic churches here, but a Maya revolt drove the Spanish out. The site was subsequently incorporated by the British in British Honduras, passing with that colony’s independence to Belize. Also the British has settled in Lamanai and made a sugar mill.

aka “Rum Distillery”

The vast majority of the site remained unexcavated until the mid-1970s. Archaeological work has concentrated on the investigation and restoration of the larger structures, most notably the Mask Temple, Jaguar Temple, and High Temple. The summit of this latter structure affords a view across the surrounding jungle to a nearby lagoon, part of New River.

Graham Hughes at Lamanai
When ginger tossers aren’t getting in the way.


High Temple, Lamanai, Belize
Me on top.

Casey on her way up.

A significant portion of the Temple of the Jaguar remains under grassy earth or is covered in dense jungle growth. Unexcavated, it would be significantly taller than the High Temple.

Jaguar Temple Lamanai Belize
Jaguar Temple

In the jaguar temple there is a legend that you can find an ancient spear called the heart of the jaguar, even though the temple got his name from the jaguar masks on each side.

Lamanai Belize
8-Bit Jaguar

The most interesting features on the Mask Temple are (somewhat predictably) the two masks that decorate the west façade of the temple.

Mask Temple Lamanai Belize
Help… me… take this… mask off…

The masks are 15 feet high and sit on two levels on the south side of a central stairway. They represent humanized faces and are bordered by decorative elements. The headdress of the left mask represents a crocodile.

Mask Temple Lamanai Belize
Also, Face of Boe

The masks are construed of stone armature covered with thick stucco into which the details are carved. They date from the late fifth to the early sixth century AD.

Mask Temple Lamanai Belize
Knightmare, anyone?


At the large temple there was a single ball court, where an offering had been placed under its giant central marker. A lidded bowl contained 100g of crystalline hematite, 19 g of cinnabar in a miniature vessel, and other objects such as jade, shell, and pearl, all atop of a pool of mercury.

That’ll do, Wikipedia. Now… back to Orange Walk!

That night we returned to the Lamanai Riverside Retreat were over a few too many beers, Lance convinced us to stay one more night in Orange Walk. You see, Lance also owns a private island, in the middle of the New River. It’s called ‘Dead Man’s Island’ and we were invited to visit it the next day.

A fellow island owner? How could I say no?

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Ruta Maya 4 – Dead Man’s Island

Graham Hughes : April 13, 2014 10:47 pm : Ruta Maya

Case and I drinkie too muchie the night before, but we dragged our carcasses out of bed and managed to make it to Lance’s gaff before noon.

Today we’d be visiting Lance’s island… Dead Man’s Island. And since the island might well be haunted, we bought a weally weally cute PUPPY with us for protection.

Gringo The Ghostbuster

On the way to the island, Lance took us into the town centre where we attended a charity barbecue.

After which we headed up the New River towards Dead Man’s Island.

Lance at the wheel

Ooh look – there’s our boat ready to go!

That’s Dead Man’s Island over the water.

Once on the island, we unpacked Gringo…

Lance took him for a swim…

Real men love puppies.

…and Casey and I went for a hack through the jungle, which culminated in some kick-ass photos of us doing our best Ginger Indy/Ginger Lara impressions.

Casey Turner and Graham Hughes
We kick ALL the ass.


After a good bit of exploring (the ants make superhighways which criss-cross the entire island and turkey vultures don’t half produce a lot of shit) we met back up with Lance and Gringo.

Nothing beats an island and a cold beer.

And took the little rowboat back to the “mainland”.

But then who took this picture? Let that question keep you up at night.

Adiós Dead Man’s Island!

Adios Dead Man!

That night headed back to the ranch to watch Manny Pacquiao and Timothy Bradley knocking seven shades of crap out of each other on the telly.

Quietly though.

After a few (probably too many) cold ones and Lance filling in his colourful backstory on the mean streets of LA, we crashed out on the floor of the room behind the bar. Tomorrow we’d be heading over the northern border to Mexico in search of adventure, excitement and more bits of Mayan awesomeness. Thanks Lance!!

Graham Hughes in Orange Walk Belize
If you’re ever in Orange Walk, you know where to go: Lamanai Riverside Retreat!!

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Ruta Maya 5 – Day of the Iguana

Graham Hughes : April 15, 2014 11:22 pm : Ruta Maya

After saying goodbye to our generous and wonderful host Lance, Case and I hotfooted it onto the bus to Belize’s northern border. It took us a while to fill out all the forms and get all the right stamps, but eventually we were set free to wander the Mexican wonderland that is Mexico.


In one week Casey had been to more countries than she’d been to in her lifetime. What can I say? This is what happens when you hang out with Graham Hughes for too long. Eh? Eh? Amirite??!


SO THEN onto Tulum, which is the name of both the Mayan ruins and also the town near the ruins. We arrived just before dark, found a nice backpackers to hang our hats for the night and went for a mooch.

Main Street, Tulum
Why did I expect everything to be sepia?

The town revolved around the main road, a sandy old stretch flanked with a parade of shops either side. A bit of a tourist trap, but they had an awesome ice-cream place so we weren’t complaining.

Ice cream shop, Tulum, Mexico
Ice cream is always good.

The next day we explored the town and took the opportunity to walk to the ruins (a little further than we had estimated) without actually going in to see them. We then checked out the adjacent beach. Being gingers, we didn’t hang around on the beach for long before grabbing a taxi back to town. Watching far too many episodes of House of Cards had led us to a inexplicable desire for ribs, and we found some, but they weren’t great.

Unlike us, we’re pretty great. For gingers.

What was great was the TOTAL LUNAR ECLIPSE that night (April 14/15, 2014). Casey and I stayed up late, filming it with our cameras, taking pics and generally enjoying the show.

Total Lunar Eclipse April 15 2014
A DRAGON HAS EATEN THE MOOOOOON!! Give it back! Naughty dragon.

The next morning we had to be up with the lark (a lazy lark) in order to get over to Tulum Ruins before the crowds arrived. We didn’t do such a Stirling job of that, but what we did find was that most of the Mexican families headed straight for the bit of private beach that lies beneath the ancient acropolis – so we had the place pretty much to ourselves. Well, us and the insane number of iguanas standing guard over the old town.

Iguana standing guard at Tulum, Mexico
The Silent Sentinel

Tulum (Yucatec: Tulu’um) is the site of a Pre-Columbian Maya walled city serving as a major port for Cobá. The ruins are situated on 12-meter (39 ft) tall cliffs, along the east coast of the Yucatán Peninsula on the Caribbean Sea in the state of Quintana Roo, Mexico.

Tulum, Mexico - Overlooking the sea
Nice view eh?

Tulum was one of the last cities inhabited and built by the Mayas; it was at its height between the 13th and 15th centuries and managed to survive about 70 years after the Spanish began occupying Mexico. Old World diseases brought by the Spanish settlers appear to have been the cause of its demise. One of the best-preserved coastal Maya sites, Tulum is today a popular site for tourists.

Tulum, Mexico
Although my camera helpfully deletes them for me

The Maya site may formerly have been known by the name Zama, meaning City of Dawn, because it faces the sunrise. Tulum stands on a bluff facing east towards the Caribbean Sea. Tulúm is also the Yucatan Mayan word for fence, wall or trench, and the walls surrounding the site allowed the Tulum fort to be defended against invasions.

Tulum Ruins, Mexico
Walls always help.

Tulum had access to both land and sea trade routes, making it an important trade hub, especially for obsidian. From numerous depictions in murals and other works around the site, Tulum appears to have been an important site for the worship of the Diving or Descending god. Tulum had an estimated population of 1,000 to 1,600 inhabitants.

Tulum Ruins, Mexico
And this was their local Wal-Mart

Tulum was first mentioned by Juan Díaz, a member of Juan de Grijalva’s Spanish expedition of 1518, the first Europeans to spot Tulum. The first detailed description of the ruins was published by John Lloyd Stephens and Frederick Catherwood in 1843 in the book Incidents of Travel in Yucatan. As they arrived from the sea, Stephens and Catherwood first saw a tall building that impressed them greatly, most likely the great Castillo of the site. They made accurate maps of the site’s walls, and Catherwood made sketches of the Castillo and several other buildings. Stephens and Catherwood also reported an early classic stele at the site, with an inscribed date of AD 564 (now in the British Museum’s collection), which is interpreted to mean that it was most likely built elsewhere and brought to Tulum to be reused.

Temple Detail, Tulum, Mexico
Courtesy of the British Museum. Probably.

Work conducted at Tulum continued with that of Sylvanus Morley and George P. Howe, beginning in 1913. They worked to restore and open the public beaches.

Beach at Tulum, Mexico
Good job!

The work was continued by the Carnegie Institution from 1916 to 1922, Samuel Lothrop in 1924 who also mapped the site, Miguel Ángel Fernández in the late 1930s and early 1940s, William Sanders in 1956, and then later in the 1970s by Arthur G. Miller. Through these investigations done by Sanders and Miller it has been determined that Tulum was occupied during the late Postclassic period around AD 1200. The site continued to be occupied until contact with the Spanish was made in the early 16th century. By the end of the 16th century the site was abandoned completely.

Iguana overlooking the beach at Tulum, Mexico
Well, not completely.

Tulum has architecture typical of Maya sites on the east coast of the Yucatan Peninsula. This architecture is recognized by a step running around the base of the building which sits on a low substructure. Doorways of this type are usually narrow with columns used as support if the building is big enough. As the walls flare out there are usually two sets of molding near the top. The room usually contains one or two small windows with an altar at the back wall, roofed by either a beam-and-rubble ceiling or being vaulted. This type of architecture resembles what can be found in the nearby Chichen Itza, just on a much smaller scale.

Tulum Ruins, Mexico
Probs too busy chillin’ out at the beach to go full Chichén.

Tulum was protected on one side by steep sea cliffs and on the landward side by a wall that averaged about three to 5 meters (16 ft) in height. The wall also was about 8 m (26 ft) thick and 400 m (1,300 ft) long on the side parallel to the sea. The part of the wall that ran the width of the site was slightly shorter and only about 170 meters (560 ft) on both sides. Constructing this massive wall would have taken an enormous amount of energy and time, which shows how important defence was to the Maya when they chose this site. On the southwest and northwest corners there are small structures that have been identified as watch towers, showing again how well defended the city was. There are five narrow gateways in the wall with two each on the north and south sides and one on the west. Near the northern side of the wall a small cenote provided the city with fresh water. It is this impressive wall that makes Tulum one of the most well-known fortified sites of the Maya.

Tulum watchtower and sea, Mexico
Try getting up them rocks with a thousand angry Mayans bearing down on you from above.

There are three major structures of interest at the Tulum site. El Castillo, the Temple of the Frescoes, and the Temple of the Descending God are the three most famous buildings. Among the more spectacular buildings here is the Temple of the Frescoes that included a lower gallery and a smaller second story gallery. The Temple of the Frescoes was used as an observatory for tracking the movements of the sun. Niched figurines of the Maya “diving god” or Venus deity decorate the facade of the temple. This “diving god” is also depicted in the Temple of the Diving God in the central precinct of the site. Above the entrance in the western wall a stucco figure of the “diving god” is still preserved, giving the temple its name. A mural can still be seen on the eastern wall that resembles that of a style that originated in highland Mexico, called the Mixteca-Puebla style, though visitors are no longer permitted to enter.

Mayan art example, Tulum, Mexico
Probs looked a bit like this…

Also in the central precinct is the Castillo, which is 7.5 m (25 ft) tall. The Castillo was built on a previous building that was colonnaded and had a beam and mortar roof. The lintels in the upper rooms have serpent motifs carved into them. The construction of the Castillo appears to have taken place in stages. A small shrine appears to have been used as a beacon for incoming canoes. This shrine marks a break in the barrier reef that is opposite the site. Here there is a cove and landing beach in a break in the sea cliffs that would have been perfect for trading canoes coming in. This characteristic of the site may be one of the reasons the Maya founded the city of Tulum exactly here, as Tulum later became a prominent trading port during the late Postclassic.

Castillo, Tulum, Mexico
The Castillo

Both coastal and land routes converged at Tulum which is apparent by the number of artifacts found in or near the site that show contacts with areas all over Central Mexico and Central America. Copper artifacts from the Mexican highlands have been found near the site, as have flint artifacts, ceramics, incense burners, and gold objects from all over the Yucatán.

We’re just here for the gold.

After a long hot day with no water (seriously Tulum GET A CONCESSION STAND) we headed back to the town to pick up our bags. It was time for the next stage of our Ruta Maya – Coba.

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Ruta Maya 6 – Operation Cobá

Graham Hughes : April 16, 2014 11:53 pm : Ruta Maya

We arrived in the small town of Coba after nightfall. The town comprised of a boring old road and a rather splendid lake situated to the right of it. After a quick walking tour of the three available hotels, we settled in for the night.

“And somebody just shot the horse!”

The next day, bright and early, we walked to the Mayan ruins of Coba.

And it rained!

Coba (Cobá in the Spanish language) is a large ruined city of the Pre-Columbian Maya civilization, located in the state of Quintana Roo, Mexico. It is located about 90 kilometres (56 mi) east of the Maya site of Chichen Itza and 44 kilometres (27 mi) northwest of the site of Tulum.


Coba is located around two lagoons. A series of elevated stone and plaster roads radiate from the central site to various smaller sites near and far. These are known by the Maya term sacbe (plural sacbeob). Some of these causeways go east, and the longest runs over 100 kilometres (62 mi) westwards to the site of Yaxuna. The site contains several large temple pyramids, the tallest, in what is known as the Nohoch Mul group of structures, being some 42 metres (138 ft) in height. Ixmoja is the tallest pyramid on the Yucatán peninsula.

Pyramid Coba Mexico
I won’t argue with that.

Coba is estimated to have had some 50,000 inhabitants (and possibly significantly more) at its peak of civilization, and the built up area extends over some 80 km². The site was occupied by a sizable agricultural population by the 1st century. The bulk of Coba’s major construction seems to have been made in the middle and late Classic period, about 500 to 900, with most of the dated hieroglyphic inscriptions from the 7th century. However Coba remained an important site in the Post-Classic era and new temples were built and old ones kept in repair until at least the 14th century, possibly as late as the arrival of the Spanish.

Pyramid Coba Mexico
Or is it this one that’s the tallest?

Archaeological evidence indicates that Cobá was first settled between 100 BC and 100 AD. At that time, there was a town with buildings of wood and palm fronts and flat platforms. The only archeological evidence of the time are fragments of pottery. After 100 AD, the area around Coba evidenced strong population growth, and with it an increase in its social and political status among Maya city states which would ultimately make Coba one of the biggest and most powerful city states in the northern Yucatán area. Between 200 and 600 AD, Coba must have dominated a vast area, including the north of the state of Quintana Roo and areas in the east of the state of Yucatán.

Mayan in Latin script… lots of apostrophes.

Coba must have maintained close contacts with the large city states of Guatemala and the south of Campeche like Tikal, Dzibanche or Calakmul. To maintain its influence, Coba must have established military alliances and arranged marriages among their elites. It is quite noteworthy that Coba shows traces of Teotihuacan architecture, like a platform in the Paintings group that was explored in 1999, which would attest of the existence of contacts with the central Mexican cultures and its powerful city of the early Classic epoch. Stelae uncovered at Coba are believed to depict that Coba had many female rulers.

A female. Ruling.

After 600 AD, the emergence of powerful city states of the Puuc culture and the emergence of Chichén Itzá altered the political spectrum in the Yucatán peninsula and began eroding the dominance of Coba. Beginning around 900 or 1000 AD, Coba must have begun a lengthy power struggle with Chichén Itzá, with the latter dominating at the end as it gained control of key cities such as Yaxuná.

Poor Coba!

After 1000 AD, Coba lost much of its political weight among city states, although it maintained some symbolic and religious importance. This allowed it to maintain or recover some status, which is evidenced by the new buildings dating to the time 1200-1500 AD, now built in the typical Eastern coastal style. However, power centers and trading routes had moved to the coast, forcing cities like Coba into a secondary status, although somewhat more successful than its more ephemeral enemy Chichén Itzá. Coba was abandoned at the time the Spanish conquered the peninsula around 1550.

Well, until all the tourists rucked up…

Knowledge of this expansive site was never completely lost, but it was not examined by scholars until the 1920s. John Lloyd Stephens mentioned hearing reports of the site in 1841, but it was so distant from any known modern road or village that he decided the difficulty in trying to get there was too daunting. For much of the rest of the 19th century the area could not be visited by outsiders due to the Caste War of Yucatán. Teoberto Maler paid Coba a short visit in 1893 and took at least one photograph, but unfortunately did not publish at the time and the site remained unknown to the archeological community.

No Ball Games, then.

Amateur explorer Dr. Thomas Gann was brought to the site by some local Maya hunters in February 1926. Gann published the first first-hand description of the ruins later the same year. Gann gave a short description to the archeologists of the Carnegie Institution project at Chichen Itza, which sent out an expedition under J. Eric S. Thompson. Thompson’s initial report of a surprisingly large site with many inscriptions prompted Sylvanus Morley to mount a more thorough examination of the site.

Ahh… inscriptions!

Eric Thompson made a number of return visits to the site through 1932, in which year he published a detailed description. Much of the site, including its road system was mapped in the mid 1970s (Folan). Some residences were excavated in the early 1980s (Benevides and Manzanilla).

Coba does involve a LOT of walking about.

The site remained little visited due to its remoteness until the first modern road was opened up to Coba in the early 1970s. As a major resort was planned for Cancún, it was realized that clearing and restoring some of the large site could make it an important tourist attraction.

Coba, Mexico

The Mexican National Institute of Anthropology & History began some archeological excavations in 1972 directed by Carlos Navarrete, and consolidated a couple of buildings. At the start of the 1980s another road to Coba was opened up and paved, and a regular bus service begun.

The bus stop. Probably.

Coba became a tourist destination shortly thereafter, with many visitors visiting the site on day trips from Cancún and the Riviera Maya. Only a small portion of the site has been cleared from the jungle and restored by archaeologists.

The rest of the site? Pwned by trees.

Well I hope you enjoyed your Wikipedia-curated tour of Coba. Is this really lazy of me? Probably. But considering it’s taken me the best part of a year to get these blogs online, it’s the least of my worries.

Graham Hughes at Coba, Mexico
It’s my pyramid, I saw it first.

We left the the sprawling ruins of Coba in the afternoon and took the bus a couple of hours westward to a little place called Piste, next door to the world famous site of Chichén Itzá.

I decided that before going to Chichén Itzá, I wanted some Chicken Pizza. OBVS. However, Piste was a bit of an un-caballo town so we ended up going to the pub instead.

And if you’re going to try and guess  who we met in the pub, you should watch this first…

Hi Luis!!!

An Idiot Abroad. Now with added GINGER.


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Ruta Maya 7 – Chickén Pitzá

Graham Hughes : April 17, 2014 11:06 pm : Ruta Maya

Another early morning and our third helping of Mayan awesomeness in three days. You may have heard of this place…

Arriving at Chichen Itza, Mexico
Strap yourself in. IT’S THE BIG ONE

Chichén Itzá, from Yucatec Maya Chi’ch’èen Ìitsha’ means “at the mouth of the well of the Itza”. It was a large pre-Columbian city built by the Maya people of the Terminal Classic. The archaeological site is located in the municipality of Tinum, in the Mexican state of Yucatán.

Great Pyramid El Castillo Chichen Itza Mexico

Chichen Itza was a major focal point in the Northern Maya Lowlands from the Late Classic (c. AD 600–900) through the Terminal Classic (c. AD 800–900) and into the early portion of the Postclassic period (c. AD 900–1200). The site exhibits a multitude of architectural styles, reminiscent of styles seen in central Mexico and of the Puuc and Chenes styles of the Northern Maya lowlands.

Serpent detail Chichen Itza
I love this stuff.

The presence of central Mexican styles was once thought to have been representative of direct migration or even conquest from central Mexico, but most contemporary interpretations view the presence of these non-Maya styles more as the result of cultural diffusion.

Graham Hughes at El Castillo Chichen Itza
I rock the cultural diffusion. Whatever it means.

Chichen Itza was one of the largest Maya cities and it was likely to have been one of the mythical great cities, or Tollans, referred to in later Mesoamerican literature. The city may have had the most diverse population in the Maya world, a factor that could have contributed to the variety of architectural styles at the site.

Chichen Itza, Mexico
I don’t see why not.

Evidence in the Chilam Balam books indicates another, earlier name for this city prior to the arrival of the Itza hegemony in northern Yucatán. While most sources agree the first word means seven, there is considerable debate as to the correct translation of the rest. This earlier name is difficult to define because of the absence of a single standard of orthography, but it is represented variously as Uuc Yabnal (“Seven Great House”), Uuc Hab Nal (“Seven Bushy Places”), Uucyabnal (“Seven Great Rulers”) or Uc Abnal (“Seven Lines of Abnal”). This name, dating to the Late Classic Period, is recorded both in the book of Chilam Balam de Chumayel and in hieroglyphic texts in the ruins.

Chichen Itza Early Mayan Porn
Also, this. Oi! Get your mind out of the gutter.

Chichen Itza is located in the eastern portion of Yucatán state in Mexico. The northern Yucatán Peninsula is arid, and the rivers in the interior all run underground. There are two large, natural sink holes, called cenotes, that could have provided plentiful water year round at Chichen, making it attractive for settlement. Of the two cenotes, the “Cenote Sagrado” or Sacred Cenote (also variously known as the Sacred Well or Well of Sacrifice), is the most famous.

Sink Hole Chichen Itza Mexico
The Well of Sacrifice. Wouldn’t like to have to do the dishes in that.

According to post-Conquest sources (Maya and Spanish), pre-Columbian Maya sacrificed objects and human beings into the cenote as a form of worship to the Maya rain god Chaac. Edward Herbert Thompson dredged the Cenote Sagrado from 1904 to 1910, and recovered artifacts of gold, jade, pottery and incense, as well as human remains. A study of human remains taken from the Cenote Sagrado found that they had wounds consistent with human sacrifice.

Skull Carvings at Chichen Itza Mexico
Yeah they’re skulls.

The core layout of the Chichen Itza site developed during its earlier phase of occupation, between 750 and 900 AD. Its final layout was developed after 900 AD, and the 10th century saw the rise of the city as a regional capital controlling the area from central Yucatán to the north coast, with its power extending down the east and west coasts of the peninsula. The earliest hieroglyphic date discovered at Chichen Itza is equivalent to 832 AD, while the last known date was recorded in the Osario temple in 998.

Pillars at Chichen Itza, Mexico
All of those pillars are covered in hieroglyphs. Neat!

The Late Classic city was centered upon the area to the southwest of the Xtoloc cenote, with the main architecture represented by the substructures now underlying the Las Monjas and Observatorio and the basal platform upon which they were built.

Casey Turner at Chichen Itza

Chichen Itza rose to regional prominence towards the end of the Early Classic period (roughly 600 AD). It was, however, towards the end of the Late Classic and into the early part of the Terminal Classic that the site became a major regional capital, centralizing and dominating political, sociocultural, economic, and ideological life in the northern Maya lowlands. The ascension of Chichen Itza roughly correlates with the decline and fragmentation of the major centers of the southern Maya lowlands.

Temple Chichen Itza Mexico
With great power comes great responsibility… to build loads of cool stuff.

According to Maya chronicles (e.g., the Book of Chilam Balam of Chumayel), Hunac Ceel, ruler of Mayapan, conquered Chichen Itza in the 13th century. Hunac Ceel supposedly prophesied his own rise to power. According to custom at the time, individuals thrown into the Cenote Sagrado were believed to have the power of prophecy if they survived. During one such ceremony, the chronicles state, there were no survivors, so Hunac Ceel leaped into the Cenote Sagrado, and when removed, prophesied his own ascension.

Corner detail, Chichen Itza, Mexico
And that’s how King Elephant Nose came to power.

While there is some archaeological evidence that indicates Chichén Itzá was at one time looted and sacked, there appears to be greater evidence that it could not have been by Mayapan, at least not when Chichén Itzá was an active urban center. Archaeological data now indicates that Chichen Itza declined as a regional center by 1250 CE, before the rise of Mayapan. Ongoing research at the site of Mayapan may help resolve this chronological conundrum.

Temple, Chichen Itza, Mexico
Looks like they just gave up on this one.

While Chichén Itzá “collapsed” or fell (meaning elite activities ceased) it may not have been abandoned. When the Spanish arrived, they found a thriving local population, although it is not clear from Spanish sources if Maya were living in Chichen Itza or nearby. The relatively high density of population in the region was one of the factors behind the conquistadors’ decision to locate a capital there. According to post-Conquest sources, both Spanish and Maya, the Cenote Sagrado remained a place of pilgrimage.

Cenote Sagrado Sink hole, Chichen Itza, Mexico
They even left a bit of their diving board.

In 1526 Spanish Conquistador Francisco de Montejo (a veteran of the Grijalva and Cortés expeditions) successfully petitioned the King of Spain for a charter to conquer Yucatán. His first campaign in 1527, which covered much of the Yucatán peninsula, decimated his forces but ended with the establishment of a small fort at Xaman Ha’, south of what is today Cancún. Montejo returned to Yucatán in 1531 with reinforcements and established his main base at Campeche on the west coast. He sent his son, Francisco Montejo The Younger, in late 1532 to conquer the interior of the Yucatán Peninsula from the north. The objective from the beginning was to go to Chichén Itzá and establish a capital.

Temple Chichen Itza Mexico
This temple was plated in gold before the Spanish arrived. Probably.

Montejo the Younger eventually arrived at Chichen Itza, which he renamed Ciudad Real. At first he encountered no resistance, and set about dividing the lands around the city and awarding them to his soldiers. The Maya became more hostile over time, and eventually they laid siege to the Spanish, cutting off their supply line to the coast, and forcing them to barricade themselves among the ruins of the ancient city. Months passed, but no reinforcements arrived. Montejo the Younger attempted an all out assault against the Maya and lost 150 of his remaining troops. He was forced to abandon Chichén Itzá in 1534 under cover of darkness. By 1535, all Spanish had been driven from the Yucatán Peninsula.

Temple detail, Chichen Itza Mexico
Soon after, the Mayans constructed these huge stone middle fingers.

Montejo eventually returned to Yucatán and, by recruiting Maya from Campeche and Champoton, built a large Indio-Spanish army and conquered the peninsula. The Spanish crown later issued a land grant that included Chichen Itza and by 1588 it was a working cattle ranch.

Jaguar detail, Chichen Itza, Mexico
A cattle ranch for dragons, right?

Chichen Itza entered the popular imagination in 1843 with the book Incidents of Travel in Yucatan by John Lloyd Stephens (with illustrations by Frederick Catherwood). The book recounted Stephens’ visit to Yucatán and his tour of Maya cities, including Chichén Itzá. The book prompted other explorations of the city. In 1860, Desire Charnay surveyed Chichén Itzá and took numerous photographs that he published in Cités et ruines américaines (1863).

Chichen Itza Tourists Mexico
I can’t see what all the fuss is about.

In 1875, Augustus Le Plongeon and his wife Alice Dixon Le Plongeon visited Chichén, and excavated a statue of a figure on its back, knees drawn up, upper torso raised on its elbows with a plate on its stomach. Augustus Le Plongeon called it “Chaacmol” (later renamed “Chac Mool”, which has been the term to describe all types of this statuary found in Mesoamerica). Teobert Maler and Alfred Maudslay explored Chichén in the 1880s and both spent several weeks at the site and took extensive photographs. Maudslay published the first long-form description of Chichen Itza in his book, Biologia Centrali-Americana.

Column detail, Chichen Itza
Mayans like yoga. FACT.

In 1894 the United States Consul to Yucatán, Edward Herbert Thompson purchased the Hacienda Chichén, which included the ruins of Chichen Itza. For 30 years, Thompson explored the ancient city. His discoveries included the earliest dated carving upon a lintel in the Temple of the Initial Series and the excavation of several graves in the Osario (High Priest’s Temple). Thompson is most famous for dredging the Cenote Sagrado (Sacred Cenote) from 1904 to 1910, where he recovered artifacts of gold, copper and carved jade, as well as the first-ever examples of what were believed to be pre-Columbian Maya cloth and wooden weapons. Thompson shipped the bulk of the artifacts to the Peabody Museum at Harvard University.

Temple detail, Chichen Itza

In 1913, the Carnegie Institution accepted the proposal of archaeologist Sylvanus G. Morley and committed to conduct long-term archaeological research at Chichen Itza. The Mexican Revolution and the following government instability, as well as World War I, delayed the project by a decade.

Worker at Chichen Itza
They still ain’t finished!

In 1923, the Mexican government awarded the Carnegie Institution a 10-year permit (later extended another 10 years) to allow U.S. archaeologists to conduct extensive excavation and restoration of Chichen Itza. Carnegie researchers excavated and restored the Temple of Warriors and the Caracol, among other major buildings. At the same time, the Mexican government excavated and restored El Castillo and the Great Ball Court.

Ball court, Chichen Itza
As ball courts go, it’s pretty great.

In 1926, the Mexican government charged Edward Thompson with theft, claiming he stole the artifacts from the Cenote Sagrado and smuggled them out of the country. The government seized the Hacienda Chichén. Thompson, who was in the United States at the time, never returned to Yucatán. He wrote about his research and investigations of the Maya culture in a book People of the Serpent published in 1932. He died in New Jersey in 1935. In 1944 the Mexican Supreme Court ruled that Thompson had broken no laws and returned Chichen Itza to his heirs. The Thompsons sold the hacienda to tourism pioneer Fernando Barbachano Peon.

Mayan Masks Chichen Itza Mexico

There have been two later expeditions to recover artifacts from the Cenote Sagrado, in 1961 and 1967. The first was sponsored by the National Geographic, and the second by private interests. Both projects were supervised by Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH). INAH has conducted an ongoing effort to excavate and restore other monuments in the archaeological zone, including the Osario, Akab D’zib, and several buildings in Chichén Viejo (Old Chichen).

The Osario Chichen Itza
The Osario. You probably don’t wanna know they got up to here.

In 2009, to investigate construction that predated El Castillo, Yucatec archaeologists began excavations adjacent to El Castillo under the direction of Rafael (Rach) Cobos.

Temple and Columns, Chichen Itza
Awesome stuff like this.

Chichen Itza was one of the largest Maya cities, with the relatively densely clustered architecture of the site core covering an area of at least 5 square kilometres (1.9 sq mi). Smaller scale residential architecture extends for an unknown distance beyond this. The city was built upon broken terrain, which was artificially levelled in order to build the major architectural groups, with the greatest effort being expended in the levelling of the areas for the Castillo pyramid, and the Las Monjas, Osario and Main Southwest groups. The site contains many fine stone buildings in various states of preservation, and many have been restored. The buildings were connected by a dense network of paved causeways, called sacbeob. Archaeologists have identified over 80 sacbeob criss-crossing the site, and extending in all directions from the city.

El Castillo Chichen Itza
Everything is linked by awesome.

The architecture encompasses a number of styles, including the Puuc and Chenes styles of the northern Yucatán Peninsula. The buildings of Chichen Itza are grouped in a series of architectonic sets, and each set was at one time separated from the other by a series of low walls. The three best known of these complexes are the Great North Platform, which includes the monuments of El Castillo, Temple of Warriors and the Great Ball Court; The Osario Group, which includes the pyramid of the same name as well as the Temple of Xtoloc; and the Central Group, which includes the Caracol, Las Monjas, and Akab Dzib.

Osario corner, Chichen Itza
When it all looks this good, a day is not enough.

South of Las Monjas, in an area known as Chichén Viejo (Old Chichén) and only open to archaeologists, are several other complexes, such as the Group of the Initial Series, Group of the Lintels, and Group of the Old Castle.

Graham Hughes at Chichen Itza
I thought they might take me for an archaeologist, you know, cos the hat an’ all.

Dominating the North Platform of Chichen Itza is the Temple of Kukulkan (a Maya feathered serpent deity similar to the Aztec Quetzalcoatl), usually referred to as El Castillo (“the castle”).

El Castillo, Chichen Itza
It’s not a castle, it’s a pyramid. Divs.

This step pyramid stands about 30 metres (98 ft) high and consists of a series of nine square terraces, each approximately 2.57 metres (8.4 ft) high, with a 6-metre (20 ft) high temple upon the summit. The sides of the pyramid are approximately 55.3 metres (181 ft) at the base and rise at an angle of 53°, although that varies slightly for each side. The four faces of the pyramid have protruding stairways that rise at an angle of 45°. The talud walls of each terrace slant at an angle of between 72° and 74°. At the base of the balustrades of the northeastern staircase are carved heads of a serpent.

Mayan Pyramid El Castillo Detail Chichen Itza Mexico

Mesoamerican cultures periodically superimposed larger structures over older ones, and El Castillo is one such example. In the mid-1930s, the Mexican government sponsored an excavation of El Castillo. After several false starts, they discovered a staircase under the north side of the pyramid. By digging from the top, they found another temple buried below the current one. Inside the temple chamber was a Chac Mool statue and a throne in the shape of Jaguar, painted red and with spots made of inlaid jade. The Mexican government excavated a tunnel from the base of the north staircase, up the earlier pyramid’s stairway to the hidden temple, and opened it to tourists. In 2006, INAH closed the throne room to the public.

El Castillo and Excavations Chichen Itza

On the Spring and Autumn equinoxes, in the late afternoon, the northwest corner of the pyramid casts a series of triangular shadows against the western balustrade on the north side that evokes the appearance of a serpent wriggling down the staircase, which some scholars have suggested is a representation of the feathered-serpent god Kukulkan.

Temple of Kukulkan, El Castillo, Chichen Itza
Could this place BE more incredible? Yes, it turns out it can.

Archaeologists have identified thirteen ballcourts for playing the Mesoamerican ballgame in Chichen Itza, but the Great Ball Court about 150 metres (490 ft) to the north-west of the Castillo is by far the most impressive. It is the largest and best preserved ball court in ancient Mesoamerica. It measures 168 by 70 metres (551 by 230 ft).

Ball Court Chichen Itza
That’s one tricky hoop.

The parallel platforms flanking the main playing area are each 95 metres (312 ft) long. The walls of these platforms stand 8 metres (26 ft) high; set high up in the centre of each of these walls are rings carved with intertwined feathered serpents.

Great Ball Court Hoop Detail Chichen Itza
What did they play with? A squash ball?

At the base of the high interior walls are slanted benches with sculpted panels of teams of ball players. In one panel, one of the players has been decapitated; the wound emits streams of blood in the form of wriggling snakes.

Chichen Itza Ball Court Area

At one end of the Great Ball Court is the North Temple, also known as the Temple of the Bearded Man (Templo del Hombre Barbado). This small masonry building has detailed bas relief carving on the inner walls, including a center figure that has carving under his chin that resembles facial hair. At the south end is another, much bigger temple, but in ruins.

Iguana at Chichen Itza
Iguanas LOVE ruins. Don’t forget that.

Built into the east wall are the Temples of the Jaguar. The Upper Temple of the Jaguar overlooks the ball court and has an entrance guarded by two, large columns carved in the familiar feathered serpent motif. Inside there is a large mural, much destroyed, which depicts a battle scene.

Eagle relief detail Chichen Itza
Heart-scoffing eagles welcome.

The Temple of the Warriors complex consists of a large stepped pyramid fronted and flanked by rows of carved columns depicting warriors. This complex is analogous to Temple B at the Toltec capital of Tula, and indicates some form of cultural contact between the two regions.

Casey Turner Photographer Chichen Itza
Not all these amazing pics are © me!

The one at Chichen Itza, however, was constructed on a larger scale. At the top of the stairway on the pyramid’s summit (and leading towards the entrance of the pyramid’s temple) is a Chac Mool. This temple encases or entombs a former structure called The Temple of the Chac Mool. The archeological expedition and restoration of this building was done by the Carnegie Institution of Washington from 1925 to 1928. A key member of this restoration was Earl H. Morris who published the work from this expedition in two volumes entitled Temple of the Warriors.

Temple of the Warriors, Chichen Itza
I hope you remember this from the Mysterious Cities of Gold

Along the south wall of the Temple of Warriors are a series of what are today exposed columns, although when the city was inhabited these would have supported an extensive roof system. The columns are in three distinct sections: a west group, that extends the lines of the front of the Temple of Warriors; a north group, which runs along the south wall of the Temple of Warriors and contains pillars with carvings of soldiers in bas-relief; and a northeast group, which apparently formed a small temple at the southeast corner of the Temple of Warriors, which contains a rectangular decorated with carvings of people or gods, as well as animals and serpents. The northeast column temple also covers a small marvel of engineering, a channel that funnels all the rainwater from the complex some 40 metres (130 ft) away to a rejollada, a former cenote.

Graham Hughes at the Temple of the Warriors, Chichen Itza

To the south of the Group of a Thousand Columns is a group of three, smaller, interconnected buildings. The Temple of the Carved Columns is a small elegant building that consists of a front gallery with an inner corridor that leads to an altar with a Chac Mool. There are also numerous columns with rich, bas-relief carvings of some 40 personages. A section of the upper façade with a motif of x’s and o’s is displayed in front of the structure. The Temple of the Small Tables which is an unrestored mound. And the Thompson’s Temple (referred to in some sources as Palace of Ahau Balam Kauil ), a small building with two levels that has friezes depicting Jaguars (balam in Maya) as well as glyphs of the Maya god Kahuil.

Carved pillar detail, Chichen Itza

The Osario itself, like El Castillo, is a step-pyramid temple dominating its platform, only on a smaller scale. Like its larger neighbor, it has four sides with staircases on each side. There is a temple on top, but unlike El Castillo, at the center is an opening into the pyramid which leads to a natural cave 12 metres (39 ft) below. Edward H. Thompson excavated this cave in the late 19th century, and because he found several skeletons and artifacts such as jade beads, he named the structure The High Priests’ Temple. Archaeologists today believe the structure was neither a tomb nor that the personages buried in it were priests.

Osario, Chichen Itza
But now there’s trees so DON’T HAVE NIGHTMARES.

The Temple of Xtoloc is a recently restored temple outside the Osario Platform is. It overlooks the other large cenote at Chichen Itza, named after the Maya word for iguana, “Xtoloc.” The temple contains a series of pilasters carved with images of people, as well as representations of plants, birds and mythological scenes.

Temple carving detail, Chichen Itza
I’m not even going to hazard a guess as to what is going on here.

Phew! We were there all day, and still didn’t get to see everything. The observatory would have to wait until next time. We were actually the last to leave, which enabled me to (somewhat cheekily) get this last shot of El Castillo before we were escorted out by security.

Temple of Kukulkan, El Castillo Pyramid, Chichen Itza, Mexico
I get bonus points for the fact there are no tourists in this pic.

Outside we ran into some Mayan warriors who were desperate to get a picture with a famed adventurer such as I.

Graham Hughes and Casey Turner with Mayan Warriors
Would you believe me if I told you I didn’t have to pay for this picture? Cos I wouldn’t.

Back in Piste, Case and I grabbed something to eat and then hopped on the bus to our next destination on the Ruta Maya: the city of Merida!

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Ruta Maya 8 – Great Balls of Fire

Graham Hughes : April 19, 2014 12:07 am : Ruta Maya

It was dark before we hit Merida. We found ourselves a rustic little backpackers located in an old pension, but without effective fans the night was sweltering. I was rudely awoken in the morning, not by the dustmen, but by an earthquake. Bits of paint fell from the high ceiling. It measured 7.2 on the Richter Scale. Case slept right through it.

Casey would be in the attic of that house, snoozin' away!
Casey would be in the attic of that house, snoozin’ away!

We decided to have a day off from gallivanting around Mayan ruins and instead go gallivanting around the town of Merida. I’m glad we did – the place is wonderful. I found us a new gaff to stay for the night, a nice little hotel on the north end of town, and I even splurged out on AC and a telly that we would probably not even use.

Teatro, Medira
Why would we need TV when we had all this splendid architecture to enjoy?

We went for lunch and ordered too much food.

Mexican Food Merida
Too much food!!!

The road adjacent to the main square was closed off and bleachers were being set up – some event going on that evening.

Turns out “Merida” is Spanish for “utterly charming”.


Being Good Friday, I kinda expected it to be a Catholic thing, so imagine my surprise and delight to find that no, we had just found ourselves ringside for THE COOLEST THING I HAVE EVER SEEN.

You don’t believe me, do you?



Aside from the Fire Hockey, there were traditional Mayan ball games…

Mayan Ball Game Hoop
Have hoop, let’s play ball!


Mayan Ball Game, Merida
Mayans are also known for their ability to defy the laws of gravity.

And even a wedding!

Mayan Wedding, Merida
I want Mayan warriors at my wedding.


You’d think it was just good timing, but I swear stuff like this always happens when you’re on the road!

Graham Hughes Casey Turner Mayan Warriors
Just next time remind me not to wear shorts.

After all the fun of the Mayan games (seriously going to write to the IOC and ask for Fire Hockey to be included in the next Olympic Games), Case and I grabbed some ice-cream…

Graham and Casey in Merida
Ice cream. GRABBED.

Checked these beautiful old churches…

Church Merida

Church Merida
I know what you’re thinking: this would make a great bar.

Church in Merida Mexico
Pretty imposing. Like, pretty yet imposing.

And ended up in this pub that had some incredible décor.

Bar in Merida, Mexico
All my Grim Fandango fantasies come true!

Nice one Merida!!

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Ruta Maya 9 – Wizards and Pyramids

Graham Hughes : April 20, 2014 12:08 am : Ruta Maya

19 Apr 2015:

So then, another day, another fabulous Mayan City to explore. Uxmal is (was) located a hundred miles or so south of Merida, so we hopped on the local bus and headed down to see what we could find.

Signpost for Uxmal, Mexico
It’s pronounced “ush-mal”, in case you were wondering.

Uxmal (Yucatec Maya: Óoxmáal) is an ancient Maya city of the classical period in present-day Mexico. It is considered one of the most important archaeological sites of Maya culture, along with Chichen Itza in Mexico (tick!); Caracol and Xunantunich in Belize (oh, really? bummer), and Tikal in Guatemala (tick coming soon!).

Also, the Mariachi band that bookended Grim Fandango.

Uxmal is located in the Puuc region and is considered one of the Maya cities most representative of the region’s dominant architectural style. It has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in recognition of its significance.

Temple of the Magician, Uxmal, Mexico
Can’t imagine why.

Uxmal is located 62 km south of Mérida, capital of Yucatán state in Mexico. Its buildings are noted for their size and decoration. Ancient roads called sacbes connect the buildings, and also were built to other cities in the area such as Chichén Itzá, Caracol and Xunantunich in modern-day Belize, and Tikal in modern-day Guatemala.

Temple of the Magician, Uxmal, Mexico
SHUT UP I’M TALKING said the building.

Its buildings are typical of the Riley Kand Puuc style, with smooth low walls that open on ornate friezes based on representations of typical Maya huts. These are represented by columns (representing the reeds used for the walls of the huts) and trapezoidal shapes (representing the thatched roofs). Entwined snakes and, in many cases two-headed snakes are used for masks of the rain god, Chaac; its big noses represent the rays of the storms. Feathered serpents with open fangs are shown leaving from the same human beings. Also seen in some cities are the influences of the Nahua, who followed the cult of Quetzalcoatl and Tlaloc. These were integrated with the original elements of the Puuc tradition.

Temple of the Magician Entrance, Uxmal, Mexico
Into the mouth of madness

The buildings take advantage of the terrain to gain height and acquire important volumes, including the Pyramid of the Magician, with five levels, and the Governor’s Palace, which covers an area of more than 1,200 m2 (12,917 sq ft).

Temple of the Magician, Uxmal, Mexico
I love it when you take a picture and it looks utterly unreal.

The present name seems to derive from Oxmal, meaning “three times built”. This seems to refer to the site’s antiquity and the times it had to rebuild. The etymology is disputed; another possibility is Uchmal which means “what is to come, the future.” By tradition, this was supposed to be an “invisible city,” built in one night by the magic of the dwarf king.

Uxmal, Mexico
It was one hell of a night.

Maya chronicles say that Uxmal was founded about 500 A.D. by Hun Uitzil Chac Tutul Xiu. For generations Uxmal was ruled over by the Xiu family. It was the most powerful site in western Yucatán, and for a while, in alliance with Chichen Itza, dominated all of the northern Maya area. Sometime after about 1200, no new major construction seems to have been made at Uxmal, possibly related to the fall of Uxmal’s ally Chichen Itza and the shift of power in Yucatán to Mayapan. The Xiu moved their capital to Maní, and the population of Uxmal declined.

Iguana at Uxmal, Mexico

Uxmal was dominant from 875 to 900 CE. The site appears to have been the capital of a regional state in the Puuc region from 850-950 CE. The Maya dynasty expanded their dominion over their neighbors. This prominence did not last long, as the population dispersed around 1000 CE.

Graham Hughes taking a photo at Uxmal, Mexico
Probs cos of all the damn tourists.

After the Spanish conquest of Yucatán (in which the Xiu allied with the Spanish), early colonial documents suggest that Uxmal was still an inhabited place of some importance into the 1550s. As the Spanish did not build a town here, Uxmal was soon after largely abandoned.

Casey Turner Uxmal Mexico
Casey kicked their asses. TRUE STORY.

Even before the restoration work, Uxmal was in better condition than many other Maya sites. Much was built with well-cut stones set into a core of concrete not relying on plaster to hold the building together. The Maya architecture here is considered matched only by that of Palenque in elegance and beauty. The Puuc style of Maya architecture predominates. Thanks to its good state of preservation, it is one of the few Maya cities where the casual visitor can get a good idea of how the entire ceremonial centre looked in ancient times.

Uxmal, Mexico
Like this, only with more human sacrifice.

The Adivino (a.k.a. the Pyramid of the Magician or the Pyramid of the Dwarf), is a stepped pyramid structure, unusual among Maya structures in that its layers’ outlines are oval or elliptical in shape, instead of the more common rectilinear plan. It was a common practice in Mesoamerica to build new temple pyramids atop older ones, but here a newer pyramid was built centered slightly to the east of the older pyramid, so that on the west side the temple atop the old pyramid is preserved, with the newer temple above it. In addition, the western staircase of the pyramid is situated so that it faces the setting sun on the summer solstice.

Magician's Pyramid, Uxmal, Mexico

The structure is featured in one of the best-known tales of Yucatec Maya folklore, “el enano del Uxmal” (the dwarf of Uxmal), which is also the basis for the structure’s common name. Multiple versions of this tale are recorded. It was popularised after one of these was recounted by John Lloyd Stephens in his influential 1841 book, Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatan. According to Stephens’ version, the pyramid was magically built overnight during a series of challenges issued to a dwarf by the gobernador (ruler or king) of Uxmal. The dwarf’s mother (a bruja, or witch) arranged the trial of strength and magic to compete against the king.

Magician's Pyramid, Uxmal, Mexico
If I was a magician, this is what my home would look like.

The Nunnery Quadrangle (a nickname given to it by the Spanish; it was a government palace) is the finest of Uxmal’s several fine quadrangles of long buildings. It has elaborately carved façades on both the inside and outside faces.

Nunnery Quadrangle, Uxmal, Mexico
Anyone for cricket?

A large Ballcourt for playing the Mesoamerican ballgame. Its inscription says that it was dedicated in 901 by the ruler Chan Chak K’ak’nal Ajaw, also known as Lord Chac (before the decipherment of his corresponding name glyphs).

Ball Court, Uxmal, Mexico
Game ON.

A number of other temple-pyramids, quadrangles, and other monuments, some of significant size, and in varying states of preservation, are also at Uxmal. These include North Long Building, House of the Birds, House of the Turtles, Grand Pyramid, House of the Doves, and South Temple.

Comb, Uxmal, Mexico
UXMAL: a rootin’ tootin’ overdose of awesome.

Uxmal has attracted many visitors since the time of Mexico’s independence. The first detailed account of the ruins was published by Jean Frederic Waldeck in 1838. John Lloyd Stephens and Frederick Catherwood made two extended visits to Uxmal in the early 1840s, with architect/draftsman Catherwood reportedly making so many plans and drawings that they could be used to construct a duplicate of the ancient city (unfortunately most of the drawings are lost).) Désiré Charnay took a series of photographs of Uxmal in 1860. Some three years later Empress Carlota of Mexico visited Uxmal; in preparation for her visit local authorities had some statues and architectural elements depicting phallic themes removed from the ancient façades.

Thwomp, Uxmal, Mexico
They missed all the Thwomps, though.

Sylvanus G. Morley made a map of the site in 1909 which included some previously overlooked buildings. The Mexican government’s first project to protect some of the structures from risk of collapse or further decay came in 1927. In 1930 Frans Blom led a Tulane University expedition to the site. They made plaster casts of the façades of the “Nunnery Quadrangle”; using these casts, a replica of the Quadrangle was constructed and displayed at the 1933 World’s Fair in Chicago, Illinois. The plaster replicas of the architecture were destroyed following the fair, but some of the plaster casts of Uxmal’s monuments are still kept at Tulane’s Middle American Research Institute. In 1936 a Mexican government repair and consolidation program was begun under José Erosa Peniche.

Casey Turner at Uxmal, Mexico
All restoration efforts are Casey approved.

Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom visited on 27 February 1975 for the inauguration of the site’s sound & light show. When the presentation reached the point where the sound system played the Maya prayer to Chaac (the Maya rain deity), a sudden torrential downpour occurred. Gathered dignitaries included Gaspar Antonio Xiu, a descendant of noble Maya lineage, the Xiu).

Uxmal, Mexico
Ooh, is that rain on the way?

We left the site in the late afternoon, waited at the roadside for what seemed like an age before a bus came along and picked us up. We got back to Merida at sunset.

Sunset, Merida, Mexico
Nobody does sunsets like the Mexicans do sunsets.

Then it was food>face>shovel time and after grabbing our things from the hotel, it was back to the bus station to jump on the overnight coach to our next awesome Mayan destination… PALENQUE!!

Night bus to Palenque; Merida, Mexico
Cheerio Merida! You was AWESOME!!

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Ruta Maya 10 – Lost Is The King

Graham Hughes : April 20, 2014 11:09 pm : Ruta Maya

Overnight buses are always a joy, especially when the air-con is set to “ARCTIC”. We got a little kip on the journey from Merida to Palenque, but not much.

And it went a little something like this…

We arrived at our destination about an hour before sunrise. It was too early dagnamit! Everything was closed. I wanted to stay on the bus, but they wouldn’t let me, the rotten jackanapes. We found a one grotty little transport cafe with surly staff that seemed to be open. I left Case there with the bags (she promised to do her best not to doze off) while I went to find somewhere to sling our proverbial hooks for the night. One of the many advantages of not travelling alone.

I found a nice little place about up the road, and they were good enough to let us crash out for a few hours that morning, which was a welcome relief.

After a few hours of shut-eye we wandered up along the main street looking for somewhere to book tomorrow’s trip down to the Mayan cities of YaxchilanBonampak and beyond. We put our names down for a tour that would take us all the way to Flores in Guatemala – the nearest town to Tikal, the jewel of the Mayan Empire.

But today was all about Palenque, and that afternoon we hopped the bus down to the site to see what we could see.

Palenque, Mexico
Pronounced “Pal-en-kay”, not “Pal-en-eek”. You’d look a right muppet if you got that wrong. Especially in front of Luis from An Idiot Abroad. *Gets coat*

Palenque (Yucatec Maya: Bàak’) was a Maya city state in southern Mexico that flourished in the 7th century. The Palenque ruins date back to 226 BC to around 799 AD. After its decline, it was absorbed into the jungle, which is made up of cedar, mahogany, and sapodilla trees.

Palenque Mexico
A bit like this!

But most of the site has been excavated and restored and is now a famous archaeological site attracting thousands of visitors. It is located near the Usumacinta River in the Mexican state of Chiapas,

Palenque waterfall, Mexico
You may think of the ancient Mayans as bloodthirsty types, but they certainly knew how to make everything look pretty.

Palenque is a medium-sized site, much smaller than such huge sites as Tikal, Chichen Itza, or Copán, but it contains some of the finest architecture, sculpture, roof comb and bas-relief carvings that the Mayas produced. Much of the history of Palenque has been reconstructed from reading the hieroglyphic inscriptions on the many monuments; historians now have a long sequence of the ruling dynasty of Palenque in the 5th century and extensive knowledge of the city-state’s rivalry with other states such as Calakmul and Toniná. The most famous ruler of Palenque was Pacal the Great whose tomb has been found and excavated in the Temple of the Inscriptions.

Temple of the Inscriptions, Palenque
Before being destroyed by Estaban and his friends.

By 2005, the discovered area covered up to 2.5 km² (1 sq mi), but it is estimated that less than 10% of the total area of the city is explored, leaving more than a thousand structures still covered by jungle.

Jungle Palenque
Jungle 1, Archaeologists 0.

Much of the Early Classic history of the city still awaits the archaeologist’s trowel. However, from the extent of the surveyed site and the reference to Early Classic rulers in the inscriptional record of the Late Classic, it is clear Palenque’s history is much longer than we currently know. The fact that early ajaw (king or lord) and mythological beings used a variety of emblem glyphs in their titles indeed suggests a complex early history. For instance, K’uk’ B’ahlam, the supposed founder of the Palenque dynasty, is called a Toktan Ajaw in the text of the Temple of the Foliated Cross.
The famous structures that we know today probably represent a rebuilding effort in response to the attacks by the city of Calakmul and its client states in 599 and 611. One of the main figures responsible for rebuilding Palenque and for a renaissance in the city’s art and architecture is also one of the best-known Maya Ajaw, K’inich Janaab’ Pakal (Pacal the Great), who ruled from 615 to 683. He is best known through his funerary monument, dubbed the Temple of Inscriptions after the lengthy text preserved in the temple’s superstructure. At the time Alberto Ruz Lhuillier excavated Pakal’s tomb it was the richest and best preserved of any scientifically excavated burial then known from the ancient Americas. It held this position until the discovery of the rich Moche burials at Sipan, Peru and the recent discoveries at Copan and Calakmul.

Temple of the Inscriptions, Palenque
The Temple of Inscriptions.

Beside the attention that K’inich Janaab’ Pakal’s tomb brought to Palenque, the city is historically significant for its extensive hieroglyphic corpus composed during the reigns of Janaab’ Pakal his son K’inich Kan B’ahlam and his grandson K’inich Akal Mo’ Naab’, and for being the location where Heinrich Berlin and later Linda Schele and Peter Mathews outlined the first dynastic list for any Maya city.

Palenque, Mexico
Did somebody order a Mayan city?

The first ajaw, or king, of B’aakal that we know of was K’uk Balam (Quetzal Jaguar), who governed for four years starting in the year 431. After him, a king came to power, nicknamed Casper by archaeologists. The next two kings were probably Casper’s sons. Little was known about the first of these, B’utz Aj Sak Chiik, until 1994, when a tablet was found describing a ritual for the king. The first tablet mentioned his successor Ahkal Mo’ Naab I as a teenage prince, and therefore it is believed that there was a family relation between them. For unknown reasons, Akhal Mo’ Naab I had great prestige, so the kings who succeeded him were proud to be his descendants.

Engraving, Palenque, Mexico
I reckon it was his boss kazoo techniques

When Ahkal Mo’ Naab I died in 524, there was an interregnum of four years, before the following king was crowned en Toktán in 529. K’an Joy Chitam I governed for 36 years. His sons Ahkal Mo’ Naab II and K’an B’alam I were the first kings who used the title Kinich, which means “the great sun”. This word was used also by later kings. B’alam was succeeded in 583 by Yohl Ik’nal, who was supposedly his daughter. The inscriptions found in Palenque document a battle that occurred under her government in which troops from Calakmul invaded and sacked Palenque, a military feat without known precedents. These events took place in 599.

Palenque, Mexico
I’ve got 599 problems…

A second victory by Calakmul occurred some twelve years later, in 611, under the government of Aj Ne’ Yohl Mat, son of Yohl Iknal. In this occasion, the king of Calakmul entered Palenque in person, consolidating a significant military disaster, which was followed by an epoch of political disorder. Aj Ne’ Yohl Mat was to die in 612.

Engraving, Mayan Figure, Palenque, Mexico
Cause of death: neck fatigue by giant headdress.

B’aakal began the Late Classic period in the throes of the disorder created by the defeats before Calakmul. The glyphic panels at the Temple of Inscriptions, which records the events at this time, relates that some fundamental annual religious ceremonies were not performed in 613, and at this point states: “Lost is the divine lady, lost is the king.” Mentions of the government at the time have not been found.

Mayan writing, Palenque
I can totally read this.

It is believed that after the death of Aj Ne’ Yohl Mat, Janaab Pakal, also called Pakal I, took power thanks to a political agreement. Janaab Pakal assumed the functions of the ajaw (king) but never was crowned. He was succeeded in 612 by his daughter, the queen Sak K’uk’, who governed for only three years until her son was old enough to rule. It is considered that the dynasty was re-established from then on, so B’aakal retook the path of glory and splendour.

Mayan face inscription, Palenque
Although nNot much of a looker, by all accounts.

The grandson of Janaab Pakal is the most famous of the Mayan kings, K’inich Janaab’ Pakal, also known as Pakal the Great. He began rule at the age of 12 years old after his mother Sak Kuk resigned as queen after three years, thus passing power on to him. Pakal the Great reigned in Palenque from 615 to 683, and his mother remained an important force for the first 25 years of his rule. She may have ruled jointly with him. Known as the favorite of the gods, he carried Palenque to new levels of splendor, in spite of having come to power when the city was at a low point. Pakal married the princess of Oktán, Lady Tzakbu Ajaw (also known as Ahpo-Hel) in 624 and had at least three children.

We learned all this by reading the walls, not from Wikipedia, honest.

During his government, most of the palaces and temples of Palenque were constructed; the city flourished as never before, eclipsing Tikal. The central complex, known as The Palace, was enlarged and remodeled on various occasions, notably in the years 654, 661, and 668. In this structure, is a text describing how in that epoch Palenque was newly allied with Tikal, and also with Yaxchilan, and that they were able to capture the six enemy kings of the alliance. Not much more had been translated from the text.

The Palace, Palenque
The only thing that beats a palace is a bigger palace.

After the death of Pakal in 683, his older son K’inich Kan B’alam assumed the kingship of B’aakal, who in turn was succeeded in 702 by his brother K’inich K’an Joy Chitam II. The first continued the architectural and sculptural works that were begun by his father, as well as finishing the construction of the famous tomb of Pakal. Pakal’s sarcophagus, built for a very tall man, held the richest collection of jade seen in a Mayan tomb. A jade mosaic mask was placed over his face, and a suit made of jade adorned his body, with each piece hand-carved and held together by gold wire.

Pakal's Jade Mask. Stolen in 1985, recovered in 1989.
Pakal’s Jade Mask. Stolen in 1985, recovered in 1989.

Furthermore, K’inich Kan B’alam I began ambitious projects, like the Group of the Crosses. Thanks to numerous works begun during his government, now we have portraits of this king, found in various sculptures. His brother succeeded him continuing with the same enthusiasm of construction and art, reconstructing and enlarging the north side of the Palace. Thanks to the reign of these three kings, B’aakal enjoyed a century of growth and splendour.

Temple of the Cross, Palenque
Temple of the Cross.

In 711, Palenque was sacked by the realm of Toniná, and the old king K’inich K’an Joy Chitam II was taken prisoner. It is not known what the final destination of the king was, and it is presumed that he was executed in Toniná. For 10 years there was no king. Finally, K’inich Ahkal Mo’ Nab’ III was crowned in 722. Although the new king belonged to the royalty, there is no reason to be sure that he was the direct inheritor direct of K’inich K’an Joy Chitam II. It is believed, therefore, that this coronation was a break in the dynastic line, and probably K’inich Ahkal Nab’ arrived to power after years of maneuvering and forging political alliances. This king, his son, and grandson governed until the end of the 8th century. Little is known about this period, except that, among other events, the war with Toniná continued, where there are hieroglyphics that record a new defeat of Palenque.

Temple of the Sun, Palenque
Temple of the Sun

During the 8th century, B’aakal came under increasing stress, in concert with most other Classic Mayan city-states, and there was no new elite construction in the ceremonial centre sometime after 800. An agricultural population continued to live here for a few generations, then the site was abandoned and was slowly grown over by the forest. The district was very sparsely populated when the Spanish first arrived in the 1520s. Occasionally city-state lords were women. Lady Sak Kuk ruled at Palenque for at least three years starting in 612 CE, before she passed her title to her son. However, these female rulers were accorded male attributes. Thus, these women became more masculine as they assumed roles that were typically male roles.

Relief carvings, Palenque, Mexico
That dude’s totally a chick.

The Temple of Inscriptions had begun perhaps as early as 675 as the funerary monument of Hanab-Pakal. The temple superstructure houses the second longest glyphic text known from the Maya world (the longest is the Hieroglyphic Stairway at Copan). The Temple of the Inscriptions records approximately 180 years of the city’s history from the 4th through 12th K’atun. The focal point of the narrative records K’inich Janaab’ Pakal’s K’atun period-ending rituals focused on the icons of the city’s patron deities prosaically known collectively as the Palenque Triad or individually as GI, GII, and GIII.

Graham Hughes at Palenque
That’s Graham I, Graham II and Graham III.

The Pyramid measures 60 meters wide, 42.5 meters deep and 27.2 meters high. The Summit temple measures 25.5 meters wide, 10.5 meters deep and 11.4 meters high. The largest stones weigh 12 to 15 tons. These were on top of the Pyramid. The Total volume of pyramid and temple is 32,500 cu. meters.

Temple of the Inscriptions, Palenque
Not picking that up.

In 1952 Alberto Ruz Lhuillier removed a stone slab in the floor of the back room of the temple superstructure to reveal a passageway (filled in shortly before the city’s abandonment and reopened by archeologists) leading through a long stairway to Pakal’s tomb. The tomb itself is remarkable for its large carved sarcophagus, the rich ornaments accompanying Pakal, and for the stucco sculpture decorating the walls of the tomb. Unique to Pakal’s tomb is the psychoduct, which leads from the tomb itself, up the stairway and through a hole in the stone covering the entrance to the burial. This psychoduct is perhaps a physical reference to concepts about the departure of the soul at the time of death in Maya eschatology where in the inscriptions the phrase ochb’ihaj sak ik’il (the white breath road-entered) is used to refer to the leaving of the soul. A find such as this is greatly important because it demonstrated for the first time the temple usage as being multifaceted. These pyramids were, for the first time, identified as temples and also funerary structures.

Temple of the Inscriptions, Palenque
What did they think it was? An ancient Wal-Mart?

The much-discussed iconography of the sarcophagus lid depicts Pakal in the guise of one of the manifestations of the Maya Maize God emerging from the maws of the underworld.

Or a spaceship, if you're an idiot
Or a blasting off in a spaceship, if you’re an idiot.

The temple also has a duct structure that still is not completely understood by archaeologists. It has been suggested that the duct aligns with the winter solstice and that the sun shines down on Pakals tomb.

Graham Hughes at Palenque
Or me. Me is good.

The Temple of the Cross, Temple of the Sun, and Temple of the Foliated Cross are a set of graceful temples atop step pyramids, each with an elaborately carved relief in the inner chamber depicting two figures presenting ritual objects and effigies to a central icon.

Temple of the Cross and Temple of the Foliated Cross, Palenque
Temple of the Cross and Temple of the Foliated Cross.

Earlier interpretations had argued that the smaller figure was that of K’inich Janaab’ Pakal while the larger figure was K’inich Kan B’ahlam. However, it is now known based on a better understanding of the iconography and epigraphy that the central tablet depicts two images of Kan B’ahlam.

The Temple of the Foliated Cross, Palenque
The Temple of the Foliated Cross also doubles at the Wicked Witch’s house.


The smaller figure shows K’inich Kan B’ahlam during a rite of passage ritual at the age of six while the larger is of his accession to kingship at the age of 48. These temples were named by early explorers; the cross-like images in two of the reliefs actually depict the tree of creation at the centre of the world in Maya mythology.

Temple of the Cross, Palenque
On thing you should know about the Mayans is that they LOVED their elaborate staircases.

The Palace, a complex of several connected and adjacent buildings and courtyards, was built by several generations on a wide artificial terrace during four century period. The Palace was used by the Mayan aristocracy for bureaucratic functions, entertainment, and ritualistic ceremonies. The Palace is located in the centre of the ancient city.

Palace, Palenque
It also makes clouds.

The Corbel arch seen in a hallway at the Palace
Within the Palace there are numerous sculptures and bas-relief carvings that have been conserved. The Palace most unique and recognizable feature is the four-story tower known as The Observation Tower. The Observation Tower like many other buildings at the site exhibit a mansard-like roof. The A-shaped Corbel arch is an architectural motif observed throughout the complex.

Palace Arch, Palenque
Under The Arches


The Corbel arches require a large amount of masonry mass and are limited to a small dimensional ratio of width to height providing the characteristic high ceilings and narrow passageways. The Palace was equipped with numerous large baths and saunas which were supplied with fresh water by an intricate water system. An aqueduct, constructed of great stone blocks with a three-meter-high vault, diverts the Otulum River to flow underneath the main plaza. The Palace is the largest building complex in Palenque measuring 97 meters by 73 meters at its base.

Palace, Palenque
It also extends underground.

The Temple of the Skull has a skull on one of the pillars.

Temple XIII contained the Tomb of the Red Queen, an unknown noble woman, possibly the wife of Pakal, discovered in 1994. The remains in the sarcophagus were completely covered with a bright red powder made of cinnabar.

Tomb of the Red Queen, Palenque
Tomb of the Red Queen

The Temple of the Count another elegant Classic Palenque temple, which got its name from the fact that early explorer Jean Frederic Waldeck lived in the building for some time, and Waldeck claimed to be a count.

Temple of The Count, Palenque
Yes, this actually happened. He’s my hero.

Well, I think that’ll do for one day. Does anybody know how we get out of here?

Temple, Palenque
I’m lost. I don’t even know which temple this is.

So then it was back to the town of Palenque where we realised that it was actually Easter Sunday, so we bought a couple of Kinder Surprise eggs, just like you can’t do in America.

Graham Hughes and Casey Turner in Palenque
No you can’t have a Kinder Egg, they’re far too dangerous. Here, take this pink AK-47 instead.

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Ruta Maya 11 – Jus’ Chilan

Graham Hughes : April 21, 2014 12:59 pm : Ruta Maya

We were told to be ready to go at 6.30am for today’s organised tour of Yaxchilan and Bonampak. However, the driver of the minibus had been told we’d meet him outside the backpackers at 6am. I like to squeeze out the last possible second of sleep before dragging my carcass out of bed, so this was somewhat of an annoyance, but my personal annoyance was nothing compared to that of the driver. I was worried that he might burst a blood vessel – screaming and shouting in Spanish like he’d just found his wife in bed with his least favourite mule.

I took it in my stride, whatevers dude, since my two stints in African jails I’m the king of travel zen. Happily everybody else he had to pick up weren’t quite ready either… FUNNY DAT.

We hurtled out of town at a great rate of knots, stopping for breakfast along the way. The other people in the minibus were backpackers from all over the world, but I was a bit too sleepy to engage in any meaningful conversation.

Around 10am we arrived at Frontera Corozal on the Usumacinta River. The river forms the boundary between Mexico and Guatemala and Yaxchilan is to be found about an hour downstream. We left our backpacks on the bus and headed down to the boat that was waiting for us to take us to the site. Like Lamanai, Yaxchilan is not accessible by road – for the Mayans rivers were their highways. In fact, until fairly recently, the only way to reach Yaxchilan was a 100 mile journey down the Usumacinta.

Yaxchilan Sign, Mexico
Welcome Welcome!

Yaxchilan is an ancient Maya city located on the bank of the Usumacinta River in what is now the state of Chiapas, Mexico. In the Late Classic Period Yaxchilan was one of the most powerful Maya states along the course of the Usumacinta, with Piedras Negras as its major rival. Architectural styles in subordinate sites in the Usumacinta region demonstrate clear differences that mark a clear boundary between the two kingdoms.

Acropolis, Yaxchilan
Yeah but you knew there’d be stairs, right?

Yaxchilan was a large centre, important throughout the Classic era, and the dominant power of the Usumacinta River area. It dominated such smaller sites as Bonampak and had a long rivalry with Piedras Negras and at least for a time with Tikal; it was a rival of Palenque, with which Yaxchilan warred in 654.

Stone Altar, Yaxchilan
But did Palenque have a big stone sacrificial altar? Don’t think so.

The site contains impressive ruins, with palaces and temples bordering a large plaza upon a terrace above the Usumacinta River. The architectural remains extend across the higher terraces and the hills to the south of the river, overlooking both the river itself and the lowlands beyond. Yaxchilan is known for the large quantity of excellent sculpture at the site, such as the monolithic carved stelae and the narrative stone reliefs carved on lintels spanning the temple doorways. Over 120 inscriptions have been identified on the various monuments from the site..

Mayan engraving, man with tail, Yaxchilian
Also, inexplicable tails.

Yaxchilan has its origins in the Preclassic Period. A large part of what is known of the Classic Period history of the city comes from the hieroglyphic texts of the kings who ruled during its Late Classic apogee, one of the most important of which is Hieroglyphic Stairway 1. Some retrospective inscriptions appear to have been used to rewrite Yaxchilan’s dynastic history to suit king Bird Jaguar IV. Before the rule of king Itzamnaaj Balam II, who reigned from 681 to 742, the city was relatively small. The city-state then grew to a regional capital and the dynasty lasted into the early 9th century.

Labyrinth, Yaxchilan
You might have to squint.

The known history of Yaxchilan starts with the enthronement of Yopaat B’alam I, most likely on 23 July 359. He was the founder of a long dynasty, and took the throne when Yaxchilan was still a minor site. Hieroglyphic inscriptions dating to the Late Classic describe a series of wars in the Early Classic between the city and its neighbours.

Labyrinth, Yaxchilan
Which I imagine to involved Space Invaders for some reason.

K’inich Tatb’u Skull I ruled in the early 5th century and was the first of the rulers of Yaxchilan to be recorded as having taken a rival king as a war captive, his prisoner being king Bird Jaguar of Bonampak (not to be confused with the four rulers of Yaxchilan who bore the same name). The long running rivalry with Piedras Negras had already begun by the fifth century AD, with both cities struggling to dominate the Usumacinta trade route. King Moon Skull was credited with gaining a victory over Piedras Negras in 460 and with capturing the enemy king, known only as “Ruler A”. By the middle of the 5th century Yaxchilan had formal contacts with the great city of Tikal. Bird Jaguar II, the next king of Yaxchilan, captured a vassal of the king of Piedras Negras around 478.

Stone engraving, Yaxchilan
All this history AND pictures? You Mayans are too good to us.

Knot-eye Jaguar I was a warlike king who was recorded as capturing nobles from Bonampak, Piedras Negras and the great city of Tikal. In 514, Knot-eye Jaguar I was taken captive by Ruler C of Piedras Negras, as depicted on Lintel 12 from that city, where he is shown kneeling before the enemy king with his wrists bound. His successor, K’inich Tatb’u Skull II, was enthroned on 11 February 526. This king is notable for the series of carved lintels he commissioned, including a dynastic list that provides information on the early kings of the city. K’inich Tatb’u Skull II oversaw a revival of Yaxchilan’s fortunes and he captured lords from Bonampak, Lakamtuun and, notably, the lord of Calakmul, one of the two great Maya powers of the Classic Period, as well as a success against Tikal, the second great power.

Mayan writing, Yaxchilan
I love that people have deciphered this writing. It gives me hope for humanity.

Little is known of the history of Yaxchilan from 537 to 629, although four kings are known to have reigned in this period. Knot-eye Jaguar II is known to have captured the lord of Lacanha in 564, one of the few events that can be identified from this period. It may be that the lack of an inscribed history for this lengthy period indicates that Yaxchilan had fallen under the dominion of a more powerful neighbour, such as Piedras Negras, Palenque or Toniná, all of which were powerful polities in the Usumacinta region at this time.

Stela, Yaxchilan
This was the ‘just getting on with shit’ period.

Yaxchilan reached its greatest power during the reigns of King Itzamnaaj B’alam II, who died in his 90s in 742, and his son Bird Jaguar IV. Itzamnaaj B’alam II was enthroned in October 681 and he ruled for more than sixty years. During the last third of his reign he was responsible for a monumental building programme that included the erection of magnificent buildings with richly carved lintels, hieroglyphic stairways and carved stelae, transforming the centre of the city. During his reign, the kingdom of Yaxchilán extended to include the nearby sites of La Pasadita and El Chicozapote to the northwest of the city. At times the sites of Lacanha and Bonampak appear to have been under his domination, although this region was controlled by Toniná in 715.

Temple, Yaxchilan
Yo, check out my comb bro.

In 726, Yaxchilan was defeated by its rival Piedras Negras. A sajal (subordinate lord) of Itzamnaaj B’alam II was captured by the enemy city, an event that is suspiciously absent from inscriptions at Yaxchilán. It is after this period, over forty years into the reign of Itzamnaaj B’alam II, that this king embarked upon his impressive building programme, this may indicate that at this time Yaxchilan was able to exert independence from the hegemony of once powerful neighbours and claim greater political independence and more lucrative control of riverine trade.

Temple, Yaxchilan
Also, built awesome stuff.

In 729, Itzamnaaj B’alam II captured Aj Popol Chay, the lord of Lacanha. This victory over Lacanha is compared to the earlier victory of Knot-eye Jaguar II against the same city. Similarly, his capture of a lord of Hix Witz in 732 is compared to Bird Jaguar III’s victory over the same site.

Stairway, Yaxchilan
If you’re going to take over Yaxchilan, you need to get up these stairs first.

Yaxchilan retaliated in 759, gaining a victory over its enemy. Circa 790 CE, Yaxchilan’s king Shield Jaguar III oversaw the installation of Chan Muwaan II in Bonampak, and hired Yaxchilano artisans to commemorate it (and the previous Chan Muwaan) in “Structure I”‘s murals.

Yaxchilan, Mexico

In 808, king K’inich Tatb’u Skull III marked his capture of the king of Piedras Negras, an event that probably represented the final overthrow of Yaxchilan’s long running enemy, ending dynastic rule there and destroying the city as a capital. Yaxchilan reached its peak during the Late Classical period of 800 to 1000 AD, but after that… nothing. The place was abandoned to the jungle long before the conquistadors turned up.

Stone Head, Yaxchilan
They left us a head.

The place was rediscovered in the 1800s, but it was the 1880s before any detailed surveys were carried out and large-scale excavations would have to wait until well into the 20th century.

Ruins, Yaxchilan
“We found this spoon, sir!”

As far as Yaxchilan’s buildings are concerned, the major groups are the Central Acropolis, the West Acropolis and the South Acropolis. The South Acropolis occupies the highest part of the site. The site is aligned with relation to the Usumacinta River, at times causing unconventional orientation of the major structures, such as the two ballcourts.

Ball Court, Yaxchilan
Mayans love their Ball Courts. Remember that.

You enter the site through the Labyrinth, which lies at the western edge of the Central Acropolis. The Labyrinth is a temple with rooms spread over three levels, linked by interior stairways. The temple facade has four doorways, with three doorway-sized niches between them. Two sculptured altars are located in front of the structure, which still has the remains of a perforated roof comb.

Graham and Casey outside the Labyrinth at Yaxchilan
Don’t go into the Labyrinth, Saraaaaah!

On the way up to the South Acropolis Casey was dying from the combination of the heat and the slog. I suggested she head on down to the boat and I would meet her there.

South Acropolis, Yaxchilan
Yes it was that important that I got this shot.

After checking out the acropolis, I hurried down to the boat to find that Casey wasn’t there. With no mobile phone reception I started to get a bit worried. The boat driver was itching to go (what is with guys around here and ruthless efficiency?) and so I ran back into the site, getting myself lost in the damn labyrinth along the way.

Labyrinth Entrance, Yaxchilan
How would anybody get lost in a labyrinth? Oh…….

I eventually found Casey halfway up the hill that leads up to the acropolis. She had got totally lost and was pretty upset. I did my best to console her, but we really needed to get going – I knew the boat driver would not wait. So I took her hand and we ran the best we could back through the ruins in the sweltering heat. The boat was still there – just!

However, Casey’s phone wasn’t.

She had dropped it somewhere on the run back.

We had to go and look for it. “Cinco minutos!” I cried out and dragged Casey back to the labyrinth, retracing our steps. Casey was stressed as hell, but all I could think was – “well, we get this sorted, get back on the boat and then we can chill. Yaxchillin’.”

I found the phone on the ground to the right of the labyrinth exit (ol’ eagle eyes here) and we raced back through the labyrinth to the dock. Puffing and panting and sweating like a right pair of goons we got there just in time to see the boat depart. Without us.

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Ruta Maya 12 – At War With The Mystics

Graham Hughes : April 21, 2014 11:26 pm : Ruta Maya

So the boat had left without us. No big deal – we’ll just hop on the next one. Err… yeah… easier said than done.

We waited an hour in the sweltering midday sun before another boat was ready to leave. We spoke with the driver, agreed to pay to get back to Frontera Corozal. We took our seats and got ready to go.

Departing Yaxchilan
All good, right?

And then some heartless Mexican cow who spoke a bit of English told us to get off the boat. Why? Because it was their boat and they didn’t want to take any passengers. I explained the situation – Case was clearly distressed, our bags were on the damn minibus and we were supposed to be leaving for Guatemala in the morning. I offered money, but she was having none of it. If the boat was full I would understand, but there were two empty f—ing seats right there!

And they remained empty as we watched the boat pull away.

It would be another half and hour before the next boat left. Most of the people on it were German and welcomed us on board – they didn’t even want money (although we still had to pay the driver). Thank God for the Germans eh? Fat Mexican ladies, not so much.

When we arrived back at Frontera Corozal, Case and I ran up the riverbank only to find the minibus – and our bags – had gone.

I asked around, nobody could help us.

The area around the dock had a carpark and a restaurant. I could see a white minibus by the exit gate, about 300 metres away. I ran over to it – hoping against hope that it was our bus.

It was.

The other people in the bus had been eating lunch. Then they had waited for us – we arrived not a moment too soon – they were just about to leave for Bonampak.


The driver, still probably irate from this morning, was done with us troublesome gringos. He wouldn’t even look me in the eye.

Bonampak sign
Aaaaaanyways…. BONAMPAK!!

Bonampak is an ancient Maya archaeological site in the Mexican state of Chiapas. The site is approximately 30 km (19 mi) south of the larger site of Yaxchilan, under which Bonampak was a dependency, and the border with Guatemala. While the site is not overly impressive in terms of spatial or architectural size, it is well known for a number of murals, most especially those located within Structure 1 (The Temple of the Murals).

Temple of the Murals, Bonampak
More steps!! I think I’m detecting a theme…

The construction of the site’s structures dates to the Late Classic period (c. AD 580 to 800). In addition to being amongst the most well-preserved Maya murals, the Bonampak murals are noteworthy for debunking early assumptions that the Maya were a peaceful culture of mystics, as the murals clearly depict war and human sacrifice. IN YOUR FACE HIPPIES!!

Bloodletting Mural Bonampak
Here’s Chaan Muan and his family engaged in ritual bloodletting. Boomshanka mofos!

The site, lying close to a tributary of the Usumacinta River, was first seen by non-Mayans in 1946. Precisely who was first is a matter of speculation, but it was either by two American travellers, Herman Charles (Carlos) Frey and John Bourne, or photographer/explorer Giles Healey. The Americans were led to the ruins by the local Lacandon Maya who still visited the site to pray in the ancient temples. Giles Healey was the first to be shown the huge paintings covering the walls of one of the structure’s three rooms. The paintings show the story of a single battle and its victorious outcome.

Battle mural, Bonampak
Get some!!

Bird Jaguar in the early 5th century fought against K’inich Tatb’u Skull I in Yaxchilan, and lost his freedom. Knot-eye Jaguar I was himself taken captive (by Ruler C of Piedras Negras), giving Bonampak some respite; but after 526, his successor K’inich Tatb’u Skull II attacked Bonampak again and captured more lords.

Waiting in line mural, Bonampak
I love the guy who has turned around there, as if to ask “is this the queue for the bogs?”

Bonampak by 600 CE had become a satellite of Yaxchilan. In that time, the ajaw of Yaxchilan installed Yajaw Chan Muwaan I as lord in Bonampak. Subsequent ajawob reconstructed the site to orient toward the metropolis. C. 790 CE, Yaxchilan’s king Shield Jaguar III oversaw the installation of Chan Muwaan II, and hired Yaxchilano artisans to commemorate it in “Structure I”‘s murals. Bonampak collapsed with Yaxchilan in the 9th century.

Temple I Mural Buildings
The murals live in these little stone buildings, halfway up Temple I.

What is often referred to as The Temple of the Murals (Structure 1) is a long narrow building with 3 rooms atop a low-stepped pyramid base. The interior walls preserve the finest examples of classic Maya painting, otherwise known only from pottery and occasional small faded fragments. Through a fortunate accident, rainwater seeped into the plaster of the roof in such a way as to cover the interior walls with a layer of slightly transparent calcium carbonate. Shortly after Healy’s discovery the Carnegie Institution sent an expedition to Bonampak. The walls were painted with kerosene which made the layer over the paintings temporarily transparent, then the murals were extensively and completely photographed and duplicate paintings were made by two different artists. In 1996 a team from Yale University began The Bonampak Documentation Project, which included making an even more detailed study, photographic record, and reproductions of the murals.

Mural Detail, Bonampak
Hell yeah slightly transparent calcium carbonate!!

The paintings date from 790 and were made as frescos, with no seams in the plaster indicating that each room was painted in a single session during the short time that the plaster was moist. They show the hand of a master artist with a couple of competent assistants. The three rooms show a series of actual events with great realism. The first shows robing of priests and nobles, a ceremony to mark a child as a noble heir, an orchestra playing wooden trumpets, drums, and other instruments, and nobles conferring in discussion.

Nobles discussing stuff, fresco, Bonampak
Discussing the weather, probs.

The second room shows a war scene, with prisoners taken, and then the prisoners, with ritually bleeding fingers, seated before a richly-attired Chaan Muwaan II, the Yaxchilano “governor” of Bonampak. It is usually presumed that the prisoners are being prepared for human sacrifice, though this is not actually shown in the murals.

Prisoners sit with bleeding fingers, Bonampak
Arrgh, me fingers!

The third room shows a ceremony with dancers in fine costumes wearing masks of gods, and the ruler and his family stick needles into their tongues in ritual bloodletting. The accompanying hieroglyphic text dates the scene and gives the names of the principal participants.

Blood letting fresco, Bonampak

The fresco painting technique used in Bonampak is a three step process. An outline was made in red over a coat of stucco and then the flat spaces were filled with paints from mineral origins. These paints took on the colors of blue, red, sepia, yellow, mauve, purple and green. The last step was to outline the figures in black. The finished product was beautiful and well proportioned. Stylized figures representing gods, dragons and other mythological creatures were accompanied by planetary hieroglyphs and chronological inscriptions.

Mayan writing, fresco, Bonampak

Professor Mary Miller of Yale, who conducted an extensive study of the murals, wrote “Perhaps no single artifact from the ancient New World offers as complex a view of Prehispanic society as do the Bonampak paintings. No other work features so many Maya engaged in the life of the court and rendered in such great detail, making the Bonampak murals an unparalleled resource for understanding ancient society.”

Engraving detail, Bonampak
There are exquisite carvings as well.

The frescos are situated about halfway up Temple I, so after taking our snaps (all without flash, by the way) we thought we’d climb to the top.

Temple 1, Bonampak
Up the apples and pears!

But before we do that, check out the detail on this door lintel.

Lintel carving detail, Bonampak
Mayan art ROCKS. End of.

Okay, up to the TOP!!

Graham Hughes and Casey Turner at Bonampak
Casey has a phobia of heights but climbed up away . You go girl!

Where we checked out the old acropolis of Bonampak.

The Acropolis, Bonampak
Not much left now, can you believe those frescos survived?

Not wishing to infuriate our driver any more (we were convinced he’d burst a blood vessel if we were late again), we decided to head back to the park entrance in good time.

Graham Hughes at Bonampak Acropolis
Graham go bye bye now.

Along the way we stopped to take a picture of this magnificent stela, which is situated at the foot of the temple.

Stela, Bonampak
Look closer…

Stela detail, Bonampak
Man, it was like it was carved yesterday.

Soon enough we were bundled back into the minibus and were taken to the charming little Mayan village of Lacanja Chansayab, close to the border with Guatemala. Casey and I were the only two from the minibus party to be staying here the night.

Ya'ajche' Campamento
Imagine that on a triple word score.

After a pleasant walk around the village (we went searching for a waterfall, but never found it), we stayed the night in one of these delightful little huts of the Ya’ajche’ campamento, something of an inspiration for what we could do with Jinja Island someday.

Ya'ajche' Campamento
Whoosh! It had been a long day. Tomorrow: GUATEMALA!

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Ruta Maya 13 – Tikal Tikal Little Star

Graham Hughes : April 24, 2014 11:36 pm : Ruta Maya

We were picked up from Ya’ajche’ campamento in the morning and driven the short distance to the border. Leaving the Mexican side was a mere formality, and it was a quick boat ride over the Usumacinta River to the small town of Bethel in Guatemala.

However, on the Guatemalan side we had a bit of a wait. It was something like two hours. All I could think of is how that could have been an extra two hours in bed. Lovely soft warm comfortable BED.

I spend most of the time trying to get a decent shot of the tiny humming bird that was flitting back and forth back and forth in the roof of the passport office.

Humming Bird, Guatemala
You would not…

Humming Bird, Guatemala
…believe how many…

Humming Bird, Guatemala
…photos it took to get these shots.

Eventually, the minibus that was taking us to Flores rucked up and after five minutes on the only road in or out of this one horse bordertown I saw why it was so late – yeah, we was bumpin’ and grindin’ down the old gravel n’ dust highway.

The crappiness of the road from Bethel to Guatemala’s north-west highway reminded me of the roads leading to most of the international borders in Africa – is this something that governments do on purpose to put people off emigrating?

Oh shut up Graham, you can see how remote it is, stop being a dick.

Okay, fair enough, when Google Maps refuses to plot a journey down that particular highway, I guess it’s not really meant for regular traffic.

After a few hours of being bounced around like your mum last Saturday night, we hit good solid asphalt HUZZAH!! We arrived in the wonderful little town of Flores around mid-afternoon.

Flores, Guatemala
You had me at “hola!”

The town of Flores is situated on an island on lake Petén Itzá, the second largest lake in Guatemala… and it couldn’t be more pleasant if it tried.

I could stay here for a loooooong time

Flores, Guatemala
You know what I like, don’t you Flores?

That afternoon we chilled on hammocks on the roof of our backpackers and in the evening we enjoyed a delicious meal in a homely little place that overlooked the lake.

Burritos by the lake, Guatemala
Food Glorious Food!

With our receipt, we were given these teeny-tiny Guatemalan “worry dolls” – apparently, if you’re having trouble sleeping, you tell them what’s keeping you awake and then place them under your pillow. They’ll take your worries away and allow you to sleep. Aww… I love this place!

Guatemalan Worry Dolls
Pack up your troubles in this tiny rag doll…

After all of the previous day’s excitement, we decided that we wouldn’t rush to Tikal the next day, but would instead spend the day hanging out in this awesome little town. I could stay here for a long, long time.

Hammocks, Flores, Guatemala
Hammocks!! I’M IN HEAVEN!

So it was the morning of Thursday April 24 2014 before we headed to the crown jewel of the Mayan empire… TIKAL.

Hold on, it’s coming…!

We left at 4am in order to see the sunrise from the top of Temple IV, something of a rite of passage for touristy tourists such as ourselves. It takes about an hour to get to the site from Flores, and when we arrived it was still dark.

Model of Tikal
Tikal: futuristic city on the moon.

After checking out the 3-D model of the city that is located at the site entrance, we trekked to the Temple in the dark – it seemed like our minibus gang were the only people there.

Tikal at Night.
Aside from the moon.

Casey is afraid of heights and had problems scrambling up some of the pyramids along on the Ruta Maya, but she plucked up the courage to climb Temple IV – the tallest temple in the entire Mayan world. She did herself proud. A few months later she would do her first skydive.

Tourists waiting for the sunrise, Tikal
Just don’t look down!

All night the sky was as clear as an unmuddied lake, however, as dawn broke over the jungle a heavy mist rose from the canopy, obscuring what would otherwise have been a spectacular sunrise.

Disappointing Sunrise, Tikal
Oh well, it’s still more sun than the good people of Manchester have seen since 1847.

Tikal is located in the archaeological region of the Petén Basin in what is now northern Guatemala. Because of the site’s remoteness from modern towns, however, no explorers visited Tikal until Modesto Méndez and Ambrosio Tut, respectively the commissioner and the governor of Petén, visited it in 1848. Tut reported a set of mysterious ruins to a La Gaceta, a Guatemalan newspaper, which named the site Tikal (Tik’al in modern Mayan orthography). In 1853, the report was published in the Berlin Academy of Sciences’ Magazine and archaeologists and treasure hunters flooded in.

Graham and Casey at Tikal
And gingers! Don’t forget the gingers!

Tikal was one of the largest of the Classic period Maya cities and was one of the largest cities in the Americas. The architecture of the ancient city is built from limestone and includes the remains of temples that tower over 70 metres (230 ft) high, large royal palaces, in addition to a number of smaller pyramids, palaces, residences, administrative buildings, platforms and inscribed stone monuments. There is even a building which seemed to have been a jail, originally with wooden bars across the windows and doors. There are also seven courts for playing the Mesoamerican ballgame, including a set of 3 in the Seven Temples Plaza, a unique feature in Mesoamerica.

The site is part of Guatemala’s Tikal National Park and in 1979 it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Tikal, Guatemala
Can’t imagine why…

Tikal was the capital of a conquest state that became one of the most powerful kingdoms of the ancient Maya. Though monumental architecture at the site dates back as far as the 4th century BC, Tikal reached its apogee during the Classic Period, ca. 200 to 900 AD. During this time, the city dominated much of the Maya region politically, economically, and militarily, while interacting with areas throughout Mesoamerica such as the great metropolis of Teotihuacan in the distant Valley of Mexico.

Temple I, Tikal
Things are about to get real epic real fast…

Tikal is the best understood of any of the large lowland Maya cities, with a long dynastic ruler list, the discovery of the tombs of many of the rulers on this list and the investigation of their monuments, temples and palaces.

Graham Hughes at Tikal
And the odd cafe-restaurante…

The name Tikal may be derived from ti ak’al in the Yucatec Maya language; it is said to be a relatively modern name meaning “at the waterhole”. The name was apparently applied to one of the site’s ancient reservoirs by hunters and travellers in the region. It has alternatively been interpreted as meaning “the place of the voices” in the Itza Maya language. Tikal, however, is not the ancient name for the site but rather the name adopted shortly after its discovery in the 1840s. Hieroglyphic inscriptions at the ruins refer to the ancient city as Yax Mutal or Yax Mutul, meaning “First Mutal”. Tikal may have come to have been called this because Dos Pilas also came to use the same emblem glyph; the rulers of the city presumably wanted to distinguish themselves as the first city to bear the name.

Temple III, Tikal
First of his name…

Tikal is located 19 kilometres (12 mi) south of the contemporary Maya city of Uaxactun and 30 kilometres (19 mi) northwest of Yaxha. The city was located 100 kilometres (62 mi) southeast of its great Classic Period rival, Calakmul, and 85 kilometres (53 mi) northwest of Calakmul’s ally Caracol, now in Belize.

Tikal: In the middle of everything.
Tikal: In the middle of everything.

The city once covered an area greater than 16 square kilometres (6.2 sq mi) and included about 3,000 structures. The area around Tikal has been declared as the Tikal National Park and the preserved area covers 570 square kilometres (220 sq mi).

Tikal Temples in the Jungle
Also, Yavin IV.

The ruins lie among the tropical rainforests of northern Guatemala that formed the cradle of lowland Maya civilization. The city itself was located among abundant fertile upland soils, and may have dominated a natural east—west trade route across the Yucatan Peninsula. For centuries the city was completely covered under jungle.

Old photo, Tikal being uncovered
And then the temples fought back!

There are traces of early agriculture at the site dating as far back as 1000 BC, in the Middle Preclassic. A cache of Mamon ceramics dating from about 700-400 BC were found in a sealed chultun, a subterranean bottle-shaped chamber.

Carved disk, Tikal
Also, sundisks.

Major construction at Tikal was already taking place in the Late Preclassic period, first appearing around 400–300 BC, including the building of major pyramids and platforms, although the city was still dwarfed by sites further north such as El Mirador and Nakbe. At this time, Tikal participated in the widespread Chikanel culture that dominated the Central and Northern Maya areas at this time – a region that included the entire Yucatan Peninsula including northern and eastern Guatemala and all of Belize.

Unrestored temple, Tikal
A temple disguised as a hill. Or is it a hill disguised as a temple?

In the 1st century AD rich burials first appeared and Tikal underwent a political and cultural florescence as its giant northern neighbours declined. After being conquered by Teotihuacan in 378 AD, Tikal rapidly rose to dominate the northern and eastern Peten. Uaxactun, together with smaller towns in the region, were absorbed into Tikal’s kingdom. Other sites, such as Bejucal and Motul de San José near Lake Petén Itzá became vassals of their more powerful neighbor to the north. By the middle of the 5th century Tikal had a core territory of at least 25 kilometres (16 mi) in every direction.

Casey Turner at Tikal
So long as those directions involved steps in some way.

In the 5th century the power of the city reached as far south as Copán (where we’re heading next), whose founder K’inich Yax K’uk’ Mo’ was clearly connected with Tikal. Copán itself was not in an ethnically Maya region and the founding of the Copán dynasty probably involved the direct intervention of Tikal.

Temple, Tikal
Tikal franchised out… like Starbucks, only with a little more human sacrifice.

A long-running rivalry between Tikal and Calakmul began in the 6th century, with each of the two cities forming its own network of mutually hostile alliances arrayed against each other in what has been likened to a long-running war between two Maya superpowers. The kings of these two capitals adopted the title kaloomte’, a term that has not been precisely translated but that implies something akin to “high king”.

Temple at Tikal, Guatemala
I can see why…

In the mid 6th century, Caracol seems to have allied with Calakmul and defeated Tikal, closing the Early Classic, a defeat that seems to have resulted in the capture and sacrifice of the king of Tikal. The badly eroded Altar 21 at Caracol described how Tikal suffered this disastrous defeat in a major war in April 562. Tikal was not sacked but its power and influence were broken. Thus began the Tikal hiatus, which has served as a marker by which archaeologists commonly subdivide the Classic period of Mesoamerican chronology into the Early and Late Classic.

Temple detail, Tikal Guatemala
So no middle classic then?

By the 9th century, the crisis of the Classic Maya collapse was sweeping across the region, with populations plummeting and city after city falling into silence. Increasingly endemic warfare in the Maya region caused Tikal’s supporting population to heavily concentrate close to the city itself, accelerating the use of intensive agriculture and corresponding environmental decline.

Tikal Temple I before restoration
Maybe the jungle just wanted its damn stones back.

In the latter half of the 9th century there was an attempt to revive royal power at the much diminished city of Tikal, as evidenced by a stela erected in the Great Plaza by Jasaw Chan K’awiil II in 869. This was the last monument erected at Tikal before the city finally fell into silence. The former satellites of Tikal, such as Jimbal and Uaxactun, did not last much longer, erecting their final monuments in 889. By the end of the 9th century the vast majority of Tikal’s population had deserted the city, its royal palaces were occupied by squatters and simple thatched dwellings were being erected in the city’s ceremonial plazas.

Graham Hughes at Tikal
Where’d everyone go??

Before its final abandonment all respect for the old rulers had disappeared, with the tombs of the North Acropolis being explored for jade and the easier to find tombs being looted. After 950, Tikal was all but deserted and the rainforest claimed the ruins for the next thousand years.

Temple III, Tikal
Tikal go nigh-nigh.

In 1525, the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés passed within a few kilometres of the ruins of Tikal but did not mention them in his letters. After Spanish friar Andrés de Avendaño became lost in the Petén forests in early 1696 he described a ruin that may well have been Tikal, but it wasn’t until the 1850s that Mr. Tut and would reintroduce Tikal to the world.

Tikal, Guatemala

Pioneering archaeologists started to clear, map and record the ruins in the 1880s. In 1951, a small airstrip was built at the ruins, which previously could only be reached by several days’ travel through the jungle on foot or mule. In 1956 the Tikal project began to map the city on a scale not previously seen in the Maya area. From 1956 through 1970, major archaeological excavations were carried out by the University of Pennsylvania Tikal Project. They mapped much of the site and excavated and restored many of the structures.

Casey Turner at Tikal
But did they look this cool doing it? DON’T THINK SO.

There are thousands of ancient structures at Tikal and only a fraction of these have been excavated, after decades of archaeological work. The most prominent surviving buildings include six very large pyramids, labelled Temples I – VI, each of which support a temple structure on their summits. Some of these pyramids are over 60 metres high (200 feet). They were numbered sequentially during the early survey of the site. It is estimated that each of these major temples could have been built in as little as two years.

Temple I, Tikal
Temple I: The Phantom Menace

Temple I (also known as the Temple of Ah Cacao or Temple of the Great Jaguar) is a funerary pyramid dedicated to Jasaw Chan K’awil, who was entombed in the structure in AD 734, the pyramid was completed around 740–750. The temple rises 47 metres (154 ft) high. The massive roofcomb that topped the temple was originally decorated with a giant sculpture of the enthroned king, although little of this decoration survives. The tomb of the king was discovered by Aubrey Trik of the University of Pennsylvania in 1962. Among items recovered from the Late Classic tomb were a large collection of inscribed human and animal bone tubes and strips with sophisticated scenes depicting deities and people, finely carved and rubbed with vermilion, as well as jade and shell ornaments and ceramic vessels filled with offerings of food and drink. The shrine at the summit of the pyramid has three chambers, each behind the next, with the doorways spanned by wooden lintels fashioned from multiple beams. The outermost lintel is plain but the two inner lintels were carved, some of the beams were removed in the 19th century and their location is unknown, while others were taken to museums in Europe.

Temple II, Tikal
Temple II: Temple Harder

Temple II (also known as the Temple of the Mask) in was built around AD 700 and stands 38 metres (125 ft) high. Like other major temples at Tikal, the summit shrine had three consecutive chambers with the doorways spanned by wooden lintels, only the middle of which was carved. The temple was dedicated to the wife of Jasaw Chan K’awil, although no tomb was found. The queen’s portrait was carved into the lintel spanning the doorway of the summit shrine. One of the beams from this lintel is now in the American Museum of Natural History in New York.

Temple III Tikal
Temple III: The Final Conflict

Temple III (also known as the Temple of the Jaguar Priest) was the last of the great pyramids to be built at Tikal. It stood 55 metres (180 ft) tall and contained an elaborately sculpted but damaged roof lintel, possibly showing Dark Sun engaged in a ritual dance around AD 810. The temple shrine possesses two chambers.

Temple IV, Tikal
Temple IV: The Revenge

Temple IV marks the reign of Yik’in Chan Kawil (Ruler B, the son of Ruler A or Jasaw Chan K’awiil I) and two carved wooden lintels over the doorway that leads into the temple on the pyramid’s summit record a long count date ( that corresponds to 741AD. Temple IV is the largest pyramid built anywhere in the Maya region in the 8th century and as it currently stands is the tallest pre-Columbian structure in the Americas although the Pyramid of the Sun at Teotihuacan may originally have been taller, as may have been one of the structures at El Mirador.

Temple V, Tikal
Temple V: A New Beginning

Temple V stands south of the Central Acropolis and is the mortuary pyramid of an as yet unidentified ruler. The temple stands 57 metres (187 ft) high, making it the second tallest structure at Tikal – only Temple IV is taller. The temple has been dated to about AD 700, in the Late Classic period, via radiocarbon analysis and the dating of ceramics associated with the structure places its construction during the reign of Nun Bak Chak in the second half of the 7th century.

Temple VI, Tikal
Temple VI: The Undiscovered Country

Temple VI is also known as the Temple of the Inscriptions and was dedicated in AD 766. It is notable for its 12-metre (39 ft) high roof-comb. Panels of hieroglyphs cover the back and sides of the roof-comb. The temple faces onto a plaza to the west and its front is unrestored.

Temple 33, Tikal
Temple 33⅓: The Final Insult

Temple 33 was a funerary pyramid erected over the tomb of Siyaj Chan K’awiil I (known as Burial 48) in the North Acropolis. It started life in the Early Classic as a wide basal platform decorated with large stucco masks that flanked the stairway. Later in the Early Classic a new superstructure was added, with its own masks and decorated panels. During the Hiatus a third stage was built over the earlier constructions, the stairway was demolished and another royal burial, of an unidentified ruler, was set into the structure (Burial 23). While the new pyramid was being built another high ranking tomb (Burial 24) was inserted into the rubble core of the building. The pyramid was then completed, standing 33 metres (108 ft) tall. The final version of Temple 33 was completely dismantled by archaeologists in 1965 in order to arrive at the earlier stages of construction. WHAT??? Really?!!

Temple 34, Tikal
Miracle on Temple 34th Street.

Temple 34 is a pyramid in the North Acropolis that was built by Siyaj Chan K’awiil II over the tomb of his father, Yax Nuun Ayiin I. The pyramid was topped by a three chambered shrine, the rooms situated one behind the other.

Structure 5D-43 Detail, Tikal
Structure 5D-Movie 43

Structure 5D-43 is an unusual radial temple in the East Plaza, built over a pre-existing twin pyramid complex. It is built into the end of the East Plaza Ballcourt and possessed four entry doorways and three stairways, the fourth (south) side was too close to the Central Acropolis for a stairway on that side. The building has a talud-tablero platform profile, modified from the original style found at Teotihuacan. The vertical tablero panels are set between sloping talud panels and are decorated with paired disc symbols. Large flower symbols are set into the sloping talud panels, related to the Venus and star symbols used at Teotihuacan.

Structure 5C-49, Tikal
Structure 5C-49th Parallel

Structure 5C-49 possesses a clear Teotihuacan-linked architectural style; it has balustrades, an architectural feature that is very rare in the Maya region, and a talud-tablero façade; it dates to the 4th century AD. It is located near to the Lost World pyramid.

The Lost World Pyramid, Tikal
Jurassic Park: The Lost World Pyramid

The Lost World Pyramid (Structure 5C-54) is the largest structure in the Mundo Perdido complex. It was decorated with stucco masks of the sun god and dates to the Late Preclassic; this pyramid is part of an enclosed complex of structures that remained intact and un-impacted by later building activity at Tikal. By the end of the Late Preclassic this pyramid was one of the largest structures in the Maya region. It attained its final form during the reign of Chak Tok Ich’aak in the 4th century AD, in the Early Classic, standing more than 30 metres (98 ft) high with stairways on all four sides and a flat top that possibly supported a superstructure built from perishable materials.

Graham Hughes and Casey Turner at Tikal, April 2014
RIGHT THAT’S IT. History lesson over!

Phew!!! Of course there’s loads more to explore, but I think that’ll do for now. Just a couple things left to tell you about Tikal. First up, the place was used in the original Star Wars movie as Yavin IV…

Tikal Star Wars
I *knew* it looked familiar…

And the gigantic kapok (Ceiba pentandra) that grows here inspired James Cameron’s “Tree of Life” concept in Avatar.

Casey Turner meditating at a gigantic kapok (Ceiba pentandra) in Tikal
Casey doesn’t need to plug her hair into the tree, she’s ginger. She has wifi.

After a long day we took a bus back to Flores just in time to swim in the lake before it got dark. After our last lovely meal in Flores, we crossed the causeway back to the “mainland” and began our long journey south to Honduras and Copan Ruinas – the last stop on our Ruta Maya.

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Ruta Maya 14 – Rack and Ruinas

Graham Hughes : April 26, 2014 11:32 pm : Ruta Maya

In a fit of stupidity that seems rather impressive, even for me, we took the overnight bus all the way from Flores to Guatemala City. Why we didn’t disembark 150km earlier when we passed the junction at Rio Hondo (for Copan Ruinas) I’ll never know. I think I was tired. It was a bit like wanting to get to Bristol from London and going via Liverpool.

Yersh, but of a detour.
Hey look, somebody made a map of stupid.

So we found ourselves in the middle of the monumental traffic jam that is Guatemala City searching for the bus station for the bus that would take us 150km back the way we came… and then with any luck, swing southwards towards the border with Honduras.

Only remember I said my Lonely Planet was six years out of date? Yeah. That bus station ain’t there no more.

One of my (albeit few) bugbears about Central America (and the UK!) is this: every damn bus company has its own damn terminal and they’re all clustered around the city centre like mad people preaching from The Bibble. This makes things needlessly complicated when attempting the traverse the length and breadth of this mighty isthmus in a limited timeframe. Happily, GuatCit One (as I like to call it) has just built a brand new bus terminal/shopping mall on the edge of town in which all of the competing bus companies can live together in blissful harmony without having to fight through 10 miles of gridlock to get to the middle of a city you’re not even interested in visiting anyhoo. ARE YOU LISTENING LONDON?!!

I'll just put this here, LONDON.

The only problem was that this semi-mythical bus station was (quite sensibly) situated on the edge of town, whereas we were currently situated slap bang in the middle.

We managed to get a bus for most of the journey, but at some point we did have to get off and get into a taxi. Which cost a small fortune. KICKING MYSELF.

Upon arrival at the squeaky clean bus terminal/shopping mall I quickly realised we stopped there on the way into town about two hours earlier, but kept it to myself lest Casey (she was asleep the first time) conclude I’m some kind of amateur at this travel lark.

Pretty soon we had purchased tickets to Chiquimula (or “Cheeky Mullah” as I like to call it) , the last Guatemalan town before the border with Honduras – just 35km from the turning I missed a several hours ago, which we will NEVER MENTION AGAIN.

The big bus was no problem, but the minibus ride from Chiquimula to the actual border… OH. MY. GOD. The guy driving must have been tripping balls, high on crack cocaine or something – he drove like Louis Hamilton only faster. It would have been terrifying enough in a F1 car on a racetrack, but this guy was weaving along winding mountain roads in the jungle DRIVING A BUS.

I just braced myself and hoped for the best (not for the first time).

Somehow we made it to the border in one piece. Immigration was very straight-forward and we waited on the Honduran side with some locals until the bus came to whisk us away to the town of Copán Ruinas – named for the Mayan ruins that lay nearby.

Like a lot of the small towns we visited on the Ruta Maya, Copán Ruinas was a delight. The backpackers we stayed at was seriously nice – colourful and rustic, so laid back it was silly. I had to pinch myself to remind myself that we were now in Honduras – the murder capital of the world.

Copan Ruinas, Honduras
How can a place be so charming and yet so murderous at the same time?

After our epic journey getting here, there would be no tomb raiding or Indiana-Jonesing today. We settled in for the night and just chilled.

Early the next morning we jumped a tuk-tuk to Copán, the last site on our Maya Ruta.

Copan World Heritage Plaque

Copán is an archaeological site of the Maya civilization located in the Copán Department of western Honduras, not far from the border with Guatemala. It was the capital city of a major Classic period kingdom from the 5th to 9th centuries AD. The city was located in the extreme southeast of the Mesoamerican cultural region, on the frontier with the Isthmo-Colombian cultural region, and was almost surrounded by non-Maya peoples.

Mayan Wall Carving, Copan, Honduras
Who they  liked to turn into walls.

Copán was occupied for more than two thousand years, from the Early Preclassic period to the Postclassic. It is likely the ancient name of Copán was Oxwitik, “Three Witik” (the meaning of witik remains obscure).

Copan, Honduras
Something to do with cricket, I’ll wager.

The fertile Copán River valley was long a site of agriculture before the first known stone architecture was built in the region about the 9th century BC. Mentions of the predynastic history of Copán are found in later texts, but none of these predates the refounding of the city in AD 426. That was the year that K’inich Yax K’uk’ Mo’, established it as the capital of a new Maya kingdom. This coup was apparently organized and launched from Tikal.

Altar, Sculpture, Copan
Thundercats HOOOO!!

After this, Copán became one of the more powerful Maya city states and was a regional power in the southern Maya region. B’alam Nehn (often referred to as Waterlily Jaguar) was the first king to actually record his position in the dynastic succession, declaring that he was seventh in line from K’inich Yax K’uk’ Mo’. Stela 15 records that he was already ruling Copán by AD 504. B’alam Nehn is the only king of Copán to be mentioned in a hieroglyphic text from outside of the southeastern Maya region. His name appears in a text on Stela 16 from Caracol, a site in Belize.

Copan, Honduras
Oooh, back where we started… we’ve come full circle.

Copán suffered a catastrophic defeat at the hands of its former vassal state Quirigua in 738, when the long-ruling king Uaxaclajuun Ub’aah K’awiil was captured and beheaded by Quirigua’s ruler K’ak’ Tiliw Chan Yopaat (Cauac Sky). Although this was a major setback, Copán’s rulers began to build monumental structures again within a few decades.

Carving, Copan
Mayan cartoon.

The population declined in the 8th and 9th centuries from perhaps over 20,000 in the city to less than 5,000. This decrease in population took over four centuries to actually show signs of collapse, showing the stability of this site even after the fall of the ruling dynasties and royal families. The ceremonial centre was long abandoned and the surrounding valley home to only a few farming hamlets at the time of the arrival of the Spanish in the 16th century.

Graham Hughes at Copan, Honduras

The Copán buildings suffered significantly from forces of nature in the centuries between the site’s abandonment and the rediscovery of the ruins. After the abandonment of the city the Copán River gradually changed course, with a meander destroying the eastern portion of the acropolis (revealing in the process its archaeological stratigraphy in a large vertical cut) and apparently washing away various subsidiary architectural groups, including at least one courtyard and 10 buildings.

Casey Turner at Copan
Casey at the Copan Cabinya.

Several buildings recorded in the 19th century were destroyed, plus an unknown amount of the acropolis that was eroded before it could be recorded. In order to avoid further destruction of the acropolis, the Carnegie Institution redirected the river to save the archaeological site, diverting it southwards in the 1930s; the dry former riverbed was finally filled in at the same time as consolidation of the cut in 1990s.

Animal head, Copan

The Copán site is known for a series of portrait stelae, most of which were placed along processional ways in the central plaza of the city and the adjoining acropolis, a large complex of overlapping step-pyramids, plazas, and palaces. The site has a large court for playing the Mesoamerican ballgame. In two parallel buildings framing a carefully dimensioned rectangle lies the court. The site is divided into various groups, with the Main Group and the Cemetery Group in the site core linked by a sacbe to the Sepulturas Group to the northeast.

Sculpture, Copan, Honduras
Some of which is pretty scary stuff.

The Main Group represents the core of the ancient city, it includes the Acropolis, which is a raised royal complex on the south side, and a group of smaller structures and linked plazas to the north, including the Hieroglyphic Stairway and the ballcourt. The Monument Plaza contains the greatest concentration of sculpted monuments at the site.

Acropolis, Copan, Honduras
The Acropolis

The Acropolis was the royal complex at the heart of Copán. It consists of two plazas that have been named the West Court and the East Court. They are both enclosed by elevated structures. Archaeologists have excavated extensive tunnels under the Acropolis, revealing how the royal complex at the heart of Copán developed over the centuries and uncovering several hieroglyphic texts that date back to the Early Classic and verify details of the early dynastic rulers of the city who were recorded on Altar Q hundreds of years later. The deepest of these tunnels have revealed that the first monumental structures underlying the Acropolis date archaeologically to the early 5th century AD.

Small Pyramid, Copan
This is the snazzily titled Structure 10L-4, probably used as a stage for Maya’s Got Talent.

Structure 10L-4 is a platform with four stairways situated by the Monument Plaza.

Temple 11, Copan
Temple 11, Copan. Why they call it “10L-11” I’ll never know. It doesn’t even make it easier to find on Google.

Structure 10L-11 is on the west side of the Acropolis. It encloses the south side of the Court of the Hieroglyphic Stairway and is accessed from it by a wide monumental stairway. This structure appears to have been the royal palace of Yax Pasaj Chan Yopaat, the 16th ruler in the dynastic succession and the last known king of Copán. Structure 10L-11 was built on top of several earlier structures, one of which probably contains the tomb of his predecessor K’ak’ Yipyaj Chan K’awiil. A small tunnel descends into the interior of the structure, possibly to the tomb, but it has not yet been excavated by archaeologists.

Yax Pasaj Chan Yopaat Tomb Sign Copan
Tomb raiding is so much easier when they put up helpful signage.

Structure 10L-16 (Temple 16) is a temple pyramid that is the highest part of the Acropolis. It is located between the East and West Courts at the heart of the ancient city. The temple faces the West Court within the Acropolis and is dedicated to K’inich Yax K’uk’ Mo’, the dynastic founder. The temple was placed on top of the original palace and tomb of the king. It is the final version of a number of temples built on top of each other, as was common practice in Mesoamerica.

Temple 16, Copan
Because aliens, duh.

One of the best preserved phases of Temple 16 is the Rosalila, built over the remains of five previous versions of the temple. Archaeologist Ricardo Agurcia discovered the almost intact shrine while tunneling underneath the final version of the temple. Rosalila is notable for its excellent state of preservation, including the entire building from the base platform up to the roof comb, including its highly elaborate painted stucco decoration. Uaxaclajuun Ub’aah K’awiil encased the Rosalila phase under a new version of the building in the early 8th century AD. An offering was made as part of the rites to terminate the old phase and included a collection of eccentric flints worked into the profiles of humans and gods, which were wrapped in blue-dyed textiles.

A life-sized reconstruction of the Rosalila temple.
A life-sized reconstruction of the Rosalila temple.

Structure 10L-18 is on the southeastern side of the Acropolis and has been damaged by the erosion caused by the Copán River, having lost its eastern side. Stairs on the south side of the structure lead down to a vaulted tomb that was looted in ancient times and was probably that of Yax Pasaj Chan Yopaat. It was apparently plundered soon after the collapse of the Copán kingdom. Unusually for Copán, the summit shrine had four sculpted panels depicting the king performing war dances with spear and shield, emphasizing the rising tensions as the dynasty came to its end.

Temple 10L-18, Copan, Honduras
The snazzily titled Structure 10L-18

Structure 10L-22 is a large building on the north side of the East Court, in the Acropolis, and faces onto it. It dates to the reign of Uaxaclajuun Ub’aah K’awiil and is the best preserved of the buildings from his rule. The superstructure of the building has an interior doorway with an elaborate sculpted frame and decorated with masks of the mountain god Witz. The outer doorway is framed by the giant mask of a deity, and has stylistic similarities with the Chenes regional style of distant Yucatán. The temple was built to celebrate the completion of the king’s first K’atun in power, in AD 715, and has a hieroglyphic step with a first-person phrase “I completed my K’atun”. The building symbolically represents the mountain where maize was created.

Structure 10L-22 copan
“I completed my Bronze Duke of Edinburgh”

Structure 10L-25 is in the East Court of the Acropolis. It covers a rich royal tomb nicknamed Sub-Jaguar by archaeologists. It is presumed to be the tomb of either Ruler 7 (B’alam Nehn), Ruler 8 or Ruler 9, who all ruled in the first half of the 6th century AD.

East Court of the Acropolis, Copan

Structure 10L-26 is a temple that projects northwards from the Acropolis and is immediately to the north of Structure 10L-22. The structure was built by Uaxaclajuun Ub’aah K’awiil and K’ak’ Yipyaj Chan K’awiil, the 13th and 15th rulers in the dynastic succession.

Structure 10L-26 Copan
There’s a ridiculous amount of awesome archaeology under that there tent.

Copan’s famous Hieroglyphic Stairway ascends the building on the west side from the courtyard below. It measures 21 meters (69 ft) long, 10-meters (33 ft) wide and and has a total of 62 steps.

Hieroglyphic Staircase, Copan
Staircase to Heaven

Stela M and its associated altar are at its base and a large sculpted figure is located in the centre of every 12th step. These figures are believed to represent the most important rulers in the dynastic history of the site. The stairway takes its name from the 2200 glyphs that together form the longest known Maya hieroglyphic text.

Hieroglyphic Staircase Detail, Copan
Peter Parker? Peppa Pig? Who knows?

The text is still being reconstructed, having been scrambled by the collapse of the glyphic blocks when the façade of the temple collapsed. The staircase was first built by Uaxaclajuun Ub’aah K’awiil in AD 710, being reinstalled and expanded in the following phase of the temple by K’ak’ Yipyaj Chan K’awiil in AD 755.

Staircase Detail, Copan
I flipped this pic to make it look like something out of Doom.

The Ballcourt is immediately north of the Court of the Hieroglyphic Stairway and is to the south of the Monument Plaza. It was remodeled by Uaxaclajuun Ub’aah K’awiil, who then demolished it and built a third version, which was one of the largest from the Classic period. It was dedicated to the great macaw deity and the buildings flanking the playing area carried 16 mosaic sculptures of the birds. The completion date of the ballcourt is inscribed with a hieroglyphic text upon the sloping playing area and is given as 6 January 738.

Ballcourt, Copan

The Sepulturas Group is linked by a sacbe or causeway that runs southwest to the Monument Plaza in the Main Group. The Sepulturas Group consists of a number of restored structures, mostly elite residences that feature stone benches, some of which have carved decorations, and a number of tombs.

Sepulturas Group Copan
And you just thought they were a heavy metal band.

The group has a very long occupational history, with one house having been dated as far back as the Early Preclassic. By the Middle Preclassic, large platforms were being built from cobbles and several rich burials were made. By AD 800, the complex consisted of about 50 buildings arranged around 7 major courtyards. At this time, the most important building was the ‘House of the Bakabs, the palace of a powerful nobleman from the time of Yax Pasaj Chan Yopaat. The building has a high-quality sculpted exterior and a carved hieroglyphic bench inside. A portion of the group was a subdistrict occupied by non-Maya inhabitants from Central Honduras who were involved in the trade network that brought in goods from that region.

Altar Q, Copan

Altar Q depicts 16 kings in the dynastic succession of the city
Altar Q is the most famous monument at Copán. It was dedicated by king Yax Pasaj Chan Yopaat in AD 776 and has each of the first 16 kings of the Copán dynasty carved around its side. Each figure is depicted seated on his name glyph. A hieroglyphic text is inscribed on the upper surface, relating the founding of the dynasty in AD 426–427. On one side, it shows the dynastic founder K’inich Yax K’uk’ Mo’ transferring power to Yax Pasaj.

Mot Mot Stone, Copan
Death or Motmot

The Motmot Capstone is an inscribed stone that was placed over a tomb under Structure 10L-26. Its face was finely sculpted with portraits of the first two kings of the Copán dynasty, K’inich Yax K’uk’ Mo’ and K’inich Popol Hol, facing towards each other with a double column of hieroglyphs between them, all contained within a quatrefoil frame. The frame and the hieroglyphic names of mythological locations underneath the feet of the two kings place them in a supernatural realm. The capstone bears two calendrical dates, in AD 435 and AD 441. The second of these is probably the date that the capstone was dedicated.

Copan, Honduras
Ta-ta Copan!


You might think I’d be all Mayan’d out by now, but this trip has barely scratched the surface. Casey and I have been to 11 sites out of over 140 scattered across Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico and El Salvador.

List of Mayan Sites
And here they are!

So there’s plenty more to see and do, of course there is, there always is! I quite fancy the trek through the jungle to see El Mirador, still hidden away in the very north of Guatemala. Seriously, you could travel every day for the rest of your life and still not see everything this crazy wonderful little big planet has to offer.

Although Copan is our last stop, this isn’t quite the end of our Ruta Maya. We still have to get back to Bocas Del Toro… back back back to Jinja Island.

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Ruta Maya 15 – And So To Jinja

Graham Hughes : April 30, 2014 11:51 pm : Ruta Maya

After waving goodbye to the ruins of Copan we jumped a taxi back to town, picked up our things from the backpackers, went to the shop, bought some water and nonchalantly wandered down to where the bus leaves at 2pm for Tegucigalpa, the unpronounceable capital of Honduras.

All this way!
Te-gussy? Te-gassy? Gal-pah? Gul-pah?? Fooked if I know!

We arrived at 1.55pm to find the bus had already gone. GAH!! This is no time to be getting ruthlessly efficient, Honduras!!

We had to wait another hour or so for the next bus, a minibus that got us into Tegucigalpa in the middle of the night. You know, the murder capital of the murder capital of the world. Sorry to hang this on Honduras, I think it’s quite a cool place, but the murder rate (90 per 100,000) is three times that of “really quite dangerous” South Africa, 19 times that of the “gun crazy” US and 90 times that of “it’s all going to the dogs” Great Britain.

In a word: EEK!!!

Lookin' cool....
Keep frosty people….

I’m no fool, I travel with both eyes open. Tegucigalpa is not a particularly groovy place to be right now, thanks to America’s genocidally moronic “War on Drugs” (43 years, trillions spent and no victory in sight). Luckily we made a friend on the bus over, a local Honduran who had lived in the UK for many years. He shared a taxi with us from the bus station and made sure we got safely into the (horrifically overpriced) backpackers (in which the security was like Fort Knox).

We booked the first bus out of Teggy City, which would leave at 6am. However, as the backpackers was so horrifically overpriced, we didn’t have to cash to pay for our tickets, so the hostel owner took me and another guest in their car to the cash machine at the all-night garage. It felt like we were doing a (albeit rather boring) mission on GTA. Everyone’s on edge! Or maybe I was projecting. I dunno.

Since I thought I would be on stuck on Jinja Island at the end of June this year I had (foolishly) allowed the reservation on my Glastonbury ticket to expire. But now I knew that my friend Kendra would be looking after the island for me, I could go… and the few remaining tickets would be going on resale that night at 3am (yeah, Glasto, just wreck everyone’s night sleep in the Western Hemisphere why dontcha?).

I had 4 tickets to try and get for me and three of my friends. I got through to the input screen – yes, even though I was sitting on a bunkbed in a dorm room at 3am in the hardest capital city name to remember next to Bandar Seri Begawan – I put in everyone’s details… hands shaking GOD THIS IS STRESSFUL… only to be told I “exceeded the quota” whatever that means.

Quick as a flash I pressed the back arrow back to the input screen and just punched my details in. I got it. For me at least. I pressed the back arrow again to get Anna’s… punched her details in quick as I could… and was directed to the SOLD OUT screen. It was 3.07am.

I was gutted for Anna, but also elated that I had managed to snag a ticket from the jaws of defeat here in the middle of Central America. I was also absolutely knackered. I fell fast asleep.

Two and a half hours later I was in the cold shower (how much did I pay for this room again??) getting ready to leave on the Tica bus for Nicaragua.

I always like going south, feels like going downhill.
I always like going south, feels like going downhill.

The air of familiarity about all this made it seem almost routine. Here I was, tearing through Central America on a bus and the air-con was set to 0° Kelvin.

How cold are the buses in Latin America?
With apologies to Stanley Kubrick.

Around lunchtime, we found ourselves crossing the border back into Nicaragua – a bit of a backpacker favourite, but exploration would have to save it for next year perhaps when we “do” Southern Central America properly.

It wouldn’t be Nicaragua without the obligatory volcano shot.

We arrived in Managua – the capital of Nicaragua – in the late afternoon. Casey and I tried about 13 different guest houses until we found one that was just right – Hostel Los Cisneros, well recommended. Managua is a sleepy old town, not much going on at all. I walked the two-hour round trip to the nearest shopping mall (I couldn’t find and shops or restaurants on the way) and bought us both food to eat. I found Casey chillaxing on the balcony.

Casey Turner in Managua.
Yes it is possible to chill without freezing to death.

We were planning on pressing on to Costa Rica the next day, but the tickets were sold out and Casey wasn’t feeling so good. Hats off to her – we had been in Central America now for over a month and she hadn’t got even slightly ill (vaccinations! YAY SCIENCE!!), so a day of pampering was well within my remit. Another bloody long walk to the shopping mall though.

The bus left at stupid o’clock the following morning (because OF COURSE IT DID – it was a Tica bus), too early to get breakfast, but the lovely people at the guest house got up and made us coffee anyway.

Mind the lake!!

Later that same day we were back in Costa Rica for the third and final time of this trip.

Costa Rica sign
Welcome welcome!

Having sworn never to step foot in the Lonely Planet-recommended Hostel Pangea for as long as I live (seriously guys, did you actually stay there or did you just go off their website??), Case and I stayed at the infinitely more pleasant Costa Rica Backpackers, near the screeching wheels of the railway station.

The next morning we were picked up from the hostel in a minibus and taken to the bus station for the bus to Sixaola – the border with Panama.

East is East
Through wonderful Bananaland!!

This time it wouldn’t cost us $100 in taxi fares.

Costa Rica Bus
Screw you taxi guys!!

So then, back through Liverpool, Costa Rica…

Liverpool, Costa Rica

Over the rickety bridge at Sixaola, into Panama, and then the white-knuckle minibus ride to the boat dock at Almirante.


We arrived back in Bocas on the last ferryboat from the mainland just before dark on April 30 2014. The Bocas Turtles baseball team had just won the league and the party stretched on into the night, but we were exhausted. What a trip! Back not moment too soon… the next day we’d be taking over our very own private island… Jinja Island.


The Ruta Maya had given us both a fascinating insight into the world of the Mayan people. We had been to almost a dozen incredible sites spread out over 4 separate countries and seen hundreds of monumental works of ancient art, design and imagination. Not only that, but we had hung out with real Mayans, such as Luis from An Idiot Abroad, and watched real-life Mayan warriors play the ball games that were so integral to the lives of their ancestors.

Mayan Fire Hockey
It doesn’t get any cooler than this.

Still one thing I still haven’t figured out though…

Is it pronounced MAY-an or MY-an?

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One thought on “III. Ruta Maya”

  1. This is an enormous and detailed report from your trip, I CAN’T BELIEVE NOBODY HAS COMMENTED IT YET!.

    So, being the first, I’ll welcome You to my roots, the Mayan.

    Please fix the images! half the trip is told by images and most of them are nowhere to be found.

    Also, “Chichen Pitzá”??

    See you on the road mate!

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