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.
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!!!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Later that same day we were back in Costa Rica for the third and final time of this trip.
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.
This time it wouldn’t cost us $100 in taxi fares.
So then, back through 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.
Still one thing I still haven’t figured out though…
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.
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?!!
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Structure 10L-4 is a platform with four stairways situated by the Monument Plaza.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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-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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
RIGHT THAT’S THE LAST OF ‘EM!!
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 ofover 140 scattered across Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico and El Salvador.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
So it was the morning of Thursday April 24 2014 before we headed to the crown jewel of the Mayan empire… TIKAL.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 (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 (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 (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 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 (188.8.131.52.0) 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 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 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 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 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 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 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 (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.
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…
And the gigantic kapok (Ceiba pentandra) that grows here inspired James Cameron’s “Tree of Life” concept in Avatar.
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.
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.
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.
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 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).
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!!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
But before we do that, check out the detail on this door lintel.
Okay, up to the TOP!!
Where we checked out the old acropolis of Bonampak.
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.
Along the way we stopped to take a picture of this magnificent stela, which is situated at the foot of the temple.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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..
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 Yaxchilan, Bonampak 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 (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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Well, I think that’ll do for one day. Does anybody know how we get out of here?
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.
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.
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!).
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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!!