Tracing the Arc of Archaeology in Chiapas
My GeoEx adventure to Chiapas and Mexico City offered so many riches and revelations, but one that keeps rising to the surface of my mind is the unexpected lesson bestowed by our visits to three archaeological sites: Metzabok, Yaxchilán, and Palenque.
This lesson began with a magical morning in Metzabok, one of the four communities in Chiapas where the Lacandón people still live. The Lacandón came to this area in the 18th century from the Yucatán. Settling deep in the jungle, they remained largely independent from the other communities in the region, and many members continue to speak their own language and to wear the long white tunics that their ancestors wore.
Accompanied by Lacandón community members, we were taken by canoe into the stunningly beautiful lake of Metzabok. The day was sunny and crystal clear, and we paddled for 30 minutes across glass-smooth waters, surrounded by jungle, under a brilliant blue sky brightened by puffy white clouds. The combination of scenery and silence—the only sound the rhythmic dip of the paddles into the lake—was mesmerizing.
When we reached an island, we disembarked into a dense tangle of bushes, vines, roots, and branches. Our Lacandón guides told us not to touch anything, then led us up a narrow, twisting, leaf-slickened trail. We carefully torqued under outthrust branches, stepped over treacherously gnarled roots, and slid around grasping plants and twining vines.
As we ascended, our lead guide suddenly stopped and pointed: Following his finger, I peered into infinite gradations of green. Slowly, staring intently, I could begin to discern a scattering of stones. They were covered by leaves and vines, but as I looked more closely, I could see that they had been placed intentionally one upon another, layer by layer. A wall! Deliberately arranged! I was looking at the vestiges of a wall or a building that our human ancestors had made!
We walked on, staring into the green, and our guide led our eyes to the remains of a second wall, probably part of a temple, then a crumbling succession of leaf-buried stone steps, then the outline of what was most likely the perimeter of a ball court. As we slowed and studied the jungle, we could make out more pieces of walls and stairways. The longer we lingered and looked, the grander the site grew in our minds: Ceremonial terraces and communal plazas spread across the roots and leaves; stony temples towered into the overarching boughs.
As we pieced together the island’s lush puzzle, I looked toward the bottom of the hill we had climbed. There the Lacandón teenager who had accompanied us was standing alone in a mottled shaft of sunlight, his long black hair and white tunic gleaming, seeming to merge into the surrounding plants, branches, and vines.
Off the Beaten Path Exploration
To reach the second site, Yaxchilán, we again had to journey by water. Settling into thatch-roofed, canvas-covered motorboats at an outpost called Frontera Corozal, we sped for 40 minutes along the wide, maté-colored Usumacinta River, which forms the border between Mexico and Guatemala. Thick, uninterrupted jungle vegetation covered both banks, and we were told that crocodiles prowled the waters and toucans and howler monkeys enlivened the trees.
Disembarking at the Yaxchilán boat landing, we followed our guide along an earthen pathway that was lined by trees, vines, and exotic plants, including one alarmingly red mushroom that was unlike any I’d ever seen. As we walked this rough, rock-strewn path, under a dense jungle canopy, the guttural growls of howler monkeys filled the air, and we felt like we were on an end-of-the-earth adventure.
After about 10 minutes, the trail opened onto a muddy plaza wide enough to contain about 75 people, and beyond that a mossy, vegetation-laced stone wall, about half the length of a soccer pitch, that was built in five levels. A narrow, crumbling stone stairway to the left of this wall led up some twenty steps. At the top, to our astonishment, a grassy green expanse spread before us, easily 10 times as long as the wall we had just passed, interspersing hundred-foot-tall trees with thousand-year-old stelae, stairways, and buildings.
Echoes of the Past
We walked in wonder through these ruins, stopping to exclaim at the stone lintels and ornamental facades for which the site is famed. Our guide told us that the trailblazing explorers Alfred Maudslay and Désiré Charnay had both arrived here in 1882, and I tried to imagine what the site had looked like then. With the jungle still encroaching on all sides, and the roars of the howler monkeys reverberating through the air, it wasn’t hard to transport myself back 140 years.
At the remains of one building, I stopped for 15 minutes, studying the red, blue, and green colorations from an ancient mural, imagining the painstaking hands of the artist who had fashioned them. A few steps later, I paused again before a doorway lintel. I pictured the artisan who had intricately inscribed it, and the ceremony with which it had been carefully placed atop two pillars of rocks, and the awe with which it had been admired, just as I was admiring it now, on those same rocky pillars, more than a millennium later.
The most moving edifice was the three-level temple called Structure 33, which towered against the sky on the top of a hill. After scrambling up a slippery rock stairway, we were rewarded with close-up views of extraordinarily detailed lintels that depicted the ruler, Bird Jaguar IV, and his father and grandfather playing a traditional Maya ball game that our guide explained was a ceremonial celebration of victory over a regional rival.
Then I walked behind the temple, and suddenly found myself heart-poundingly alone. Standing under the natural architecture of an enormous ceiba tree that seemed to dwarf the manmade structure, studying the leaves and vines that seemed to sprout everywhere from the temple’s stony niches, surrounded on all sides by the ceaseless monkeys’ roars, I understood that the jungle would one day reclaim this site, and that the Maya stones, and my own human bones, were infinitely more fragile than the jungle’s boughs and vines.
Palenque’s Enduring Influence
Palenque is one of the planet’s most celebrated ruins, designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1987. It’s what we imagine when we think of a Mesoamerican ruin: remarkably intact multi-level temples, palaces, and pyramids, with sweeping staircases and broad plazas. The site has a correspondingly carnivalesque atmosphere, with vendors at the entrance and within the grounds selling a trove of trinkets, from reproductions of hieroglyphics to refrigerator magnets.
Yet the power of the place was apparent from the moment we stepped inside. Unlike Yaxchilán or Metzabok, the area is huge and beyond immediate comprehension. The uncovered site comprises about one square mile, but archaeologists estimate that less than 10 percent of the ancient city’s total area has been explored, and that more than a thousand structures remain covered by jungle.
At the time of our visit, climbing the stairways and entering the buildings was prohibited, but it was still thrilling to stand before the Temple of the Inscriptions and hear the tale of Alberto Ruz Lhuillier, the Mexican archaeologist who had been designated in 1949 to oversee the excavations at Palenque. Ruz Lhuillier had been working at the site for four years when he discovered the tomb of the 7th-century ruler Pakal the Great deep inside the Temple of the Inscriptions. That tomb contained an unparalleled wealth of artifacts and inscriptions, and these revealed in detail the region’s rich history and mythology, and fundamentally changed our appreciation of the Maya civilization that had thrived here.
The sheer enormity and excellent condition of the ruins was stunning, and as we moved from temple to tomb to tower, past residences and courtyards, the everyday realities, beliefs, and rites of the Maya took on a palpable life. This was especially true at the clearly delineated ball court, where our guide offered a vivid description of the ancient game where players would use their right hips, elbows, and knees to try to propel a rubber ball through a ring.
As we wandered, something in my mind moved backward. From the pristine temples and tombs of Palenque, I journeyed back to the plant-blooming walls and monkey-loud trails of Yaxchilán, and then back even further to the twisting, vine-tangled paths and leaf-buried stones of Metzabok. I thought how this was the archaeologist’s journey: You machete your way to a barely discernible site, work for months or years clearing the vegetation from staircases and walls, and piece together a precious puzzle as you do, until one day you have recreated a complex that is recognized as one of the most important archaeological treasures in the world.
It all begins on an island in the middle of a still lake or a howler-loud jungle. You step carefully over treacherous roots and around grasping vines, the air heavy with the scent of wet leaves, the jungle canopy mottling the sun. You think you see the remains of a wall, a staircase, a figure or an inscription on a toppled stone. You take one more step, and then another. You plunge ahead, peering into the green, venturing into the unknown.
* * * * *
Have you had an archaeological epiphany on a trip? Or has a GeoEx journey bestowed some other special lesson? We’d love to hear from you! Please share your experience in the comments section below. Thank you!
* * * * *
Don George leads GeoEx’s small group journey, Mexico: Maya Traditions in Chiapas. To learn more or to reserve your space, call our travel experts at 888-570-7108.
It is about the best and most vivid description I have read about the places we visited. I could vsualize the locations. It helped a lot in filling the gaps in my knowledge.
Happy New Year, Don George! Sitting at my desk here I truly was transported into the jungle. I’ve seen ruins near Cancun (arriving by small plane which was an “adventure”) but have never arrived at a site this way. Your writing, as always, is stunning.
Thank you. Janet
Your vivid descriptions brought back memories of my visits to Palenque and other archeological sites in Mexico and Guatemala, places like no others in the world, and yet we know so little about the people who inhabited them.
I was part of a very small group of 7 when, in 1977, we visited Palenque as part of an exploration of Mayan ruins. At the time, there was no guided tour and the grounds weren’t nearly as groomed and visible. We were lulled to sleep by monkey choruses at night easily appreciated through our screened, primitive abode. We were literally free to wander and immerse ourselves with the help of our imagination into this magical place of human endeavor and ritual. We were the only people there other than our pilot drinking alcoholic libations back by the landing strip.… Read more »