Return to Santa Elena

I am back at the Flycatcher Inn, playing host to the guests. One of them asks, “We are thinking of going to Palenque. Do you know anything about this site?”

Well, yes, as a matter of fact I do.

No photos, please

Location: Tuxtla Gutiérrez, Chiapas, Mexico

A visit to the community of San Juan Chamula, where the local indigenous men and women wear black furry looking outfits. Their religion is a mixture of Catholic, pre-conquest Maya, and later innovations. We witnessed the funeral of a local religious leader and saw the interior of the church were there were thousands of candles burning. Photography is forbidden and if they catch you photographing they will confiscate your camera, fine you, and expel you from the town. For me photography is a form of reverence, but I declined to take pictures here.

Then to the village of Zinacantán. They have long grown flowers here, and the indigenous people wear embroidered flowers on their clothes. They also have their own special blend of religious practices. In a visit to the chapel, they were playing jaunty Christmas tunes, including “Frosty the Snowman” and “Jingle Bells.” Apparently there is no association with Christmas, they just like the perkiness of the music. In the second chapel were some local musicians playing some very haunting traditional music on a violin and a local harp. 

 Again, I have no photos.

San Cristobal de las Casas

Location: San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico

San Cristobal de las Casas is a hill town in Chiapas. The old city has many historic buildings (but as with many cases when the Spanish settled, the prehistoric ones were destroyed.) It is charming, but it has essentially been turned into a tourist town with lots of restaurants, and tourist shops. Some jaded tourists whine that it is no longer authentic, but I have been to a number of modernized commercial towns, and I appreciate charm when I see it. There are also craft stores and venders with ma lot of interesting stuff to look at. I bought a piece of legitimate amber from a dedicated amber shop, and a piece of dubious authenticity from a sidewalk stall. 

The streets a quite crowded during the day, but are wonderfully empty at dawn.

Mountain View

Location: Toniná, Chiapas, Mexico

We spent over eight hours on the bus today, but I got a chance to see a part of Mexico I have not seen before. The twisty mountain roads with peaks on one side and deep valleys on the other showed me how the indigenous peoples here have managed to preserve much of their unique cultures. 

Our first stop was at Aqua Azul, probably the most perfect rest stop I have ever been to. Here there vendors offering the wonderful tiny delicious bananas that are nothing like the standard bananas shipped to the USA. And not only bananas, but fresh cut coconuts to drink, some interesting crafts, and prepared food and drinks. To top it off there is a lovely waterfall just outside of the parking area. 

Then the ruins of Toniná. Marvelous. Our tour archaeologist is passionate about the Maya glyphs found on the stucco, stelae, and door lentils. He is a good story teller and presents a nice narrative of what went on here, sometimes giving a darker back story with information I would rather just not know. The pyramid is vast and has some interesting angles and passageways.

I look at the pyramids and temples and think back to my own experiences in building houses with all the meetings with the client, the architect, the decorators, and the engineers. Here they would have added the astronomers, priests, stone masons, stone carvers, and plaster artists. There must have been some lively discussions as to what was wanted and how it could be done. (And no doubt as in modern life, change orders affected the time and budget.)

Return to Palenque

Location: Palenque, Chiapas, Mexico

We had a chance to revisit Palenque today. It was less crowded, and I was able to get some photos of the Cross Group without people. I then went off to discover the less visited Temple XIX. There are quite a few stairs to get there and the jungle still surrounds the site. The place has few visitors and is a wonderful place to do meditations. As I was exploring the top of the temple, I was surprised to discover  a reconstructed frieze of a Maya noble showing the most reverence I have ever seen in Maya art.

Temple XIX

I re-explored the trail on the Otulum river. It was just a magical this time as the last. 

Well, I don’t know how it happened, but the Riverboat captain, he knows my fate But ev’rybody else, even yourself they’re just gonna have to wait.

Location: Yaxchilan, Chiapas, Mexico

We headed down the site of Yaxchilan on the Usumacinta River that borders Mexico and Guatemala. It was the dry season so the river was low, but it was still over a sixty meters wide.

For the ancient Maya, who had no animals or industrial wheels to help carry loads, the rivers were the most efficient ways of bringing goods to and from the interior. So it is not surprising that they would set up toll booths along these watery trade routes. The site of Yaxchilan was one such site.

There may have been areas for commerce and urban houses near the river, but these were destroyed by floods long ago. Fortunately, the temples and stone palaces were built uphill. They utilized the tall canyon heights to give the structures more grandeur. The first building we came to was called the Labyrinth. It was well named as you have to navigate a couple of T shaped interior passages and climb a series of interior stairs to get from the entrance to the Grand Plaza. 

One of the prominent buildings at the Grand Paza was the house of the Number One Wife, who according to the glyphs, had a duty to share her hallucinogenic visions with the people. It sounds like a cool job description until you realize that she had to do a lot of blood letting in order to communicate with the gods.

The buildings beyond the grand plaza were built at higher and higher elevations. These are magnificent temples, but  I considered the Mexican midday heat and wondered if it would be prudent to climb them. It was a balance between my exploratory urges and plain common sense. Let us just say that my exploratory urges won out. I made the ascension. I touched the stones. I created some images. Nonetheless, I have to admit that here I came close to meeting my limits for endurance. Thoughtfully the tour administrator brought a couple of cases of water to keep us from dehydration. With a bit of rest, and a lot of water, I was ready to climb up to the next temple group.

Art History, Maya Style

Location: Bonampak, Chiapas, Mexico

Bonampak has the greatest surviving painted Maya murals. They are a wonder to behold.  But it is interesting to compare the originals with the reproductions at the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City. The reproductions are larger and have the colors fully restored. But the originals give one a sense of time and connection with the ancients.

View of the wall paintings at Bonampak
Recreation of Bonampak at the National Museum of Anthropology

Overnighting at a river along an international border seems quite metaphoric to me as I drift on this journey of life, but it is the sounds that bend the space and time within my consciousness.  I still find the sound of the howler monkeys at night to be quite exotic. I know that I am in the Central American jungle. But am I in Belize, Guatemala, Mexico or ???  And for the locals, I presume that they find it quite ordinary, much as I slept through the voices and traffic sounds when I lived in downtown San Francisco. But all these sounds evoke a sense of place and time for me. Now when I hear soft roar of the weed eaters from our grounds crew, it takes me back to sound of lawnmowers in my ancient roots in suburbia. Back in Santa Elena I sleep to the sound of crickets and awake to the sounds of forest birds. I am a photographer. I like to play with the light. But I think that it is the sounds that are playing with me. 

A walk in the jungle.

Location: Palenque, Chiapas, Mexico

Today we visit Palenque. Ah, Palenque where to start. The architecture is remarkable and so are the friezes. Most Maya friezes I have seen are quite stylized and offer an abstract concept of a ruler or deity. Here they express personality.

Our tour started at the North Group, because that was the earliest part of the site. The structures have history and charm, but what one would call magnificent. Then we move on to the central plaza. The old time visitors bemoan the fact that you can no longer descend into the interior shaft of the Temple of the Inscriptions, but it is still a magnificent pyramid that dominates the plaza.

The palace fascinated me with its long interior corridors. I had seen nothing like this in the architecture of the Yucatán. Then there is the strange square tower placed in the middle of the palace. This was a later addition, and seems at odds with the palace surrounding it, but it commands a power all of its own.

Palenque Palace & Tower

The plaza of the Cross Group shows that they did not tire of creating magnificent architecture, but the place was popular with people and I was unable to gather many images free of tourists.

Perhaps the most magical part of the site was the path along the Otulum river leading down to the second entrance to the park. It is quite a descent, and I am glad that I am walking down, not up and that there was a bus to pick me up at the end. The trail is a delightful jungle walk on its own. There is no swimming allowed in the stream. I am told that this is because the water is so inviting that people frequently just take off their clothes and plunge right in. The nudity delights some visitors and annoys others, so the park officials sometimes patrol the walk. Such is life. 

Palenque Group II

The sites along the stream have only been partially restored and left to the moss and the jungle trees to reclaim creating a rather primordial experience. I was glad to catch the sunbeams at the end of the trip. I would definitely go back here again.

The wolf then came to the house of bricks. “Let me in, let me in” cried the wolf “Or I’ll huff and I’ll puff till I blow your house in”

Location: Comalcalco, Tabasco, Mexico.

We then visited the Maya site of Comalcalco. They did not use stones either, but they built their temples out of bricks. Hundreds of thousands of bricks. I think they are the only Maya that did this, and they are absolutely fabulous.  Except during construction, the ancients would would not have noticed the bricks, as the walls were covered with plaster. And with the plaster they made wonderful friezes with hints to their politics, religion, and history. I loved photographing this site.

Temple I

We are staying at the Nututun Palenque Hotel. It is an older resort that is showing its age, but then again it has a certain timelessness bout it. It has a vending machine where you can not only buy water, soda, and cookies, but beer and Marlboros. I have not seen anything like that in the USA for over forty years.

It is next to a wonderful stream where the locals come to swim and play in pools and gentle rapids. I followed a trail along the stream and found a place to do sitting and movement meditations with the sound of the brook in the background. I am 69 years old, but when walking here, I felt like a little boy again when I used to explore the creeks of Kentucky. It is a peaceful place to stay. I would come back here.

Head Fake

Location: La Venta, Tabasco, Mexico.

The heads were originally produced and featured at the Olmec site of La Venta.  We made the journey to see the ancient city that produced them. They were quarried form massive chunks of basalt many miles away from the city. We can only guess as to how they transported them. When I first got to the site, I have to admit that I am so used to seeing the wonderful stone structures of the Maya sites that I was a bit disappointed that the Olmecs did not build with rock. Here they only built only earthen structures and furthermore most of the stone heads have been removed.  But the archaeologists thoughtfully placed some excellent copies of the stone heads where they used to be.  As I thought about it, it reminded me of seeing the Gettysburg battlefield many years ago, where you could see the geographical features, some earthworks, and replica canons where the batteries used to be. It does give one a sense of place, and frankly the heads are much more accessible at Villahermosa.

The day was hot and the climb to the top of the pyramid mound was steep. One of our group members collapsed with a heat stroke. A warning to us all, stay hydrated and do not over-exert. 

Then we went as a group to to La Venta Park in Villahermosa. Here the group archaeologist gave us more details, but I was glad that I was able to see them at my own pace yesterday, when I could take my photos without a group of people jockeying for photo positions or taking selfies, and when I could take my own pace and sit quietly with the stones. 

In retrospect, I may have become a victim of my own methodology. I like shooting archaeology without people to give it a sense of timelessness, but without people the giant stone heads have no sense of scale. You can not tell if they are one foot tall or fifteen feet tall. Luckily a coatimundi was using one of the heads as a playground. Perhaps if I go back, I will hire a Maya lady to stand next to all the heads to them to give a sense of proportion, or (the horror, the horror) take a selfie of myself with the heads.