Sense of Power Haunts Maya Palenque Site

Gathings is a free-lance writer living in San Antonio, Tex.

Heat and humidity hang heavy. The steamy tropical rain forest is alive with the incessant, shrill buzzing of cicadas. Birdcalls echo in the vine-laden ceiba, sapodilla and mahogany trees. Howler monkeys roar in the treetops, and a couple of greenish, bug-eyed lizards race across the crumbling mass of an ancient Mayan temple.

Jungle fever? No, just another typical day at the ruins of the Mayan city of Palenque in Mexico's southernmost state of Chiapas.

Half-hidden on a hillside at the edge of a thick jungle and overlooking the coastal plains of the state of Tabasco, Palenque beckons mysteriously and invites exploration.

Encroaching nature is the green backdrop to a pre-Columbian drama that lingers on.

Palenque is haunted by the power and pageantry of its past. This jungle acropolis murmurs of semidivine rulers with sloping foreheads and protruding lips, of the mystical rituals of priests bedecked with feathers and necklaces of jade. If you listen carefully you just might think you hear the languid sighs of Mayan aristocrats in the steam bath of Palenque's Palace.

Creative Architecture

What Palenque's few well-excavated buildings lack in monumentality they make up for in their harmonious integration into nature and in their creative, sophisticated architecture.

Slender-walled temples with wide and numerous doors, T-shaped windows, mansard roofs, masterfully carved stone and, especially, stucco reliefs put Palenque into a distinctive category of inspired art and engineering.

Palenque's many unexcavated buildings and temples will make you wonder just how much more magnificence lies hidden in its hundreds of mounds that are robed and blanketed in the sweeping green of jungle flora.

Mexico's other Mayan ruins of Chichen Itza and Uxmal are bigger and better known, but it is Palenque that has been repeatedly called the most beautiful of all Mexico's ruins.

Missed by the conquistadors, Palenque was first historically commented upon in the 1780s. At that time the long-abandoned city got rave reviews from its discoverer--a Spanish army captain.

Count Camps Out

His wild report brought eccentrics, romantics, adventurers and explorers to Palenque. In the 1830s there was the Frenchman, Count de Waldeck, who, in his 60s and in the company of an inspirational, dark-skinned local woman, camped out for two years in the jungle-entangled ruins.

Finally, in the mid-1800s, the myths about Palenque were exploded--it was neither El Dorado nor Atlantis.

Thanks to the writings of American explorer John Lloyd Stephens and the drawings of English artist Frederick Catherwood, Palenque's true profile began to emerge from the dense jungle to be brought to the world's attention.

The buildings of Palenque's cleared central area take us back to its period of greatness--AD 600-800. During that classic heyday Palenque's two great rulers, Lord Pacal (Shield) and his six-toed son, Lord Chan-Bahlum (Serpent-Jaguar), left their marks on history as well as in the stucco and stone of these structures.

Temple of Inscriptions

The cornerstone of Palenque's mystique is the Temple of the Inscriptions. It theatrically crowns an eight-stepped pyramid 75 feet above a plaza.

Inside, on wall panels, are the 620 hieroglyphics that give the temple its name. These stories in stone document Pacal's ancestry and ascension to the throne at age 12.

The temple's most fascinating feature is the secret it kept hidden in its pyramidal base for more than 1,000 years. In 1949 Mexican archeologist Alberto Ruz L'huiller noted an irregularity in one of the temple's stone floor slabs. Lifting the slab, he found a concealed stairway filled with rubble.

Taking four archeological field seasons to remove the debris, in 1952 Ruz reached his reward at the bottom of the steep, dark and airless stairwell--the untouched crypt of Lord Pacal, the first tomb found in any Mayan pyramid.

Royal Remains

A magnificently carved, five-ton slab of rock covered Pacal's stone coffin. When it was raised, Ruz found the remains of Pacal in full attire, bejeweled with nearly a thousand pieces of jade, and wearing an exquisite jade mosaic face mask with obsidian eyes.

You can descend a long, well-lit, dank and eerie staircase to see the tomb and sepulchral slab about 90 feet below the temple. But you will not find the mask or jewelry.

They were taken to the Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City and were stolen from there on Dec. 24, 1985.

Steps away from the Temple of the Inscriptions is the building that dominates Palenque--the Palace.

This rambling, multilevel structure is a maze of chambers, galleries, small rooms, courtyards and underground passageways, with steam bath, latrines and sleeping quarters with beds of stone. Detailed carvings in stucco and stone embellish the Palace--human figures, serpents and jaguars are the motifs that stand out.

Puzzling Tower

But what is really intriguing is the Palace tower. Singular in Mayan architecture, it looks more Old World than New World. Square, with four stories and a sloping roof, it rises from ruins, raises questions--and gives you a superb view of the site.

Behind the palace, across the Otulum rivulet, you find the Group of the Cross, a quartet of smaller temples. Each is atop its own hill, and although damaged by the conspiracy of time, they are still special because of their carvings and the bizarre high latticework stone structures atop them--roof combs.

Take a full two days to explore Palenque. Visiting hours are 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily (tomb, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.) and the admission charge is small. English-speaking guides are available and worth considering.

In addition to Palenque's excavated buildings, there are several unexcavated temples and a barely recognizable ball court. These structures, some earth-and-flora-covered mounds, others partially uncovered, are also fascinating to explore.

There is a small museum at the site. Its display of artifacts from Palenque is definitely worth seeing.

Basics and a Bit More

Only five miles from the ruins is the town of Santo Domingo. Usually referred to as Palenque, too, this untouristy community is somewhat of an outpost in the hinterland, but it does provide you with the basics and a bit more, as well as frequent van service to and from the ruins.

Palenque exudes the mystery of the Maya. Although they vanished long ago, here among these ruins, in a brooding jungle full of secrets and engulfed by the lure and lore of Mayadom, you are in the almost palpable presence of Lords Shield and Serpent-Jaguar.

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Best time to go is December and January. Other months are hot and humid. The usual way to go is by air from Mexico City to Villahermosa on Mexicana or Aeromexico (daily flights) and then by first-class bus (frequent daily departures) to Palenque--a 2 1/2-hour, 92-mile trip on a good road. Also one flight daily to Villahermosa on Aeromexico from Merida, Oaxaca and Tuxtla Gutierrez.

Chartered planes fly into Palenque airstrip from Tuxtla Gutierrez, San Cristobal de Las Casas and Villahermosa.

Or you can go by bus or car from San Cristobal de Las Casas via Ocosingo, a spectacular six- to eight-hour 128-mile trip on a so-so road.

Some leading hotels in Villahermosa have one-day tours to Palenque.

Car rentals are in Villahermosa--in town and at airport.

There is an overnight train from Merida or 24 incredible hours from Mexico City. Eight hours by bus from Merida.

Accommodations in Palenque:

Hotel Mision Palenque is the newest and most modern hotel in town. Recently opened. On outskirts of town in lovely pastoral setting. Resort-style hotel--air-conditioned rooms with terraces, tennis courts, shops, restaurant (nothing to write home about), bar, etc. Van service to and from ruins. Write to Executive Offices, Hamburgo 227, Mexico, D.F. 06600. Double, $30 U.S.

Hotel Chan-Kah is halfway between town and the ruins in tropical surroundings. Great place for bird watchers. Spacious, comfortable, nicely decorated and ventilated cabanas kept pleasantly cool by fans. Mucho privacy. Vans to and from ruins pass by hotel. No phone. Write Apartado 26, Palenque, Chiapas, Mexico. Double $30 U.S.

Hotel Palenque is an old standby in the budget category. On main square. Simple and clean rooms with choice of fan or air conditioning. Small pool and nice garden. Address: 5 de Mayo and Jimenez Street. Double $11 U.S.

Hotel Vaca Vieja (Old Cow) is a winner in budget class. Airy, simple, and clean with ceiling fans only. Small dining room serves tasty food at low prices. Three blocks from main square; 5 de Mayo 42.

Vans to and from the ruins leave from Allende Street, between Juarez and Hidalgo.

For further information, contact Mexican Government Tourist Office, 10100 Santa Monica Blvd., Suite 224, Los Angeles 90067.

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