Tombs full of jade. Millennial ball courts. Bloody rituals. Visit Chiapas to learn about the ruins and secrets of ancient Mexican civilizations.
Ancient Mayan site of Palenque in Chiapas, Mexico
The ancient Mayans prospered for some 3,000 years and created a monumental legacy that continues to inspire pop culture, from animated series to video games. Its stepped stone pyramids and temple walls carved with glyphs are found in Guatemala, Belize and Mexico, the location of the well-known sites of Tulum, Chichén Itzá and the pyramids of Uxmal.
But the lesser-known and less traveled Mayan settlements and places of worship in Chiapas (the southernmost state of Mexico) are also worth discovering for their combination of archeology and nature.
The most famous and largest of them, Palenque, is the central theme of the first episode of the second season of Lost Cities al Perdidas with Albert Lin, which will premiere in Spain on December 4 at 10:00 p.m. National Geographic and on NatGeo NOW a day later. In it, National Geographic scientist and explorer Albert Lin uses high-tech methods to delve into the historic site.
“Palenque is the place where Mayan archeology began, from that first glimpse of glyphs and pyramids in the jungle,” says Lin, referring to the rediscovery of the site by 18th-century Spanish explorers.
A bas-relief of the Mayan god Xibalba is sculpted on the wall of a temple in Palenque. He appears with a huge cigar and is believed to be the oldest image of someone smoking in the world.
Here’s how to immerse yourself in this influential story among the mountains and jungles of Chiapas.
An ancient temple and trade route
Mayan society prospered in Palenque between the 5th and 9th centuries AD, boosted by its location on a trade route between central Mexico and the Yucatan Peninsula. Merchants transported flint and obsidian from Guatemala and “artisans were capable of modeling stucco in a very advanced style,” says archaeologist Carlos Miguel Varela Sherrer, field manager of the site.
Today, most visitors arrive in the modern city of Palenque by plane from Mexico City (1 hour 40 minutes) or Cancún, before taking a 15-minute drive through the ceiba-shaded foothills to the site, recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. Hundreds of Mayan buildings (many yet to be excavated) span 1,500 hectares of rainforest.
The central area of the site, which functioned as a residential, governmental and religious center, is dominated by the impressive Temple of the Inscriptions, a 15-meter-high stepped limestone pyramid. This stone tribute to the region’s most famous ancient ruler, Pakal the Great (615-683 AD), was excavated between 1949 and 1954. His jade death mask is now on display at the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City, but The Palenque Site Museum preserves a replica of it and the funerary chamber.
The tomb beneath the pyramid, closed to the public to prevent damage, has stone walls carved with stylized reliefs of Pakal, his family and the underworld, as well as a huge sarcophagus made from a single piece of stone.
“The inside looks like a crystal cave because the limestone has leached calcite into small stalactites,” says Lin, who entered the tomb and used lidar (light detection and ranging) to explore it on the show. “Along the walls you can see inscriptions, the story of the origin of Palenque.”
Palenque is also home to more than 1,500 Mayan structures, such as the Group of the Cross, a trio of temples built at different heights, probably to represent heaven, Earth, and the underworld. Its “Temple of the Skull” has the relief of a human skull carved at its base. The ruins of a central palace, believed to be that of Pakal, have a four-story stone tower, as well as indoor plumbing and a steam bath.
“The region has a lot of stone, which allowed for unique architectural work,” says Varela.
A Mayan route through Chiapas
Beyond Palenque, you can follow the Mayan trade route through Chiapas. 128 kilometers to the south, the city-state of Toniná was inhabited between the 1st and 16th centuries AD. by the ancestral enemies of Palenque. In the 14th century, they erected the tallest pyramid that exists in America, the “Acropolis”, 320 meters high.
It is the anchor of a site in which the temple-pyramids are arranged on earth terraces over a central plaza where the Mayans played ball. Recent archaeological studies maintain that the inhabitants of Toniná combined the ashes of their deceased rulers with rubber to make pelotas.
A three-hour drive west, the ruins of Yaxchilán line the banks of the Usumacinta River (the natural border between Mexico and Guatemala). You’re likely to find more howler monkeys than tourists among the intricately carved stelae and temples where the “Jaguar” clan thrived between 500 and 700 AD.
A five-hour drive east from Yaxchilán, Bonampak is home to ruined structures such as the Temple of Murals, where colorful frescoes of Mayan court life adorn the walls. Scenes depicting rituals of bloodshed and parades of musicians give insight into a complex culture that continues to fascinate us.