Friday, June 2, 2017

Palenque Maya Ruins

We visited the Palenque Ruins on May 28, 2017.  

The Palenque ruins are in the middle of a protected jungle zone which is home to Howler Monkeys. To get into the ruins you have to pay an ecological fee to help with the protection of the jungle and the Howler monkeys and then you pay the site fee once you get to the archaeological site.

Once inside, the beauty of the jungle surrounds you and you can constantly hear Howler monkeys near the entrance - I wish that we had caught site of them but they rarely come out where they are visible.

Only 5% of the ruins have been unearthed and the map below shows the restored ruins in yellow.  The large yellow block is the Palace and at 7 o'clock from that is the Temple of Inscriptions.  

Over the past 5 years or so, there has been some work on unearthing another temple directly in front of the Palace (10 o'clock) across the open area.  But there have been issues with the environmentalists as they do not want the trees cut down.  Since both sides (archaeologists and environmentalists) are at a dead lock and ground penetrating radar shows some empty chambers, no tombs, it is unlikely that work will continue.

As of this writing, you can still climb on some of the pyramids but rumor has it that all pyramids will be off limits by year end due to lawsuits from US insurance companies over tourists falling down the steps and getting seriously hurt.  A couple years ago Ernesto (our guide) witnessed a tourist fall while trying to take a picture and climb the steps.  The person tumbled down most of the steps on the Palace and was seriously hurt, ending up in a wheel chair. In Mexico, you are responsible for your actions and it appears the USA lawyers motto of "someone else is always responsible for your stupidity" is reaching Mexico.

For the first time we hired a guide.  His name was Ernesto and he spoke very good English.  A young couple (Jon and Megan) from England/Australia were on a limited budget and were looking for some other people to share the guide cost with.  So for 400 pesos (US$22) Rosalind and I signed up for the guided tour.  After we parked the car, all the guides were trying to get our attention with "guide for 100 dollar, guide for 95 dollar" etc. so we were really lucky to get a wonderful and very knowledgeable guide for such a cheap price.  The tour was supposed to be 90 minutes but ended up being well over 2 hours.  I think Ernesto enjoyed us as well since all of us were asking lots of questions and he provided great answers.  He mentioned giving a tour to a VIP  once that only asked one question as he got into the limo at the end.

The Palenque site started about 266 BC, flourished in the seventh century and was active until approximately 799 AD.  

Edzna stone work
Palenque stone work
Palenque doesn't have the close fitting stonework that Edzna has but Edzna was active from 400 BC until 1500 AD.  It appears in those later 700 years, the workers of Edzna had perfected their masonry skills as the stone work was much more precise and close fitting.

Per Ernesto, the international Archaeologists (they meet in Palenque every 2 yrs) did a field test of creating the cement (from limestone) used to mortar the stones together.  They used the ancient techniques and discovered it takes 40 kg of wood to create 1 kg of cement.  And to build these huge pyramids, it takes a lot of cement. Some quick calculations revealed that the Mayas likely deforested much of the Yucatan peninsula in the pursuit of  wood for kilning the limestone, cooking and building wood structures.  Maybe this had an influence on the fall of the Maya city-states.  Also as resources became sparse (food, water, timber etc) once friendly neighbors became hostile.  The Maya were a peaceful people only resorting to war in dire circumstances.  

The tomb of the Red Queen was proof that ancient Maya culture was matriarchal.  

Temple of Inscriptions (left), temple of the Red Queen (center), temple of the Skull (right)
Carving from Temple of the Skull

In Temple of the Red Queen you can go inside the pyramid to view 3 chambers.   
Inside a chamber in Temple of the Red Queen
Temple of the Red Queen steps leading to a blocked passageway.

Sarcophagus of the Red Queen in the museum at the bottom of the hill.

Standing on the Palace with the Temple of Inscriptions behind.
The Palace
The most unusual and recognizable feature of the Palace 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 Palace had many large baths and saunas which were supplied with fresh water by an intricate water system. We have seen this type of water system in several other Mayan archaeological sites. 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 Palace today

Reconstruction model of the Palace.  (from wikipedia)

Temple of the Sun (left).  Notice the stone roof comb on the top.
Another roof comb.

Ernesto explained roof comb lattice work on top of the buildings. You will notice them all around the outer edge on the Palace in the reconstruction model above.  It is required to add weight to the center parts of the Corbel Arches. From Wikipedia:
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 extra mass of the roof comb makes the arch more stable and likely why many of the arches have survived over a 1000 years.  The roof combs were made of open stone lattice work to allow the wind to pass through and not blow over during hurricanes etc.  He drew a sketch showing the cross section of how twin arches are made shown here.

Opening in center arch possibly to save weight and materials.
Arch in the Palace (opposite the Hall of Portraits) showing the massive size and the collapse of  part of the right side of the arch.  The center (left side) remains intact.
Hall of Portraits.  Ernesto (white cap) is talking to Jon and Megan.
Original Portrait in Hall of Portraits
Another original Portrait in Hall of Portraits.  Amazing that the pigment has survived over 1,100 years.

Some original artwork has survived all the years.
Look at the edges of the opening, the plaster is about 2 inches thick and yes black mold is a problem with leaky limestone blocks.
Original artwork in the plaster (left side of opening from above picture).
Artwork around an opening.

The Palace has two toilets!  Now that is a cold hard toilet seat!  (the original long drop toilet?)

Temple of the Cross (left) and Temple of the Sun (right).  The forested hill behind has another buried temple on top of it.

Curse of the Tombs
The two primary colors used by the Mayans were red and indigo blue.  To make the red pigment they used mercury which was likely fatal to the workers after years of exposure.  We have all heard of the curse of the mummy right?  Back before people realized the dangers of mercury and days of tomb raiders, they would open a tomb chamber that had been sealed for thousands of years and all the stucco with red and blue pigments would out-gas mercury to be inhaled.  Recent tomb openings have shown very high levels of mercury and the archaeologists always use respirators now to protect themselves.

At the base of the hill is a Museum that houses artifacts found at the site including the Red Queens sarcophagus.  If you walk down following the trail you pass the Queens Bath waterfall.  We were told that this is another sign that there was a matriarchal society during this time, as the Queen had a bath.

Queens Bath

Bridge across the stream below Queens Bath
And more structures along the way.

Following are some pictures from the museum.

The Maya culture is still strong in this part of Mexico.  A whole bus load of school kids were touring with their traditional Mayan dress.

And of course there were the local vendors selling their wares inside and outside the ruins.  One of my favorites was the Jaguar growler, it sounded just like a Jaguar and all they did was blow into it.  And there were howler monkeys making all sorts of noise also, so it was quite an experience.

Vendor stall by the parking lot

This sensitivity plant grows throughout the ruins in the grass.  You touch the serrated leaves and they close up quickly (within a second or two)!


  1. Ok Gerald and did good! Looks amazing! Love the pics, and the descriptions! Nice!

  2. About the word Mayans.... There are Maya, Mayan stuff and multiple Mayas although the latter is not as common. You will hear guides say mayans but keep in mind that they're translating incorrectly to English.


    1. Hello Grant,

      Thank you very much for your comment - that is an interesting article and we will be certain to more educated in future now :)

  3. Hello,

    Thank you for sharing your blog with me yesterday on the FB Group " On the road to Mexico" I have enjoyed it so much!! Part of your drive did seem a bit scary at times. You guys seem to make a great team. What splendid adventures you are having!!

    Maxine M.

  4. Hi Maxine,
    Thank you for your comment - we really appreciate comments so that we know what people are enjoying or not (and we know if anyone is actually reading the results of our hard work). Yes, we are a great team - we have spent the last 10 years being together 24 hrs a day every day of the year since we started working from home (different companies same home office room) so we knew that we could be cooped up in a car and hotel rooms etc. with no trouble. The couple of scary moments that we have had so far have really been no more than wake up calls, opportunities to learn some lessons and to remember to stay humble - we are not kings of the road, just visitors in this wonderful country.