Few words can accurately describe how it felt to be in the presence of the timeless genius that surrounded us at Palenque. As we did our best to absorb the staggering splendor of the temples, it occurred to us that little else can compare to it in the modern world.
We started our visit at the east entrance of the archeological zone and worked our way south, following a well-worn path that took us first to Temple XII and XIII, respectively. It was at the base of Temple XIII that we viewed the sarcophagus of the Reina Roja, the Red Queen, a mysterious female found buried at the temple’s base, surrounded with jewels and earthly possessions and decadently layered in Cinnabar, a red pigment of some value. When I asked a local Mayan man about her, he referred to her as the mother of Pakal I, one of the early rulers of Palenque, although modern historians have not definitively identified her.
Our next stop, the Palace. The center of daily life for Palenque’s nobility, the complex in its entirety took over 200 years to build. From the heights of the Palace, we were afforded a beautiful panoramic view to the northeast of the Temple of Inscriptions and both Temples XIII and XII, seated at the edge of the misty, forested hills of Sierra Don Juan. The iconic white tower that stands at the Palace’s center is thought to have been an observatory, or a watchtower. The corridors and plazas of the Palace are rich with artistic detail, from the elegant terraced patios to the soaring archways that connect indoor and outdoor spaces.
From the western wall of the Palace, we could see a dense stretch of forest across the Otolum River (which bisects the site) in the midst of which sat the Temple of The Cross, winking in the sunlight like a jewel, high upon a hill. So we set out to see it.
A brief walk through the jungle led us to the Crosses Group, set in a partially-shaded clearing. This additional group of buildings is set in a loose half-circle: the Temple of the Sun, Temple of the Cross, Temple of the Foliated Cross and and Temple XIV. To the ancient Maya, the cross is a symbol of the “axis of the world”. The Temple of the Cross is dedicated to a Mayan God known as “G-1” by anthropologists, a Sun God. It is at the base of the Temple of the Cross that chambers were discovered that contained the graves of several nobles. Many of the carvings in the Crosses Group depict the connection of the the living with their ancestors in the afterlife. On a panel in the rear gallery of the Temple of the Cross, a deceased Pakal II bestows an insignia of power to his living son, Chan Bahlum II, and on the Temple of the Sun – Chan Bahlum IIholds up a figure of the diety K’awil, God of Noble Lineages.
We wandered onward, first to the Groupo Norte (North Group), where we stood beneath the looming Temple of the Count, which faces the ball court. It was here that Count Frédéric de Waldeck, a European-born artist and explorer was sent to make drawings for an English lord in 1822. Upon seeing the forgotten city for the first time he quickly fell in love with the ruins of Palenque. It is rumored that while he completed his drawings, he camped out quite happily in the Temple of the Count (named now in his honor), which was originally built by Palenque’s preeminent ruler, Pakal The Great, circa 670 AD. With this tale in mind, we could almost see the flickering shapes of Count Waldeck’s firelight bouncing off of the temple’s imposing stone walls.
From Groupo Norte, we broke off from the main path and followed a smaller trail through the jungle, leading us over a small group of waterfalls and up a series of steps to Groupo C (Group C), a site that contains several tiers of buildings and plazas that date between 700-850 AD. Several human burials sites were excavated here, yielding a wealth of ceramic and stone artifacts from that time period. Here, Tor enjoyed exploring an intriguing staircase that wound around one of the buildings.
The day already far gone, we hiked back through the forest and stopped for some time to admire the Cascadas de la Reina, or “Queen’s Bath”, an enchanting oasis in the heart of the jungle, created by the waters of the Otolum River rushing down over countless layers of rock, passable by crossing a swinging rope bridge. Much too soon after, we walked down more rocky steps, and bid farewell to a few final, remnants of ancient life before stepping out into the very bright sunlight of 2012.