From seat 7A, I look down to see miles of dense rain forest blanketing the ground below me. I’m 10,000 feet above the Mexican state of Chiapas, coming in for a landing at Palenque, where an ancient Mesoamerican city flourished for five centuries, until its Mayan inhabitants mysteriously abandoned it, leaving their temples, homes and palaces to be reclaimed by the encroaching forest, not to be rediscovered for nearly 900 years.
It’s a journey three decades in the making. My whole life I’ve been curious about my namesake civilization, and now this enigmatic, remote ruin is finally within reach, thanks to the long-awaited opening of Palenque’s new airport, with regular nonstops from Mexico City.
Palenque made international news in the early 1950s, thanks to an unprecedented discovery by Mexican archaeologist Alberto Ruz Lhuillier. He was excavating a temple buried deep in the rain forest when he removed a stone slab from the floor and discovered a secret staircase, packed with rubble and leading down into the heart of the pyramid.
For four long years, Ruz and his team meticulously cleared the passageway, at the very bottom of which was a narrow opening that appeared to lead to a room beyond. Squeezing into the vaulted chamber, Ruz found himself staring at a massive carved-stone sarcophagus. Inside lay the remains of the greatest ruler of one of the greatest cities of one of the ancient world’s greatest civilizations.
Ruz’s remarkable discovery of the intact tomb of the Mayan king Pakal, who ruled Palenque in the 7th century, is often touted as the greatest archaeological find ever made in the Americas. It even earned Ruz the nickname “the Hitchcock of archaeology.” The elaborate carvings on Pakal’s sarcophagus lid have captivated many; some of the more out-there theorists have interpreted them as proof that the king was, in fact, an extraterrestrial. (The Maya were expert astronomers, mathematicians and engineers, after all. Why not space travel?)
Until now, Palenque always seemed painfully out of reach, hours by bus from the nearest town. But even Chiapas’s winding mountainous roads haven’t stopped generations of archaeologists, history buffs and New Agers from making the pilgrimage to this extraordinary place, in an attempt to unlock the mysteries of the Maya.
With the opening of the new airport, there’s a palpable sense of momentum in Palenque town: Roads are being repaved, new public art has been erected and the central square has been dug up as the city prepares to unveil a new and improved look for the expected influx of tourists. When I land at the airport, things still seem not-quite-done: Civilian-looking Nissan Sentras have been pressed into service as the airport’s taxi fleet via hastily applied stickers affixed to the doors, and so far the terminal’s snack bar is nothing but an empty space with a sign reading “snack bar.”
My seatmate on the plane has just wrapped up meetings with Mexico City developers about turning her large plot of family land near Palenque into three riverside hotels. The airport has been in the works for 20 years, she tells me, and the time is finally right. She slips me a piece of paper with her local recommendations, including advice to skip Palenque town and instead check into one of the many hotels and resorts, from budget to luxe, that line the three-mile road between the city and the entrance to the archaeological site.
I’ve already made a reservation at a funky compound just outside the park entrance. Comprising cabins, camping areas, restaurants and bars run by several different groups, the mini-village of El Panchán (Mayan for “above the sky”) was founded in the 1980s by a passionate scholar of Mayan culture, Don Moisés Morales Márquez, and has been a home base for travelers ever since.
Set on 12 acres of jungle rain forest, El Panchán is beloved as much for its lively atmosphere and natural surroundings as for its prices (my shabby but clean large room with private bath will cost me just $18 a night). The property is scattered with dreadlocked backpackers and signs advertising ancient Mayan tattooing and something called “body expansion,” while the telltale thump of a bongo drum echoes from beyond a stand of trees.
Night is anything but quiet. I fall asleep to the sounds of howler monkeys and unseen insects having indecipherable conversations in the dark, and strange birds whose song sounds like a cross between a malfunctioning fan belt and an alien transmission. The jungle is alive.
The next morning, I pile into a tour van for a short drive up the hill to the ruin zone, which was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987. We’re greeted by packs of guides offering their services — for an extra fee, of course (something I quickly learn to get used to in these parts).
Our guide is well worth the expense, though, brandishing an encyclopedic knowledge of Mayan history as she guides us along jungle footpaths, warning us to be on the lookout for toucans, snakes and anteaters but not to worry about the jaguars (they’re nocturnal).
The rain forest seems to be moving before our eyes. We pass trees the size of tall buildings locked in a deadly embrace with strangler ficus, and Tarzan-style lianas the size of a man’s thigh that supposedly have special powers: Mayan fishermen cut off a piece of the vine and dunk it in a stream, where, it’s said, the vine sucks all the oxygen out of the water, causing the fish to asphyxiate, and voilà — dinner.
There’s evidence of farming at Palenque as far back as 100 B.C., but the Maya Classic period, when the civilization flourished, was between about A.D. 200 and 900. Mayan scribes recorded reams of information in well-preserved coded glyphs carved into lintels or affixed to their temples with stucco, chronicling a detailed history of Palenque’s golden age — though precious little about its fall.
We emerge in “downtown” Palenque, where several imposing temples and a massive palace complex rise from a clearing. This was the city’s administrative center, representing just 5 percent of an estimated 1,500 structures, most not yet excavated. I try to imagine the city at its height 14 centuries ago, when many of those structures would have been painted bright red, the Mayan color of life.
Peeking inside the Temple of the Red Queen, we learn that the Maya even painted the bodies of their dead nobles red. When archaeologists excavated this temple in 1994, they discovered a tomb containing the remains of a woman whose red bones had absorbed a sprinkling of toxic cinnabar. This special burial, along with the location of the tomb (adjacent to Pakal’s own), led them to suspect that she may have been the king’s wife.
Pakal’s own tomb sits deep within an adjacent pyramid, called the Temple of the Inscriptions. One of the largest step pyramids in Mesoamerica, it has nine levels, corresponding to the nine levels of the Mayan underworld. Ruz found the dismembered remains of five young sacrificial victims just outside the entrance to the tomb, while inside, of course, was the colossal 20-ton sarcophagus, containing jade jewelry, an elaborate funerary mask and the royal bones.
There are several theories about the meaning of the carvings on the sarcophagus lid, which shows Pakal reclining awkwardly and surrounded by symbols from Mayan cosmology. The most widely accepted is that Pakal is either descending into the underworld through the jaws of a serpent or being reborn from them. An alternative explanation comes courtesy of Swiss author Erich von Däniken, who declared that the image clearly shows Pakal piloting a spaceship, complete with control panel and oxygen tubes, perhaps returning to his home planet. (If you want to annoy an archaeologist, bring up von Däniken’s ridiculous yet widely disseminated theory at a cocktail party.)
I’m dying to see it for myself, but my hopes are dashed when our guide says that the tomb has long since been closed to the public.
“Human sweat is toxic and damages the preservation,” she says.
I have to content myself with a tour of the enormous palace, where we get a glimpse of just how advanced the Maya were: Pakal had indoor plumbing. Tourists are lining up in the palace bathroom complex to pose for photos on the royal family’s granite throne, which very discreetly drained into a separate sewage system and wound up far from the city in a 7th-century version of a septic tank.
A round stone altar set at the base of the palace was used to receive offerings to the gods. Human sacrifice wasn’t uncommon, as Ruz gruesomely discovered outside Pakal’s tomb, but ritual blood offerings that didn’t kill the subject were more frequent. Some Mayan nobles would cut off their fingertips or pierce their tongues with a fish bone to let blood for one of their numerous gods.
Three of the most important of these gods are honored in temples built by Pakal’s son in a nearby grouping, including one for the all-important corn god. (Corn was sacred to the Maya; some have even suggested that their nobles’ famous cranial deformation was a way of making their skulls look more like a stalk of corn.) I climb to the top of the corn god’s temple and look out across the ruined city to the valley below. Tourists chatter in French, German, Russian, English and Spanish, and in the nearby jungle, the monkeys carry on with their howling.
What ultimately felled the Maya? Archaeologists can’t point to one sole reason, hypothesizing that Palenque was probably done in by a combination of overpopulation, deforestation, drought and power disputes among a growing class of nobles. Though cities such as Palenque were abandoned by about A.D. 1000, the Maya are still very much with us: About 7 million descendants live in Guatemala and southern Mexico.
I’m reminded of this as our tour van sails through a verdant valley ringed by indigo hills on the way to our next stop, a waterfall some 40 minutes away. The entire landscape is dripping with vegetation in every imaginable shade of green, with every branch, rock, crag and hillside carpeted in leaves and moss, sprouting with life. We pass humble homes with chickens pecking around the yard and men hauling firewood on their backs, holding it in place with a leather strap slung around their foreheads. Old-school technology.
My cellphone signal has long since dwindled to nothing. The 21st century feels far away. A hand-painted road sign reminds us, “You are in Zapatista territory: here, the people rule and the government obeys.”
It’s a stark reminder that the Maya aren’t just a forgotten people from the history books. They’ve survived the collapse of civilizations, the conquest of the Spanish and, most recently, the expropriation of communal lands in the name of development and free trade, prompting an armed uprising against the Mexican government in 1994 by a group of masked indigenous peoples calling themselves the Zapatistas, after early 20th-century revolutionary Emiliano Zapata. Twenty years on, Zapatista settlements seem to maintain an uneasy coexistence with the state, preserving, for now, an age-old way of life.
Our tour van takes us to see the beautiful 100-foot waterfall at Misol-Ha as well as the Agua Azul, another stunning cascade of otherworldly aquamarine water, and I splash and swim and take photos alongside the other tourists.
Chiapas brims with a striking natural beauty. But the enduring nature of the Maya, as eternal as the roaring rivers and the purple mountains, will stay with me longer than any snapshot.
Kroth is a writer based in Mexico City.