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The Other Mexico: Mayan Ruins at Palenque
We'll be the first to confess that prying yourself away from the powder-perfect beaches of Cancun is no easy task. And even if you do manage to put down the Corona and find some proper cloths, the sweaty interior of the Yucatan isn't exactly the most relaxing of destinations.
Local tour operators feel your pain - and can quickly sense your padded wallet - which means that day-trips to the Mayan ruins at Chichen Itza are cheap and easy to arrange. Not to discount one of the New7Wonders, but the hordes of spring breakers and package travelers definitely detract from the hidden wonder of this ancient site.
For those of you jaded by mass tourism, fret not as there are (in our humble opinion) equally impressive Mayan ruins just a bit further south in Chiapas. Palenque, with an archaeological history dating back to 100 BCE, is quite literally all alone in the middle of the deep jungle.
As history would have it, Palenque was abandoned by the Mayans sometime around 800 CE. Amongst archaeologists, anthropologists and historians, there is no unified theory to explain the Mayan collapse, though disease, warfare, drought, deforestation and climate change are all likely culprits.
Palenque was eventually re-discovered by Spanish conquistadores in the 16th century. It is now one of the most widely studied Mayan sites, and a repository of truly awe-inspiring structures. While there are too many to describe here, we'll briefly mention the Palace, the Temple of Inscriptions and the Temple of the Cross Group.
The Palace is distinguished by its four-story tower, a stately construction that belies its true age. In addition to serving as a signifying marker of Palenque's royal residence, the tower was also functional. From these lofty heights, it was easy to spy on encroaching parties, and to send out a call to arms if the situation grew hostile.
Beneath the tower lies the vaulted rooms, reinforced corridors and sheltered courtyards that comprise the Palace. Unrestricted access means that you can traipse through the royal residence, and live out some of your hidden Indiana Jones fantasies. Be sure to slow down and scope out the hand-carved reliefs that have withstood the test of time.
Perhaps the most *Chichen Itza-like* building at Palenque is the Temple of Inscriptions, which is a true step pyramid in the classic Mayan style. It is also the visual centerpiece of the Temple of the Inscriptions' Court, which lies just beyond the main entrance to the ruins.
This particular construction is renowned amongst academics because its discovery yielded nearly flawless examples of Mayan hieroglyphic text. Subsquent analyis has revealed that the temple served as a funerary shrine to Pakal, the 7th century ruler of Palenque. Although he lived to see its groundbreaking, it was finshed post-mortem by his son and heir, Balam II.
The Temple of the Cross Group, set back from the Palace and the Temple of the Inscriptions at the jungle's edge, is comprised of three smaller step pyramids set around a central courtyard. Unlike the Temple of Inscriptions, this group is believed to have served largely ceremonial functions as evidenced by the ritual objects found at the site.
Of course, it's probably the unseen at Palenque that captivates visitors the most. Although the surrounding jungle is off-limits to those without archaeology degrees, a steady stream of discoveries continues to filter out in the journals. Recent excavations have revealed aqueducts, elite residences, minor tombs and even pre-Colombian ball game courts.
And now for the nitty-gritty:
How to get there: The nearest commercial airport to Palenque lies in the city of Villahermosa, approximately 90 miles northwest. From here, there are regularly scheduled bus departures to Palenque, with a total travel time of about two hours. Long-distance buses also connect Palenque with major cities in Chiapas and the Yucatan. Bus travel in Mexico is generally safe, affordable and surprisingly efficient.
Where to stay: In the modern town of Palenque, there are bare-bones bunkhouses, three-star tourist hotels and a few modest luxury resorts. Alternatively, the nearby backpacker ghetto of El Panchan is located on the edge of the encroaching jungle, and comprised of several rustic cabinas and well-groomed campsites. Advanced reservations aren't necessary unless you're traveling during Semana Santa.
What to eat: With high temperatures reaching triple digits, not to mention the crushing humidity, even the hardiest of appetites can subside in the tropical heat. But when the mercury does drop, you'll find an incredible assortment of tropical fruits (mangos, papayas, passion fruit, bananas, etc), locally-grown habanero peppers, fresh river fish, free-range chicken and chewy filets from the heat-tolerant Zebu cattle.
Still think Mayan ruins starts and stops with Chichen Itza? Think again as the Mayans left behind a pantheon of monumental cities and archaeological traces of their highly advanced civilization. With that said, consider steering clear of the overhyped coastlines, and taking the time to discover what lies in the *other* Mexico.