Mayan Gravitas: Palenque and Xpujil

After hours of rolling through random Mexican countryside, we finally arrived at the terminal in Palenque town.  It was a quick ride in a van to El Panchan, the grouping of hostels, campgrounds, and restaurants that has sprung up at the gates of the National Park, we walked further back in the accommodation commune and finally found a cabana right up against the stream in the furthest back corner.  Screens and thin cotton curtains separated us from the elements, but let in the sounds of the jungle that stopped just at our doorstep.  We spent the rest of the afternoon exploring the different areas of El Panchan, from the grove of air conditioned luxury cabanas to the tattoo parlor offering traditional Mayan designs to the parking lot full of free spirits sleeping in their vans and doing yoga on the forest floor.  We befriended the playful kittens that lived near our own place and ordered some delicious soups at one of the little restaurants before heading to bed early.

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We awoke early and started walking the 25 minutes toward the Archeological Park.  We passed the lower entrance and continued walking up the road in the increasing heat of the morning until we arrived at the top gate, just in time for them to open.  Domestic and international tourists alike made their way slowly onto the path that led us through a short patch of tall trees and buzzing mosquitoes.  Suddenly the trees fall behind you, and there is the Main Plaza stretching ahead.  The first temple we climbed was the Temple of the Skull, so named for the representation of a rabbit’s skull that looks out on the stretch of grass below.  As we were not on any tour schedule or in any rush, we sat on the top for a while and waited for some of the crowds to pass.  Thus, we had a little more space to ourselves as we checked out the Red Queen’s tomb, where you can climb through the door and into one of the structures.  Next, we passed the Temple of the Inscriptions, and turned right to follow the shadowy path that went up into the trees.  In the cool respite of the shade, we found another temple, with a reconstruction of its large throne carvings, as they had been moved to the museum.  We spent a while sitting up there, chatting with other travelers before descending to the next section.

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We worked our way down to the courtyard that is surrounded by different structures.  First, we climbed the Temple of the Foliated Cross, then the Temple of the Cross, which provided the best views over all the ruins.  It was a good excuse to take yet another long break, looking out over the emerald green jungle and the rough gray stone buildings that seem to just spring out of them.  While it is definitely well-groomed for tourists now, sitting up here, we could still feel the magic of this place and imagine the excitement of the archaeologists who first dug and discovered the old treasures here.

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After circling it on three sides, we finally turned our feet to the palace, the most recognizable of the structures here because of its unique tower.  It is also the most heavily trafficked, but we took advantage of that to eavesdrop on several of the passing tour groups to get a rough sketch of the history.  We made our way through courtyards with people meditating, empty arcades, and beneath the famous tower itself.  In each corner, well-maintained carvings and sunlit corners of ancient stone evoked the long history of this space…the air made heavy with the imagined crowds of servants, nobles, and invaders that once strode these same halls.

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At last, we made our way towards the northern corner of the complex, with its small cluster of temples.  But it was just past noon, and my suspicions and hopes were brought to life with the large crowd beginning to gather there…chanting, getting dressed and made up, preparing offerings and ceremonial objects.  The spring equinox had happened in the night and today was the first full-fledged day of spring, as well as a Saturday, when people would be off work.  Costumes of long macaw feathers and furs were donned by various families and a group of musicians began to play the same trance-like song over and over.  Finally, at a signal from the female leader, the whole group started to dance and circle, drums pounding and a child blowing on a conch to the four cardinal directions.  The leading woman carried incense to each corner and between there was a mesmerizing series of jumps and stomps that turned the whole group to the corners of the courtyard.  We watched from the very front row for the first twenty minutes, then climbed one of the temple pyramids to get a view over the top.  Watching the coordinated movements of the Mayan dancers and hearing their wild songs of praise, we felt the energy and history of the culture and its place here twelvefold.

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We made our way out through the back forest, along the river, and exited next to the museum.  Our tickets include museum entry, but we were so hot and exhausted that we just stumbled our way back towards our room for a cool shower and a long siesta under the fan.  The following morning, we hiked back into the national park, this time intent on checking out the “Mayan nature trail” we had bypassed before.  It was somewhat marked and provided information about the flora and fauna of the area.  There was also a small outlying Mayan temple here, along with an old Mayan swimming pool that still caught water seeping up from and underground spring.

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The pool was tempting for a cool dip, but also mosquito heaven, so we escaped back to the main road and went to check out the museum.  Luckily, the guy at the front desk only eyeballed our tickets and did not check the date!  The museum was gorgeous, with extensive exhibits of artifacts all dug up from the site, and laid out in cool and dimly lit rooms, giving everything a mysterious and intimate feeling.

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The next morning, we were once again on the move, catching a bus to a godforsaken highway stopover town, where we had to walk a kilometer down the grimy main road to find the next bus station, which would take us to the small town of Xpujil.  This area is known for its unique ruins, although we did not venture out to the further (and reportedly more spectacular) ones, and settled for the eponymous ruins that were walking distance from the town.  It is perhaps the only Mayan structure with three towers and still shows some of the carvings that make this area special.  On the back side of the main building, we had our own special experience…watching a two meter  long speckled racer (snake) climb right past where we sat and scale the central tower to enter its lair and sleep through the hot afternoon.  We took our cue from the snake, returning to the town for a day of relaxation and short walks through the town market.

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And then…we hopped yet another bus, making for the teal promises of Quintana Roo province…first stop, Bacalar!

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