Tag Archives: Palenque

Tonina, Hidden Chiapas Archeology Gem: The Road Less Traveled


Few people make Tonina, the classic Maya archeological site just beyond Ocosingo, Chiapas, a travel destination. Instead, they choose to go between San Cristobal de Las Casas and Palenque directly, bypassing the most vertical site of the ancient Maya world. It’s another three hours by road to reach Palenque, which demands at least one overnight stay. (Do you see us at the top?)

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From San Cris, Tonina can be navigated in about a day-long round-trip, giving you several hours at the site.  We left at seven-thirty in the morning and planned to return to San Cris by seven in the evening, including a one-hour stopover in Oxchuc to stretch and see textiles.

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It’s a long and winding road. We traveled from seven thousand foot mountains studded with pines to lowlands bordering the Lancandon rain forest filled with tropical vegetation, banana palms and adobe huts with thatch roofs.  The mountains fall fast to almost sea-level over this almost three-hour journey, so the road curves sharply. Ginger is a great antidote.

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This is EZLN territory, and Zapatista politics for and by the people prevail here. It is not unusual to come across an occasional roadblock demonstration. This is a common method for anti-government protest in both Chiapas and Oaxaca. There are grievances here. Sometimes for a donation, vehicles may pass. Other times, it’s important to know alternate secondary routes and have a full tank of gas when passage on the main highway isn’t possible.

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At Tonina, we had an on-site Maya guide who participated in site excavations ten years ago. He played here as a child.  Our multi-lingual guide who traveled with us from San Cristobal, anthropologist Mayari (meaning Maya princess), fluidly translated between Spanish, English and Tzeltal, the regional Mayan dialect.


There were at most ten other people at Tonina. From the top of the Pyramid of the Sun there is a spectacular view of the Ocosingo valley. Mayari tells us that Frans and Trudy Blom would fly in a single engine Cessna to Palenque and the Lancandon rainforest in the early 1950’s.  She made that trip, too, with her archeology father as a child.

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After most of us climbed to the top (not me this time, because of my new knee), we enjoyed a picnic lunch back at the site entrance, where a small, excellent museum hold pieces excavated from the site.  When I was in Mexico City recently, a huge exhibition (now closed) on the Maya world at the Palacio Nacional prominently featured treasures from Tonina.

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Then we back-tracked to Oxchuk.

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Oxchuk weavers work on a back strap loom and then embroider the textiles by hand.  If you turn off the main highway and venture onto the town’s main streets, you will find family run shops supplying huipils to the women of the local community.  The quality is first-rate and the price is about half of the cost as in San Cristobal.  Definitely worth a deviation. We were a curiosity since I suspect not many tourists make a stop there.

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By now it was dusk and as we approached the intersection beyond Huixtan to turn onto the highway just about fifteen miles from San Cristobal, there was a roadblock demonstration. We turned around, bought two five liter jugs of gas at a roadside stand, asked a local man and his son to go with us (for a fee), and set off on an alternative back road through the mountains that would take us into San Cristobal.  They carried official local papers authorizing travel across mountain communities.


We arrived back at our hotel only an hour later than we had planned. For reassurance at the outset, I called our hotel to tell them our whereabouts and route while our very competent guide Mayari notified ATC Tours to track us on GPS.  Risk of danger? Little to none.


One of our participants said this was definitely an adventure story worth retelling! It was the last day of our two week Oaxaca and Chiapas art and archeology study tour. What a grand finale, wouldn’t you say?

Yaxchilan: Remote Mayan Site in Chiapas Jungle–Get There By Boat!


Yaxchilan (Yash-chee-lahn) is situated on the high banks of the Usumacinta River that borders Mexico and Guatemala, three hours southeast of Palenque.  The secluded ruins are in a dense jungle only accessible by river boat, a good 30-minute ride from the launch site.  The boat ride is a wonderful transition from now to then.  In years past, Lacandon Mayas made this passage in open dugout canoes.  Today, the wood-planked boats are covered in palm thatch.


Alligator or crocodile?


Yaxchilan rivaled Palenque (Mexico) and Tikal (Guatemala) as these three “super-powers” vied for control over the surrounding lesser Mayan centers that provided food, tribute and able fighters.

This magnificent archeological site is worthy of several hours of your time.  It is a space that is dark jungle, moss-covered, limestone rocks tumbled and crumbling, and with only the beginnings of a restoration in process.


As you walk into the space you feel as if you were an archeologist discovering it for the first time. It speaks of antiquity.  The howler monkeys calling back and forth across the river are haunting, adding a sense of mystery to the place. I pass through a compact Mayan arch into a vast plaza.


Situated high on a river bank, the site offers a strategic location on the wide and magnificent Usumacinta River, testifying to the power and influence of this once-great city.   Huge bromeliads hang from hundred foot high trees with mahogany colored trunks.  I walk beneath a tall canopy of leaves, vines, roots and flowering succulents, careful not to trip on toppled stones.



Yaxchilan is probably like Palenque was 30 years ago.  The only nearby lodging is at the boat launch site, where there are also a couple of good restaurants.  If you contact Daniel Chank In, the Selva Lacandon guide, he can help you make lodging and boat travel arrangements instead of taking the cookie-cutter day trip.

My journal scrawlings about the Palenque to Yaxchilan passage:

The languages of travel are Czech, German, three varieties of English (Brit, American, Aussie), Spanish, French, Dutch. These are my traveling companions. In Palenque they speak Chol. We stopped for breakfast at a simple comedor with tree trunks for stools and a dirt floor and GREAT coffee, dark and rich, locally grown and organic.  I have not been sick since I arrived in Mexico a month ago.

We are western women taught to cover our breasts, be modest. From the window of the van I see a woman at the water source, one large breast exposed, suspended, full of milk walking toward a toddler waiting for nourishment.  Plank wood and palm thatch cover the humans at night.  Shelter is simple for man, woman, cows, chickens.  Chiapas, siempre verde is the state motto.  It is always damp here.  We are on flat land now, clear-cut for growing corn and lumbering, heading toward the frontier.  Maize scrabble, hard-scrabble, bare feet, dirt, bare chests, men at work with machetes.  We pass a sign: This is Zapatista country.  Land of campesinos.

Grazing land, cattle, horses.  Ceiba trees, overcast skies, animals are thin I see their bones.  We pass through pueblos of resistance, a village sign announces this, the sign is rough wood with white paint. The land is flat, vast, green scrub.  This is the road to the Guatemala border.  We pass military sentries, checkpoints, men heavily armed, some masked.  Put your cameras down and cell phones away, says the driver, as we approach one. They wave us through.  On the way back, away from the border, we are stopped and I show my passport.  Of course they are checking for drugs and I know that the pipeline works its way across the river through the jungle to the vast cities and towns of America where demand keeps this business in business.  Did I feel in danger?  No.



Bonampak Archeological Site: Mayan Treasure in the Chiapas Jungle

Bonampak is at the farthest reaches of Chiapas near the Usumacinta River in the Selva Lacandon — a rainforest jungle that is almost three hours from Palenque.  It’s one of those magical places that I have dreamed of visiting but never imagined I might get to.  To get as far as Palenque and not go another three hours to Bonampak would have been a mistake.

At the Palenque archeological museum and gift shop I bought Arqueologia Mexicana magazine, Vol. X, Number 55, that features the most recent reconstruction of the Bonampak murals.  Since not all the paintings are clear and have degraded over time, archeological artists have attempted to reconstruct them using accurate colors and now infrared drawings.  The magazine discusses (in English and Spanish) past interpretations, controversies and the most current reconstruction that uses the natural plant and mineral pigmentation.

Bonampak was part of the Yaxchilan alliance and was a smaller Mayan center.  However, the discovery of the murals in the 1940’s overshadowed its more magnificent neighbor which I will write about in my next post.



It takes a special effort to get there and plenty of patience.  The tour vans leave Palenque at 6 a.m. and you don’t return until 7:30 p.m.  It’s a long day, but definitely rewarding.  I took more than 80 photographs at Bonampak and can only show you a few of them here.  Plus, there is lots of information online about the political, social and cultural history of place if you are interested in reading more.



As I mentioned in the previous post, I’d recommend staying at a lodge either at Yaxchilan or Bonampak so you have two days to enjoy these two extraordinary sites. One day is too rushed since day tours give only two hours at Yaxchilan and one hour at Bonampak. I told them we didn’t need an hour for lunch or 45 minutes for breakfast!



Palenque. Mayan Temples in the Chiapas Rainforest

They say there is more rain here in Palenque than anywhere else in Mexico. We are in the middle of a rainforest. It is a jungle of green, and with the shroud of fog, drizzle, and mist that hangs over us all day, the archeological site is a photograph of sepia and gray tones only punctuated by occasional green grass, moss, or red lichens.

Tracey and I spent most of the morning and early afternoon in the extraordinary museum filled with glyphs and bas relief carvings and jade funerary masks. The highlight was the every half hour on the hour entry into the exhibit of the tomb of Palenque ruler Pakal that was discovered in 1952. By 2 pm the heavy rain had subsided, and covered by plastic parkas, we entered the park.

The temple steps are slippery. Were the Mayans that tall? I grab onto the stone steps in front of me for balance and foothold. Sometimes I slip on the wet moss covered stones and I look below to the ground, afraid of tumbling. I am a mountain goat, careful, one step at a time. I made it to the top of the palace! Hurray. And at the end of the day, when the park closes at 4:30 pm, the guard says it is time to leave. I say, I need your hand to help me down those steep steps. He frowns. Pretend I am your mother! I say. And he does.






























Where to stay in Palenque?  I highly recommend Hotel Xibalba.  I booked online on booking.com and saved about 20% off the going rate.  The hotel is located close to the bus station, is clean, delightful, safe, with helpful staff and a good breakfast (extra).  A taxi to the archeological site costs about 70 pesos and the collectivo from the main highway a few blocks away is 10 pesos.

Right next door to the hotel is a fantastic seafood restaurant, El Huachanango Feliz.  I ate dinner there three nights in a row.  First night was grilled tilapia.  Second night was the Caldo de Mariscos (seafood soup) and the third night was the Cazuela de Mariscos (they added cheese to the seafood soup).  Each meal was fabulous and more than I could eat for 85 pesos, including a ceviche of shrimp and octopus.

On The Road: San Cristobal de las Casas to Palenque

Ugh! I’m glad no one told me the trip from San Cris to Palenque would be so long and grueling! We dropped from 7,000 feet altitude to sea level in what should have been a 4-hour trip under normal circumstances. But the tour van (350 pesos per person arranged by our hostel) made three stops and the trip took almost eight hours. We were the last pick up at 6 am so we got to sit over the rear axle.

I’m traveling with Tracey Ponting from Perth, Australia, who I met on the night bus from Oaxaca to San Cris last week when I was traveling with Fay Sims from Vancouver, Canada. This is how things work when you are on the road. You end up meeting travelers who are simpatico. Thanks to Tracey and her magic medicine Stugeron, an over-the-counter anti-motion sickness pill made by McNeil pharma (15 mg, generic is cinarizine), who knows what would have happened!

This tour van is a round trip one-day excursion. Most of the passengers got 1-1/2 hours at the archeological site and then made the return trip to San Cris on the same day. Crazy, I say. The trip includes admission, so Tracey and I got a preview of this extraordinary Mayan city before in we settled into our hotel, the delightful Xilbalba, and had a lovely dinner of grilled tilapia (fresh and local) before collapsing into bed at 9 pm. Oh, I forgot to mention the two beers I drank in quick succession as the appetizer.

Some tips worth mentioning:

The tourist van trip makes a breakfast stop at 9 am, then a stop at Agua Azul, a beautiful waterfall and swimming hole at 1 pm, then a stop an hour later at a second waterfall Cascada de Misol-ha (best of the two) and lunch and then gets to Palenque at 3:30 pm. My recommendation is to skip this and take the OCC bus directly to Palenque unless you love waterfalls. They need to revise the trip to give more time at the ruins and drop the 1st waterfall.

Stay at Posada del Abuelito in San Cristobal de las Casas if you are on a budget. Rob, Rebecca, and Alexandra are wonderful hosts. You can get a private room with bath for 280 pesos. Ok, so I was old enough to be everyone’s grandma, but who cares! They took really good care of me. find them on Facebook or TripAdvisor.

Stay at Hotel Xibalba in Palenque. Book online and save 15%. Clean, friendly, delightful and a bargain at $45USD per night. HOTEL XIBALBA

Do adventure travel when you are young. You are a lot more resilient and can scale those archeological sites like a gazelle. I think I will be trudging up to the top today, poco a poco, and my short legs will have to get up steps that are almost my height! But, I also seem to be a role model for the youngsters who wish their parents were like me. New motto: better later than never. A friend recently wrote–keep on keepin’ on.

This is coming to you from my iPad. I left my computer in SC. I haven’t quite figured out how to get the photos from my disk loaded onto this and them uploaded to the blog. Trying to keep up with the technology. My plan today is to record the howler monkeys. The calls I heard back and forth at dusk last night sounded like I was in an ashram. It took me a while to figure out these were monkeys I’m hearing. Eerie, given the setting. Mystical. Meditative.

Tomorrow, I’m taking a day trip to Bonampak on the Guatemala border in the Lancondon jungle. I think it’s a straight road.
Photo at Agua Azul:


Photo at Misol-ha: