The Carretera Fronteriza (Frontier Highway) provides access to the Lacandón forest and the valley along the Río Usumacinta, and the great Maya sites located here: Bonampak, famous for its murals, and Yaxchilán, a vast ruined city on the riverbank. The remote highway, which roughly follows the line of the Guatemalan border, has a reputation as a dangerous place – as recently as 2003, Mexican federal police escorted tourists in convoys. A steady military presence has made the area relatively safe, however, and though it’s not advisable to drive the road after dark, it is no problem to travel this way in your own car without an escort. Army checkpoints are frequent, so be sure to carry your passport.
Relatively small compared with other ruined Maya cities, what makes Bonampak unique is its fascinating murals, evocative memorials to a lost civilization. The outside world first heard of Bonampak, meaning “painted walls”, in 1946, when Charles Frey, an American who’d skipped to the Mexican forest during WWII, was shown the site (but apparently not the murals) by Lacandón who still worshipped at the ancient temples. The first non-Maya ever to see these murals – astonishing examples of Classic Maya art – was the American photographer Giles Healey, who arrived shortly after Frey’s visit, sparking a long and bitter dispute over exactly who was responsible for their discovery. Bonampak’s actual buildings, most from the eighth century, are small and not the most spectacular, but the murals definitely make it worth the visit – there is very little like them elsewhere in the Maya world, and even in their decayed state, the colours are vivid and the imagery memorable.
Bonampak lies in a small national park controlled by and for the Lacandón on the fringe of the much larger Montes Azules Biosphere Reserve. However you get here, you can enter the forest only in Lacandón transport – no other vehicles are allowed in. When you get off a combi at the highway, taxis are usually waiting by a big palapa to take you about 3km to a parking area at the turn for the village of Lacanjá Chansayab (M$50). There, you’ll get on a rattling old combi to the ruins (M$70 round trip, with 1hr waiting time). You can also rent a bike (M$75) to ride up to the ruins, but the business is set up another 250m past the parking area for the combis, and the combi drivers may tell you that the bikes don’t exist. Once you’ve seen the ruins, head back to the San Javier junction, where you can catch a bus or combi to Palenque.
At the site entrance there are toilets and a couple of huts selling snacks and souvenirs. After crossing an airstrip, you are at the northwest corner of La Gran Plaza, which is 110m long and bounded by low walls – the remains of some palace-style buildings. In the centre of the plaza Stele 1 shows a larger-than-life Chaan Muan II, the last king of Bonampak, dressed for battle – at 6m, it is one of the tallest stele in the Maya world. You’ll encounter other images of him throughout the site. Ahead, atop several steep flights of steps, lies the Acrópolis. On the lower steps, more well-preserved stelae show Chaan Muan with his wife, Lady Rabbit, preparing himself for blood-letting and apparently about to sacrifice a prisoner. From the highest point of the acropolis there’s an impressive sense that you’re surrounded by primeval forest – the Selva Lacandona – with just a small cleared space in front of you.
Splendid though these carvings are, the highlight of the site is the modest-looking Edificio de las Pinturas, halfway up the steps. Inside, in three separate chambers and on the temple walls and roof, the renowned Bonampak murals depict vivid scenes of haughty Maya lords, splendidly attired in jaguar-skin robes and quetzal-plume headdresses, their equally well-dressed ladies; and bound prisoners, one with his fingernails ripped out, spurting blood. Dating to around 790 AD, these paintings show the Bonampak elite at the height of their power: unknown to them, the collapse of the Classic Maya civilization was imminent. Some details were never finished, and Bonampak was abandoned shortly after the scenes in the temple were painted. Though you can’t enter the rooms fully, the vantage point inside the doorway is more than adequate to absorb what’s inside, and though no more than three people are permitted to enter at any one time and queues are possible, you shouldn’t have to wait long. Having said that, time and early cleaning attempts have clearly taken their toll on the murals, and apart from a few beautifully restored sections, it takes some concentration and imagination to work out what you’re looking at.
In Room 1, an infant wrapped in white cloth (the heir apparent?) is presented to assembled nobility under the supervision of the lord of Yaxchilán, while musicians play drums, pipes and trumpets in the background. Room 2 contains a vivid, even gruesome, exhibition of power over Bonampak’s enemies: tortured prisoners lie on temple steps, while above them lords in jaguar robes are indifferent to their agony. A severed head rolls down the stairs and Chaan Muan II grasps a prisoner (who appears to be pleading for mercy) by the hair – clearly about to deal him the same fate. Room 3 shows the price paid for victory: Chaan Muan’s wife, Lady Rabbit, prepares to prick her tongue to let blood fall onto a paper in a pot in front of her. The smoke from burning the blood-soaked paper will carry messages to ancestor-gods. Other gorgeously dressed figures, their senses probably heightened by hallucinogenic drugs, dance on the temple steps.
A larger and more dramatic site than Bonampak, Yaxchilán was an important Classic-period centre. From around 680 to 760 AD, the city’s most famous kings, Escudo Jaguar (Shield Jaguar) and his son Pájaro Jaguar IV (Bird Jaguar), led a campaign of conquest that extended Yaxchilán’s sphere of influence over the other Usumacinta centres and made possible alliances with Tikal and Palenque. The buildings occupy a natural terrace above the river, with others climbing steep hills behind – a superb natural setting. Not so many people make the trip to this evocative site, and you’ll often be alone in the forest with nothing but moaning howler monkeys around you. Giant trees keep the site shady, but nonetheless the jungle heat can be palpable – bring plenty of water, as there are no services at the ruins.
From the entrance, the main path leads straight ahead to the Gran Plaza, but if you have the energy for climbing, it’s more rewarding to explore the wilder parts of the site first. Follow the branching path to the right that leads up the hillside to the Pequeña Acrópolis, a set of thirteen buildings. A lintel on the most prominent ruin, known as Edificio 42, depicts Escudo Jaguar with one of his warriors. Walk behind here to find another narrow trail down through the jungle, over several unrestored mounds, until you reach a fork: to the right, the path climbs steeply once again until it reaches, in about 10 minutes, Edificios 39–41, also called the Templos del Sur, 90m above the river level – buildings that probably had some kind of astronomical significance. High above the main forest, this is also a good spot to look for canopy-dwelling birds like parrots, though the trees also obscure any view.
Retrace your steps back to the main path, and continue on until it emerges at the back of Edificio 33, the most famous building at the site, also know as El Palacio. It overlooks the main plaza from a high terrace. The lintels here are superbly preserved, and inside one of the portals is a headless statue of Pájaro Jaguar IV. In ancient times the building was a political court; more recently, it served as a religious site for the Lacandón Maya.
Descending 40m down the stairs in front brings you to the long Gran Plaza. Turn back to look up at the Palacio: with the sun shining through the building’s roofcomb and tree roots cascading down the stairs, this is what you imagine a pyramid lost in the jungle should look like, especially if you’ve been brought up on Tintin. To your left, just above the level of the plaza, Edificio 23 has a few patches of coloured stucco around its doorframes – just one patch of many well-preserved paintings and relief carvings on the lintels of buildings surrounding the long green lawn. Some of the very best works were removed in the nineteenth century and are now in the British Museum in London, but the number and quality of the remaining panels are unequalled at any other Maya site in Mexico. Many of these depict rulers performing rituals. This can also be seen on Stele 1, right in the middle of the plaza, near the base of the staircase. It depicts Pájaro Jaguar IV in a particularly eye-watering blood-letting ceremony, ritually perforating his penis. Stele 3, originally sited at Edificio 41, has survived several attempts to remove it from the site and now lies at the west side of the plaza, where it shows the transfer of power from Escudo Jaguar to Pájaro Jaguar IV.
Heading back to the entrance, be sure to pass through El Laberinto (The Labyrinth) at the plaza’s northeast corner, the most complex building on the site, where you can walk down through dim passages out onto the main path.
You may already have encountered the impressively wild-looking Lacandón Maya, dressed in simple white robes and selling exquisite (and apparently effective) bows and arrows at Palenque. Until recently, they were the most isolated of all the Mexican Indian groups. The ancestors of today’s Lacandón are believed to have migrated to Chiapas from the Petén region of Guatemala during the eighteenth century. Prior to that the Spanish had enslaved, killed or relocated the original inhabitants of the forest.
The Lacandón refer to themselves as “Hach Winik” (true people). Appearances notwithstanding, some Lacandón families are (or have been) quite wealthy, having sold timber rights in the jungle, though most of the timber money has now gone. This change has led to a division in their society, and most live in one of two main communities: Lacanjá Chansayab, near Bonampak, a village predominantly made up of evangelical Protestants, some of whom are keenly developing low-impact tourist facilities; and Nahá, where a small group still attempt to live a traditional life, and where it is possible to arrange stays in local homes. The best source of information on the Lacandón in Chiapas is Casa Na-Bolom in San Cristóbal de las Casas, where you can find a manuscript of Last Lords of Palenque, by Victor Perera and Robert Bruce (Little Brown & Co, 1982). Hach Winik, by Didier Boremanse (University of Albany, 1998), is an excellent recent study of Lacandón life and history.