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.