Mexico // Chiapas and Tabasco //

The Usumacinta valley and the Frontier Highway

The Carretera Fronteriza (Frontier Highway) heads south from Palenque into the Lacandón forest and the Río Usumacinta, passing the two great Maya sites of Bonampak and Yaxchilán. The remote highway, which was paved only in the year 2000, to help delineate the border with Guatemala, has a reputation as a dangerous place, but tourist convoys haven’t been required since 2003. Still, it’s not advisable to drive the road after dark, as there may be a risk of robbery, and at the very least, there’s a lot of wildlife and few people to help you if you encounter any trouble. Army checkpoints are common, so be sure to carry your passport. If you don’t visit with a group, try to pick up an information sheet on the Lacandón community from Casa Na-Bolom in San Cristóbal.

Bonampak

Relatively small compared with other ruined Maya cities, BONAMPAK is unique due to its fascinating murals, evocative memorials to a lost civilization. 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 the Lacandón on the fringe of the much larger Montes Azules Biosphere Reserve. The site is quite isolated, and the only facilities are toilets and a couple of huts selling crisps and carved-wood souvenirs. The nearest settlement is the village of Lacanjá Chansayab, about 2.5km away – basic cabañas, rented by the Lacandón people, are available here.

Brief history
The outside world first heard of Bonampak, meaning “painted walls”, in 1946, when Charles Frey, an American who’d dodged the draft by heading 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 to actually 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.

La Gran Plaza
After crossing an airstrip, you are at the northwest corner of the central plaza, 110m long and bounded by low walls that mark the edges of a former palace. 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.

The Acrópolis
Ahead of the Gran Plaza, 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.

Edificio de las Pinturas
The highlight is the modest-looking Edificio de las Pinturas, halfway up the steps of the acropolis. Inside, in three separate chambers and on the temple walls and roof, the Bonampak murals depict vivid scenes of haughty Maya lords, splendidly attired in jaguar-skin robes and quetzal-plume headdresses, and 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 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. No more than three people are permitted to enter at any one time and queues are possible, but 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.

The murals
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.

Yaxchilán

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 here, which involves a ride in a narrow lancha with a tin roof for shade, down the broad, fast-flowing river with Mexico on one bank, Guatemala on the other. At the site, it’s easy to be alone in the forest with nothing but moaning howler monkeys around you. Giant trees keep the place shady, but nonetheless the jungle heat can be palpable – bring plenty of water, as there are no services at the ruins.

Pequeña Acrópolis
From the site 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.

Templos del Sur
Walk behind Edificio 42 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 ten minutes, Edificios 39 to 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.

El Palacio

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 known 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.

Gran Plaza
Descending 40m down the stairs in front of the Palacio 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.

El Laberinto
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.