January 26, 2007 1:44 pm

Splendours of a lost civilisation

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It’s easy – fashionable, even – to cast Chiapas, Mexico’s southernmost state, as something of a Cinderella. Pillaged by conquering Spaniards and absentee Mexican landowners, it has a dusty, depleted feel. Yet go back 1,400 years and Chiapas was home to the powerful city-states of the Maya civilisation. Their palaces, temples and courtyards, conceived well in advance of Europe’s great gothic cathedrals, were constructed without metal tools, the wheel or pack animals. Their sophisticated astronomical and mathematical knowledge, combined with an advanced system of writing, enabled them to devise an accurate 365-day calendar some 1,300 years before Pope Gregory came up with his version.

Even today you can’t fail to be dazzled by the Maya. Chiapas’s splendid archaeological sites are constantly being excavated, chronicled and subjected to scholarly re-interpretation. Some (like Palenque) are highly visible and accessible, others (Yaxchilán, Bonampak) less familiar and relatively untrampled. A satisfying visit will combine both sorts. Start with Palenque, stay close by at the Chan-Kah resort and get going early so you can reach the site in the cool of the day and ahead of the tour buses.

The ruins of this magnificent city – which reached its zenith between 600AD and 700AD – were uncovered in 1773, when Maya hunters led a Spanish priest to their “stone palaces”. As you approach what Mayanist scholar George Stuart has described as “the most beautiful and evocative of all the Maya ruins”, try to picture them in their seventh-century splendour: where now we see the shimmering white limestone of the multi-tiered temples and pyramids (with the occasional tree thrusting out between the stones), then the whole was vividly stuccoed in brick-red. Palenque sets the scene and whets the appetite for more remote and wonderful sites, Yaxchilán and Bonampak.

Yaxchilán, dramatically sited in dense jungle high above a loop in the Usumacinta river that forms the border with Guatemala, promises intricately ornamented façades, carved lintels, intact roof combs. Bonampak, whose name means “painted wall”, claims some of the most astonishingly beautiful and complete vestiges of Maya wall painting.

We beat the dawn by a short head and set off from Palenque in high spirits. An hour or so into our journey, fortified by a full chiapaneco roadside breakfast, we grind to a halt behind a tourist bus . Straddling the road ahead is a line of solid-looking wooden chairs on which are seated impassive campesinos bearing protest banners. At their feet is a wide plank with nails jutting menacingly upwards.

We talk to the protesters. There is disturbing talk of someone murdered a few days before, someone else kidnapped, a third seriously injured. There is to be no going forward.

Yaxchilán and Bonampak are not to be but Toniná provides compensation, not least because few people seem to know about it. This impressive site, first excavated in 1979, was the last great capital of the empire, reaching its apogee between 800AD and 900AD in the dying days of the Maya civilisation, when its warlike people overpowered nearby Palenque.

The site museum is a perfect gem, small and informative with a pragmatic approach to visitors (“Today you won’t need a ticket” – “Oh, is it free on Sundays?” – “No, the ticket collector didn’t show up.”) It’s a short walk down a grassy track to the extensive ruins. A high spot is the massive Mural de la Muerte (Mural of the Dead) with its beady-eyed, dancing skeleton brandishing the decapitated head of a vanquished Palenque ruler, monsters, jaguars and dying suns with human faces and star-spangled hair.

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■Sue Style was a guest of Exsus Travel (tel: +44 (0)20-7292 5060; www.exsus.com) and OTISA (www.otisatravel.com), which offer tailor-made tours to Maya sites in Chiapas and Guatemala.

■For Palenque (open 8am-5pm daily, museum 7am-4pm daily), stay overnight at the large, impersonal, heavily Maya-kitsch Chan-Kah resort close to the archaeological site. There are 70 rather dark rooms scattered throughout the garden, huge pool area and howler monkeys in the treetops ready to wake you for a dawn raid on the ruins.

Tel +52 916-345 1134; www.chan-kah.com.mx

■For Bonampak and Yaxchilán (both open daily 8am-4.45pm), you need to base yourself at Palenque, from where it’s a full day’s trip – a two-hour drive to Frontera Corozal, a 40-minute boat trip down the Usumacinta river, two to three hours at the site, another hour to get back upstream and two hours back to Palenque. Alternatively, hop down by small aircraft from Ocosingo or Comitán.

■For Toniná, near Ocosingo (open 9am-4pm daily, museum closed Mondays), base yourself in San Cristóbal de las Casas at the colonial-style Parador San Juan de Dios. It has a restaurant, three comfortable suites and nine rooms with fireplaces. Tel. +52 967-678 1167; www.sanjuandios.com

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