Home Expat Blogs Stepping into the Past in Chiapas

Stepping into the Past in Chiapas

The Usumacinta River in Chiapas, Mexico
Credit: Keith Paulson-Thorp

From Top Che Eco-Lodge, it is a rough 45-minute drive across marginally-paved roads to the edge of the Usumacinta River, which defines part of the border between Mexico and Guatemala. This is where we began stepping into the past in Chiapas on our recent southern Mexico road trip.

Credit: Keith Paulson-Thorp

At the river, we board a narrow motor launch with benches along each side. A small thatch awning shields us from the sun and rain. I fixate briefly on the boat captain, whose distinctive features seem to have been lifted from one of the Olmec heads we saw yesterday. The river is wide and strong and, on the Guatemala side, we see local people washing their laundry.

As we continue downriver we encounter crocodiles sunning themselves on the banks, and a host of tropical birds. Another 45-minutes passes before we arrive at the landing at Yaxchilán (yash-chee-LAHN), nestled in an oxbow of the river. This is the only access to this important ancient city. The sight of ruins peeking through the jungle above the banks raise our anticipation of stepping into the past.

The stairs are steep climbing up from the scant dock, but it is only about 100 yards farther to the entrance to the metropolis. Yaxchilán’s position at a strategic point on the river gives it a natural prominence, and it enjoyed superiority over many surrounding vassal city-states. Only a fraction of the site has been excavated, the majority having long ago been swallowed by jungle.

The only entrance to Yaxchilán is through a labyrinth, possibly the most intriguing security measure at any Maya ruins. Emerging from the disorienting darkness of the labyrinth, we face one of the largest and most impressive plazas in ancient America. Contravening the steep incline of the terrain, Maya engineers used limestone fills to construct a platform over 2,500 feet long to support the temples, residences and ballcourt that surround the plaza.

Credit: Keith Paulson-Thorp

The buildings sport elaborately carved lintels over doors, windows and staircases. The stelae that dot the plaza record heroic events of the city’s golden age (600-800 C.E.) and propagandize for the continued privilege and prestige of the ruling family. The explosion of images and glyphs, the most extensive in México, has been a boon to archaeologists, and the history of Yaxchilán’s royalty is one of the most well- documented in the Maya world. Engulfing all this is a dense canopy of green.

On one side of the plaza is the great staircase to the major acropolis, one of two large building complexes at Yaxchilán. Not one to resist a challenge I immediately began to climb, stopping on each level to drink in the majestic views of the city. Behind the temple atop the many levels, we find signs to the minor acropolis through the undergrowth, but after passing numerous remains of smaller buildings, we determine it was a much greater distance than we thought, and we have limited time.

Bonampak Upper Temples, Chiapas, Mexico
Credit: Keith Paulson-Thorp

Back down the river, the return from Yaxchilán takes us even farther afield – to the ruins at Bonampak. A much smaller, but more accessible, archaeological site, Bonampak appears to have been a vassal state to Yaxchilán through much of its existence. The site consists of a large plaza with some of the largest stelae in México, and an acropolis built over the remains of two smaller acropolises. Bonampak is most renowned for three chambers at the center of the Temple of the Murals that present the most impressively preserved paintings of the Maya Classic period. It is late afternoon as we arrive, and the park is closing soon. We all make a beeline to the three rooms of paintings.

Murals at Bonampak, Chiapas, Mexico
Credit: Keith Paulson-Thorp

It is a mystery why these rooms, constructed during the final years before Bonampak’s abandonment, are so well preserved when countless others completely deteriorated. (Sadly, early efforts at preservation or restoration actually caused irreparable damage!) The rooms are small, and only three people can enter at a time. The doorways are low and narrow, and even a diminutive Maya noble would have had to bow to enter. The first room displays musicians playing drums, horns, rattles and turtle shells in a grand triumphal procession. The crown prince, Chooj, is dancing with his brothers, while eight regional governors observe, sumptuously attired in regalia that includes crocodile skins. In a corner sits the Lord of Bonampak on his throne, beneath is a tribute he has just been paid – five bundles that contain, according to the glyph, 40 thousand cacao beans!

The second, and largest, chamber shows a horrific battle. The winning side is sumptuously attired, while the losers have been stripped of adornment and clothing, and are clearly aware of the bleak fate that awaits them. The victors are shown as being right-handed and attired in feline skins, mainly jaguar, emblem of the gods and masculinity. The vanquished are all left-handed and attired in bird feathers, signs of weakness or femininity. Some of their number are tortured – their fingernails and teeth ripped out – the prelude to beheading and sacrifice. These were not good neighbors!

The third room displays the victory celebration after the battle, with yet another procession of musicians. The crown prince is again present, standing behind a kneeling priest who has just extracted the heart of a captive. The queen, seated on her throne and surrounded by her retinue of ladies, engages in a brutal ritual during which stingray spines are pierced through the tongue. Barbed wire is then drawn through the wound. Strips of paper sit in a pile below to catch the blood, which will then be burned as an offering to the gods. Only royalty, scribes and top craftsmen participated in these forms of communication with the divine through bloodletting. These were clearly not professions for wimps! But considering the enormous demands made on the common people, perhaps this was the leadership’s way of asserting worthiness of their status and privilege. One can scarcely imagine any European monarch ever enduring anything of this sort.

The colors of the paintings, produced using mineral and vegetable pigments, still glow after all these years, an amazing fact considering the amount of moisture generated constantly from the stone walls. I wonder if these will survive another century. The pigments used are unique in the ancient world, the blues especially lauded by art critics today. The images were first sketched on plaster using red paint, then filled in with color and outlined in black. Of 283 human characters, no two have identical attire, and while grouped by class and function, facial detail, hand and foot positions are similarly varied. Over one-third of the characters are captioned in the surrounding glyphs. Nowhere else in ancient America do we find such a bold and detailed depiction of court life and political hierarchy.

More than a millennium after its abandonment, Bonampak still commands the respect of local people. Our Lacandón hosts explain that it remains a place of pilgrimage and prayer, a place where people have dreams that guide their decisions and link them to their ancestors.