Monday, February 4, 2013

Yaxchilan and Bonampak

Entrance/exit of the Labyrinth
In the previous two visits to Chiapas, I wanted to visit Yaxchilan, a Mayan archaeological site accessible only via boats, and Bonampak, the only ruin with intact murals in three small temples.

The guide books say there's nothing to Bonampak except for the murals, but that is simply not true. Bonampak and Yaxchilan are the two largest Mayan city-states along the Usumacinta River (not counting Piedras Negras in Guatemala) and both were powerful kingdoms in their day. Neither have been particularly well excavated or explored, and judging from the size of overgrown mounds in the vicinity, both were quite large with much still to be learned about them.

The tour group boarded a long slender motor boat with a palapa roof for shade and rain protection. Downstream it took 45 minutes to reach Yaxchilan, coming back it took an hour. A young Lacondon man offered us his services as a guide. He really was quite knowledgeable, but his English was so poor we all had a difficult time exchanging information. Once in a while he would say what he needed to say in Spanish and I could help out, though my archaeological vocabulary in Spanish leaves much to be desired.

On the boat to Yaxchilan
Yaxchilan has an interesting labyrinth, a feature at several Mayan ruins. It is a series of dark tunnels snaking around in what once passed for the underworld. Tonina has one, but the labyrinth at Yaxchilan is larger, darker, damper, and much scarier. It has large leggy spiders, glimpsed by flashlight, hanging around in the vaulted ceilings, and pools of slippery mud underfoot. We emerged into rainy daylight to find a huge plaza surrounded by temples of various sizes.

Both sites have interesting stela, tall carved stone blocks, usually quite thin, detailing the life of a particular person. Thanks to the hard work of many archaeologists over the last 200 years, the old Mayan hieroglyphic writing is readable. Their calendar system is so precise that it's a shock to read: Saturday, May 15, 624 AD a peace treaty was signed with Yaxun B'alam III, ruler of Yaxchilan. Just amazing.

Details on a stela at Bonampak

Juan, the Lacondon guide, telling us about Yaxchilan

Inside the labyrinth, lit momentarily by the flash.

The monumental frescoes in Bonampak.

Incredible royal family portrait painted near the ceiling,
showing the family engaged in ritual blood letting, where
they pierce their own tongues to conjure up
 ancestors with the help of a serpent god. 

Exiting the Labyrinth

Stela at the bottom of a very
tall staircase with the temple to
Bird Jaguar IV at the top.

Detail of the paintings in Bonampak

Dwarfs were considered sacred, magical beings and
were revered in the royal courts.

Protected stela at Yaxchilan where the rain is
rather constant.