From the start of our road trip through Mexico we knew we would visit Palenque. The idea came to fruition one night at dinner with family. Over grilled salmon, I learned that back in the 1970s my mom visited Palenque. To me, following in her footsteps to the places she traveled brings a unique connection to the memory of her life, an invisible connection, linking my present to her past.
We arrived in Palenque on a two-lane road, our van rolling up and down the landscape of sloping hills. To our left and right were verdant forests, hot and humid, the green of the leaves almost yellow in the glaring sunlight. Periodically we glanced at each other, anticipating our moment of arrival into Palenque, once a thriving city, home to the ancient Mayans. To this day you can still hear their language spoken by some six million living descendants throughout Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, and Honduras.
The next day, after joining a tour group of travelers at the ruins of Palenque, our guide led us into the jungle, down a trail to a crumbling structure emerging from the plant life that had overtaken it. We learned from our guide that inside the tomb archaeologists found the remains of the “Red Queen”. Named the red queen from the red cinnabar powder she was buried with that turned her bones red, this matriarch was a queen who ruled Palenque for a time.
In the humid, damp heat of the forest we swatted away mosquitos, while leafs from the tree branches above fluttered down amongst our feet. We peered up to the canopy, hopeful for a monkey sighting, but none appeared.
Leaving the suffocating jungle behind, our guide led us to the portion of the ruins open to visitors. Upon entering the overgrown city we were greeted by the pyramid known as the Temple of the Inscriptions, burial tomb of the 7th century ruler K’inich Janaab’ Pakal. As we wandered from the pyramid over to Pakal’s palace, the guide told us the story of the Mayans who once thrived in this city.
A city only revealed ten percent to archaeologists, the rest remains buried under the jungle awaiting discovery and analysis. The city dates back to 226 BCE, experiencing most of the architectural rebuilding of the pyramids that we see today in the early 600s CE, then abandoned in the late 8th century.
Saying goodbye to the ruins of Palenque our tour continued on to Agua Azul, a stunningly beautiful crystal clear river tumbling down a smooth riverbed of lime rock. Situated next to the river was a large outdoor market, with small open air stalls selling souvenirs, trinkets and food.
Seeing our tour bus driver sitting alone to lunch we and a fellow traveler joined him. He began to tell us his story of Palenque, about his life, the growth of the town, and the changes enacted by the Zapatistas. Prior to 1992 the town of Palenque had no paved roads, hospitals, electricity or schools, that is, until the Zapatistas struggled with the government and demanded the installation of basic services.
As he reminisced, I thought of Palenque in the 1970s, a single lane dirt road passing through a barely there town of a few hundred families. The changes of the past forty years are apparent, now boutique hotels host international travelers, cars overwhelm the narrow roads, and souvenir shops are abundant.