Green Stones and Colourful Murals – Yaxchilan and Bonampak

The next morning, the rain had stopped, the sun was about to peep through the clouds, and the jungle was wide awake. We skipped breakfast and instead signed up for a boat trip to Yaxchilan straight away, the only way to get to this isolated Mayan site. Since it was early, we were the only guests on the trip, and it was stunning!

Rio Usumacinta

The trip takes about 45 minutes and the boat goes really fast – better put on sunglasses for otherwise, you get all kinds of insects in your eyes! Oh, and keep your mouth shut. Luckily, our boat driver wasn’t the talkative kind, so we could admire the nature and the early morning light.

When we reached Yaxchilan, we got off and climbed a large flight of steep stairs that lead us right into the jungle. Again, we were the first and only visitors so far and were tempted to only whisper. The howling apes however, didn’t feel shy about making a lot of noise and were howling away like crazy. But after all, that’s their trademark.

Yaxchilan is called the “place of the green stones”, and once you arrive you see why. Whereas the Tulum ruins are all pretty and clean and dried out by the sun, and while Palenque rather reminded me of a beautiful campus with fancy (and strangely decayed) buildings, the ruins of Yaxchilan are mysteriously mossy so you actually get the feeling for how old they are! The whole place is humid and sticky, yet I got the chills when we had to find our way through a pitchdark ruin. The walls exuded an unfamiliar coolness, and I screamed when something dropped on my head – why hadn’t we brought our torch lights???

Doesn’t it look mysterious?

Being the only ones wandering around the ruins was, of course, a very special treat. Everything was so quiet (apart from the apes) and peaceful. However, when I did a little research on Yaxchilan’s history, I had to find out that it hadn’t been a peaceful place at all. Yaxchilan had been founded prior to 300 A.D. as a little hamlet that evolved into a powerful city by 600. Somehow, I would have thought that due to its remote location, Yaxchilan’s inhabitants would have had no choice but to stay to themselves and lead a quiet life. Silly me. In fact, Yaxchilan’s history includes a series of wars with neighbouring kingdoms like Piedras Negras, another site by the river which is now Guatemala, and surprisingly Palenque. Now, when I think of how much time it took us to travel from Palenque to Yaxchilan, it goes beyond my imagination how they actually got there. But they did, and they also liked to take war captives. They apparently were not so wise and peaceful as I would have thought! At the end of the Maya classical period around 900, Yaxchilan collapsed as did the other Maya hubs.

One thing that always surprises me when visiting Maya ruins is the height of the steps. I am an average size kind of girl, but I really have to stretch my legs. At the same time, the steps are that short that it becomes clear that Mayas at that time must have had tiny feet, and on top of that, the stairs are terribly steep. Mr. R. and I used to zigzag our way down in order not to fall and jolt our way down… But how did those tiny guys do it? Mr. R. suggested they might have gone on all fours. Maybe that’s the solution. Or they must have had bouncing powers, hopping up and down the ruins – anything is possible, right?

Sometimes I think that maybe those Mayas were able to fly. How else would they be able to do all those beautiful carvings so high up?

After visiting Yaxchilan, it was time for us to get to know Bonampak, a site famous for its still colourfully preserved murals. You cannot drive to the site itself but have to leave your car at a small parking lot where a handful of guides are waiting for you. Luckily, they are not as intrusive as the ones we met earlier on… From the parking lot, you can continue on your way in a little shuttle. Well, shuttle sounds quite sophisticated, doesn’t it? An old Indian was driving us in his van while chewing and spitting out his chewing tobacco. When he dropped us off, he promised to be back in an hour since Bonampak is rather tiny. Then he disappeared in the jungle, and we were surrounded by silence.

We had to walk across some fields to the site, passing some stalls with Indian jewellery, but nothing in this area is as touristy as are Palenque or Tulum or, of course, Chichen Itza. In fact, apart from us, there was only one other family inspecting the site – we got spoilt that day! There is really not much to see other than the murals, but those are truly impressive. Understandably, you are not allowed to take pictures as the flash light would harm the colours, but I was amazed by how well they are preserved.

A photograph of one of the paintings at Bonampak

A photograph of one of the paintings at Bonampak (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

After Bonampak, we felt we had seen enough ruins for a day and drove to Campeche as the last stop of our journey. So next time, I will tell you about the weird backdrop city of Campeche and how Mr. R. found a new friend amongst the Mexican police force…

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