18th March: At 5.45am we crawled out of bed, bleary-eyed to be ushered onto a mini-bus for the 15 hour round-trip from San Cristobal de las Casas to Palenque. Unfortunately the famous Mayan ruins are not on our route to Guatemala, so this was the simplest option for us to make the trip. Apart from some frankly terrifying moments in the mini-bus as the driver hurtled round hairpin bends and overtook on blind corners, the drive was not too bad. The mountain scenery and the sights were well worth a few hours with numb buttocks and cramped legs.
As part of the grand tour, we got to visit two spectacular waterfalls – at Agua Azul and Misol-Ha – and take a dip in crystal clear pools in the heart of the jungle.
Then, Palenque itself. Built over 1,500 years ago and one of the best preserved Mayan sites, the area is truly magical. Weird and wonderful plants and birds, plus the eerie sound of unseen howler monkeys in the canopy were almost as fascinating as the buildings themselves.
The city had been abandoned by the Maya for several centuries when the Spanish arrived in the state of Chiapas in the 16th Century. The first European to visit the ruins was a Priest who was led to the overgrown site by local Indians in 1567. I can only imagine how exciting it must have been to lay eyes on the place for the first time. The jungle must have almost swallowed it whole. The local people then called the place Otolum, meaning ‘Land with strong houses’. From this the Priest translated into Spanish to come up with ‘Palenque’ – or fortification. An ancient name for the city was Lakam Ha which translates as ‘Big Water’ due to the numerous springs and waterfalls that help to give the humid, jungle scene it’s sense of magic.