April 27, 2003
Lore Among The RuinsBy TIM WEINER
WHEN Western civilization becomes trying, you can always leave it for another. One way is to go back in time to Maya civilization. At the height of their empire, from the 3rd to the 10th century, the Maya ruled in an unbroken chain of cities and villages from southern Mexico through Guatemala and Belize and down to western Honduras and El Salvador. It would take a lifetime, maybe many, to see the architectural ruins and remains of those cities, so staggeringly beautiful and strange.
Some are largely unexplored, still remote, reached only by river or on foot. Others are easily accessible; it is possible to wake up at dawn in, say, Brooklyn, and be standing in the long shadow of the Maya at sundown.
Speed is hardly of the essence, though. An investment of time among the Maya ruins brings particularly pleasurable returns. Thousands of travelers endure rapid tours of the best-known sites, like Chichén Itzá, in the Yucatán, and Monte Albán, outside the colonial city of Oaxaca, hardly pausing to absorb what they are seeing. Far better to let oneself get lost in the jungle in a still largely unexcavated place -- like Palenque in northern Chiapas or Cobá, in the heart of Quintana Roo.
Palenque has always been one of my favorite places on earth. Surrounded by mists and magic, set to the morning soundtrack of growling howler monkeys, it is an utterly peaceful site in the first and last hours of the day. Filled with temples, hieroglyphs, fantastically complex carved panels and sculptures of kings and warriors and cosmic monsters, Palenque is a place to get lost in a sense of wonder.
How did the Maya create such stunningly precise calendars, still accurate today? What are the roots of their gorgeous hieroglyphs, the only indigenous written language of the Americas? The answers may be somewhere here, probably hidden in the ruins, or deep in the jungle that swallowed Palenque for centuries.
People have been making up stories about the Maya for more than 200 years. The first Spanish military officer who explored Palenque, in 1784, thought it was Atlantis risen, and that its architects had to be from Rome or Carthage. In the late 60's, a Swiss hotelkeeper, Erich von Daniken, posited that visitors from outer space built the place, and he sold millions of copies of his book ''Chariots of the Gods'' to credulous readers.
Moises Morales, creator and keeper of Panchán, a complex of cabanas and restaurants near the site, has seen his share of New Age seekers, shamans and shams at Palenque. But he calls the site a place transformed by the eye of the beholder, ''a beautiful toy to play with.'' And what a plaything!
There are sites along the Maya route that may be bigger and grander. But Palenque remains somewhat lost in the jungle; it has been slow to give up its secrets. A certain amount has been reconstructed thus far from the great jigsaw of its ruins.
The site was first settled by farmers sometime between 100 B.C. and A.D. 100. Deciphered glyphs show that a great dynasty arose in A.D. 431. Soon after that, Palenque began trading with communities hundreds of miles distant. It reached the height of its power and creativity under the rule of Pakal, who held power from 615 to 683. In his day, it was probably the most powerful city in the west of the Maya region, and that power resonates today in Palenque's palace and in its great temples.
Pakal's tomb, discovered 50 years ago deep inside the magnificent Temple of the Inscriptions, has been closed for renovations, and the site's custodians do not know when it will reopen. When I saw it, I marveled at a beautifully detailed carved-stone sarcophagus slab showing Pakal transformed into a god at the moment of his descent into the underworld, clambering down a celestial tree into the mortal embrace of a serpent. For Pakal, after 68 years in power, it seems to have been a glorious exit.
Palenque contains 22 major structures and building groups; scores more are still hidden in the jungle, awaiting excavation. The cleared area is not much more than a square mile, but it can take days to absorb it all. Moving slowly is a good idea on several fronts, since the temperature and humidity are usually well into the 80's by midmorning between March and November.
Among Palenque's most magnificent structures is the Palace, which faces the Temple of the Inscriptions in the site's main square. Palenque's largest complex of buildings, the Palace includes courtyards, stucco panels of supernatural beings and cosmic creatures, and hidden chambers that housed political rulers.
Nearby stand the edifices known as the Crosses Group -- the Temples of the Sun, the Cross and the Foliated Cross, dating from the reign of Pakal's son and successor, Kan Balam II (A.D. 684-702). On the summer solstice, the rays of the setting sun light the inner sanctuary of the Temple of the Foliated Cross and a magnificent sculptured panel showing Kan Balam's enthronement.
Close study of Maya sites pays off in yielding comprehension of another time and another world. At the entrance to Palenque are skilled guides who can help a first-time traveler decipher its intricate art, architecture and ambience. A modern museum with some of Palenque's greatest sculptures and inscriptions sits two miles from the gate; it also sells an excellent English-language handbook called ''Palenque: An Essential Guide.'' The books of Michael D. Coe, a longtime expert on the Maya, are another fine introduction to this world.
There are two wonderful, utterly different, places to stay in Palenque. Both are set in jungly landscapes at the edge of the entrance to the archeological zone.
The first, Chan-Kah Resort Village, is comfortable and well-appointed, with an enormous swimming pool, quiet little bungalows with stone floors and picture windows, an old-fashioned ambience and a pretty good restaurant. Chan-Kah plays host to a number of international conferences and gatherings of groups from archaeologists to birders, and a stay there should be booked at least a month in advance.
On the other hand, one just wanders into Panchán, a collection of small inns, bungalows and cottages just off the main road before the park's entrance. The summer of love never ended at Panchán. You can try to book a room, but its ''Don't Worry, Be Happy'' outlook extends to the practice of taking reservations. But there always seems to be a spare bungalow, or at least a place to hang a hammock.
Panchán is a paradise for backpackers, though it would probably be hell for those seeking five-star comforts. On a recent visit, in December, there were at least five different sets of lodgings, ranging from $4 for a communal camp-out, to $8 to $12 for wildly varying cabanas and bungalows, up to $18 for a spacious, clean room with a shower and toilet.
The crowning glory of Mr. Morales's dominion is the cozy open-air restaurant run by his extended family under his well-earned nickname: Don Mucho. Improbable as it may seem in the middle of the jungle, the restaurant serves terrific food from a menu marrying Tuscany and Mexico. I tasted some of the best thin-crust pizza in my memory, along with pastas swathed in freshly made pesto and organic vegetables. Good wines are sold at fair prices.
The crowd is a hoot -- three generations of hipsters and tripsters, all friendly and worldly folks, from sophisticated 50-somethings to tattooed teens. After dinner, our waitress shed her shoes and did a fire dance, spinning flaming torches like an Ole Miss baton-twirler gone loco, as the kitchen staff provided the music on congas and bongos.
Equally fine culinary and cultural pleasures may be found on a complete different stretch of the Maya Route: in Quintana Roo, on the Caribbean.
Visitors can fly straight to Cancún, rent a car or a taxi, and head south for 90 minutes to the crossroads at Tulum.
To the right lies 30 miles of good road ending at Cobá, a sprawling city in the jungle that was home to as many as 50,000 people a millennium ago. Cobá features a beautifully preserved ball court, an extraordinary pyramid and pleasant and well-groomed trails that were part of a straight-and-true highway system devised by the Maya for trade and political interactions more than 1,300 years ago.
Cobá may have been the largest city in all the Mundo Maya; its boundaries have not yet been defined by archaeologists. On its trails, which run for more than two miles through the jungle, the weary, the young and the old can be ferried by bicyclists pulling a Mexican version of a rickshaw. A half-mile from the entrance stands a Club Med with a good restaurant, a swimming pool and well-appointed rooms.
To the left at the Tulum crossroads lies the Caribbean, and close by is the Maya ruin of Tulum, which is not the greatest example of Maya culture. It is mainly notable for location, location, location: the only Maya ruin in Mexico with an ocean view. Its main temples are minor compared with anything at Palenque or Cobá. Still, the temple known as the Castillo, perched precariously on the rocks overlooking the sea, is a magnificent place if you arrive early or late to avoid the crowds.
A choice of beachfront lodgings within a few minutes of Tulum ranges from $10 palapas to a $60-a-night Mexico-à-go-go experience (a miniresort called Zamas) to the $250-a-night pamperings of Las Ranitas, a French-run hotel. And dotted throughout the land are the villages of the descendants of the people who built this civilization. The Maya people are six million strong today. They have survived genocide in Guatemala, oppression and benign neglect in Mexico, and they live on. Time among the Maya, away from the clock of the modern world, is time worth taking.