A love letter to Palenque

We had been waiting for this moment for days, anxiously hoping we’d be the lucky ones who escaped the rain. The sun was shining brightly the day before when we left Chetumal and headed south into the state of Chiapas in Mexico. ”It wasn’t sunny like this last time I was here – it’s a good sign,” my friend, the guide, said. ”I think we might be in the clear.” Earlier that same day there had been rain showers when we visited a rubber tree ranch and we exclaimed, ”Great! Bring it on, rain. Better now than later this afternoon.”

What a bunch of idiots. Of course we weren’t in the clear. The sky opened up and rain came down like you wouldn’t believe when we reached the ruins of Palenque. It always does.

And thank God it does because Palenque in a rain storm is one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen.

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The anticipation had been killing me as my friend, the guide, could not stop raving about Palenque. ”Just wait ’till you get there!” she’d been saying for days. ”You’ll be awestruck!” We worked together in Egypt and had seen some pretty cool things together, so for her to be this excited about a ruin, I knew it had to be good.  We arrived in Palenque right in the middle of our week-long roundtrip on the Yucatan peninsula, and after visiting the city of Palenque and a local rubber plantation, it was finally time to see the Maya ruins right outside of the town.

We stepped out of the bus, paid too much money for some plastic rain ponchos by the entrance, and accepted the fact that we would all be drenched in 5 minutes anyway. We walked together as a group up a small pathway leading us to the ruin site. Everywhere was wet, cold, green and misty.  And then suddenly the most magical place presented itself to us.

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IMG_0020The Maya city of Palenque dates back to 226 BC and fell around 1123 AD. The surrounding jungle swallowed up the city and to my knowledge it wasn’t explored again until late 18th century. Archeologists estimate that only about 10% of the total city has been uncovered. The architecture and intricacy of the palaces is one of the most incomprehensible Maya achievements I saw on my roundtrip in Mexico. But the real wow factor of Palenque is the ambiance. The ruins are still pretty overgrown with moss and you are surrounded by thick rain forest. The rain makes everything look grey and misty, and to top it off: howler monkeys. The rain forest surrounds the ruin city almost like an amphitheater, so the sound of the howler monkeys is quite harrowing.

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It took my breath away. It’s a feeling in my chest I’ve experienced a few times before, like the first time I laid eyes on the Cheops pyramid. It tells me that I will never ever forget that moment when I saw something that made me speechless. That humanity has accomplished extraordinary things. That the universe does not necessarily revolve around me, even if that’s the only perspective I’ll ever know. I’ll never be able to transport myself back to a lost civilization and know what they felt and how they saw the world. But I’m one of the lucky few in the world at large who has enough fortune to travel and revisit these magnificent places and marvel at them.

Hello humility and hello gratitude.

As I explored the ruins with my friends, I gawked at the dramatic beauty of it all. Palenque overwhelmed me, but I also felt strangely connected to the people who were there before. Here lived a king, I thought. Here lived a blacksmith. And a farmer. Here a mother nursed her little baby and prayed for a healthy and happy kid, just like my own mother did. Here a priest ate a human heart and threw the sacrifice down the pyramid (my friend had told us horrifying stories of Aztec brutality and blood thirst. We’d also watched Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto the night before. I arrived in Palenque a vivid imagination going wild.)

Palenque, you left a mark. You moved me. You amazed me.  I am so lucky to have seen you, to have felt you. Thank you for inviting me in and never letting me go.

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Xx Christine

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