PALENQUE, Mexico — Heat and humidity hang heavy. The steamy tropical rain forest is alive with the incessant, shrill buzzing of cicadas. Birdcalls echo in the vine-laden ceiba, sapodilla and mahogany trees. Howler monkeys roar in the treetops, and a couple of greenish, bug-eyed lizards race across the crumbling mass of an ancient Mayan temple.
Jungle fever? No, just another typical day at the ruins of the Mayan city of Palenque in Mexico's southernmost state of Chiapas.
Half-hidden on a hillside at the edge of a thick jungle and overlooking the coastal plains of the state of Tabasco, Palenque beckons mysteriously and invites exploration.
Encroaching nature is the green backdrop to a pre-Columbian drama that lingers on.
Palenque is haunted by the power and pageantry of its past. This jungle acropolis murmurs of semidivine rulers with sloping foreheads and protruding lips, of the mystical rituals of priests bedecked with feathers and necklaces of jade. If you listen carefully you just might think you hear the languid sighs of Mayan aristocrats in the steam bath of Palenque's Palace.
What Palenque's few well-excavated buildings lack in monumentality they make up for in their harmonious integration into nature and in their creative, sophisticated architecture.
Slender-walled temples with wide and numerous doors, T-shaped windows, mansard roofs, masterfully carved stone and, especially, stucco reliefs put Palenque into a distinctive category of inspired art and engineering.
Palenque's many unexcavated buildings and temples will make you wonder just how much more magnificence lies hidden in its hundreds of mounds that are robed and blanketed in the sweeping green of jungle flora.
Mexico's other Mayan ruins of Chichen Itza and Uxmal are bigger and better known, but it is Palenque that has been repeatedly called the most beautiful of all Mexico's ruins.
Missed by the conquistadors, Palenque was first historically commented upon in the 1780s. At that time the long-abandoned city got rave reviews from its discoverer--a Spanish army captain.
Count Camps Out
His wild report brought eccentrics, romantics, adventurers and explorers to Palenque. In the 1830s there was the Frenchman, Count de Waldeck, who, in his 60s and in the company of an inspirational, dark-skinned local woman, camped out for two years in the jungle-entangled ruins.
Finally, in the mid-1800s, the myths about Palenque were exploded--it was neither El Dorado nor Atlantis.
Thanks to the writings of American explorer John Lloyd Stephens and the drawings of English artist Frederick Catherwood, Palenque's true profile began to emerge from the dense jungle to be brought to the world's attention.
The buildings of Palenque's cleared central area take us back to its period of greatness--AD 600-800. During that classic heyday Palenque's two great rulers, Lord Pacal (Shield) and his six-toed son, Lord Chan-Bahlum (Serpent-Jaguar), left their marks on history as well as in the stucco and stone of these structures.
Temple of Inscriptions
The cornerstone of Palenque's mystique is the Temple of the Inscriptions. It theatrically crowns an eight-stepped pyramid 75 feet above a plaza.
Inside, on wall panels, are the 620 hieroglyphics that give the temple its name. These stories in stone document Pacal's ancestry and ascension to the throne at age 12.
The temple's most fascinating feature is the secret it kept hidden in its pyramidal base for more than 1,000 years. In 1949 Mexican archeologist Alberto Ruz L'huiller noted an irregularity in one of the temple's stone floor slabs. Lifting the slab, he found a concealed stairway filled with rubble.
Taking four archeological field seasons to remove the debris, in 1952 Ruz reached his reward at the bottom of the steep, dark and airless stairwell--the untouched crypt of Lord Pacal, the first tomb found in any Mayan pyramid.
A magnificently carved, five-ton slab of rock covered Pacal's stone coffin. When it was raised, Ruz found the remains of Pacal in full attire, bejeweled with nearly a thousand pieces of jade, and wearing an exquisite jade mosaic face mask with obsidian eyes.
You can descend a long, well-lit, dank and eerie staircase to see the tomb and sepulchral slab about 90 feet below the temple. But you will not find the mask or jewelry.
They were taken to the Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City and were stolen from there on Dec. 24, 1985.
Steps away from the Temple of the Inscriptions is the building that dominates Palenque--the Palace.
This rambling, multilevel structure is a maze of chambers, galleries, small rooms, courtyards and underground passageways, with steam bath, latrines and sleeping quarters with beds of stone. Detailed carvings in stucco and stone embellish the Palace--human figures, serpents and jaguars are the motifs that stand out.