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Fodor's See It Mexico, 3rd Edition
Palenque is enormous and you'd need weeks to really explore it all. The most stunning (and most visited) sights are around the Palacio, but if you have the stamina, it's worth winding your way up to the Northeastern Group, which is often deserted. The ruins are open daily from 8 to 5; admission is $4. Try to get here early when it's cooler as there may still be some clinging mist. Templo de la Calavera. As you enter the site, the first temple on your right is the reconstructed Temple of the Skull. A stucco relief, presumed to be in the shape of a rabbit or deer skull, was found at the entrance to the temple. It now sits at the top of the stairs. Like the rest of the buildings, the Templo de la Calavera is unadorned stone. When it was built, however, it was painted vivid shades of red and blue. Templo de las Inscripciones. At the eastern end of the cluster is this massive temple dedicated to Pakal. The temple's nine tiers correspond to the nine lords of the underworld. Atop this temple and the smaller ones surrounding it are vestiges of roof combs—delicate vertical extensions that are standard features of southern Mayan cities. You can descend the steep, damp flight of stairs to view the king's tomb. One of the first crypts found inside a Mexican pyramid, it contains a stone tube in the shape of a snake through which Pakal's soul was thought to have passed to the netherworld. The intricately carved sarcophagus lid weighs some 5 tons and measures 10 feet by 7 feet. It can be difficult to make out the carvings on the thick slab, but they depict the ruler, prostrate beneath a sacred ceiba tree. There's a reproduction in the site museum. To enter the Templo de las Inscripciones, you must obtain a permit first thing in the morning at the site museum. Templo XIII. If you can't secure a permit to enter the Templo de las Inscripciones, you can always visit the unassuming Templo XIII. Attached to the Temple of the Inscriptions, this structure has a royal tomb hidden in its depths, the Tumba de la Reina Roja (Tomb of the Red Queen). The sarcophagus, colored with cinnabar, probably belonged to Pakal's wife or mother. Palacio. The smaller buildings inside the breathtaking Palacio are supported by 30-foot-high pillars. Stuccowork adorns the pillars of the galleries as well as the inner courtyards. Most of the numerous freizes inside depict Pakal and his dynasty. The palace's iconic tower was built on three levels, thought to represent the three levels of the universe as well as the movement of the stars. Río Otulum. To the east of the palace is the tiny Río Otulum, which in ancient times was covered over to form a 9-foot-high vaulted aqueduct. Cross the river and climb up 80 easy steps to arrive at the reconstructed Grupo de los Cruces. It contains the Templo del la Cruz Foliada (Temple of the Foliated Cross), Templo del Sol (Temple of the Sun), and the Templo de la Cruz (Temple of the Cross), the largest of the group. Inside the nearby Templo XIV, there's an underworld scene in stucco relief, finished 260 days after Pakal's death. The most exquisite roof combs are also on these buildings. Templo XIX. This temple has yielded some exciting finds, including a large sculpted stucco panel, a carved stone platform with hundreds of hieroglyphics, and a limestone table (in pieces but now restored) depicting the ruler K'inich Ahkal Mo' Nahb' III. The latter is on display in the site museum. Templo XX. Ground-penetrating radar helped locate a frescoed tomb covered in murals. Both temples are still being excavated and are only sporadically open to the public. To reach the cluster called the Grupo Norte (Northern Group), walk north along the river, passing on your left the Palacio and the unexcavated Ball Court. There are five buildings here in various states of disrepair; the best preserved is the Templo del Conde (Temple of the Court). A short hike northeast of the Grupo Norte lies Grupo C (Group C), an area containing remains of the homes of nobles and a few small temples shrouded in jungle. To maintain the natural setting in which the ruins were found, minimal restoration has been done. Human burials, funeral offerings, and kitchen utensils have been found here as well as in Grupo B (Group B), which lies farther along the path through the jungle. On the way, you'll pass a small waterfall and pool called El Baño de la Reina (The Queen's Bath). By far the most interesting of these seldom-visited ruins is the Grupo de los Murciélagos (Group of the Bats). Dark, twisting corridors beneath the ruins are ready to be explored. Just be aware that you might run into a few of the creatures that gave the buildings their names. A path from the Grupo del los Murciélagos leads over a short extension bridge to the Museum. You can also reach it by car or colectivo, as it's along the same road you took to the entrance. The museum has a remarkable stucco rendering of Mayan deities in elaborate zoomorphic headdresses, which was discovered in front of the Temple of the Foliated Cross. Also noteworthy are the handsome, naturalistic faces of Mayan men that once graced the facades. Displays here and in the rest of the site are labeled in English, Spanish, and the Mayan dialect called Chol. There's also a snack bar and a crafts store. The museum is open Tuesday-Sunday from 9 to 4.
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