Bonampak & Yaxchilán: Murals in the Jungle
Intrepid travelers may want to consider the day trip to the Maya ruins of Bonampak and Yaxchilán. The ruins of Bonampak, southeast of Palenque on the Guatemalan border, were discovered in 1946. The site is important for the vivid and well-preserved murals of the Maya on the interior walls of one temple. Particularly striking is an impressive battle scene, perhaps the most important painting of pre-Hispanic Mexico.
Several tour companies offer a day trip. The drive to Bonampak is 3 hours. From there you continue by boat to the ruins of Yaxchilán, famous for its highly ornamented buildings. Bring rain gear, boots, a flashlight, and bug repellent. All tours include meals and cost about 1,000 pesos. No matter what agency you sign up with, the hours of departure and return are the same. You leave at 6am and return at 7pm.
Try Viajes Na Chan Kan (tel. 916/345-2154; www.nachankan.com; email@example.com), at Hidalgo 5 across from the main square offers all the usual side trips as well as ecological and cultural tours to outlying Indian communities.
Waterfalls at Misol Ha & Agua Azul
Misol Ha is 20km (12 miles) from Palenque, in the direction of Ocosingo. It takes about 30 minutes to get there, depending on the traffic. The turnoff is clearly marked; you'll turn right and drive another 1.5km (1 mile). The place is absolutely beautiful. Water pours from a rocky cliff into a broad pool of green water bordered by thick tropical vegetation. There's a small restaurant and some rustic cabins for rent for around 500 pesos per night, depending on the size of the cabin. The place is run by the ejido cooperative that owns the site, and it does a good job of maintaining the place. To inquire about the cabins, call tel. 916/345-1506. Admission for the day is 25 pesos.
Approximately 44km (27 miles) beyond Misol Ha are the Agua Azul waterfalls -- 270m (886 ft.) of tumbling falls with lots of water. There are cabins for rent here, too, but I would rather stay at Misol Ha. You can swim either above or below the falls, but make sure you don't get pulled by the current. You can see both places in the same day or stop to see them on your way to Ocosingo and San Cristóbal. Agua Azul is prettiest after 3 or 4 consecutive dry days; heavy rains can make the water murky. Check with guides or other travelers about the water quality before you decide to go. The cost to enter is 30 pesos per person. Trips to both of these places can be arranged through just about any hotel.
Ocosingo & the Ruins of Toniná
By the time you get to Agua Azul, you're halfway to Ocosingo, which lies halfway between Palenque and San Cristóbal. So instead of returning for the night to Palenque, you can go on to Ocosingo. It's higher up and more comfortable than Palenque. It's a nice little town, not touristy, not a lot to do other than see the ruins of Toniná. But it is a nice place to spend the night so that you can see the ruins early before moving on to San Cristóbal. There are about a half-dozen small hotels in town; the largest is not the most desirable. I would stay at the Hospedaje Esmeralda (tel. 919/673-0014) or the Hotel Central (tel. 919/673-0024), on the main square. Both of these are small and simple, but welcoming. The restaurant in front of Hotel Central has good cooking.
Ruins of Toniná -- The ruins of Toniná (the name translates as "house of rocks") are 14km (8 2/3 miles) east of Ocosingo. You can take a cab there and catch a colectivo to return. The city dates from the Classic period and covered a large area, but the excavated and restored part is all on one steep hillside that faces a broad valley. This site is not set up to handle lots of tourists (and doesn't really receive many). There is a good bit of climbing involved, and some of it is a little precarious. This is not a good place to take kids. Admission is 47 pesos.
This complex of courtyards, rooms, and stairways is built on multiple levels that are irregular and asymmetrical. The overall effect is that of a ceremonial area with multiple foci instead of a clearly discernible center. It affords beautiful and intriguing perspectives from just about any spot.
As early as A.D. 350, Toniná emerged as a dynastic center. In the 7th and 8th centuries, it was locked in a struggle with rival Palenque and, to a lesser degree, with faraway Calakmul. This has led some scholars to see Toniná as more militaristic than its neighbors -- a sort of Sparta of the Classic Maya. Toniná's greatest victory came in 711, when, under the rule of Kan B'alam, it attacked Palenque and captured its king, K'an Joy Chitam, depicted on a stone frieze twisted, his arms bound with rope.
But the single most important artifact yet found at Toniná is up around the fifth level of the acropolis -- a large stucco frieze divided into panels by a feathered framework adorned with the heads of sacrificial victims (displayed upside down) and some rather horrid creatures. The largest figure is a skeletal image holding a decapitated head -- very vivid and very puzzling. There is actually a stylistic parallel with some murals of the Teotihuacán culture of central Mexico. The other special thing about Toniná is that it holds the distinction of having the last ever date recorded in the long count (A.D. 909), which marks the end of the Classic period.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.