Howler monkeys take over Mexican jungle ruins
MOTORING along a river that separates Mexico from Guatemala in a skinny long-tail boat to get to ancient ruins is like something out of an Indiana Jones movie.
Throw in a crocodile, vultures circling above and claustrophobia-inducing humidity that has your clothes dripping within seconds - and you know you're venturing into the jungle.
Yaxchilan - once a prominent Mayan city sprawling through the dense jungle - is only accessible on a 40-minute boat journey.
The heavy air is punctuated only by the sound of the howler monkeys throwing fiestas in the tree canopies and the occasional bird call. Check out the video to hear them.
Archeologists have determined - based on the architecture, ceramics and hieroglyphic inscriptions - that Yaxchilan began before 250AD and ended about 900AD, though its peak period was between 600 and 810AD.
There are more than 120 structures in the central area of what was once a powerful urban centre.
They are distributed across the Great Plaza, next to the Usamacinta River, the Grand Acropolis and the Small Acropolis.
The site statues, bas-relief stone carvings, murals depicting prominent figures in the city's past and hieroglyphic texts.
The once prominent red colouring can still be spotted on some buildings but it is now mostly lost.
Ascending a steep set of steps through the jungle is rewarded with a small set of ruins known as Small Acropolis where you can wander through the "rooms".
Its central plaza is in the centre of several buildings, one with an original lintel carving depicting the reign of Lord Bird Jaguar IV.
As a side note, I am a baby jaguar in the Mayan calendar. I'm told this ranks me pretty high.
A brief walk down more steps and through the jungle reveals the back of the most impressive structure at Yaxchilan - the Grand Acropolis.
With about half of its roofcomb in tact, ball-game scene carving on the entry steps and a statue of Bird Jaguar IV - the absence of a head making photos fun - this building's preservation is superb.
It overlooks more steep steps weaving down to what must have been the public area of the city - the Great Plaza.
Nearby Bonampak has less impressive ruins, albeit still in the jungle, but it has its own wow factor.
Only revealed to the western world about 1946, Bonampak was believed to be closely connected to Yaxchilan.
It's claim to fame is a three-room building decked out with watercolours painted on plaster.
The striking frescoes are believed to be the best preserved from the Mesoamerican era.
They depict the presentation of the leader's heir, prisoners taken during a war and the sacrifice of those prisoners.
Not only do they depict life at the city when it was booming, the drawings of war and human sacrifice prove the once-believed peaceful Mayans did have a violent past.
But all Mayans are quick to tell you they were peaceful until they merged with the more violent Toltecs.
Yaxchilan and Bonampak are a day trip from the more famous Palenque ruins.
Similar sauna-like conditions greet visitors in another jungle setting at Palenque.
It was one of the most important Mayan cities in the classic period - occupied from about 100 BC but flourishing between 630AD and 740AD.
It was originally named Lakamha, the place of great waters, and the Mayans controlled this water through underground aqueducts.
Photos taken when the main buildings were first uncovered show the now proudly displayed ruins covered in foliage.
In fact, less than 5% of all the ruins have been carved away from the jungle, with the rest left to your imagination beneath hundreds of years of growth.
Among them is a mausoleum for Palenque's most revered leader Pakal which is known as the Temple of Inscriptions for its large number of hieroglyphics.
The number of steps leading to his tomb matches the number of years he reigned - from age 12 in 615AD to age 80, an unusual life span in that era, in 683AD.
While visitors can no longer visit the tomb on the site, Pakal's body - including the jade mask and jewellery entombed with him - can be seen at the National Anthropology Museum in Mexico City.
Our guide told us the king, and at least one other in the family, had club foot, and other ailments consistent with in-breeding.
They, though, considered such conditions divine and believed incest necessary to keep the blood line going.
Son Kan B'alam II, who built the inscriptions temple, took over after Pakal's death and built the Grupo de las Cruces temples.
Don't let the horrendous humidity stop you from walking up the steps of the Temple of the Cross to get an incredible view over the site.
Kan B'alam II is featured in impressive stucco bas-reliefs on the palace which also has a Mayan observatory and ancient toilets if you ask your guide to point them out.
Nearby Misol-Ha and Agua Azul are a welcome relief to the heat of the jungle, especially if you remember to take your bathers.
White waterfalls cascade into stunning turquoise waters at Agua Azul while Misol-Ha allows visitors to walk behind the fall for cool relief.
HOW TO GET THERE:
It's easy to pick up tours from San Cristóbal de las Casas that go to the waterfalls and Palenque.
You can return that night (long day if you do) or stay in Palenque overnight to do Yaxchilan and Bonampak the next day.
The tours are set up so that you can return to San Cristóbal or stay in Palenque. There's not much in Palenque so it's best to catch an overnight bus to Merida, Tulum or other parts of the Yucatan peninsula so you can check out Chichen Itza and the incredible cenotes of the region too.
To visit these three sites, you'll need to become comfortable with a constant state of sweatiness. Take plenty of sunscreen, insect repellent and water.