The year was 1979. My brother and I were taking an Autransportes Lacandonia bus from Palenque to San Cristóbal de las Casas. Today, the trip can be done in five hours. Back then, we boarded the reconverted North American school bus at 5:00 AM and got into San Cristóbal eleven hours later.

Enroute, we saw another Lacandonia bus that was run off the road into a ditch. It was surrounded by the passengers who were milling around. Luckily none of them seemed to be hurt. Then, about an hour or so later, as we neared Ocosingo, we were pulled over by the Mexican Army, who searched our luggage for weapons. We were not far from the Guatemalan border, and many Mexicans and even some foreigners were involved in gun-running to the rural Maya combatants across the border.

When we pulled into Ocosingo, a young boy boarded the bus selling something that was wrapped in straw. The boy didn’t understand my Spanish, and I didn’t understand his Tzotzil or Tzeltal Maya, but it didn’t cost much. Apparently, Ocosingo is famous for its queso amarillo (yellow cheese), which actually was pretty good—especially on a bus ride that seemed to take forever.

I wouldn’t mind returning to Ocosingo some day, having some more queso amarillo and visiting the Maya ruins at nearby Toniná. This relatively small Maya site bested the much larger Palenque in battle and got to sacrifice the royal family to their gods.

Every place I have ever visited in Mexico has left an indelible mark on my memory. Faced with a map of the country, I can follow my itinerary from city to city. These included places like Los Mochis, the Barranca del Cobre (Copper Canyon), Mazatlan, Durango, Zacatecas, Guanajuato, San Miguel de Allende, Querétaro, Mexico City, Patzcuaro, Uruapan, Guadalajara, Puerto Vallarta, Puebla, Cholula, Xalapa, Veracruz, Papantla, Oaxaca, and points south too numerous to mention.

City of Bones

The Palace (Left) and the Temple of the Inscriptions at Palenque

One of the most beautiful Maya archeological sites is Palenque in the State of Chiapas. It sits at the edge of the jungle and just before the foothills of the Sierra Madre. My brother Dan and I spent several days there in December 1979. I would give anything to go again.

The name Palenque means “Palisade,” which was given by the Spanish, who saw the ruins as a fortress. By the time the Spanish conquered Mexico, the site had been uninhabited for over eight hundred years. It was around AD 800 that many of the major Maya ceremonial centers were abandoned due to various factors. These included drought, changes in religion and form of government, and other reasons.

Maya Glyphs from Palenque

According to Maya glyphs that have been recently interpreted by scholars, the Maya name for Palenque is actually translated as “City of Bones.” As the great Mexican archeologist Alberto Ruz Lhuillier discovered, the Temple of the Inscriptions was the tomb of a powerful ruler named Kʼinich Janaab Pakal. In 1979, Dan and I were able not only to climb the pyramid, but snake our way through the tunnel that contained the site of Pakal’s burial chamber.

The ruins could only be described as beautiful. Only Uxmal in Yucatán could be described as its equal for siting and architecture.

Ruins in the Mist at Palenque

I was surprised that my brother seemed to enjoy Palenque as much as I did. It turns out that the region where the ruins are located is a famous coffee-growing region. So Dan, who is a major coffeeholic, found himself drinking endless cups of the stuff.

We were in town around the Christmas season, where we had the opportunity of seeing the posadas whenever we had dinner in the nearby town of Palenque. At one point, we were having dinner when a shoeshine boy came in and began circulating among the diners. When he approached Dan, my brother quietly slipped off his sandals and proffered a large foot clothed in a fuzzy red wool sock. The whole restaurant erupted in laughter.