Bonampak (pronounced bō-näm-päk’) means “painted wall” in modern Mayan, and that is exactly what this site is famous for – its ancient murals. This small but colorful park is an ancient Mayan archaeological site in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas, deep in the Lacandón jungle about 20 miles south of the larger site of Yaxchilan.
The site, lying deep in the jungle close to a tributary of the Usumacinta River, was first seen by outsiders in 1946 when two Americans were led to the ruins by the local Maya who still visited the site to pray in the ancient temples. Bonampak is well-known for its murals, especially those located within Structure 1, also known as The Temple of the Murals. The structures date to the Early Classic period, 580 to 800 AD, during which time it was a satellite of the larger Yaxchilan to the north. Bonampak collapsed with Yaxchilan in the 800s.The site extends over 2.5 square kilometers, although all of the main attractions revolve around the group of buildings surrounding the main plaza. It is set in the jungle, and the wildlife of the area are becoming an attraction in their own right.
Since the construction of the Border Highway by the Mexican government in the early 1990s, Bonampak is much more accessible to tourists.
The Bonampak Archeological Park is open 7 Days a week; 8 am to 5 pm. The site charges a small admission of less than US$10. Rest rooms, parking and refreshments are available.
The entrance to the site is some distance from the ruins themselves, and it’s necessary to take a bus or drive your own car. You can also rent a mountain bike and make the 5 mile trip on a gravel road cut through the jungle.
The major attraction of Bonampak is the set of three painted murals inside a building commonly known as the Temple of the Murals (building 1) on the main plaza. It is a long narrow building with three rooms on top of a low step-pyramid base. The interior walls preserve the finest examples of classic Maya painting, otherwise known only from pottery and occasional small faded fragments.
The paintings date from 790 and were made as frescoes, a technique of painting directly on wet plaster. The paintings reveal no seams in the plaster indicating that each room was painted in a single session during the short time that the plaster was moist. The frescoes (using natural colors of blue, red, sepia , yellow, mauve, purple and green) depict Mayan court life and warfare: the first showing the consecration of a child, the second a battle and torture and sacrifice of captives, and the third a celebration with dances and headdresses. It is best to see the painting in chronological order, and be prepared to wait a bit since only four people are allowed in a room at one time.
The murals have been reproduced full scale, and these reproductions may be seen in the National Museum of Anthropology & History in Mexico City.
How to get there
Due to its remote location between a huge national forest and the Guatemalan border, it is best to take a tour to Bonampak. Such tours are readily available in Palenque, about 100 miles (three hours) to the north. Even the tour buses drive in convoys leaving Palenque early in the morning, so if you drive yourself, you may wish to join such a convoy for safety. To drive there you take highway 199 located at the east end of Palenque and follow the signs. Be prepared to go through one or more “retenes,” military check points.
Both Bonampak and Yaxchilan are off the Frontier Highway, Highway 307 in Mexico. Don’t drive this highway after dark, and to be safe just travel with a bus convoy. You will be driving in a remote area with no gasoline stations or repair service. You will probably pass through at least one or more military checkpoints if you drive in Chiapas. Unless you are an experienced driver in Mexico, it is best to take a tour instead of driving yourself or taking the bus.
Public buses are also an option. You can take a three-hour bus ride from Palenque, but the bus does not stop at the park entrance. Instead it will drop you off about two miles away. You then take a local bus or hike to the ruins’ entrance. That is one of the advantages of booking a tour – the tour operators take care of such details.
Protect Yourself – This is jungle climate, hot and humid. Wear loose fitting comfortable clothes of cotton, no denim. Sturdy shoes are needed. Protect yourself with sun screen, bug spray, a hat, sun glasses and water. Drink water before you get thirsty.