Riding on a chair carried by a peon, John Lloyd Stephens arrived in Palenque in 1840.

By Shelagh McNally

A man finds a book describing an ancient lost city deep within the jungle. He sets out to find this mythical place, ignoring critics who dismiss his quest as foolish. After facing many perils and hardships, he discovers the lost city, and subsequently, a whole civilization. This romantic scenario is a classic theme in Western imagination, inspiring books and movies. In many ways, John Lloyd Stephens' exploration of Palenque is the prototype for this kind of adventure.

    By 1835, Stephens was a successful travel writer, publishing several volumes about his discoveries in Egypt, Arabia, Greece, Turkey and Russia. In 1839 Stephens caused a minor sensation when he announced his goal of conducting "an unbiased investigation" of Palenque and other Maya sites in Mexico and Central America. The public was captivated by the idea, scholars dismissive.

    With many eager to denounce him, Stephens knew he would need accurate evidence to support his discoveries. He invited Frederick Catherwood to join the expedition, for he had a reputation as a skilled draftsman and scholar, and did not indulge in the romantic fantasies of many other artist-travelers of that period. They arrived in Belize on November 3, 1839 and took six months to reach Palenque.

    In April of 1840, they entered Chiapas during the rainy season. Their journey was slow and arduous, as they were forced to travel through "forest so overgrown with brush and underwood as to be impenetrable . . ." Carrying their belongings on mules, they endured ten days of drenching rain and battled fatigue, sloughs of mud, hordes of mosquitoes and steep hills. Stephens considered the mountains they traversed in Chiapas to be the worst "ever encountered, in that or any other country." They arrived in Santo Domingo de Palenque—the remote village just west of the site—in a "shattered condition" brought on by illness, hunger and exhaustion. The village itself was in the middle of a famine and was less than ideal for resting. After procuring the most basic supplies, the explorers set out for the lost city. After three hours of slipping and sliding along what was once a "great highway, thronged with people," they arrived at Palenque. Their native guides cried out "el palacio, el palacio" (the palace), and Stephens and Catherwood looked up through the trees to see the front of a richly ornamented building. Crawling up the steps, they went through to the Palace courtyard and fired off four rounds to celebrate their arrival. Stephens noted that: "For the first time we were in a building erected by the aboriginal inhabitants, standing before the Europeans knew of the existence of this continent."

    The Palace became their base camp. Catherwood started his sketches while Stephens explored the massive labyrinths of vaulted rooms, narrow corridors and subterranean chambers of the residential complex. Together, they found a terraced pyramid, buried under a tangle of vegetation near the southwest corner of the Palace. They inched their way up the steep steps to discover five doorways decorated with stucco reliefs. The carvings, panels of hieroglyphics and mazes of sculptured designs inspired awe. "No description and no drawing can give the moral sublimity of the spectacle," wrote Stephens in his journal. They had discovered the Temple of the Inscriptions. When they reached the vault, they stood with torch in hand to examine the hieroglyphics. They had no way of knowing they were standing atop what would one day be considered the most dazzling discovery ever made in the world of Maya archaeology. Beneath their feet lay the tomb of Pakal, which would not be located until a century later by archaeologist Alberto Ruz Lhuillier.

    Conditions at the camp remained primitive: the explorers were not able to sleep much at night because of the voracious mosquitoes, their food quickly spoiled in the damp heat and during the day there were poisonous snakes and scorpions to deal with. At one point Stephens was forced to return to the village to recover from the bites of tropical fleas called niguas.

    Catherwood was also sick, suffering from recurring bouts of malaria. Despite this, both continued their work uncovering the Temple of the Cross, the Temple of the Sun and the Temple of the Foliated Cross. Catherwood rendered each bas-relief and exterior with great care, while Stephens wrote the descriptions.

    On May 30, 1840, a tropical storm hit Palenque. Stephens describes it as "sublime and terrible . . . The storm threatened the very existence of the building." The crew became so soaked and ill, that on June 1st, the explorers left the city.

    On July 31st of that same year, the team arrived back in New York. Stephens began working on his book, Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatan, illustrated by Catherwood's meticulous engravings. When it was finally published, the book caused an uproar, and embarrassed many historians and scholars, who immediately set about reexamining their views of the Maya. The public was enthralled with the whole idea of an undiscovered civilization.

    From his discoveries at Palenque, Stephens concluded that "Here were the remains of a cultivated, polished and peculiar people who had passed through all the stages incident to the rise and fall of nations; reached their golden age and perished, entirely unknown." Time would prove Stephens most accurate in his deductions.

The Findings The Restorers City of Kings
A Mapping Adventure Pakal's Tomb The Pakal Glyph

Site produced by Organización Tips. Cancun, Mexico.