Plan de Ayutla Archaeological Zone
For all the attention paid to must-see archaeological sites like Palenque and Yaxchilán, the ruins of Plan de Ayutla rank as one of the most fascinating and memorable in the region and the state. Seven kilometers outside Nueva Palestina and way off the beaten path, the ruins consist of twin pyramids, ensconced in trees and vegetation, and crowned by a complex of remarkably well-preserved structures that are a thrill to explore and clamber about.
What’s more, there is growing evidence that these are the remains of the ancient Maya city of Sak Tz’i’, whose location has been one of the enduring archaeological mysteries of the Río Usumacinta and Lacandón region.
For decades, archaeologists have known of Sak Tz’i’ (Tzeltal Maya for Perro Blanco, or White Dog) from inscriptions at Piedras Negras and Bonampak, but could never find the city’s location or remains. The city seems to have played the role of ancient swing voter (or “catalyzing agent” in archaeological parlance), never a major player itself, yet capable of tipping the balance of power among the dominant cities through strategic alliances.
This role is suggested in part by military defeats at the hands of various rivals, including Piedras Negras in A.D. 628, Yaxchilán and Bonampak in A.D. 726—possibly the battle portrayed in Bonampak’s famous murals—and Toniná even later.
But Sak Tz’i’ may have had the last laugh: As the major powers collapsed one by one around the turn of the 9th century, San Tz’i’ held on until at least A.D. 864, making it one of the last significant Maya cities to fall.
The buildings atop the pyramid on the left (as you enter the site) are larger and more elaborate, including several multiroom “palace structures” with original stucco and paint still visible, and two temples with stunning 10-meter vaulted ceilings. Together they form a grand multilevel complex that probably served as residential quarters for the city’s elite, and today makes for fun exploring.
The structures on the other pyramid are smaller, and probably related to administrative functions, but no less impressive. In particular, a small but artful building dubbed Temple of the Inscription has faint hieroglyphic text on two sides, while a nearby structure has a distinctive temple-within-a-temple design, similar to structures found at Palenque.
Beyond the two pyramids, a low structure is being excavated, which archaeologists believe may have been part of an unusually large ball court—some 65 meters long. If confirmed, this would be the largest ball court in the region, even bigger than the ones at Palenque and Toniná. Numerous additional structures await excavation; in all, the city covered over five hectares (12 acres).
Getting to Plan de Ayutla
To get to Plan de Ayutla, continue on the main road past Nueva Palestina for 4.25 kilometers, looking for a smaller unmarked road just before a bridge and curve. Turn left there, and go another three kilometers to where the road makes a curious S-curve beneath a stand of trees—there are no signs, but you can’t miss the twin pyramids looming on either side of the road. The archaeological site is technically on private property, and you may be asked to pay an admission fee of US$2 per person.
© Liza Prado and Gary Chandler from Moon Chiapas, 1st Edition