About 40 kilometers downstream from Yaxchilán, amid the dense rainforests of Sierra del Lacandón, lie the exotic ruins of Piedras Negras. The site is exquisite both because of its location on a lonely stretch of river and for the quality of its carved monuments, which are considered some of the best in the Mayan world.
Its remoteness gives you the privileged sensation of being one of a very select number of visitors and, along with El Mirador, most closely mirrors what the early explorers must have felt upon first rediscovering some of the great Mayan cities.
Piedras Negras was founded sometime around A.D. 300 and fought Yaxchilán for much of its history in a struggle for supreme control over the Usumacinta’s trade routes. It would form strategic alliances both with Tikal and Calakmul in this pursuit. This large city is thought to have housed 10,000 inhabitants at its peak population.
Among Piedras Negras’s excellent carvings are several stelae, hieroglyphic panels, and even a royal hieroglyphic throne. Several of these are on display in Guatemala City’s Museo Nacional de Arqueología y Etnología.
The site gets its Spanish name from the black rocks lining the riverbank here. Among them is a giant stone near the entrance to the site with several eroded hieroglyphs and a depiction of two seated figures. From here, you head up the hill to the ruins. Several structures remain well preserved, among them the Acropolis, containing a large twin-palace complex, as well as several Mayan saunas used by the elite and scattered throughout the site. The remains of a giant stairway reaching down to the riverbank can also be found here.
Famed Russian epigrapher Tatiana Proskouriakoff, who deciphered many of the Mayan glyphs here and at Yaxchilán, is buried among the ruins. Proskouriakoff first postulated the idea that many of the events described in Mayan hieroglyphs corresponded to events in a ruler’s life span, a theory initially discarded by Mayanists but subsequently proven correct.
Since 1997, after the departure of the guerrillas formerly occupying Piedras Negras, excavations have once again been carried out under the leadership of Héctor Escobedo. The site is among the World Monuments Fund’s list of “100 Most Threatened Places” because of a hydroelectric project tossed around by the Mexican government for decades, threatening to flood Piedras Negras and several smaller, recently discovered nearby sites. Only about 200 visitors make the trip to Piedras Negras every year.
Getting to Piedras Negras
The best way to visit Piedras Negras is on an organized tour. Maya Expeditions (www.mayaexpeditions.com), which pioneered rafting trips on the Usumacinta, has updated its itineraries to reflect the security situation on the river.
By the same toekn, the folks at the Posada Maya in Bethel can help arrange transport if you choose to go.
The most feasible option at this time is to do the trip from the Mexican side of the river via Willy Fonseca’s Restaurante Vallescondido (Km. 61 on the Palenque–Comitán Road, tel. 916/348-0721 or 916/100-0399, busil_h [at] hotmail [dot] com). Trips go out with a minimum of four people, with each person paying $125 for an overnight camping trip.
There is an excellent riverside campsite with a wide sandy beach a few hundred meters downstream from Piedras Negras at El Porvenir, where there is a CONAP guard station.
© Al Argueta from Moon Guatemala, 3rd Edition. Photos © Al Argueta www.alargueta.com