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Photo by Andrew Evans, National Geographic Traveler

Palenque: New Age; 16 Pax 4 Lamat

Just like actual travel, online exploration can take you to some of the strangest corners of the internet.

How is it that within two or three clicks of merely Googling the Mesoamerican ruins of Palenque, I am suddenly reading about extraterrestrial invasions? You know—those vicious aliens who infiltrated the Maya civilization sometime in the 7th century A.D.

You mean you haven’t heard of the Palenque Astronaut?

In 1952, after four long years digging rubble out from Palenque’s Temple of the Inscriptions, Mexican archaeologist Alberto Ruz Lhuillier discovered the lost tomb of K’inich Janaab Pakal, a legendary ajaw (king) who ruled Palenque for 68 years (615-683 A.D.). The intricate sarcophagus of the jade-dressed ruler is perhaps the greatest archaeological find in the western hemisphere, akin to that of the discovery of King Tut’s tomb in 1922.

Just as King Tut’s tomb inspired a worldwide interest in all things Egyptian, the discovery of Pakal’s tomb in the 1950s set a match to a brewing culture craze in the Americas. Among those touched by curiosity was beat poet Allen Ginsberg, who traveled to Palenque in 1954 and wrote about the ruins in letters to Jack Kerouac.

American interest in its own ancient past was paired with questions about the future and the vast universe beyond Earth. NASA’s Project Mercury emerged in 1959 and by 1962, John Glenn had orbited the planet in a spaceship. ‘Twas a time when spacemen were on everyone’s brain.

In 1968, Swiss eccentric Erich von Däniken published his bestselling work Chariots of the Gods?, which included an illustration of the carved sarcophagus lid of Pakal’s tomb. Däniken believed the classical Mayan work of art from Palenque depicted an “ancient astronaut”—or an alien who visited earth only to be deified by the Maya. Later theories even suggested that Pakal’s sarcophagus was in fact, a kind of ancient spaceship.

If that sounds weird, it was only the beginning. From the 1970s onwards, Palenque inspired a growing brand of New Age mysticism—Mayanism.

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Relief sculpture, Palenque, Mexico. (Photo by Andrew Evans, National Geographic Traveler)

Why do I mention any of this? Because, apart from the very real fact that the Mayan long count calendar ends this year (and one minor doomsday prophecy), much of the 2012 hoopla can be traced back to the snowball of speculation that tumbled out of the tomb at Palenque and—more specifically—with the idea of the Palenque Astronaut.

In Mexico, I am fast discovering that unraveling a mystery means not only tracking down the truth, but also sifting out the myths. Modern exploration of Palenque has revealed important knowledge about ancient Maya civilization. It has also fueled some crazy ideas and wild speculation that have ballooned out of control and infected popular culture.

Exhibit A is Lars Von Trier’s latest film, Melancholia, in which (Spoiler alert!) Earth ends in a giant cinematographic fireball. Exhibit B is the club hit “Till the World Ends” in which an auto-tuned Britney Spears instructs us over and over to “Keep on Dancing” before finally emerging from beneath a dirty manhole cover to greet the dawn of a new day. Sigh of relief.

Britney and Lars are selling conflicting visions of the future (Happy Ending, Sad Ending) which coincide with the two main interpretations of the Maya 2012 prophecy.

A contrasting alternative to the death-and-destruction doomsday scenario is that the end of 2012 will usher in a new age—that the last day of the Maya long count calendar will merely lead to the first day of a new cycle, specifically a new baktun (400-year period). Rather than a clock stopping time, it will be more like a speedometer flipping back to all zeros. The optimists of the world refer back to Y2K, when we woke up on the morning of January 1, 2000 and realized that the electricity still worked.

While I am an optimist at heart, visiting ancient ruins turns one into a bit of a pessimist about the future.

When I first laid eyes on Palenque’s Temple of Inscriptions, I skipped a breath. One minute I was walking slowly through the jungle, wiping raindrops from my glasses. The next, a plume of cool mist blew away and exposed the mighty Maya pyramid before me. The Temple of Inscriptions is one of the more iconic, and aside from Chichen Itza, almost standard-setting in its shape and size.

No matter than I had seen this particular temple on every brochure and website for Chiapas—seeing it in person is a tremendous experience. Palenque’s most well-known ruin is so gigantic, I felt an immediate reverence for the culture and people that were able to construct such a grand piece of architecture.

But the awe and wonder that I first felt slowly dissipated, like the jungle mist burning off the canopy with the rising sun. Wandering among the limestone ruins of temples and palaces of the past, I could not help but wonder how such a smart and sophisticated society could crumble into ruin.

The Maya of Palenque had aqueducts of running water, intelligent architecture, intricate artwork, ball courts and residences that will last much longer than most of the chipboard-walled homes built in America today.

Just as traveling in foreign places makes you reconsider home, standing atop a ruined civilization makes you reconsider your own. Palenque was built around 100 B.C. and was abandoned around 800 A.D. That’s 900 years of civilization that came to an abrupt finish.

In historical terms, our own civilization has yet to stand the test of time. New York City is not even 400 years old—I thought about New York because I spent the morning at Palenque estimating the expanse of the ruins in terms of Manhattan city blocks. I wondered: What would America’s biggest city look like if it were abandoned for the next 1,400 years? Which buildings would stay standing for the long haul, and which ones would crumble and fall? Even in my own relatively brief lifetime, the New York City skyline has changed in a major way.

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North Group temples, Palenque, Mexico (Andrew Evans, National Geographic Traveler)

When we talk about the end of the world, many of us imagine total destruction and devastation—the Lars Von Trier version of events. But visiting Palenque showed me that a world can disappear without actually disappearing.

For the ancient Maya of Palenque, the world most definitely ended. Their city and society ceased to function, and the grandeur and knowledge of their age fell into ruin and forgetting. And yet the Maya are still here. Millions of Maya still live in Mexico today—they live quite a different reality than they did 1,400 years ago, but the people themselves have not disappeared.

Also, the ruins of Palenque still stand—just as they were part of an ancient civilization, they have become part of our civilization today. They are a tourist attraction that inspires the whole world in myriad ways.

Yesterday, resting on the Pyramid of the Cross (built by Pakal’s oldest son), I observed the different visitors interacting with the strange and exotic archaeological sites around them. A couple from Spain posed for pictures atop one pyramid, imitating Buddha in full lotus position with fingers pinched in mudra. Another visitor showed off her voice by belting Puccini from inside one temple, accurately demonstrating the superior acoustics of the Maya. Meanwhile, a Russian lady with dyed red hair kneeled at the base of one temple, bowing and praying with arms outstretched. Even the well-pressed British tour group seemed less interested in their pedantic guide and far more mystified by the emotion of Palenque.

And I, observing these New Age manifestations in silence, found myself in agreement with American explorer John Lloyd Stephens, who in 1840 described Palenque’s “mournful effect.”

While their ancient civilization is long finished, the mystery of the Maya is alive in the ruins of Palenque today. I spent a day exploring these surviving stones and left with mixed emotions—one part fear of some kind of impending doomsday and one part hope for a new age in which the best of our civilization survives.

Like a good traveler, I will cling to that hope and carry on to the next place.