Mural at Bonampak

The Bonampak Murals: How to See the Best Examples of Ancient Maya Art

The Bonampak murals are the most famous examples of ancient Maya art.

They are some of the most elaborate and most intact murals of the Maya world, the best examples of the artistry of their civilization at its height. According to art historian and mayanist Mary Ellen Miller from Yale University, “Perhaps the single greatest achievement of Maya art, the Bonampak murals are also undoubtedly the finest paintings of the indigenous New World.” (Maya Art and Architecture, published in 1999)

After reading something like that, and seeing photos of the Bonampak murals, it was inevitable that I wanted to see them in person. It took decades before I made it, but I finally visited the archaeological site and saw them. They were just as elaborate as I expected them. Although I wish I could’ve spent more time in the rooms with them…

The Archaeological Site of Bonampak

Bonampak, a small, but important ancient Maya archaeological site
Bonampak is a small site, these are the only standing structures there.

Besides the famous murals, the site itself is not memorable, at least in its present state. In fact, the ancient city itself is one of the smallest of the Maya ruins we visited over the years.

Out of the way, in the jungles of Chiapas, Bonampak is not an easy site to visit. But if you are visiting Palenque and Yaxchilan, it is worth the side trip.

How to Get to Bonampak

In our experience, the fastest, and perhaps easiest way to get to Bonampak is to drive to the site from Palenque. However, we’ve also seen many small-group tours drive to the site in vans, most also from Palenque, only 30 km (19 miles) away. The distance may be short, but the road is not an easy one to follow. At least it wasn’t when we visited.

Our Experience of Reaching Bonampak

We drove to Bonampak from Palenque, during our latest trip into the area. Looking at the map and the distance, we thought it would be a short drive. We forgot what it was like to drive in the countryside of Mexico. Twisty-turny roads, tall topes in unexpected places, slow trucks and ancient vehicles that could barely move on the road, made the “short” road a very long drive.

Finally, we saw the sign for Bonampak, though no ruins. When I looked closer, I realized the sign said 10 km, but the road seemed to stop. At least the paved road did. We noticed a dirt road, little more than a track, through the jungle ahead, most likely the road to the ruins. Before even pondering how we would drive the rental car through there, a local young man ran over and tapped my window.

“You can’t drive your car through,” he said.

“Why; Is the road that bad?” asked my husband.

“You’re not allowed to. But I can take you,” he added. “Just park here, get in my taxi and I can get you in so you have an hour before they close.”

We did as he said and crowded into his tiny taxi that felt like it would fall apart any minute. True to his word, he drove like a maniac through the potholes, rocks, and dirt, and we nicknamed him Senior Speedy. I think he liked his nickname, at least it made him smile. He passed a few tour-vans and got us there fast enough to give us an hour before closing time to enjoy the site.

“I’ll wait for you here, and take you back when they close,” he said, as we got out and walked towards the ruins. The site is tiny, with only two structures and one large stela. But what’s inside one of these structures changed the way the world looks at Maya art.

Visiting the Ruins

The main plaza of the site
Bonampak. The site

Since only the main plaza is open for visitors, it doesn’t take long to get through it all.

We walked through a row of tents set up for vendors, but it was night and day compared to Chichen Itza. Here, no one was yelling, no one was trying to sell their fare other than setting it out. Everything looked more authentic, more low-key, here. Even when someone stopped to buy something, the vendors only answered questions, didn’t push their fare on them.

The trail was short, and we stood in front of the pyramid in no time. A local Lacandon Maya, dressed in traditional white clothes, had a book where everyone who walked up to the bigger structure would sign, then stood in line. I guessed (correctly for once) that the lines were to see the murals inside the rooms.

Considering how out of the way the site is, more visitors were at the site than I expected. Most seemed to belong to some group or another.

The Murals …

Outside view of the temple of the Bonampak murals (Structure 1).
While waiting in line to enter the rooms with the frescoes, we enjoyed the artwork on the outside of the building, above the doorways

Considering the number of people who visit the site to see the famous Bonampak murals, I understand they need a strict rules of how people may walk into the structure. Still, I wish I could have spent a lot more time inside these rooms.

As they set it up, we each had about 20 seconds inside the rooms. In fact, we didn’t even enter all the way, only walk inside the doorway and stand on a ramp while we could look at the murals, take a few pictures and walk out.

A maximum of three people could walk up to the ramp at the same time, and even that made it feel crowded. Still, every one of those 20 seconds I was standing there was worth it. And, since we didn’t mind standing on line multiple times, we went back twice to each room.

Understanding the Famous Bonampak Murals

Murals cover the walls of the structures from floor through the arch ceiling.
Frescoes cover the walls all the way up to the arch ceiling

The site name Bonampak means “painted walls”. The site obviously got its name from the murals. Three rooms in Structure I have painted walls, filled with amazing colorful artwork from bottom to top, including the ceilings.

They tell stories of everyday life, peace and celebrations, war and sacrifice of the ancient Maya of this city. They tell these stories in images that depict more human figures than any other known mural in the Maya world.

The three rooms are supposed to be “read” in sequence, to understand the story they portray. They reminded me of a modern art gallery, except the artwork was painted directly on the walls, instead of hanging on them.

The Murals in Room 1

Scene depicted on the Bonampak murals in Room 1
The lower walls of Room 1 – a procession of ancient Maya Lords

Room 1 was my favorite, with its walls populated by the largest number of people, full of vivid colors. Most of the scenes here seemed peaceful. Though the frescoes depict moments from the lives of the Maya Lords, they are surrounded by many others, giving us a glimpse into their society.

The scenes follow a sequence, like in storytelling. In one scene high-ranked Lords bring gifts or taxes to their king. Another scene depicts three Lords getting dressed by their servants in elaborate costumes that evoke jaguars, quetzals, and snakes. In the next scene they are dancing, keeping the story sequence. Musicians and other characters surround the dancers in the center.

Figures in the murals
Ancient Maya Lords in elaborate head dresses
Musicians depicted on the walls of the structure.
Fresco depicting ancient Maya musicians

I didn’t get all of this in the short 20 seconds I stared at the paintings. But I knew what I was looking at from earlier readings, and photos of the scenes. When I was there in person, my senses were overwhelmed by all the colors, people and movement on the walls, on the ceiling, on the Maya arch. I would love to spend an hour at least in this room, watching every single scene, every person. But I am happy I got even the 20 seconds – twice.

The Murals in Room 2

As usual in the ancient world, times of war followed times of peace. Room 2 in Bonampak depicts a battle scene. I didn’t feel the need to linger in or return to this room. Still, I need to mention how impressive the movement is in these paintings from ancient times. Maya artists, at least those who painted these murals, understood and expressed human movement as well as any modern artist.

However, battle scenes are not my favorites, no matter how impressive the artistry. So I was glad to move on to the next room.

The Murals in Room 3

Scene in Room 3
Dancers with large flowing headdresses help celebrate the victory after the war.

A celebration followed the war, though most scenes in Room 3 are no less disturbing. The scenes of dancers with flowing headdresses are surrounded by those of self-mutilation and sacrifices of captives on these walls.

Before leaving the site, I returned to the line for Room 1 and left with the more peaceful images in mind.

Though the artistry in Bonampak is of a much higher level, especially when it comes to the human figures, the murals reminded me of those I saw in Cacaxtla, hundreds of miles from any known Maya region and this site. The colors, some of the imagery and even movement, are similar. After reading more about them, I learned that the two sites, so far from each other, were contemporary, and the ancient Maya painted the murals in both.

Visiting the Rest of the Site

View of the small site surrounded by jungle from the top of Structure 2
The view from the top of structure 2

Though they were closing the site, while the last visitors still stood in line for the murals, we climbed Structure 2, the taller pyramid near these rooms.

We walked through the rooms on top, then made our way down the steps. At the bottom, we stopped to look at the stelae.

Stela at the bottom of the stairway of Structure 2
Stela at the bottom of the stairs of Structure 2

Suddenly we heard an ear piercing whistle. They were closing the site, and this was their way of letting everyone know. We made our way back to the gate, where our driver was waiting for us.

Leaving Bonampak

He drove us out a little slower, but we felt he still deserved his Senior Speedy title and told him so before leaving his car, which somehow did not fall apart.

With our limited Spanish and his nonexistent English, it was hard to communicate, but he still pointed us in the right direction for a place to sleep for the night.

We found out we could not hope for a hotel, there were none in the area. However, just up the road, we could find cabanas to sleep in. Just in case we didn’t understand, he showed us the road to follow, a narrow, local road where larger cars could not even get through.

Following that road took us to our next adventure in the land of the Maya.

  1. What is Bonampak and what is it famous for?

    Bonampak is one of the Classic Maya sites near Yaxchilan. A smaller site, it was a dependency of Yaxchilan. Built during the Preclassic era of the ancient Maya civilization, it is famous not so much for its structures, but for its murals. Bonampak means “painted walls” , referring to the murals the site was named for.

  2. Why are the Bonampak murals so famous?

    Referring to the murals of Bonampak, Mayanist Mary Ellen Miller from Yale University called them , “the finest paintings of the indigenous New World.” (Maya Art and Architecture, published in 1999). Filling all the walls, including the ceilings, of three separate rooms of the site, the murals reflect moments from the history of Bonampak.

  3. What do the murals of Bonampak portray?

    The murals of Bonampak portray historical moments from the life of the ancient city. Filling the walls and ceilings of three separate rooms in Structure I (also referred to as the Temple of the murals), the murals tell the stories of important historical moments in the life of the ancient city. Images of peaceful times (Room 1) are followed by more disturbing paintings of war-scenes (Room 2) and after-war celebrations including human sacrifice (Room 3) are depicted in order in the three rooms. Besides the specific events, the murals show the importance of music and dance in the lives of the ancient Maya, portraying people playing different musical instruments and dancing during these events.

  4. When was Bonampak built?

    The structures at Bonampak date from the Late Classic era of the ancient Maya civilization, around 500-800 AD).

  5. Where is Bonampak?

    The ancient Maya site of Bonampak, famous for its murals, is in the state of Chiapas, Mexico, near the border with Guatemala.

About the Author

Emese-Réka Fromm has been visiting Maya ruins and archaeological sites for over thirty years, since the first time she set foot on the Yucatan Peninsula on her honeymoon. Besides exploring well-known and off-the-beaten track ruins all this time, she reads about the ancient Maya, and recently attended a lecture of respected Mayanist and epigrapher David Stuart at the Maya meetings at the UT of Austin. A published travel writer with bylines in publications like Lonely Planet and several others, she is also a language instructor in Phoenix.

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