Unlike other archeological sites in Mexico, Palenque has a unique magic that resides in its natural location. Hidden in the deep Lacandon Jungle, these ruins, which date from 226 BC, remained a mystery for centuries, keeping the Mayan’s secrets covered with the rich flora of the state of Chiapas.
Palenque is a small town in Chiapas that has been considered one of Mexico’s 121 magical towns, or "pueblos mágicos." For a place to be considered a pueblo mágico, it must be rich in symbols and legends that have marked the country’s history and culture. Palenque was founded in the 16th century and is two hours away from Villahermosa, the state of Tabasco’s capital city, and six hours from Tuxtla Gutiérrez, the capital city of Chiapas. The archeological site is only 5 miles from the town and to get there you have to enter the preserved National Park of Palenque, a zone dedicated to the preservation of the jungle’s rich flora and fauna.
Both the archeological site and the national park are included on the UNESCO World Heritage list. They were inscribed in 1987 because of the heritage they represent, and the elegance and craftsmanship of the buildings which attest to the genius of the Mayan civilization. The site consists of 10 miles that hold 200 architectural structures and constructions.
What to Expect at Palenque
Once you arrive at the Zona Arqueológica Palenque, you are surrounded by nature. Wherever you turn your gaze, you'll see nothing but deep jungle with just a small trail between the trees. In the parking lot, there are numerous street sellers offering water bottles, natural coconuts, and coconut water, as well as traditional handicrafts. If you're interested, you might want to leave that for after the visit, since there will be a lot of walking!
To get to the ruins, follow the trail that starts at the parking lot. The path, roofed with thick, tall trees, has several stone steps you must climb to find the ancient city with its legendary stone constructions. Palenque's ruins are considered among the most important archeological sites of the Mayan civilization. Built between 226 BC and the 8th century, they weren't discovered until 1746, after being mysteriously abandoned centuries ago. Although the Mayan city was hidden for centuries, it's's known for being one of the best-conserved sites, presenting the Classic Period of the Mayan era in an exceptional way.
As you walk through the site, you'll get to see the pyramids and the Mayan palaces at the center and the thick jungle on the perimeter. If you climb to the top of one of the temples, you'll get to see the trees surrounding the site sway, evidence of all the life that resides in the jungle, and numerous colorful birds flying over the treetops. You can also listen to the wildlife sounds coming from the wilderness, especially the rumbling roar of the howler monkeys.
What to See at Palenque
Within the numerous constructions, you’ll find temples dedicated to religious rituals, other buildings built for military purposes, and others for scientific research and activities. At the archeological site are numerous hieroglyphics, the Mayan calendar, and details that reveal their culture and everyday activities.
Templo de las Inscripciones (Temple of Inscriptions)
This is probably the most famous temple here because of its opulence and greatness. It was built to become King Pakal’s sacred tomb, and when it was discovered, they even found his sumptuous sarcophagus and the late governor wearing elegant and sober clothing. The temple has a 22-foot long and 12-foot wide chamber wholly covered with red hieroglyphics and carvings that narrate Pakal’s journey to the land of the dead.
El Gran Palacio (The Great Palace)
This is the most significant building and is located at the center of the ancient city. Its strongest characteristic is the tall tower that stands out, but it’s also one of the most complex buildings of Palenque with several patios, corridors, rooms, and numerous connections with other buildings through stairways and underground passages. The palace is rich in content and messages since its walls are covered with carvings and sculptures.
Grupo de las Cruces (Group of the Crosses)
Three buildings form the complex that was built by King Pakal’s sons after his death. These buildings surround the Sun’s Plaza and are called the Temple of the Sun, the Temple of the Cross and the Temple of the Foliated Cross. Inside the temples, several carvings tell the legends the Mayans believed in and were places for worship.
Juego de Pelota (Ballgame)
The Mayan’s ball game was not just a sporting event, but a religious ritual. To play the game there were long platforms built with small vertical hoops on the walls, where the ball had to go through. The game itself was a ceremony dedicated to the Gods.
Palenque’s National Park
This zone was turned into a national reserve in 1981 to protect local flora and fauna. The archeological site is inside the park, which has an extension of over 4,000 acres. There are tours to explore the park, and some even organize hiking opportunities. Adventuring in the park can be an enjoyable experience for nature lovers who can watch several monkeys (especially spider monkeys and howler monkeys), as well as wild cats, anteaters, and even, if you’re lucky, a jaguar. This is also a paradise for birdwatchers who can get to see colorful parrots and the endangered red macaw flying freely.
Planning Your Visit
There’s a small airport in Palenque that receives flights from Mexico City on two days each week. For those who prefer a road trip, it’s only a two-hour drive from Villahermosa, Tabasco, and a six-hour drive from Tuxtla Gutiérrez. Once in town, there are several small and medium-sized hotels where you can stay. The Hotel Misión Palenque is an excellent option with comfortable rooms, a pool, a spa, and even tennis courts. For those who want to be in contact with nature, the eco-hotel Chan-Kah Resort Village offers a great experience; instead of traditional rooms, there are bungalows immersed in the jungle, so you can even listen to the monkeys howl at night right outside your cottage.
In most restaurants, you’ll find traditional Mexican cuisine, although several highlight local dishes. One of the best local dishes is called tamales chiapanecos, which are wrapped with banana leaves instead of corn husks. Some good restaurants to visit are the Chan-Kah restaurant, Winíka, or Bajlum.
Tips for Visiting
As you can imagine, walking in the jungle can get really hot and there are a lot of bugs. Even though the average temperature is just 70 degrees F, it’s very humid, so you should consider wearing light clothes, carry a hat with you, and apply sunblock. Rain can be heavy during summer, so having a raincoat is also advised. Always carry insect repellent with you, as well.