Located in Chiapas, the Mayan ruined city of Palenque stands out as one of the most beautiful and tourist-friendly of the Mayan cities. It has well developed tourist infrastructure with easy accessibility and a spectacular setting on a mountain in the midst of a rainforest. Beautiful architecture, unique in the Maya world, and well-preserved reliefs integrate with natural landscape to provide an educational tour with impact. Numerous discoveries were made in Palenque, defining a large chunk of the known history and mythology of the ancient Mayan culture. The site is still being actively explored and renown archaeologists from around the world come to research new theories about the Mesoamerican world.
Mythology names King U-Ch'ix-K'an as the ruler of Palenque in 993 BC, but the physical evidence found to date shows the city to have thrived between 226 BC and 800 AD. Either way, it's old. Set amidst thick trees, Palenque still evokes some of the wonder that the early Spanish visitors must have felt when they first came across the ruins.
The ruins are set deep in a national park, with tropical rainforests surrounding the archaeological site. Both the ruins and the park are inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List.
Palenque is a medium-sized archaeological site, much smaller than Tikal or Yaxchilan, but it contains some of the finest sculpture, architecture, roof combs, and bas-relief carvings of the Mayan era. The site's many carvings (stelae and lintels) provide fertile source material for historians to study as they seek to understand the site's past. As was common at the time, Palenque was frequently at war with rival city-states, such as Calakmul and Tonina (whose warriors sacked the city in the early 8th century AD).
Palenque is a well-developed site that's been extensively explored and documented (it's often regarded as the most studied site in the Americas.) Despite the number of excavations, only a small part of the total archaeological site is seen by the public. Almost 90% of the original Mayan city remains hidden in the jungle, awaiting a future generation of archaeologists to uncover even more secrets.
Some highlights of the site include:
- Temple of the Inscriptions - pyramid where the tomb of Pacal the Great was found, many carvings for historians to study
- Temples of the Cross - three temples set atop three pyramids in a building cluster, Temple of the Cross, Temple of the Sun, and Temple of the Foliated Cross
- Palace - home of royalty, contains an observatory, spa baths, and a sauna. It's good to be the king.
Surrounding the ancient Mayan ruins are 1,772 hectares of tropical jungle, intended as a buffer area for the site and to preserve the forest environment, providing habitat for native plants and animals. The park includes several waterfalls and a camping area.
More than 1,500 species have been cataloged in the national park, including 62 mammal species. In addition to jaguars, monkeys, and other species commonly associated with tropical jungles, the park is home to over two dozen different kinds of bats (which make up the largest family of mammalians in the park). About 300 bird species have been spotted in the Nacional Parque Palenque, 87 of which are migratory species and the rest live in the park year round. Lots of reptiles and amphibians are found in the park including 29 species of frog and 52 species of snake. Two species of crocodile (Crocodylus acutus) and (Crocodylus moreletti) are found in the park's rivers and marshes -- and both are endangered.
The town of Palenque is just 8 km from the archaeological site. It was established by Dominican missionaries under the leadership of Fray Pedro Lorenzo in 1567, yet it would be 300 years before the friars learned about the ruins and reported their existence to the Spanish crown. Numerous expeditions ensued over the years, making Palenque one of the best explored and best documented of the Maya city-states. The town grew along with the reputation of its Maya treasures.
The town of Palenque is large for the state of Chiapas with a charming colonial centro and a large number of quaint older posadas and good restaurants that present the regional cuisine of Chiapas. A number of boutique shops and an artesania market showcase some of the crafts and artists of the local community. Recognizing the touristic value of Palenque, the tourism department of the federal government designated the town a Pueblo Mágico in 1987.
Palenque is famous for its spectacular waterfalls. There are three falls that are worth making a special effort to visit. These take some time and effort to reach so it would be wise to schedule a visit on a different day than you visit the ruins, which will easily take a full day to experience. The easiest way to visit these waterfalls is to arrange a day tour in the town of Palenque. You can visit on your own but it will be a hassle to figure out how to get in and out of the area around the falls and how to use combis for transportation. The tours are cheap and convenient and give travelers an added measure of safety since the falls are in a rural area outside the safety of Palenque.
The three major waterfalls are:
- Misol Ha - highest of the three falls with a dramatic 35-foot fall that's great for pictures, close to town and easily reached by public combis
- Agua Azul - most popular of the waterfalls due to its bright blue water (as the name implies), many vendors
- Roberto Barrios - best swimming of the three falls, but most remote location and smallest crowds
There is an admission charge for some of the waterfalls (Misol-Ha charged M$30 in June 2022).
Keep in mind that wet rocks around waterfalls can be slippery. Rubber sole shoes or watershoes are recommended.
The national park ranges in altitude between 200 and 800 meters with a climate typical of low-lying tropical jungles. Expect hot temperatures averaging 26°C and high humidity. Torrential downpours can occur at any time of year, but are most common in the summer months.
The closest alternative airport is Villahermosa (VSA IATA), about two hours away by road. Tuxtla Gutiérrez (TGZ IATA), is five to six hours away by bus. Merida (MID IATA) is about 5 hours away by car. All three alternative airports are well serviced with flights from Mexico City and other points in Mexico. Regular flights to Palenque are likely to resume by early 2024.
The easiest way to get to Palenque is by bus. There are many buses daily from San Cristobal de las Casas (five hours), Tuxtla Gutiérrez (six hours), Villahermosa (2.5 hours), Merida (8 hours), Campeche (5 hours), Cancún (13 hours). Daily (one or two buses) also ply from Mexico City (16 hours), Oaxaca (15 hours), Playa del Carmen (12 hours), and Tulum (12 hours).
It is also possible to get to Palenque from Flores in Guatemala by bus (6 hr, leaving Flores daily at 05:00, US$35). Buses to and from Guatemala have their own terminal next door to the main ADO terminal.
The ruins are about 6 km from the town of Palenque and minibuses run between the town and the "Ruinas" every 10 to 15 minutes (MX$20, Oct 2022) during the day. Flag one on Benito Juárez or just after the roundabout outside the ADO bus station, although, it might be a better option to flag it in Benito Juárez if you plan to go early in the morning. On the way back, catch one at the main gate or near the museum. (Updated Feb 2022).
- 1 Archeological ruins. MX$85 to the INAH and MX$97 to the government (Nov 2022). These tickets are bought separately at the museum which is about 1.3 km from the actual entrance.
- 2 Motiepa Waterfall. These waterfalls are inside the archaeological site.
- 3 Sombrillas Waterfalls. These waterfalls are inside the archaeological site.
The village has a lovely, tree-sheltered zocalo where bands will play in the evening. Join the Villagers for a drink on the square.
You can get some Maya-style artwork from outdoor vendors who set up unobtrusively at the ruins. There are shops and an artesania market in the town.
Sleeping accommodation can be found either in the city of Palenque, or just outside the limits on the road to the national park. Camping is permitted in the national park.
- 1 Maya Bell, Carretera Palenque-Ruinas KM 6, ☏ + 52 916 688 0017. Check-in: 15:00, check-out: 12:00. Very near the ruins and has many options to stay, from hammocks to cabins inside the jungle. Showers, restaurant with live music and shows during the night, a big swimming pool and parking space, also for RVs. M$700 and up.
- 2 El Panchan, Carr. Palenque-Ruinas Km 4,5, ☏ +52 916 112 8338. It is relatively near the ruins and has cabanas and small cabins and common sleeping areas with hammocks. A cabana with access to a common showers and bathrooms facility is M$80. The little Otulum river runs through the location. Restaurant on-site.
- 3 Jungle Palace, Carr. Palenque-Ruinas KM4.5 (In El Panchan). Offers mixed budget accommodation from camping, dorms, and small cabañas all with shared bathroom. Showers have hot water. Restaurant on-site. Dorms M$70, Camping M$30, Cabaña (for 4) from M$200.
- 4 Cabañas Kin Balam, Ruinas-Palenque Km 4.5, Parque Nacional Palenque, ☏ +52 9166880011. Check-in: 15:00, check-out: 12:00. Rustic cabins close to the archaeological site. Great value for the budget traveler. M$500 (extra for private bath and/or air conditioning).
- 5 Posada Na'Chan Ka'an, 2a. Avenida Sur Pte (Av. 20 de Noviembre) (In the city center at the corner where the colectivos for the ruins leave), ☏ +52 9163454737. Check-in: 24 hr, check-out: by 12:00. Very friendly, clean budget spot in the town of Palenque. Laundry, free internet and Wi-Fi. Hot water (also in dorms). Baggage locker. Dorms M$400.
- 6 Hotel Maya Tulipanes, 1ra Av Norte Poniente No. 6, La Cañada, ☏ +52 916 3450201. Check-in: 15:00, check-out: 12:00. Clean, comfortable, secure, upscale hotel. Restaurant on site. Relaxing outdoor pool area with umbrellas and tables. M$2000 (Jan 2023).
- 7 Hotel Maya Palenque, Merle Green y Av. Juárez Col, La Cañada (across the street from main ADO bus terminal), ☏ +529163450780. Check-in: 15:00, check-out: 12:00. Modern, comfortable hotel on the main highway. M$2000.
- 1 Pollos La Brasa, 2a. Avenida Sur Pte. 121.
- 2 La Huasteca, Central Pte. 48.
- 3 Taqueria "Los Pastorcitos", Central Ote..
- 4 Cocina del Tio Fide, Siglo XXI.
- 5 Claveles Pizza, C. Jiménez.
- 6 El Caracol De Jade, 1a. Ote. Nte. 2.
Near the archeological site
- 7 Don Muchos, Carretera Ruinas-Palenque Km. 4.5.
- 8 El Panchan, Carr. Palenque-Ruinas Km 4,5. Great stone-oven pizzas and live music.
- 9 Restaurante Maya Cañada, Primera Avenida Nte. Pte. 10.
- 10 El Langostino, 2a. Avenida Nte. Pte.
- 11 El Marino, 1a. Ote. Nte..
- 12 La Selva Restaurante, Calle, 7A. Poniente Sur.
If you like nightlife and having a few drinks in the evening, the best place to drink is in the center of Palenque (el centro), near the Parque Central. There are several good bars in the area and its a safe, pleasant place to walk in the evening. Palenque is a small town so most of the places close down far too early for sophisticated city folk.
Near Parque Central
- 1 Las Tinajas, C. Abasolo s/n, Centro, ☏ +52 9163454970. 07:00 - 23:00. Serves pizza and light food, drinks are nothing fancy, mostly beer and tequila (straight up...don't be asking for no fancy mixed drinks here!).
- 2 Zanate, Central Sur s/n, Centro (across the street from Parque Central). Loud and lively with frequent live music. Popular local party spot.
- 3 Micheladas la palenk-na, 2a Av. Sur Pte., Centro (50 meters west of Central Sur). 13:00 - 23:00. Specializes in michelada, beer mixed with a spicy red chile blend known only to the bartender. Casual, friendly atmosphere. Cheap prices.
- 4 Bar la Matraca, 2a. Avenida Nte. Pte. 63, Centro (Around the corner from Telmex building), ☏ +52 9161199922. 12:00 - 20:00. Basic guy's beer bar. Dark atmosphere and only national beer brands.
Near the ruins
- 5 Noshito's Bar, Carr. Palenque-Ruinas KM4.5 (turn in where you see the sign for El Pachon). 15:00 - 03:00. Rustic palapa bar with friendly atmosphere and strong cocktails.
Other ruins in the general area are Yaxchilan and Bonampak. These can be arranged by day trip or overnighter with any agency in town.
It is about a six hour trip by shuttle/van from Palenque to Flores. Different companies depart at different hours.