Palenque (Pronounced pa-LEN-kay) is a town in the southern state of Chiapas located about 90 miles SE of the city of Villahermosa and about 150 miles NE of San Cristobal de las Cases. It is also the site of a huge set of ruins within a national park visited by thousands annually. Many believe it is the best archeological site in the country because of the mystical setting in the jungle and because of the incredible architecture of the ruins. The ruins of Palenque have an awe-inspiring setting, overlooking the jungle from part way up some thickly forested mountains.
Palenque is a medium-sized site, but it contains some of the finest architecture, sculpture, roof comb and bas-relief carvings. After its decline it was absorbed into the jungle, but has been partly excavated and restored and is now a famous archaeological site attracting thousands of visitors. Palenque contained tombs of ancient leaders and rulers, and still today, excavations are ongoing to uncover more. Some of the site is still roped off to visitors as work to uncover the hidden treasures, reclaimed by nature over centuries of disuse, continues. A relatively small number of the estimated 500+ buildings have been excavated.
The surrounding forest is home to a huge variety of wildlife including toucans and monkeys.
Five miles from the ruins is the town of Palenque. There you can find lodging and food, as well as make travel arrangements. Transportation between the town and ruins is cheap and convenient.
Palenque began about 100 BC, but did not become a major population and important religious center until about 600 AD. At this time their greatest ruler, Pacal, came into power and ruled for 68 years. During his rule, he emphasized the construction of grand buildings.
During the 8th century, the city decreased in importance and building on a grand scale ended. The city was abandoned but a small agricultural population continued to live there for a time. The city was slowly engulfed by the forest. The district was very sparsely populated and unrecognizable as a city when the Spanish first arrived in the 1520s. Two hundred years later the ruins started to become known to the Europeans, and they were gradually explored. Excavation and restoration began in the 1900′s and has accelerated in the last 20 years, but archaeologists estimate that only 5% of the total city has been uncovered
The most impressive excavation of the 1900′s was made by the Mexican archaeologist Alberto Ruz. In 1949 he determined that the floor of the Temple of the Inscriptions must conceal something. Lifting the huge polished floor stones of the rear chamber he found a steep staircase, tightly packed with tons of stone fill. Three years later he opened the great tomb of Pacal, for the first time in more than a thousand years with its beautiful sculptures and jades.
By 1968, good roads had reached the site, and so began the influx of tourists.
The Parque Nacional Palenque, which contains the ruins, is open every day from 8 to 5 with a modest admission charge of less than US$10. A museum and visitor center, small but worth a visit, sits not far from the entrance to the ruins. It contains artistic exhibits, including jade from excavated tombs. Explanatory text in Spanish and English explains the history of ancient Palenque. At the main entrance, about 1/2 mile past the museum, you will find a large parking lot, a refreshment stand, a ticket booth, and several shops, and the inevitable vendors. The best way to explore the site is to enter through the main (north) entrance, visit the main temples and structures and then wander around the fringe temples.
Templo do las Inscripciones
The main, and most attractive ruin is the Templo de las Inscripciones (Temple of Inscriptions), named for the great stone hieroglyphic panels found inside, most of which are now in the National Anthropological Museum in Mexico City. This Pyramid measures about 90 feet high and serves as a platform for the summit temple, another 35 feet high. The largest stones (located on top of the Pyramid) weigh 12 to 15 tons. It is a funerary monument and holds the crypt of King Pacal deep inside.
El Palacio (The Palace) is a a complex of several connected and adjacent buildings and courtyards built up over several generations on a wide artificial terrace. The Palace houses many fine sculptures and bas-relief carvings in addition to the distinctive four-story tower.
Next to the Temple of the Inscriptions is Temple 13, which has recently become more important because of the discovery of another rich burial site.
The Cross Group
A path between the Palace and the Temple of the Inscriptions leads to a group of temples including: the Temple of the Sun, the Temple of the Foliated Cross, the Temple of the Cross, and Temple 14. This group of temples is now cleared and in various stages of reconstruction. Each sits on top of its own step pyramids and contains carved reliefs in the inner chambers.
The North Group
To the left of the Palace is the North Group, also undergoing restoration. Included in this area are the Ball Court (where a game a little like basketball was played with a solid rubber ball ofter ending in the sacrifice of some of the players) the Temple of the Count (so named because a European count lived in it for a time), and at least three tombs.
There is an aqueduct constructed of stone to make the Otulum River flow underneath the floor of Palenque’s main plaza. A stone bridge downstream from the aqueduct. Numerous other temples, tombs, and palaces. The rain forest and its city of ruins covered in vegetation.
How to get there
Palenque is located in the state of Chiapas, 90 miles SE of Villahermosa and 150 miles NE of San Cristóbal de las Casas
By Air: The closest airport is Villahermosa.
By Car — The drive from San Cristóbal to Palenque takes 5 hours and passes through jungle and mountain scenery. Watch out for potholes and other hindrances. Hwy. 186 from Villahermosa should take about 2 hours. You may encounter military roadblocks. Do not drive at night and exercise a lot of caution.
By Bus – Bus service to Palenque is available from San Cristóbal (5 hr.), Tuxtla (6 1/2 hr.), Campeche (5 hr.), Villahermosa (2 hr.), and Mérida (9 hr.).
Visitor Information — The downtown tourism office is a block from the main square at the corner of Avenida Juárez and Abasolo.
Getting to the Ruins — The cheapest way to get back and forth from the ruins is on the white vans (colectivos) that run down the main street every 10 minutes from 6am to 6pm. The buses can be flagged down at any point, and the cost is 10 pesos per person. A taxi is always a good option.
Over Night – Many travelers believe that Palenque requires a whole day to appreciate fully. One plan is to stay at a hotel in Palenque (or in one of the hotels next to the park), get an early start, and get to the park before the tour buses and the extreme heat arrive.
Protect Yourself – Palenque is in the middle of the jungle. It is hot and humid, so dress appropriately with cotton clothes and no denim. Wear sturdy, comfortable shoes. Protect yourself with sun screen, bug spray, a hat, sun glasses and lots of water. Drink the water before you become thirsty.