Palenque easily ranks with Chichen Itza, Uxmal and Tikal in architecture and magnificence. Located 400 miles (650 kilometers) from the Riviera Maya, Palenque is a viable travel option, though off the beaten path for beach lovers. Count on two full days driving for the round trip, and at least a full day there to see Palenque and nearby Misol Ha falls and Agua Azul.
When we made the trip to Palenque, we were blessed with good weather and made the non-stop drive from Akumal to Palenque in about 7½ hours, stopping only for gas and a couple of snacks. This was our “vacation” from the beach and the flat lands of Quintana Roo. We were anxious to see the exotic mountain state of Chiapas in southern Mexico; the land of waterfalls, cascades, Mayan ruins, caves, canyons, lagoons and extraordinary wildlife.
Palenque is perched on the first rise of the Tumbalá mountains, overlooking a vast carpet of green that stretches north to the Gulf of Mexico. This is the alluvial flood plain of the Usumacinta river, a fertile sedimentary flatland that is used for agriculture in contemporary and ancient times. The Usumacinta River would have also provided a means of transportation via canoe, facilitating trade with others.
The high canopy jungle is as powerful as the ruins themselves. There is a tranquility that embraces each visitor as you walk from temple to temple. With lots of shade throughout the site, it is easy to hang out at the Palenque ruins most of the day. Remember to explore the jungle trails that lead to smaller plazas, temples, and limestone cascades that transport water down the mountain during rainy season.
There has been much written about Palenque and its known history, more than we can provide you here. The debates about this site continue as archeologists and historians decipher the secrets and unknown facts about the Maya. Undoubtedly, many secrets remain.
We have listed some highlights of our experience at Palenque. This is just a small introduction to the site with an overview of the structures.
The Temple of the Cross, Temple of the Sun, and Temple of the Foliated Cross are a set of graceful temples in the site of Palenque. The temples are located on a pyramids, each having elaborate carvings and interior chambers that explain rituals and allegiance to Mayan gods.
The Temple of Inscriptions is perhaps the most significant structure on the site. The Temple contains the tomb of Pakal the Great, the mightiest Mayan ruler of Palenque, who sanctioned the building of the temple after his death. The stairway from the top of the pyramid to the tomb was discovered by Alberto Ruz in 1952. He solved the mystery of the holes in the stairway capstone which had baffled archaeologists since Stevens and Catherwood “discovered” Palenque in 1840.
The stairway descends vertically 80 feet to Pakal’s burial chamber where an ornately carved stone slab sealed his tomb. The humidity in the tomb is intense, leaving you with the feeling that the walls literally weep for Pakal. Special permission is required to visit this interior part of the Temple of Inscriptions
Palenque is on many travelers bucket list, as this ruin site provides a unique adventure very different from other southern located sites. The experience leaves a footprint that most visitors cannot describe, with no regrets for the seemingly long trip to Chiapas.
Public transportation will take you to the area, but a rental car makes the adventure more real and authentic as you stop in local pueblos en route. We loved our trip and continue to look for opportunities to make our way back to Palenque, to learn more about the Maya.