Valley farmlands between San Cristóbal and Palenque.
Lush mountains behind corn fields.
Palenque is closer to the Caribbean!
Pretty La Cañada neighborhood in
Back streets to Palenque town.
Hard little beaded plant, like
Palenque is a busy town that is surprisingly nonchalant about
Quickie on-the-fly tailoring
Temple de la Calavera
Temple XIII and Temple of the Inscriptions
Temple of the Sun
Temple of the Cross
The Ball Court
Vendors sell trinkets on shaded blankets before the Palace.
Temple of the Inscriptions
Burial place of Pacal the Great
Elephant ear leaves
A ruin yet to be excavated and studied.
The Palace, a building worthy of a great king.
The watchtower -- or celestial
Hallways with the characteristic almost-peaked roof
Bas-relief sculpture shows what the Mayans looked like.
Left unattended, the jungle always wins.
Mayan Ruins of Palenque, Mexico
Mid-March, 2012 - We left the cool mountain air of San
Cristóbal de las Casas and took a five-hour bus ride north to
the jungle town of Palenque, home of an amazing ancient
Mayan city. This turned out to be another spectacular bus
journey through mountainous terrain. We climbed and
descended, first through beautiful pine forests and then into
more jungle-like landscapes.
As the elevation rose and fell, the pines mixed with palms and
banana trees. Eventually the pines disappeared all together and
the hills became lush and green all around us. Then we
descended into the thick, hot, humid jungle.
It was odd to look at the map and discover we were now closer to the
Caribbean than the Pacific, our home for the last six months.
Through an incredible stroke
of luck, the budget hotel we
booked online was under
construction and we were
moved to the lovely, upscale
Hotel Maya Tulipanes for the
same price. We took one look
at the plush king bed, the
large and beautifully appointed
stone tile bathroom and the
enormous flat screen TV and
said in unison, "We're never
The hotel is in the La Cañada
neighborhood of the town of
Palenque, a pretty, quiet,
shaded street that hosts a
handful of small hotels and
outdoor bistros. We wandered
through the jungly back streets
behind the hotel and were
amazed at all the new-to-us plants and flowers we saw.
The weird warbling cries and calls of the birds in the trees
added to the exotic feeling.
After the buzz,
excitement and breezy
international flavor of
San Cristóbal, the laid
back warmth of this
jungle town charmed
us right away. The
sultry heat kept people
outside on our little
neighborhood street until late into the night, and we
discovered that many of the people enjoying the
outdoor eateries were locals who had just gotten off from work. A group of Mexican guys invited us
to sit with them at their table. "Welcome to the jungle!" they said. They hailed from Cancún and
Mérida, several hundred miles away in different directions, and they were as excited as we were
about spending a few days in the rainforest.
The town was wonderfully vibrant and self-possessed, despite being a tourist hub for the nearby ruins. The stores sold
everyday items like shoes, clothes, and electronics, and the uniformed school kids hung out in Burger King in the afternoons.
We had to hunt around a bit to find a shop with a souvenir t-shirt that said "Palenque" on it. On our walk down the main drag
the music poured out of every storefront in classic Mexican style, thumping modern pop tunes and loud Mexican songs.
One thing we love about Mexico is how easy it is to get immediate walk-
in service for anything from haircuts to dental work. While walking
around one afternoon, Mark was frustrated that his shorts kept slipping
down. We searched high and low for a belt, but after trying on at least
a dozen in several different stores, he just couldn't find one with the
right style and fit. Then we passed an open doorway where a guy was
kicked back in a chair, shirtless, watching the world go by. A sewing
machine sat idle in front of him. The most delicious aroma wafted out
from a back room. It seemed he was passing the time people-watching
until his wife served lunch. Mark poked his head in and asked if he
could take in his shorts. "No problema!" The fellow sprang into action,
throwing a tape measure around his neck. Mark stripped down to his
skivvies and handed him his shorts. Ten minutes and two seams later,
the man handed the shorts back to Mark. "Ahhh," he said putting them
on. He turned around a few times and wiggled to see if they'd slip.
"Much better!" We paid the tailor a few pesos and continued on down
The famous Palenque ruins were a short combi van ride from town. When we piled out of the
van at the entrance to the ruins we found ourselves in a shark pit of hustlers trying to sell
guided tours. These guides are freelancers who charge about 100 pesos ($8 USD) for a one
to two hour tour. Some speak English, all speak Spanish, but it wasn't clear just how much
they had studied the archaeological record of the site. "Why are there so many guides?" I
finally said in exasperation to the group crowding around us. "No jobs!" Fair enough.
We escaped the crowd and
discovered at the main front
gate that Mexican government
sanctioned tour guides offer
similar tours for 500 pesos
($40). These guides wear
official government badges. But
the guide we spoke to had been
in Tulum last week and
Guanajuato two weeks prior,
and on a two week jaunt around
Mexico with a Hollywood
celebrity before that. Hmmm.
His knowledge of Palenque??
We decided not to use the services of a guide but to enjoy the ambience of these stunning
ruins in our own way and at our own pace. Walking up the stairs from the entrance -- under a
thick canopy of jungle trees -- we emerged onto a grassy field where we were staring right at
the Temple de la Calavera. Wow. Next door, to the left, was Temple XIII and then Temple of
Most of the structures were tall, yet massively
thick and squat. The dark stone was
formidable and imposing, set against the
bright green grass and dark green trees. All I
could think of was what it must have been like
to weed whack through the jungle to these
buildings, at the suggestion of a local Mayan,
as did the Spanish priest Pedro Lorenzo de la
Nada in 1567. The 16th century Mayans
called the place "Otolum," or "Land with
strong houses." The priest called it
"Palenque," Spanish for "fortification."
To my delight, just like
the Zapotec ruins at
Monte Alban, visitors
are allowed to scramble
up and down and all
around these ruins. It is
amazing and inspiring to
climb stairs that were
climbed fifteen hundred
years ago by people a
Palenque was first
settled in 100 BC, but
reached its heyday
between 600 and 800 AD, becoming the main power center in much of modern
day Tabasco and Chiapas. So while Rome was undergoing its various sackings
by the Vandals, Visigoths and Ostragoths in the fifth and sixth centuries, the
Mayan culture here was on the rise and not yet peaking.
Palenque was never a huge metropolis like Rome. In its prime
only 6,200 people called it home. However, the carved bas-
reliefs and inscriptions have divulged many secrets to insightful
archaeologists, and, to my amazement, we learned that the
entire dynastic line of kings is known by both formal name,
nickname and date, along with the history of the major events in
Powerful cities are prime targets for eventual sacking, and Rome
had company in Palenque a few centuries later. Palenque was
sacked by rival Calakmul twice: in 599 and 611. The second
defeat resulted in a break in the line of kings while the city
regrouped. An amazing 12-year-old boy emerged as king in
615, and during his 68 year reign he oversaw the rebuilding of
the city and the creation of many of the
buildings that are visible today. He
was nicknamed "the favorite of the
gods" and he was known as Pacal the
We walked through the parklike setting
of massive structures and crawled up
and down, in and around each
The site is spread out over a square mile, and we were stunned to find out
that just 10% of the ruins have been excavated and rebuilt. The rest are
hidden in the surrounding jungle.
One of the most impressive and most studied excavations here was the
tomb of Pacal the Great inside the pyramid atop the Temple of the
Inscriptions. Unfortunately visitors aren't allowed inside.
Our cameras had led
us in different directions
by now, and I had lost
track of Mark's
whereabouts in this
vast site. He finally
turned up amid a cluster of elephant ear leaves. He cocked his head towards a path that
exited the grounds to one side, suggesting we head that way. We had seen tour guides
slipping off into the tangle of greenery to the right of the ruins with their clients when we first
entered the site. Now we followed the path in that direction. Stepping into the jungle, we were
quickly swallowed up by plant life.
Suddenly we heard the most horrendous noise -- quite
definitely the roar of a jaguar. It wasn't just a roar. It
was a growl, a bellowing snarl made by a huge and angry
animal really close by. And it wouldn't quit. It just went on
and on. I stopped dead in my tracks. Mark flashed a grin
at me. "I want to see what it is!" He disappeared down
the path ahead. "Are you kidding?" The roaring just
wouldn't stop. In fact, I suddenly realized that whatever it
was wasn't alone. There were two of them. Two jaguars
circling each other, somewhere terrifyingly nearby, jaws
agape, huge canine teeth bared.
I couldn't move. I just stood there transfixed, imagining wild, angry animals, and
wondering when Mark was going to come back. I imagined the headlines: "American
hiker found half eaten in Mexican jungle…" And who would find him if I kept standing
here? Oh dear. I screwed up my courage and continued down the path. At long last I
saw him standing with his camera held high recording the sound. Did he know what it
was yet? No! He continued moving towards the noise and I tromped through the brush
behind him, my heart in my throat.
Suddenly we saw another hiker up ahead, and then three more. All were
standing with their heads thrown back, craning their necks to look up
high in the trees. And there it was, an enormous, black howler monkey,
bellowing away without stopping even to catch his breath. He was big,
and apelike, with a long furry tail wrapped around a branch. We had
been told there were monkeys in the jungle, but I'd expected something
little and white, something nervous and yippy. Not a big hairy roaring
beast like this guy!
We stayed and watched the monkey and his mates moving about the
forest canopy for a long time. Finally the big guy grunted a few times,
settled down and fell silent. He had said all he wanted to say. The
heavy, damp, jungly woods were still. We tiptoed back out again,
thrilled at what we had seen. On our way out we passed the
unmistakable rock wall of an unexcavated building. What a cool place!
The impressive thing about
Palenque is the completeness
and detail of the buildings. The
Palacio is a huge structure with a
tall watch tower, or celestial
observatory -- or maybe it was
Hallways and rooms and tunnels fill this enormous
structure, and we wandered freely through it.
This is a hot environment, and we found an intriguing
interior opening in a wall that seemed to act as a
vent, blowing a continual stream of cold air up from the stone rooms below ground level.
The Palace also had several T-
shaped windows that looked to me
like the perfect place to point a
weapon outwards while
remaining well protected behind
the rock wall. However, these
windows are theorized to have
something to do with the Mayan
god of the wind whose glyph is
also shaped like a T.
Many of the buildings are
decorated with ornate sculpted
images, most of which depict
historical events that archaeologists have miraculously been able to unravel. Several
have been set aside in the courtyard of the palace. What we found intriguing was the
surprising resemblance, in many ways, of the ancient peoples to some of the people
walking around Mexico today. Ironically, while the Spanish thought the builders of these
awesome ruins must have been Egyptian or Polynesian or anything other than the ancestors of the people they found living in
the area, it wasn't until 1831 that one Juan Galindo wrote of the resemblance.
We followed a narrow path that headed down, down and more down into a lower set of
buildings deep under the trees. Here we saw just how aggressive the jungle can be, as the
roots of very tall trees wrapped around the low walls of the ruins. Palenque was overtaken
by the jungle sometime after it was fatally sacked for the last time in 711 by the rival
community Toniná. The city was abandoned when the entire ancient Mayan civilization
fell, sometime in 10th century, almost six hundred years before the Spanish arrived.
There is a wonderful magic to
these ruins, and despite their
ongoing study and reconstruction,
we felt a deep mystery within their
walls that echoed in our souls.
We decided to stay in Palenque a
little longer so we could visit the
ruins of Yaxchilán & Bonampak.
Find Palenque on Mexico Maps.