In Spanish, Palenque means "wood stake fence," referring to a fort or fenced-off place. But the city of Palenque, in the north of Chiapas state, was named nearly 200 years before the famous Palenque ruins were discovered nearby in the eighteenth century. This exciting part of Mexico invites you to explore and gain a deeper understanding of its hidden archeological gems. While you're here, you'll find the area surrounding Palenque offers excellent transportation options, breathtaking landscapes, and local customs that are sure to delight.
The Palenque archeological site, one of the state's most important tourist destinations, is just five miles from the city. Located on the first rise of the Tumbala mountains, the site looks out over the Usumacinta River flood plain. On arrival at the site, prepare to be confronted by the largest Mesoamerican step pyramid, the Temple of Inscriptions, spotted with hieroglyphics that have contributed significantly to the study of Mayan civilization. The site is surrounded by beautiful natural areas, including the Misol-Ha waterfall with a drop of more than 100 feet, forming a large pool where, if you're feeling intrepid, you can swim.
You can reach the Palenque ruins from Villahermosa via highway 186/199; the trip takes roughly 90 minutes (140 km). The area surrounding the ruins will provide you with everything you need for an unforgettable visit: accommodation is available at the site – though do book in advance – and there are numerous shops and inexpensive restaurants (La Selva, Los Pinos, El Maya are recommended). Given that Palenque is a major archaeological attraction, don't be surprised to find the area buzzing with foreign tourists; at peak season, they arrive by the busload.
There is, it must be said, good reason for this: everything about Palenque fascinates. Its primordial jungle setting, intricate construction and intimate scale are truly mesmerizing for the first-time visitor. Palenque became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1987, and UNESCO have described the site as follows: "Palenque is an incomparable achievement of Mayan art. The structures are characterized by fineness and a lightness which resulted from the new construction techniques and drainage methods that were developed in order to reduce the thickness of the walls. The expanded interior space, multiple openings, and the use of galleries give the architecture a rare elegance, richly decorated with sculptures and stucco of a type never previously seen. Its influence was considerable throughout the basin of the Usumacinta, extending even as far away as Comalcalco, on the western border of the Mayan cultural zone." So there you have it.
In its heyday, Palenque was a sprawling religious center that spanned nearly 25 square miles. Only roughly half a mile has been excavated, revealing what many consider to be the architectural apogee of western Mayan civilization. The knowledge that there's so much yet to be excavated at Palenque is, surely, part of the site's enduring charm.
Its numerous inscribed stone slabs, intricate basrelief sculptures, inlaid masks and other remarkable adornments give Palenque an air of enchantment and sanctity. The 75-foot-high Temple of the Inscriptions contains one of the only crypts found inside a pyramid in Mexico. On excavation, the Tomb of Pakal, a Mayan ruler of the 7th century, revealed an array of jewels, masks, jade ornaments, wall carvings and other exquisite artefacts. Steep yourself in the history of Palenque, among the ancient stones of its temples and in the ruins' charming on-site museum.
See & Do
• Tonina, Witness of Mayan Splendor
This ceremony center of the Mayan World located at 126 kilometers from Palenque, features 97 buildings, tow ball courts, 38 graves and 37 sculpture pieces, showcased in the interesting Museo de Sitio (Site Museum). Settled on a natural forest ground in the north of the municipality of Ocosingo, Tonina reached its splendor as well as Tikal, Copan and Palenque, in the late Classic period, which figures based in monsters of the Earth, heavenly fouls, aquatic deities and dragons from the underworld match with such sacred city. Framed by jungle and forest vegetation, this archaeological zone shows hieroglyphic inscriptions that represent the divine and historical calendar of the Mayan.
The splendor time of Tonina was between 600 and 900 AD which belongs to the late Classic period. This city which name means in tzeltal tongue "the house of stone" or "large houses of stone", was a military power as shown in its inscriptions about prisoners.
Of clayish grounds, this archaeological place presents an important architectonic group where the Acropolis stands out, a pyramid of 70 meters in height, considered as one of the tallest buildings of Middle America. This construction is formed by seven platforms, ten temples and four palaces, communicated among them by staircases and labyrinth-like walkways. A buried Mayan ruler lies on each platform.
Among its main constructions stand out the Great Pyramid that embraces the Palace of the Underworld; the Temple of Prisoners, the Temple of Smoking Mirror, the War Palace and the Temple of the Earth Monster, that houses the Mural of the Four Eras, describing the main Mayan deities in accordance to the legend of the four suns.
When visiting this pre-Hispanic place, it is important to wear fresh and comfortable clothes, since the trip will take a considerable walking time. Mosquito repellent, sun screen and a raincoat are recommended, due to the warm weather and rains presented.
• Yaxchilan, Mayan Domain
Known for its numerous architectonic structures and inscriptions, Yaxchilan is located on the banks of the river Usumacinta in the municipality of Ocosingo, Chiapas. Just 136 kilometers from Palenque, this ancient city ruled over smaller complexes such as Bonampak, and was allied for a long time to settlements at Piedras Negras and Tikal. Although the site is extensive, you will only be able to access a small number of buildings such as the Great Acropolis, the Small Acropolis and the Great Plaza, which, if you don't get lost along the way, gives you access to the site's maze.
This ancient jungle city records its dynastic history in the lintels of several buildings. Your task as a visitor to Yaxchilan is to spot them, following the fascinating past of this lost city as you walk. Rising over the plaza, for example, is an image of Pajaro Jaguar IV (Jaguar Bird the Fourth), Yaxchilan's most famous ancient ruler.
An impressive staircase joins the plaza with the Great Acropolis, the city's most magnificent edifice. On the staircase you'll encounter a litter of hieroglyphs depicting scenes of Pajaro Jaguar IV playing a ball game. In the lintels, you'll find a beheaded sculpture of the same leader. Legend has it that when the head of Pajaro Jaguar IV returns to its rightful place, the world will be devastated by celestial jaguars.
This sacred city that had its apogee during the classical period, at the end of 600 BC documents an important battle against Palenque around 654 AD.
• Painted Tales at Bonampak
In the heart of Ocosingo, Chiapas, the archaeological site of Bonampak gives us a striking view of the social organization and daily lives of the Mayan people. Embedded in the Lacandona Jungle, Bonampak – "painted walls in the Mayan language – stands out from surrounding temple complexes because of its famous Temple of Murals. The murals lining the walls of this temple depict with astonishing realism and vivid colours the actions of a battle, its sequels and a final celebration of victory. Discovered in 1946 by archaeologists – though descendants of the Mayan people have worshipped at the site for centuries – these murals are considered one of the most impressive of pre-Hispanic Mexico's many treasures. Spanning over four thousand hectares, to date, this ancient city has only been explored in two buildings: the Great Plaza and the Acropolis, which together make up a rectangular space of 110 meters in length and 87 meters in width.
Surrounded by the jungle vegetation so typical of the Mexican south-east, the Acropolis at Bonampak is a stunning building whose contours follow the irregularities of the ground. Venturing inside, you will find three rooms whose walls are covered in the vivid frescoes for which Bonampak is renowned world-wide. The frescoes, now partially restored by an expert team, have been dated to the year 790 AD.
On entering the first of the temple's rooms, you'll be struck by a vivid representation of a coronation or accession ceremony, complete with elegantly-robed nobles and a Mayan orchestra. The frescoes on the walls of the second room depict a battle scene and what are presumed to be prisoners awaiting sacrifice. The victory scene is narrated on the walls of the third room, and dominated by the figure of Chaan Muan II, the last sovereign of Bonampak. The sovereign and his family perform a ritual of bloodletting by sticking needles into their tongues. Chaan Muan II can also be seen in the Great Plaza complex, dressed luxuriously and with a prisoner at his feet. Fascinating as they are, the murals at Bonampak are certainly not for the faint hearted!
The compelling truth about Bonampak is that there is still a lot to be discovered and decoded: its murals and temple buildings – many not yet excavated – hold innumerable well-kept secrets about the Mayan World.
If the archaeological interest of this astounding place leaves you wanting something more, unusual animal species such as anteaters, spider and howler monkeys, temazate deers, tapirs, wildcats and even the sacred jaguar will capture your imagination as you roam among the temple ruins, in the heart of the Mayan jungle.
• Prehispanic Flavors in Palenque
The natural majesty of Palenque is complimented by its abundant and rich gastronomy. The traditional dishes on which you can expect to feast in Palenque include: shote with momo prepared with river snail; holy herb leaf parcels stuffed with nixtamal dough; Chiapas-style tamales; duck in chilmol sauce made with tomato, hot-pepper and coriander; steamed fish or bread soup, and deer stew. There is a long culinary legacy in this region of Chiapas, and not just in savoury dishes: delicious honey sweets are an unmissable after-dinner treat. You can find most of these delights in the local markets or in typical restaurants which, if you're not ready for the full force of local cuisine, also offer international dishes and exquisite Mexican antojitos (snacks).
Chiapan traditional food is a cultural patrimony for Mexicans. They say that if you haven't tasted its food, you cannot claim to know Chiapas. However, almost all restaurants in Palenque offer Mexican food in general – from chilaquiles and sopecitos (both corn tortilla-based dishes) to sopa azteca (Aztec soup) and carne a la tampiqueña (Tampico-style steak). Some cattle owners of the region even make their own cheese, which you can find for sale in small booths at the side of the road.
If you're thirsty, try some of the typical beverages from Chiapas such as café de olla (delicious pot-brewed coffee), a foamy, often spiced hot chocolate, white or cocoa pozol (a corn-based hot drink), chicha and balché made of corn and other grains, or a cup of tascalate, typical chiapan beverage prepared with water, corn dough, chocolate and achiote.
• Naha and Metzabok, the heart of Lacandon
The intense green of the vegetation is the first thing that hits you on visiting Naha and Metzabok, two designated Natural Protected Areas in Ocosingo, Chiapas, just over 80 kilometers from Palenque. Home to important endangered species such as hocofaisan (a rare breed of pheasant), harpy eagle, quetzal and jaguar, these areas are also the seat of one of the most ancient and traditional communities in Mexico, the Lacandon people. Naha and Metzabok were designated protected areas in an effort to improve conservation of natural resources in the region. The emphasis on ecotourism here means you can explore caves, enjoy rafting, camping, kayaking and guided tours all in the knowledge that your impact on these stunning surroundings will be low.
Naha offers a unique fusion of nature, land and ancestors in a peaceful and harmonious environment. ecotourism in the reserve is led by local communities, allowing you to get a real first-hand sense of life in the Chiapan jungle while contributing to the livelihood of its inhabitants. The importance of these communities and their work on the reserves is not to be underestimated. Enjoy what they have to offer: from camping and expert guided tours to rides in cayucos (a traditional boat made of logs) on the area's lagoons, tours of Naha's elaborate cavern system, hiking and a visit the community museum.
Metzabok – "thunder-making god" in the Mayan tongue – has over 82 hectares divided into 27 lagoons of various dimensions, surrounded by the dense vegetation of the mountains. A visit to the area's cave system will reward you with the unforgettable sight of ancient Mayan cave paintings, shrines and, atop the El Mirador cave, a pyramid.
• Two Natural Wonders: Lacantun and Montes Azules
In Ocosingo, Chiapas, in the heart of the Lacandona jungle, the Reserve of the Biosphere Lacantun protects over 61 thousand hectares inhabited by over 60% of the country's terrestrial species. It is accessed via the majestic river Usumacinta and boasts a luxurious warm-wet climate with summer rainfalls. This natural area borders to the west with Montes Azules, a jungle paradise of waterfalls, rivers, lagoons and the hidden archaeological zone of Yaxchilan. Montes Azules, which lays claim to the tallest trees in Mexico (up to 90 meters tall) and the largest complex of mahoganies, is a region of dense perennial jungle, meaning leaves and plants retain their intense green hues all year round. Whatever the weather, you're guaranteed to see the Chiapan jungle at its best.
Designated a Natural Protected Area in 1992, Lacantun is home to endangered endemic species such as tapir, river otter, jaguar, ocelot, tiger cat, woolly tlacuache, spider monkey, sarahuato, humming birds, red macaw, harpy eagle, cojolite, collared toucan, royal toucan, swamp crocodile, river crocodile and white turtle. Peppered with lagoons and rivers, Montes Azules also belongs to the most extensive hydrological region in Mexico. Bring your camera, and always travel with an experienced guide.
Considered one of the fastest rivers in Mexico, Usumacinta boasts many different levels of rapids – classes II, V and VI – and an array of small waterfalls that, if you're an expert kayaker, you'll certainly be up for braving.
Unfortunately, the main problems faced by Montes Azules are the uncertainty of whom, precisely, the land belongs to, and the weakness of the environmental legal frame in place to protect it. Reports of irregular settlements in the margins of lagoons and rivers, and forest fires caused by agricultural and cattle activities are just some of the effects on this beautiful reserve.
• Extreme Palenque
The exuberant jungle vegetation and the warm-wet climate of Chiapas make Palenque the perfect destination for fans of extreme sports. If you count yourself among these, or just fancy trying your hand, you can expect to enjoy rafting, rappel, kayak, mountain climbing, camping and hiking in and around Palenque's waterfalls, rivers and lakes. The majestic river Usumacinta, the waterfalls of Agua Clara, Misol-Ha, the Ecotourism Center las Guacamayas, the Palenque National Park and the Center Escudo Jaguar, are just a taste of what you can look forward to in the hills and jungles of the Mexican south-east.
The Usumacinta river is one of Mexico's most impressive and important waterways, surrounding the city of Palenque and flowing out to the border with Guatemala. Usumacinta is a favourite with lovers of rafting, in particular during the peak months between July and October when you can feel the full force of its currents.
Along the Mayan route, the vast Palenque National Park boasts over one thousand hectares, and was designated part of the UNESCO Cultural Heritage of Mankind in 1987. While in the park, expect to spot a variety of exotic mammals such as jaguar, howling monkeys, woolly possums, tlacuache, grey squirrels, cotton rats, cacomistles, and kinkajou, to name but a few. The park's dense vegetation makes it a particularly rich spot for hiking.
If you're looking to make the most of Palenque's stunning waterways, the large rivers Tulija and Shumulha converge in a zone that not only lends itself to rafting and kayaking – tours and group outings are easy to come by in the area – but also offers horse riding through open paths in the jungle.
Last but not least, the Escudo Jaguar Ecotourism Center, 164 kilometers from the city of Palenque, is an ideal choice for lovers of nature and extreme sports. Travel down the ancient river Usumacinta, take in the sheer abundance of flora and fauna, enjoy an afternoon's hiking or a spot of camping, and relax in the knowledge that your impact on the natural environment will be minimal.
• Adventure in Chiapas
Mexico's southernmost state, bordering Guatemala, is home to some of the nation's most spectacular nature and indigenous culture. Blessed with a varied climate that ranges from hot, sunny beaches to cool, misty highlands and rainforests, Chiapas features waterfalls and mangrove forests, sheer cliffs and breathtaking lagoons. The plant and animal life is among Mexico's most varied, home to wild orchids and towering ceiba trees, howler monkeys, parrots and even big cats like jaguars and ocelots. Don?t forget to visit the magnificent Cascades at Agua Azul, where you will experience the tranquility of water rushing over light rocks, gathering in unbelievably azur blue pools of water, you can explore.
• Bird Watching in Mexico
Some 10% of the earth's biodiversity lies within Mexico?which means the bird watching is among of the most varied there is. Whether you go in for highland, jungle or desert species, you?re looking at some of the finest feathered friends anywhere. Top Mexico bird watching: the El Triunfo Biosphere Reserve in Chiapas is home to owls, finches, jays, nightingales and gorgeous, extravagant quetzals; near Coatepec and Xico in Veracruz you can spot hummingbirds and other mountain species.