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Exploring the Ancient Maya Ruins of Palenque

The thick humidity makes my lungs work a bit harder as I ascend the narrow gravel path. Tropical leaves of emerald and lime green are everywhere I look. Gentle puffs of misty clouds float within the canopy as the sunlight fights to peek through. Calls of exotic birds and howler monkeys function as a soundtrack to transport my mind back in time.

A clearing emerges and I feel my boots squish the soggy crabgrass beneath my feet. Insects buzz around my ears and I snap out of my trance.

My eyes focus on a partially exposed structure made out of weathered limestone blocks meticulously placed together to create an imposing staircase. A stucco skull motif peers out reminding all who enter the significance of mortality.

Nestled in this lush tropical rainforest is a spectacular ancient site built by the Maya civilization. The harmonious relationship between nature and architecture is visible at every turn. Stepped pyramids mimic rolling hills, columns exude the strength of mahogany trees, and underground aqueducts navigate the flow of crystal-clear water.

The towering ruins of Palenque transfix visitors with beautiful reliefs and intricate glyphs. The mystery and allure will undoubtedly quench your thirst for adventure.

History

The ruins of Palenque date from 226 BC to 799 AD. The city functioned as an important trade center due to its prime location on the border of the Lacandon Jungle, where the Eastern Mountains join the Gulf Coast Plains.

Calakmul, Palenque's greatest enemy in the northeast, battered the city with numerous military campaigns to obtain regional dominance. Luckily Tikal, in present day Guatemala, proved to be a powerful ally.

K'inich Janaab' Pakal (Pakal the Great), who reigned from 615-683 AD, was responsible for the most prosperous period in Palenque's history. His sons, K'an Bahlam II and K'an Chitam II, and grandson, K'inich Ahkal Mo' Nahb III, continued the tradition of building excellence until 736 AD.

Palenque was abandoned in 800 AD, after a series of battles with rival Toniná in the south.

The Palenque Complex

Excavations are ongoing with over 1,000 structures for archaeologists to investigate. Approximately 95% of the site is currently buried and overgrown with dense jungle.

The innovative engineering produced new concepts such as corbeled arches and latticed roof-combs. Naturalistic portraiture as seen in the low-relief carvings and decorative stucco is some of the most striking in Maya art.

Temple of the Inscriptions

The nine platforms of this impressive stepped pyramid represent the nine levels of the Maya Underworld. Reliefs of Pakal the Great and his ancestors flank the entryways at the top. The Temple of the Inscriptions is home to one of the most significant finds in Mesoamerica.

In 1952, archaeologist Alberto Ruz discovered an undisturbed tomb deep inside. Beneath an ornately carved sarcophagus lid were the intact remains of Pakal the Great covered in cinnabar (a red mineral signifying blood) powder and jade (a green mineral representing life) ornaments.

Palace

Functioning as a royal residence, the Palace has courtyards, rooms, lavatories, vaulted ceilings, and saunas. Located in the middle of the city, it was an important place to hold religious ceremonies and festivals.

The iconic four-story observation tower was probably used for the study of astronomy. The walls were once covered in stucco and painted with bright colors of red, blue, and yellow. These architectural features emphasized the grandeur of the Maya realm.

Cross Triad

The Temple of the Cross, Temple of the Sun, and Temple of the Foliated Cross were built on elevated platforms surrounding a plaza. Staircases lead to large chambers with ornate roof-comb structures.

K'inich Kan B'ahlam commissioned the temples to honor three Palenque gods. The inner shrines depict motifs of the World Tree and Jaguar God of the Underworld.

Murcielagos Group

As you exit the main complex, a path will lead you towards a drawbridge with a serene view of the Motiepa waterfall. Partially excavated residential buildings, including the Murcielagos group, are along the way. Artifacts such as clay vessels and shell tools were discovered inside the multiple rooms and passageways.

Transportation

Palenque, referring to both the modern and ancient cities, is within the Mexican state of Chiapas which borders Guatemala. A coach bus via ADO or OCC will be your best option for reaching the city if you don't sign up for a day trip with a tour company.

Multiple routes are available, but it's best to avoid traveling on highway 199 through Ocosingo if you are coming from the southwest. Night bus robberies are common in the rough area. We traveled during the day from San Cristobal de las Casas via Villahermosa without any problems. Our peace of mind was well worth the daylong journey.

If you're staying in Palenque, taxis and colectivos (shared transportation) are available in town. The main road which leads to the ruins is only a fifteen-minute drive. However, I recommend lodging at one of the many hotels along the road in the El Panchán area. You can easily walk to the ruins on the parallel sidewalk or take a colectivo (white van) for only $10 pesos ($0.50 USD) each way.

What to Expect

The ticket office is located 1.4 kilometers (0.8 miles) before the main entrance at the Museo de Sitio de Palenque. Two fees, including a national park ticket of $90 pesos ($4.45 USD) and ruins ticket of $85 pesos ($4.20 USD), are required. You'll receive a wristband and paper ticket.

Afterward, make your way back to the road to await a colectivo to complete the uphill journey. I wouldn't recommend walking to the main entrance from the ticket office since there are no sidewalks. The complex is open every day, 8:30 AM-5:00 PM.

Plan to arrive as early as possible to beat the heat. Since Palenque is remote, large crowds are not a concern. Brad and I visited on a Wednesday around 9:00 AM.

Tour guides are located near the main entrance. Just make sure to agree on a price beforehand. I don't think a tour is necessary since there are plenty of informative placards in English and Spanish scattered throughout the site. Palenque is DIY friendly!

Bathrooms are located at the main entrance and North Group Complex. Bring toilet paper or tissues just in case (the stalls didn't have any when I visited). A scorpion decided to hang out with me while I was doing my business. Fun times in the jungle...NOT!

Unfortunately, we couldn't climb any of the structures due to Covid-19. After three hours of exploring, we left around 12:00 PM. We returned to the museum (included in the ticket cost) and took a quick look at the impressive artifacts inside.

Insights

The colectivo fare, entry tickets, and vendor stalls are cash only.

Palenque is completely outdoors and the humidity is extreme. Shoes or waterproof boots are ideal since the ground can be wet especially in the morning. The bugs are relentless, so pack repellent. Sunscreen, sunglasses, and breathable clothing are a must.

There are two different ways you can go through the site. I recommend starting at the main entrance to view the restored complex first. You will not only beat the tour groups, but also the heat. The downhill path leading towards the museum makes for a relaxing finale with shade and waterfalls. Alternatively, you can reverse the aforementioned route and take a colectivo from the main entrance back towards the museum and town.

WARNING! Chiapas has a reputation for having poor quality water. I was practically sick the entire time in Palenque. It's imperative you only drink and brush your teeth with bottled water.

Palenque's jungle setting, rich history, and unique structures are truly fantastic. The site feels off the beaten path and provides visitors an unforgettable time. My tummy troubles, bus anxiety, and scorpion encounter couldn't deter my resolve to experience this epic Maya city! Besides, isn't an expedition supposed to have a few bumps along the way?