After an unforgettable few days celebrating Dia de los Muertos in Oaxaca, it was time to leave the colourful colonial town behind and head to the jungles of Chiapas, Mexico’s southernmost state, known to be more tropical and rugged than it’s northern neighbours. Chiapas is home to one of the largest indigenous populations in the country with twelve federally recognized ethnicities; This along with the change in climate and scenery can make it feel like a completely different country to Oaxaca and Mexico City.
We had heard tales from other backpackers of the robberies that can take place on the highway east from Oaxaca, especially when travelling in the dark, so we boarded the night bus (our first in central america) with trepidation. We had nothing to worry about as the ADO bus was comfortable, had reclining seats and the most dramatic thing to happen was the driver deciding to blast out French films dubbed in Spanish for the entire trip making sleep near impossible.
Many visitors to Palenque make the mistake of staying in the town of the same name (A “humdrum town without much appeal” according to the guide books), not realising that the Ruins are a 20 minute collectivo or Taxi ride from the centre. However, just outside of the gates of the park is a small jungle clearing of huts and hostels called El Panchan where the accomodation is more affordable, Palenque ruins are walking distance away and, best of all, you get to stay in the jungle!
The hotel/hostel we were staying at, Margarita and Ed’s, has no website and a sketchy phone connection so we had to just rock up at the door after picking our way through the jungle paths. We were greeted at the door by Margarita; a badass and charming matron-esque lady who looks like she takes no shit and runs a tight ship. The rooms had much needed air conditioning and their jungle setting was amazing. imagine drifting off to sleep with the cacophony of crickets, birds and monkeys playing out around you.
It’s a sweaty walk up to the site due to the humidity of the jungle but upon arriving at the ruins I couldn’t help but be amazed. I had already seen the huge pyramids and sprawling ruins of Teotihuacan when in Mexico City but, although smaller, this site was just as impressive. The ancient steps of the temples rising out of the dense jungle gave this a lost city vibe and I couldn’t help but feel like Indiana Jones or a less buxom Lara Croft. What sets this apart from many other Mayan sites is the ornate inscriptions and hieroglyphs etched in to each of the temples, signifying the the story and relevance of the buildings. In 1952 the tomb of the famous ruler Pacal The Great was discovered here showing archaeologists the versatility of the structures; not only are they temples but also burial chambers.
Adjacent to Pacal’s pyramid tomb is the sprawling palace complex,at it’s centre was a tower surrounded by courtyards and beneath it there are underground tunnels that are open for the public to explore. There is something eerie about wandering through passageways that the Mayans used a few thousand years before.
Okay, time for a bit of history. Anciently known as Lakamha (“Big Water”), Palenque was a Maya city that flourished in the 7th century. The Palenque ruins date from ca. 226 BC to ca. AD 799 (thanks Wikipedia) with the discovered area covering 2.5 km² (1 sq mi), but it is estimated that less than 10% of the total area of the city is explored, leaving more than a thousand structures still covered by jungle. As we walked around we could see teams of archaeologists digging away at what looked like hills but clearly had stone pyramids buried somewhere within them.
For a while we were the only people at the site giving a feeling that we were the lucky few to have discovered this lost world, wandering around the towering pyramids while howler monkeys swing above us yelling out their deep cries. The jungle heat and humidity was causing all my clothes to stick to me so I was surprised to see a Mexican tourist wander by wearing jeans, a jumper and a body warmer! All over Mexico i seem to see locals passing by in jackets and sweatshirts no matter what the temperature is. It’s as if they have the inability to feel heat.
Nestled next to the jungle is a partially unearthed pyramid, The temple of the cross, that you are able to climb – but be warned, this is not for the feint of heart in this heat. By the time i’d reached the top I looked like i’d swam 100m breaststroke in all of my clothes. The view, however, was worth it. You can really get a sense of the scale of the city and i couldn’t help imagine what it would have been like to have been the first modern explorer to stumble across this place while wandering through the jungle.
I feel like I cannot do justice to Palenque here; it is something that has to be seen to appreciate. Although it doesn’t have the scale of Teotihuacan or the beach side setting of Tulum, it is still my favourite of the Mexican Maya sites.
Rather than taking the main road back down to Magarita and Ed’s place we took a winding dirt path through the surrounding jungle, spotting lizards and monkeys as we went, eventually coming across a two-tiered waterfall cascading through the trees. It was a perfect opportunity to strip down and take a swim to wash off the sweat of a hard days exploring.
The best way to get to Palenque town is by bus. There are frequent arrivals from San Cristobal de las Casas (five hours), Tuxtla Gutiérrez (six hours), Villahermosa (2.5 hours), Merida (8 hours), Campeche (5 hours) and Cancun (13 hours). Daily (one or two buses) also arrive from Mexico City (16 hours), Oaxaca (15 hours), Playa del Carmen (12 hours), and Tulum (12 hours).
The ruins are about 6 km from the town of Palenque and colectivos run between the town and ruins every 10 to 15 minutes during the day. Cost is 20 pesos flat rate around the town. It’s possible to wave down the collectivos and hop in anywhere along the road between the town and the site so if you wait on the road outside El Panchan it is easy to hitch a ride.
We highly recommend staying in El Panchan rather than the main town. As well as it’s close proximity to the ruins there is a great al fresco restaurant, Don Muchos, in the jungle serving italian and Mexican food. If you stick around on an evening you will be treated to fire dancing and get to witness what we thought of as an old Mexican Elvis impersonator crooning away and persuading unsuspecting backpackers to slow dance with him.
Misol Ha and Agua Azul are famous waterfalls in the area. The town’s many tour agencies organize 7 hour combination trips to both falls for 130-150 pesos, excluding entrance fees (30 and 38 pesos respectively). (December 2013) The falls are just an hour or so outside town, but the tours are arranged so that there is time to swim and eat (at Agua Azul).
Have you been to Palenque? Let me know in the comments below!