Palenque is without a doubt my favourite ruins that I visited in Mexico, and as you may have already seen, we visited quite a few! It could have been the swell of empowerment from facing my fear and climbing into a hillside tunnel to spot teeny bats, or perhaps the splendour of the site’s massive expanse, only a fraction of which has been fully excavated. It was definitely caused at least in part by the beautiful jungle location. But whatever the reason, Palenque simply blew me away. Here’s what we saw.
Agua Azul… could do with a little more blue!
We headed back down from the mountains of colourful San Cristobal and into the jungles again, with two waterfall stops along the way. The first, Agua Azul, was not looking particularly blue-water-like on our visit, owing to the heavy rainfalls, although the power of the water leaping down towards us was highly impressive. The sun peeked out a little more for our second stop at Mishol Ha, a 35m waterfall that has been the filming location for movies like Predator. I loved getting to sneak behind the torrent’s curtain – it reminded me of my visit to Seljalandsfoss Waterfall in Iceland.
Almost all our accommodation on the trip was distinctive in some (good) way, but that in Palenque particularly so – Chan Kah in Palenque is a jungle retreat with gorgeous pools, tasty food and, most importantly, howler monkeys! I was fascinated by these loud creatures leaping above us… they packed a serious audible punch.
Anna and I making the most of the pool, even in the rain
A fairly early start saw us at Palenque around opening time. About 1000 people apparently visit every day, although given it’s a large site it wasn’t crowded at any point, unlike say Chichen Itza (of which, more soon!). Before we headed to the main site, we took the time to have a little walk through the jungle while our tour guide extraordinaire Cesar told us the history of the Mayans who lived there. Dating from around 230 BC to 800 AD, the grey stones now blend naturally into the jungle where once they were painted vivid reds and blues. As a city-state ruled by kings, Palenque’s cultural peak came in the 6th century, and then declined until it was abandoned to the jungle in the early 1000s. Now it is estimated that less than 10% of the site has been excavated with thousands of structures still hidden in the forest.
As we wound our way along the paths, crossing a small stream that glittered in a stray ray of sunshine, Cesar asked who was feeling brave? He then pointed to a (very) small stone opening half-hidden under tree-roots, and promised us bats if we climbed inside. Feeling a little bat-crazy, a couple of us intrepid souls took the challenge. I’m not too bad with small spaces, but did feel a little queasy at the idea that I was climbing into an old tomb – thoughts of Maori tapu (a restriction on places due to their sacred nature) kept swimming through my head. But Cesar reassured us it was fine, and we were rewarded with the sight of these adorable little bats – although I didn’t think they were quite so adorable when a couple flew straight at our heads!
The Palace and its Observation Tower
Back out in the sunshine, we were soon rewarded with the magnificent open spaces and temples of the Palace of Palenque. You are able to climb up and explore many of the structures, and to watch restoration work going on right in front of you – very cool!
The Temple of the Inscriptions
I really liked the sense of space and scale we were given, as so many of the buildings are still standing and in great condition. Even some of the more delicate carvings are only protected with a small fence so you are still able to get up close.
As always, we headed to the heights for some great views from the Temple of the Cross. It was there that the grandeur of Palenque was most apparent – isn’t it stunning?!
Working those legs again on the descent
Even when you leave the main temple site, there’s still many more to see, and you can continue downhill to the excellent museum, which holds many of the carvings and treasures too precious to be left outdoors. We learnt more about the kings of Palenque, some of whom called themselves Kinich, or “the great sun” – no false modesty there then!
Sunset on the road to Campeche
If you’re visiting Mexico I can’t recommend Palenque highly enough. We spent a couple of hours there and still had loads more that we could have seen. It has more architecture than Teotihuacan, more atmosphere than Uxmal and is practically deserted compared to Chichen Itza. While all these are still special places in their own right, Palenque was definitely my favourite!