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.