Surrounded by a dense jungle forest in a dramatic mountain setting, Palenque is widely regarded as the most atmospheric and impressive of Mexico's Mayan ruins. Palenque's monumental stone temples are famed for their architectural sophistication and fine sculptures, and are made even more interesting by the detailed knowledge of its history that archaeologists have recovered from its inscriptions.
History of Palenque
People lived in this area as early as 300 BC, leaving behind pottery as evidence. But it was in the Mayan Classic Period (300-900 AD) that Palenque became an important ceremonial center. It peaked around 600 to 700 AD, when most of the temples of Palenque were built by King Pakal and his son Chan-Bahlum.
Known to the Mayans as Lakam Ha, "Big Water," Palenque was built in a supremely dramatic location, surrounded by mountains, rushing waterfalls, and dense forest. Unlike most other Mayan cities, Palenque enjoyed an abundance of water, which was controlled by means of an elaborate aqueduct system.
After years of rumors of a lost city in the jungle, the ruins were first visited in 1773 by the brother of the canon of the cathedral in San Cristobal de las Casas. In 1786, the Spanish monarchy ordered that the site be thoroughly searched for gold and treasures. This was done with the help of locals with pickaxes, and resulted in significant damage to the Palace.
When John Stephens first visited the site in the 1840s, the ruins were mostly still buried under centuries of accumulated earth and a thick canopy of jungle.
The main temples have been cleared, but the dense jungle still surrounds the site and covers unexcavated temples, which can be easily spotted beneath the foliage. It is estimated that less than 35% of this important ancient site has been excavated.
What to See at Palenque
The impressive pyramid on the right of the site entrance is the Temple of the Inscriptions, named for the hieroglyphics found inside. These hieroglyphic panels described the family tree of King Pakal, and are now in the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City.
In 1952, the tomb of King Pakal was discovered deep within the temple. The crypt is unfortunately closed to the public, and much of the tomb has also been moved to Mexico City.
The crypt was accessed by a descending stone staircase, the entrance of which had been carefully hidden by the builders. The Temple of the Inscriptions seems to be the only temple in Mexico built specifically as a tomb. The archaeologist who made the important discovery, Alberto Ruz Lhuller, is buried opposite the temple.
To the right of the Temple of the Inscriptions is Temple 13, in which archaeologists recently discovered the richly supplied burial of another important person, accompanied by an adult female and an adolescent. Some of the artifacts found here are displayed in the site museum.
From here, the main pathway leads next to the impressive Palace, which has a unique tower that almost looks Chinese. Along the east edge of Palace is the most visible of the many aqueduct channels that run throughout the site. It is elaborately vaulted and 2.5 meters in height.
A pathway between the Palace and the Temple of the Inscriptions leads to another important group of monuments: the Temple of the Sun, the Temple of the Foliated Cross, the Temple of the Cross, and Temple 14.
This group of temples, now in various stages of reconstruction, was built by Pakal's son, Chan-Bahlum, who is usually depicted with six toes. Chan-Bahlum's plaster mask was found in Temple 14 next to the Temple of the Sun, and archaeologists are hoping to find his tomb in the Temple of the Sun.
Left from the Palace is the North Group, also undergoing reconstruction. This includes a Ball Court, the Temple of the Count, and several tombs that were full of offerings. Inscriptions found in this group give the lineages of at least 12 kings.
Just past the North Group is a pathway that leads down a jungle hillside, with benches and small reconstructed temples along the way. Monkeys and parrots can often be spotted in the foliage. The path leads about 1/2 mile to the small site museum, which is worth a look. The museum's exhibits include artifacts excacvated from Palenque tombs and are attractively displayed. Explanations in Spanish and English provide an idea of what this great city was like at its peak. From the museum, minibuses take visitors back into the village.
Palenque is 5 hours from San Cristobal by car or bus, and passes through lush mountain scenery. Buses also connect Palenque with Tuxtla (6 1/2 hr.), Campeche (six per day, 5 hr.), Villahermosa (nine per day, 2 hr.), and Mérida (two per day, 9 hr.).
The ruins of Palenque are located about a mile from the city of the same name. Minibuses run between the city center and the ruins every 10 minutes between 6am and 6pm.
Quick Facts on Palenque
|Lakam Ha · Otolum · Palenque · Parque Nacional Palenque
|archaeological sites; temples; city ruins; World Heritage Sites
|Visitor and Contact Information
|17.484291° N, 92.046890° W
|Palenque, Chiapas, Mexico
|916/345-0356 (Palenque tourist office)
|Site and shops: daily 8am to 4:45pm
Museum: Tue-Sun 10am-5pm
|View hotels near Palenque
- Palenque: Official Homepage of the Archaeological Excavations
- Palenque - Frommer's Cancun, Cozumel and the Yucatan
- Pre-Hispanic City and National Park of Palenque - UNESCO World Heritage List
Map of Palenque, Mexico
Below is a location map and aerial view of Palenque. Using the buttons on the left (or the wheel on your mouse), you can zoom in for a closer look, or zoom out to get your bearings. To move around, click and drag the map with your mouse.