With its well-preserved buildings and gorgeous jungle setting, few archaeological sites can rival the magic of Palenque. The surviving structures largely date back to the 7th century AD, many of which housed elaborate tombs of the ruling elite. Situated by the modern city of the same name in the state of Chiapas, visiting Palenque is relatively straightforward. Nevertheless, there are a few key details to keep in mind before your visit.
In the following guide to the Palenque ruins, we’ll be covering the city’s history, important visiting tips, a comprehensive guide to the ruins, and what one can expect to see at the on-site Palenque Museum.
Also be sure to check the very end of the article for details on transport and accommodation.
Palenque: A Brief History
As is the case with many other important Mayan cities, we sadly know little of Palenque’s early history. The earliest ceramics in the area date to around 100 AD, and we know that Palenque would later emerge as an important commercial center.
From around 300, Palenque would become a major center for trade with Guatemala’s Petén region, while the nearby Usumacinta River helped connect it with cities to the north and south.
In contrast to the cities of the Mayan lowlands further east, Palenque residents didn’t have to worry about digging out reservoirs to prepare for the long dry season. Palenque, in fact, was home to no less than six freshwater streams.
According to dynastic records, a king named K’uk’ Balam would ascend the Palenque throne in 431 AD, founding the dynasty that would rule the city until the early 9th century.
The city’s heyday would begin around the year 600, when many of the magnificent structures still standing today were built. Furthermore, it’s from around this time that many of Palenque’s exquisite carvings and sculptures were created – arguably the finest ever created by the Mayan civilization.
One of Palenque’s best-known kings, Hanab-Pakal II, now better known as Pakal the Great, would ascend the throne in 615 at the age of twelve, ruling for a staggering 68 years.
To this day, the unearthing of his tomb in the Temple of the Inscriptions remains one of Mexico’s most important ever archaeological discoveries.
Pakal’s son, K’inich Kan Balahm, would ascend the throne in 684 at the age of 48. And he would also make a name for himself as one of the city’s most significant rulers.
In addition to constructing three temples representing the Palenque Triad, he’d also complete his father’s final resting place. And it was Kan Balahm who’d go on to to create a history of his lineage, which he claimed was founded thousands of years prior by divine beings.
Nevertheless, the city’s peak was believed to have lasted until around 783, when Palenque was home to around 10,000 people. Construction had largely halted by the 730s, however.
The city’s last inscription dates to 799 and it was mostly abandoned by 810 for reasons which remain unclear. It was then likely taken over by the Putun Maya from Tabasco to the north, but even they would abandon it by 900.
The site remained largely left untouched for centuries, and it wouldn’t be thoroughly explored until the late 18th century by the Spanish. Amazingly, the early explorers actually believed the site to have been founded by the Romans!
An explorer named Jean Frederick de Waldeck, known as the ‘Count’, would set up lodging in one of the temples in 1832, drawing many of the reliefs. Rather than the Romans, Waldeck believed it was the Egyptians who built Palenque!
In 1840, the famous archaeologist duo of John Lloyd Stephens and Frederick Catherwood, known for their early documentation of many important Mayan sites, arrived at Palenque. And they understood that the splendid city was indeed built by the ancestors of the native population.
Major excavations would not take place until the 1930s, with the earthshaking discovery of Pakal’s tomb happening in 1952. Numerous temples were excavated over the subsequent decades, with plenty more tombs being discovered in the 1990s.
Palenque is open daily from 8:00-16:30, and the total cost comes out to around $120 MXN (a few different tickets to multiple agencies are required).
Visiting Palenque is easy, as the ruins are only about a twenty-minute ride from the modern city of Palenque. Regular colectivos ($20 MXN) depart from Allende street, in between Miguel Hidago and Benito Juárez streets. Or, you can simply hail one that’s already in motion from the main road.
After purchasing your ticket, there are two entrances to the ruins, but there’s no signage which clearly points this out. One entrance is within short walking distance of the ticket gate, though it will take you through a large forested area. While beautiful, it’s best to exit from here instead.
To get to the further entrance, you’ll have to take an additional colectivo from the main road outside the ticket gate, as it’s a bit too far to walk.
But why deal with the hassle of paying another colectivo driver to take you there? It’s because most people walk to the closer entrance, which involves a lot of walking before you finally reach Palenque’s core. The further entrance, in contrast, takes you right to Palenque’s center.
Though I’d arrived before opening at 8:00, there were already at least twenty people or so ahead of me in line. But as the only tourist to hop in the colectivo to the other entrance, I actually ended up being the first person at the ruins.
And I had the site mostly to myself for about 30 minutes or so (the local vendors aside). As you’ll discover, Palenque gets very crowded with tour groups rather early, so having the ruins to yourself for even a short time is a real treat. When finished, you can exit via the forested path and take your time along the way.
A Guide to Visiting Palenque
At the time of writing, what’s open to the public is said to be only a fraction of all that’s been discovered. With that being said, even just with what visitors are currently limited to seeing, Palenque is one of the finest archaeological sites in Mexico.
The following guide assumes you’ve started from the further entrance from the ticket gate (see Visiting Tips above). But even if you use the other entrance, you’ll easily be able to walk to the Main Plaza upon reaching Palenque’s core.
The Main Plaza
Entering the ruins, you’ll immediately encounter a large set of connected buildings on your right. And first among them is Temple XII, also known as the Temple of the Skull or the Temple of the Dying Moon.
Situated on a raised platform, it was named after a surviving stucco relief of a rabbit skull. Rabbits were associated by the Maya with the moon, hence the temple’s nickname.
It was completed in the second half of the 8th century, though it was likely built over even older structures. Notably, a tomb was found below which contained hundreds of pieces of jade.
Next is Temple XIII, or the Tomb of the Red Queen. The royal woman within, likely Pakal’s wife, was buried with a magnificent set of jade artifacts which are now on display at the on-site Palenque Museum. And it’s there that you’ll also find a full recreation of her tomb.
She’s been nicknamed the ‘Red Queen’ due to the fact that both her body and the walls of her tomb were covered in the red mineral cinnabar. But this was quite a common burial practice among the Maya.
And last, but certainly not least, is the Temple of the Inscriptions, arguably Palenque’s most important structure. Standing at 61 m tall, the entire building was originally painted red.
The temple was named after inscribed tablets found in its central room, which detail the reign of Pakal II (Pakal the Great) and the ascension of his successor, Kan Bahlam (Serpent Jaguar).
Amazingly, the inscriptions even mention a date from the future – 4772 AD – which proves that the Mayans never really believed the world would end in 2012! 4772 AD marks the end of a Mayan ‘piktun,’ or a period of 7885 years.
Originally built as a nine-tiered building (perhaps to symbolize the nine lords of the night), additional modifications were required to prevent its collapse. The structure we see today largely looks so good thanks to recent reconstruction efforts by archaeologists.
It was here in 1954 that Mexican archaeologist Alberto Ruz Lhuillier made one of the most important discoveries in the history of Mexican archaeology: the tomb of Pakal the Great himself.
Buried 25 m below the floor, the carving of the stone lid of Pakal’s sarcophagus is now among the best-known pieces of Mayan art. The scene depicts Pakal, identified with the God of Maize, emerging from the earth, an act which symbolized resurrection.
And above him is the Mayan World Tree. Other deities like K’awil and Itzamna, meanwhile, represent the two other levels of the universe.
The tomb lid, along with Pakal’s body, remain in situ and are currently off-limites to the public (the tomb used to be accessible in the past). Visitors can, however, see recreations of the tomb at places like the Museum of Jade in San Cristóbal de las Casas and at the Mexico City Museum of Anthropology.
Interestingly, the grave of Alberto Ruz Lhuillier himself lies nearby.
There are a number of routes one can take when visiting Palenque. But to follow this guide, next head north across the plaza, with the massive Palace on your right. Before long, you’ll arrive at a largely overlooked yet highly mysterious structure known as Temple X.
Interestingly, this temple utilizes much larger blocks than one typically finds in Mayan constructions. As such, archaeologists believe it to be among Palenque’s oldest. As is common around the world, the oldest civilizations, for whatever reason, generally preferred using larger blocks than their descendants would.
Though now missing, the structure once featured a temple at the top with five doorways.
Looking behind you, you’ll see the southern end of the Palace, which served as the official residence for Palenque’s royal family. A massive staircase leads up to the platform, but unfortunately, the structure is now completely off-limits.
To the side of the staircase, you can spot the remnants of some of the building’s original stucco decoration. Also notice the huge stones at the base, which are quite reminiscent of those of Temple X. We’ll be covering the Palace more in-depth shortly.
Northeast of the Palace is Palenque’s Ball Court, a staple feature of just about every prominent city in Mesoamerica. Despite Palenque’s power and wealth, this court is a bit on the small side.
Interestingly, scholars believe it would’ve utilized wooden rings instead of stone ones, as no ring fragments were ever found here.
At Palenque’s northern edge is the aptly-named North Group which consists of five south-facing temples atop a raised platform. Some of the original stucco reliefs can still be seen at the base, and archaeologists believe the entire structure would’ve been covered in similar decoration.
The Temple of the Count consists of a temple with three doors atop a pyramidal base. Like many other buildings in central Palenque, multiple tombs were discovered within.
When finished with the North Group, proceed south along the eastern side of the Palace.
As mentioned above, the Palace served as Palenque’s official royal residence. While open to the public years back, it can only be observed from the outside at the time of writing.
The Palace was first established as early as the 5th century AD before being continually added to by later kings. All in all, it was in a constant state of construction for centuries.
On all sides of the Palace’s exterior, one can still observe original relief carvings along with more preserved stucco decorations on the structure’s north side.
And along the east of the Palace, you’ll encounter the Aqueduct, which stretches out to 60 m in total. As mentioned above, the area is home to six streams, but Palenque residents still had to come up with a sophisticated water management system to prevent flooding.
Inside the Palace, one could find numerous buildings and inner courtyards. And it’s here that the city’s most important administrative decisions would be discussed.
Dignitaries and kings visiting from other cities would be hosted here, while it’s also where the royal family would hold their banquets. For a better idea of the Palace’s internal layout, you can observe a miniature model at the on-site Palenque Museum.
And from the area known as the Group of the Crosses, situated atop a hill in Palenque’s southeast, one can partially observe some of the Palace’s restricted areas.
Arguably the Palace’s most notable architectural feature is its tower, which wasn’t added until the 8th century. Notably, it’s the only such tower of its kind in the Mayan world, and scholars still aren’t sure of its exact function.
The most popular theory is that it once served as an observation tower to look at the stars and planets – particularly Venus.
The Group of the Crosses
The elevated section known as the Group of the Crosses was among Palenque’s most sacred areas. Established by K’inich Kan Bahlam between 690-692, the three main temples here represent the ‘Palenque Triad.’ But more on that shortly.
Past the viewpoint of the palace, you’ll encounter some foundations known as Complex XV. Though mostly destroyed, these buildings largely functioned as tombs.
Next comes Temple XIV, recognizable for its missing roof. Fascinatingly, its main relief depicts K’inich Kan Bahlam after his death. He’s doing a dance to celebrate his defeat of the lords of Xibalba, the Mayan underworld, and his successful emergence from that realm.
He’s also seen being presented a figurine of the deity K’awil by his mother. The scene is supposed to take place 260 days after the king’s death and a month after that of his mother. Fascinatingly, the Mayans believed that their divine rulers were capable of traveling through time.
Unfortunately, very little of the relief can be made out from the ground.
Next to Temple XIV is the Temple of the Sun, one of three temples here representing the Palenque Triad. All in all, the Group of the Crosses was meant to symbolize the universe itself.
The Temple of the Sun, a three-tiered pyramidal structure, was associated with the deity K’inich Jaw Pakal, an embodiment of the sun during its nightly journey through the underworld.
And its inner shrine commemorates the ascension to the throne of K’inich Kan Bahlam.
In the center of the plaza is the massive Temple of the Cross, named by early explorers who felt reliefs here depicting crosses resembled the Christian version.
One of the largest temples at Palenque, it’s comprised of five main tiers which lead up to a central room at the top. It contains yet more reliefs dedicated to the king’s ascension.
This temple is associated with another deity of the Palenque Triad, a celestial god whose name scholars have yet to decipher.
And to the east of the plaza is the Temple of the Foliated Cross, associated with K’awil, the lord of agriculture and also of Palenque’s ruling dynasty. This is another large tiered building, though it was built into the side of the hill behind it.
Its temple consists of three doors and features scenes of K’inich Kan Bahlam together with his father, Pakal the Great.
Apparently, the temples here were once climbable, though they could only be viewed from below at the time of my visit.
The Forest & The Streams
As mentioned above, there are two entrances/exits to Palenque. When you’re ready to leave, you can find the alternate exit to the north of the site, roughly east of the Ball Court. This will take you through a pristine forested path.
In addition to more ruins, you’ll also encounter some of the streams which once supplied the ancient city with water. Infuriatingly, however, at the time of my visit, all the scenic viewpoints of the waterfalls were roped off for ‘health reasons.’
While far from the most interesting ruins you’ll encounter while visiting Palenque, Complex B was a residential complex that also featured tombs beneath its houses.
The nearby Complex of the Bats, meanwhile, is situated between two streams, and both tombs and a temple were discovered here.
The Palenque Museum
The Palenque Museum, located right by the ticket gate, is arguably the best on-site museum in all of Mexico. While the ruins are open daily, the museum is open every day except Mondays.
If you happen to visit the ruins on a Monday and have more time in town, you can later return to the area with your original ticket to access the museum.
While Palenque, of course, was an entire city and not just a single temple, it could be regarded as the Abydos or Banteay Srei of the Mayan world – a place that produced what many consider to be the zenith of Mayan artwork.
Many notable artifacts from the Palenque Museum are pictured above next to the buildings where they were found. Yet the museum contains many more beautiful pieces discovered in places that are now off-limits to visitors.
Among the museum’s most striking pieces is an 8th-century stucco tablet depicting U Pakal K’inich that was found at Temple XIX.
You’ll also find additional carved tables found at the same temple. Notice how fine and detailed these carvings are compared to the largely eroded pieces of limestone you’ll typically find at other Mayan museums.
Some of the most interesting items on display are the ancient incense holders, many of which were found at the bases of the buildings in the Group of the Crosses.
Like many cultures throughout the world, the Mayans burned incense during important ceremonies and rituals. But few other cultures created incense holders quite like these. Many of the faces depict Mayan divinities which are surrounded by a multitude of esoteric symbols.
As mentioned above, it’s also within the museum that you’ll find a recreation of the Tomb of the Red Queen.
The city of Palenque is best thought of as a base from which to see ruins and waterfalls and not as a destination in its own right. As such, it would be wise to stay somewhere in the western part of the city near the main bus station instead of nearby the central park.
When visiting Palenque (the archaeological site), the colectivos taking you there can be found in this general area on Allende street, in between Miguel Hidalgo and Benito Juárez streets. You can also hail one from the main road near the bus station.
Also in this area, one can find the small colectivo stations with buses for Ocosingo, the nearest town to the pyramid city of Toniná.
And right near the main ADO Bus Station are tour offices through which you can arrange tours to Yaxchilan/Bonampak and the Cascadas de Agua Azul.
I stayed at a hotel called Posada Nacha`n – Ka`an which was located near all the locations just mentioned. I stayed three nights and paid around $315 MXN per night for a private room with a private bathroom.
The main downside was that the internet barely worked, but as I was out on day trips for most of my stay, it wasn’t a big deal.
The hotel has a luggage storage room and you can find staff on hand from early in the morning. This allowed me to leave my things as soon as I arrived on the morning bus from Bacalar, making it possible to immediately head to the Palenque ruins.
Even if you don’t stay at Posada Nacha`n – Ka`an, I recommend the general area, especially if you plan on visiting Toniná independently. Other highly-rated options include Hotel Chablis Palenque and Casa Céntrica en Palenque.
Staying right by the ruins would be another good choice.
If renting a car is not an option, the city of Palenque is well connected by bus. If you’re coming from the east or north, you’ll find direct buses from places like Villahermosa, Bacalar, Campeche and even Mérida. I came on a night bus from Bacalar and everything went smoothly.
Unfortunately, things get complicated when coming from other parts of Chiapas further west. While the nearest major tourist hub in Chiapas is San Cristóbal de las Casas, coach buses now take a much longer, indirect route which lasts around 11 hours.
The reason is that there are frequent blockades set up by villagers demanding money from passing vehicles on the road between San Cristóbal de las Casas and Ocosingo, the town in between San Cristóbal and Palenque.
But it’s not just mild extortion, as there have also been occasional highway robberies on this road (mostly at night), prompting the major bus companies to avoid it entirely. Coach buses between San Cristóbal and Palenque now travel via Villahermosa instead.
It is possible, however, to take local colectivos between the two cities, which will likely involve a transfer at Ocosingo. I’ve met travelers who’ve done this without any problems.
In any case, Villahermosa, Tabasco, is well worth a couple-day stop in between Palenque and San Cristóbal. Its Parque Museo La Venta hosts some of the finest artifacts of the Olmec civilization, while nearby the city is the overlooked site of Comalcalco, the western-most Mayan ruin.