The archeological site of the ancient Mayan city of Palenque is only a short distance from the modern town of Palenque. While you can arrange a tour in town at a number of tour offices, I found that with just a 70 Peso cab ride (less than $7 USD) and entrance fees I could go on my own rather than adding the expense of a tour guide and bus. And as for learning the history of each building, Palenque is well equipped with plaques for each complex around the city explaining its importance, what was found within buildings, and the original use of the buildings. For me, I’d rather explore than have a guide lead me through…..plus it’s cheaper.
The taxi driver should know to drive past the first large sign for the Palenque ruins. If not, make sure you tell him to take you to the top entrance; otherwise you will be hiking uphill the entire day and against other tourist traffic.
Stock Up on Water!
Upon arrival you’re greeted with an array of vendors selling souvenirs, food, and most importantly water. I had already planned ahead and as usual had a Diet Coke (now known as Coca Cola Light) in hand and a large bottle of water in my backpack. Just in case, I decided to grab another liter of water from a vendor for 20 pesos as it was very hot and humid out. Definitely over pack water! They don’t sell it inside and you shouldn’t use the one water fountain I saw throughout the site. I went through all of my water supplies way before the end of my site exploration and was certainly feeling the effects of dehydration. Not good when you’re standing atop of a 10 story pyramid!
I have now visited a handful of Mayan city states but had never heard much about Palenque. Honestly it only rang a bell when I came across it online from multiple mentions on the TV show Ancient Aliens (love it! Here’s the episode). It was a large scale city that was right in league with Chichen Itza (named one of the 7 wonders of the world) and others in its hay days but in my opinion it is a far grander city to explore and really makes me wonder who decided on that 7 wonders of the world list.
Palenque City Layout
The site is comprised of a few main courtyards edged by pyramids, temples and a palace in the center. Outside the main section of the city site is a ball court, and many smaller structures that were home to the upper middle class of the day. Very little is known about how the common Mayan people lived as their homes were wooden and their possessions limited so few artifacts have been found. In fact, even all of the hieroglyphic writings only depict the lives of royalty. It is believed that only priests and members of the elite knew how to read or write.
Pacal’s Pyramid Tomb
The main pyramid was under archeological excavation during my visit so I wasn’t able to see it from the top but viewing the artifacts discovered deep inside the pyramid’s chambers more than made up for it. At the end of the tour there is a museum dedicated to the site. At first blush it doesn’t look like much and by the time you reach it you’ll be exhausted (or maybe I’m just really out of shape!). Resist the urge to skip it! Along with the usual pottery and carvings it contains a climate controlled section that houses the sarcophagus from the ruler Lord Pacal.
At first I wasn’t sure if this was even an area that tourists could enter. I mean you leave an open air museum and enter through a tinted electronic sliding door into a cold chamber (felt sooo good about then!). You walk down a short corridor explaining where the sarcophagus was found and when you turn the corner it’s like you’ve truly stepped into a scene from Indiana Jones. I’ve never seen anything like it and the first moment I saw it I actually got chills. Pacal’s sarcophagus looked about 7 foot long by 4 foot wide and is intricately carved on all sides with a portrait of the great ruler shown on the massive lid making his ascension into the heavens (therefore the Ancient Aliens hoopla). The sides are said to depict other great rules of Palenque throughout history, ultimately telling the story of how Pacal became ruler. Street cred for the afterlife no doubt!
Adjacent to Pacal’s pyramid tomb in the city, is the palace complex which was probably my favorite building to explore. At its center there was a large tower flanked on each side by inner courtyards with original Mayan carvings still preserved to this day. Another characteristic that makes this building unique is the fact that it contains underground chambers and tunnels that are open to the public. They are not marked and it would be extremely easy to not even realize they were there. I only found them as I was paying attention since another traveler told me what to look out for. There’s just something about walking through the same dark corridors that people did over 2,000 years ago that is simply unbelievable.
Climbing a Pyramid
Nestled behind the palace onto a picturesque jungle mountain side sits a pyramid and temple. Hiking to the top of the pyramid is not for the faint of heart. By the time I reached the structure I’d probably been out in the heat for 2-3 hours and was almost out of water. The walk up left my legs burning and by the time I reached the top I looked like I had just climbed out of a swimming pool. A guy I’m guessing was a type of park ranger was at the top and he stayed very close to me…I’m guessing I looked like I might pass out and tumble down the pyramid steps!
At the top of the temple beside the pyramid I was greeted by the howler monkeys. I had heard and seen them before on a trip to Costa Rica but this was different….very different. Standing atop a temple overlooking the whole city of Palenque with this eerie sound coming from deep in the jungle…..all I could imagine was how creeped out I would be if there weren’t so many other people around. It was one of those moments where the city became real versus just ruins from long ago.
The last couple of complexes offer smaller temples with views over the valley and then deeper into the jungle sit the remains of smaller buildings that you can also walk into. It makes it quite a bit more eery to be in the jungle with no other tourists nearby and to walk into a dark corridor with only the light of my cell phone to see by. Needless to say, there was one small sound inside and I ran out like a kid would leave a haunted house. One of those moments you turn around to make sure no one saw!
To really provide a feel for the layout, I found a Nat Geo video that has some nice fly over footage and walkthroughs. I can also tell more excavation has occurred since it was filmed as the buildings to the right of Pacals pyramid don’t yet have the stairs I climbed unearthed. Any history buffs out there will enjoy the whole thing. For the rest of you, the fly over at the start is all you need to get a sense of how awesome the site truly is.
There’s not much more I can share about Palenque that would do it justice. It was a day that I spent every moment in awe. Hopefully the pictures will give you a little glimpse into that feeling.