Imagine a city buried under a thousand years of jungle growth. Less than 10% of it has been excavated, only the central part, composed of steep pyramids and blocky temples of white limestone.
All around is dense rainforest crisscrossed by gurgling streams and shimmering waterfalls. The heavy air is filled with the buzzing of insects, the singing of tropical birds, and the booming grunts of howler monkeys.
The Palenque ruins have all this and more. You can even climb the pyramids and explore the inner chambers of the city’s massive stone palace.
I visited the southern Mexican state of Chiapas, where Palenque is located, about once a year during the 10 years I lived in Mexico.
I’ve lost count of how many times I visited Palenque. It’s not only my favorite ancient Mayan ruins, but one of my favorite places to visit in all of Mexico.
In this guide, you’ll learn how to visit the Palenque ruins in Chiapas.
Palenque Ruins Facts and History
Palenque was one of the most important Mayan cities during the Classical period (250-900 CE). Its peak was from about 500 to 700 CE, and it was abandoned by the 9th century.
Palenque was ruled by a succession of powerful kings who oversaw the construction of its buildings.
In 711, Palenque was taken over by the nearby Mayan city-state of Tonina. No new construction occurred in the central area of Palenque after 800 CE, and its rapid and mysterious decline began around then.
Palenque Temples and Pyramids to Visit
There are dozens of impressive structures to see in the Palenque ruins, with thousands more in the surrounding jungle.
Temple of the Red Queen and Temple of the Inscriptions
The two biggest pyramids, which you’ll see immediately upon entering the site from the second entrance, are the Temple of the Red Queen and the Temple of the Inscriptions, both built in the 7th century CE.
The Temple of the Inscriptions contained the tomb of the Mayan king Pacal the Great, which was discovered in 1952. His jade burial mask and other adornments are now displayed in the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City.
Across a grassy clearing from the two pyramids is the centerpiece of the Palenque ruins, the enormous Palace, which you can explore inside and out.
It’s the largest building in Palenque and contains sculptures, courtyards, and a tall observation tower.
Temple of the Cross
The Temple of the Cross group is a cluster of step pyramids located on the high slopes beyond the Palace. They have elaborate bas-relief carvings inside and offer panoramic views from outside.
The Temple of the Cross is the highest pyramid in all of Palenque.
Temple of the Count
Across the Palace from this group, the Temple of the Count has a wide staircase that leads to the top for another incredible view of the ancient city.
Hidden Palenque Ruins
After exploring these structures in the main area, take the trails beyond the Palace into Palenque’s hidden corners in the jungle, which eventually lead downhill past the Queen’s Bath and Sombrillas waterfalls to the park’s first entrance.
Best Palenque Ruins Tours
Visiting Palenque ruins on a tour means you’ll have an English-speaking guide explaining the history and architectural significance. Many include lunch and stops at other attractions.
1. Palenque Ruins, Agua Azul and Misol-Ha from Palenque (private tour)
Leaving from the town of Palenque, this private tour combines a trip to the ruins with visits to the waterfalls Agua Azul and Misol Ha.
The tour includes entrance tickets, transportation and a guide. Learn more here.
2. Palenque Ruins Only (from Palenque town)
If you’d rather not visit Agua Azul and Misol-Ha and would prefer to just spend the day at the incredible ruins, this tour is for you.
The private tour includes a guide, transportation, admission ticket and around 3 hours to explore the Mayan ruins. Learn more here.
3. From San Cristóbal: Agua Azul and Palenque Day Trip
The Palenque ruins are a little too far away for a practical day trip on your own from San Cristobal de las Casas. It can be done with this tour, however, which lasts 17 hours and leaves at 3:30 AM. After exploring the archeological site, the tour makes a stop at Agua Azul.
4. Bonampak and Yaxchilán from Palenque
Two other famous Mayan ruins near Palenque are Bonampak and Yaxchilán. They’re quite remote and much less visited than Palenque.
Note: This tour doesn’t go to the Palenque ruins, but only to Bonampak and Yaxchilán. The three sites are too large to all be visited in one day. Choose this tour if you’ve already been to the Palenque ruins.
Top Tips for Visiting the Mayan Ruins of Palenque
Here are my top tips for a great trip to the Palenque Ruins.
1. Don’t Rush Through
Plan on spending the whole day visiting Palenque ruins. Sure, you could rush through the main section in about two hours, but the place is large and interesting enough to deserve four or five hours.
There’s nothing quite like sitting on a quiet temple top and taking it all in.
2. Bring a Backpack
Bring a backpack with what you’ll need for a long day in the tropical heat: lots of water, snacks, and a raincoat. It’s very humid at the ruins of Palenque!
Bring a swimming suit if you plan on going to the Motiepa waterfall. Although you can’t actually submerge yourself in the water, you can lay down in it and get wet enough to cool off.
3. Stay in Palenque Town
If you have the time, stay at least three days in Palenque town. As mentioned, besides the Palenque ruins, there are waterfalls, good food options and other Mayan sites to visit.
4. Sort Out Your Transportation
If you’re visiting Palenque as part of a longer trip through southern Mexico, check out the transportation options in Palenque carefully before you commit to anything.
First-class buses leave from the ADO station just outside of downtown, and much cheaper discount options leave from private terminals. Check out travel agencies for transportation into Guatemala.
Things to Do at the Palenque Mayan Ruins
It’s basically all about visiting the ruins and doing some hiking, but here are some of the must-dos at Palenque ruins and around.
Wear sturdy shoes, because besides taking photographs, visiting the Palenque ruins is all about hiking on rocky trails and climbing the steep staircases of limestone temples.
You can hike on the Motiepa trail, which begins at one of the twists in the road between the two entrances.
You can also find one of its branches next to the Temple of the Red Queen. It leads to the Motiepa waterfall, which you can dunk your head under to cool off.
The Moteipa trail goes for a long loop through what may seem like a deep, scary jungle, although the waterfall is actually quite close to the parking lot.
It’s fairly easy to follow, but if you want to ensure you don’t get lost, hire one of the local guides hanging around near the trailhead.
For around 200-400 pesos ($10-20 USD), they’ll take you on the trail, show you some hidden structures, and teach you a little about the jungle.
For instance, they’ll point out a chicle tree, from which the world’s first chewing gum was made. You’ll see spider and howler monkeys on this trail.
2. Visit the Museum
After exploring the archeological site, check out the park’s museum, the Museo de Sitio de Palenque Alberto Ruz L’Huillier.
There’s no extra charge to enter, and it contains many artifacts from Palenque, at least the ones that didn’t get taken to the huge National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City.
3. Visit the Town of Palenque
About 10 kilometers away, Palenque town is a decent base for visiting the ruins and other attractions in the area. It has good tacos (especially Tropi Tacos on the main street downtown), an authentic public market, and lots of travel agencies offering a variety of services.
A better option for where to stay, however, is at a cluster of jungle bungalows called El Panchan.
They’re located in front of the main gate to the Palenque ruins and offer a wide range of accommodation, from mosquito-ridden dorm rooms to private bungalows. A few restaurants and bars are scattered between.
If you find the jungle fascinating in the daylight, then you’ll love it at night, when it seems twice as loud. You may get lucky and hear a jaguar roar, or perhaps only imagine it.
4. Explore the Waterfalls
Near Palenque are some beautiful waterfalls where you can swim and hike.
Agua Azul is a series of falls and rapids on a long stretch of river, and Misol-Ha is a tall vertical waterfall emptying into a wide pool. Both are accessible on public transportation, although it’s more convenient to use a tour.
Also, you can rappel down the waterfall if you want!
5. Day Trips to Ruins
Many travel agencies also arrange trips to the Mayan ruins of Bonampak and Yaxchilán near the Guatemalan border. They’re close to each other, making it easy to see both on one trip, and they’re even more overgrown than Palenque.
Frequently Asked Questions
Below are answers to some commonly asked questions about the Palenque ruins.
Where Are the Palenque Ruins?
The Palenque ruins are next to the small town of the same name in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas.
The closest city is Villahermosa, about two hours away by car. San Cristobal de las Casas is about five hours away by car. The Guatemalan border is also about five hours from Palenque.
How Do You Get to the Palenque Ruins?
Regular colectivos (white passenger vans used for public transportation in Mexico) regularly make the 15-minute trip from Palenque town to the Palenque ruins.
In Palenque town, colectivos depart from Tercera Pte. Sur where it intersects Av. Benito Juárez, the main street in town.
Colectivos usually make a stop at El Panchan (at the main gate) before arriving at the first entrance. Get off at the first entrance to walk uphill among bubbling streams, waterfalls, and barely-excavated ruins.
Stay in the colectivo until it arrives at the second entrance farther up the road if you want to see the big pyramids first. There’s a large parking lot and some small restaurants outside this second entrance.
You can also take a taxi from Palenque town, which should cost between 50 and 100 pesos ($2.50 to $5 USD). Negotiate the fare beforehand.
More than five hours away, the Palenque ruins are too far for a day trip from San Cristobal de las Casas, the gorgeous colonial town in the mountains that’s another top destination in Chiapas.
To travel on public transportation between these two places, you have two options: taking colectivos or a bus.
Colectivos are usually faster because the bus might take the long way through Tuxtla Gutierrez. From San Cristobal de las Casas, first take a colectivo to the town of Ocosingo and change there to a colectivo for Palenque.
Ocosingo is an interesting Mayan community and a good place to get lunch and look around. Check out its busy public market, and if you have the time and are ready for some adventure, you can take a local colectivo to the ruins of Tonina nearby.
What Are the Palenque Ruins Opening Hours?
The Palenque Mayan ruins are open from 8:30 to 5 PM every day, with the last entrance at 4 PM.
Check the official website of Palenque National Park for possible changes to this schedule and other information.
Can I Climb the Palenque Mayan Ruins?
Yes, and not only can you climb most of the ruins, but you can enter some of them, including the large palace, which has narrow passageways and broad platforms.
When Is the Best Time to Visit?
Regarding the weather, any time of year is fine to visit the Palenque ruins. It’s in the jungle, so it’s hot year-round. There’s more rain from June to October, but it usually comes in quick bursts, followed by the usual hot sun that dries everything off.
As with other tourist destinations in Mexico, it’s best to avoid visiting the Palenque ruins during the high travel season.
Peak travel season is late July to early August and late December to early January, with the busiest time between Christmas and the New Year.
Another time to avoid is Semana Santa (Holy Week), the week before Easter, when many Mexicans travel. The Palenque ruins are more crowded than usual then.
Also, because entrance to the Palenque ruins is free for Mexican citizens and foreign residents on Sundays, it can get busy then as well.
What Is the Entrance Fee for the Palenque Ruins?
Palenque National Park costs 80 pesos ($4 USD) to enter. On Sundays, it’s free for Mexican citizens and foreign residents of Mexico.
Many people, myself included, consider Palenque the best archeological site in Mexico. You can climb most of the pyramids, the architecture is fascinating, and exploring the jungle with its resident monkeys is half the fun.
Visiting the ruins of Mexico is one of the many reasons to visit this incredible country. Enjoy your trip to Palenque.
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