The ruins of Palenque occupy the top of an escarpment marking the northwestern limit of the Chiapas highlands. Superficially, the site bears a closer resemblance to the Maya sites of Guatemala than to those of the Yucatán, but ultimately the style here is unique – the towered palace and pyramid tomb are like nothing else, as is the abundance of reliefs and inscriptions. The setting, too, is remarkable. Surrounded by jungle-covered hills, Palenque is right at the edge of the great Yucatán plain – climb to the top of any of the structures and you look out over an endless stretch of low, pale-green flatland. If you arrive early enough in the day, the mist still clings to the treetops and the howler monkeys are roaring off in the greenery.
Founded around 100 BC as a farming village, it was four hundred years before Palenque began to flourish, during the Classic period (300–900 AD). Towards the end of this time the city ruled over a large part of modern-day Chiapas and Tabasco, but its peak, when the population is thought to have numbered some 100,000, came during a relatively short period in the seventh century, under two rulers: Hanab Pakal (Jaguar Shield) and Chan Bahlum (Jaguar Serpent). Almost everything you can see (and that’s only a tiny, central part of the original city) dates from this era.
El Palacio and around
As you enter the site, El Palacio, with its extraordinary watchtower, stands ahead of you. The path, however, leads to the right, past a row of smaller structures – one of them, the so-called Tumba de la Reina Roja (“Tomb of the Red Queen”), is open inside, and you can climb in to see a sarcophagus still in place. This is nothing, though, compared with the structure’s neighbour, the enormous Templo de las Inscripciones, an eight-step pyramid, 26m high, built up against a thickly overgrown hillside. You are not permitted to climb the pyramid, so you just have to imagine the sanctuary on top, filled with a series of stone panels carved with hieroglyphic inscriptions relating to Palenque’s dynastic history. Deep inside the pyramid is the tomb of Hanab Pakal, or Pakal the Great (615–683 AD). Discovered in 1952, this was the first such pyramid burial found in the Americas, and is still the most important and impressive. Some of the smaller objects found inside – the skeleton and the jade death mask – are on display at the Museo Nacional de Antropología in Mexico City, but the massive, intricately carved stone sarcophagus is still inside; a reproduction is in the site museum.