Set in thick jungle buzzing with insects, the ancient Maya ruins of Palenque are some of Mexico’s finest Maya sites: less crowded than Chichén Itzá, larger than Uxmal, and with the most spectacular setting. It is a relatively small site – you can see everything in a morning – but a fascinating one, strongly linked to the lost cities of Guatemala while displaying a distinctive style.
Nine kilometres east of the ruins, the rather helter-skelter town of Palenque functions as the base for exploring the ruins and the waterfalls in the nearby hills. With every facility a visitor might need, it’s lively enough, but it has no real intrinsic appeal. As there are a number of excellent camping sites, cabañas and hotels near the ruins, you may prefer not to stay in town at all.
The ruins are located in the Parque Nacional de Palenque, the border of which is just after El Panchán accommodation and restaurant site. The main road first passes a well-stocked artesanía shop, a café and the excellent site museum. You can enter at the gate across the road, hiking up to the main part of the site via the waterfalls trail, but most people will press on to the main site entrance, at the top of the hill another 2km up a winding road. Near this main entrance, there’s a small café and numerous souvenir stalls selling drinks, as well as toilets and some expensive lockers.
The ruins themselves bear 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 one hundred thousand, 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.