Palenque, Chiapas, Mexico
The word Palenque in Spanish from colonial times means the post where horses are tied. In Mayan times the city was called La Canha, meaning abundance of water – a deserving name considering that there are 31 springs that surround the archeological site and form the rivers that wind through it.
In modern Mexican Spanish, a palenque is a cockfight. Or it’s the name of the famous Mayan ruins in the jungles of Chiapas. Palenque is really two places, and the one you care about is the archeological site. The other is the small, pleasant town next to it that has all the tourist services.
Ruins of a city founded in 100 BC but abandoned for the past 1,200 years have been excavated and exposed for your pleasure. Thick jungle surrounds wide grassy areas between tall pyramids. You can climb the pyramids and even go inside one temple. Huge white blocks make up the steep temple walls and staircases. Beyond this, trails branch off through the jungle into smaller, more overgrown ruins, including a riverside path. These are the reasons why many say that this is their favorite Mayan site in Mexico – more than Chichen Itza, for example – because of its size, the freedom to explore and climb, and the surrounding jungle.
As cool as it is, it’s crazy to think that 98% of Palenque is still deep in the forest, overgrown and unexplored. What we see today was the center of town, the biggest part with religious and government buildings, but most of the rest, like residential areas, are still buried by more than a millennium’s worth of jungle growth.
I pay Melicides, a local guide hanging out inside the park, 150 pesos to take me into the jungle. Outside the park, official tours are 500. He is from a small jungle town from the Chul culture. We see ruins everywhere we walk, but no more than walls or mounds peeking out of the green that has covered everything for centuries. The ruins in here are like tips of icebergs, corners of huge complexes given light by erosion. We enter a small opening in the ground into a structure that would be as large as many of the already excavated ruins, but from outside it looks like a hill. Inside, other than the straight walls and ceilings, it is just like entering a cave – dark and full of spiders and bats. Without flashlights we don’t get very deep.
The jungle itself offers endless curiosities: trees that bleed color, leaves that make dye when squashed, and ceaseless insect stampedes. I see the chickle tree, from which the world’s first chewing gum was made. We hear and then finally see a little family of incredibly loud howler monkeys peering down at us from the canopy above.
We end our 2-hour jungle wander at some small waterfalls. They make for a good dip and shower – not quite big enough to swim in. You can find them from the road between the two entrances (Palenque has a lower and upper entrance). There’s a big curve, and on the right is a big sign and a wide shoulder. A well-trodden trail begins behind the sign and leads to the waterfall in a 5-minute walk.
Palenque offers two accommodation options: little bungalows in the jungle outside the park entrance called El Panchan, or hotels in Palenque town, a 20 minute colectivo (passenger van) ride away.
El Panchan is beautiful and cheap. The bungalows were around 100 a night, with nicer, more expensive ones available, and cheaper dorm beds. Little bars are here and there, some with live music and performances. Jungle is all around. At night the animal noises begin, always loud enough to seem just right outside the screen door.
If this isn’t for you, then Palenque town is fine. It’s not a destination in and of itself, but a pleasant place to be. You can stroll down and off the main street between the the market and Parque Central, the center square, which is full of people during Palenque’s warm nights. On this main street I found a dirt-cheap (100 peso) yet squeaky-clean hotel called Shalom. The main drag has good tacos, better coffee, and a very pleasant atmosphere.
Off the road between Palenque and San Cristobal are some waterfalls. I visited Agua Azul and Misol-Ha. Agua Azul is a series of cascading waterfalls that, in the rainy season of summer when I was there, aren’t blue but muddy brown. Misol-Ha is a swimming hole under a high waterfall that I enjoyed a lot more. Both can be taken in a tour that might be cheaper than taking several colectivos, but if you only want to visit one (and I recommend Misol-Ha, especially in the rainy season), then it’s probably better to do it yourself.
So that’s Palenque – come for the ruins, but stay for the waterfalls, jungle bars, and tacos al pastor.
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Posted on August 3, 2011, in Mayan Ruins, Mexico, Travel, Travel in Mexico and tagged agua azul, chiapas, jungle, mayan ruins, mexico, misol-ha, palenque, pyramids, travel, waterfalls. Bookmark the permalink. 14 Comments.