I trudged up the steep, slippery steps that led deeper into the humid rainforest of Palenque National Park. My eyes darted to the trees as I heard a roaring sound like a jaguar – it was just a howler monkey marking his territory. To my right a small river gushed down the mountain slope, turning into a series of mini-waterfalls in places. As I reached a bend in the path that led to a viewing platform, the river had turned into a full on waterfall, the power of the falls sending streams of mist into the jungle. I stood at the rails of a wooden platform staring out at the falls. There is something magical and intoxicating about being close to a waterfall, like it’s power and primal nature can wash away all of our petty everyday concerns, and remind us of the joy of simply existing.
After walking further on a came to a long wooden bridge stretching across the river in front of more falls, looking life something from an Indiana Jones film. I walked across gripping the ropes, the swaying movement and proximity of the waterfall making me feel truly alive.
My trip to Palenque was turning out to be fantastic, but it hadn’t started this way. Several days before I arrived in the modern town of Palenque late at night to find a hot, very humid and somewhat bland city. After spending so much time in the Yucatan the city had a more run down feel. Wondering around the city during the day revealed that there wasn’t much to see here; it lacks the colonial architecture of cities like Valladolid. The town really isn’t the most attractive gateway to a national treasure like Palenque.
Travelling to El Panchen
Before coming to Mexico I didn’t know much about Palenque, but after researching it I knew this was one site I couldn’t miss. The Palenque archaeological zone is actually 8 miles from the town itself, and is set within a small national park that contains hills covered in tropical rainforest. Although the modern pueblo might be bland, the countryside surrounding the town and leading to the site is beautiful. I heard that the best place to stay in Palenque is actually El Panchen: a hideaway of cabins and huts in the jungle close to the National Park Entrance.
From close to the bus station I was able to get in the back one of the shared collectivoes that ply the route between the town and archaeological zone. Collectivoes are easily the most fun way to travel in Mexico, allowing you to meet the locals and get to out of the way destinations. Mexican drivers aren’t known for there safety first approach though! The pickup truck sped down the small road, with houses soon giving way to small farms, fields and then forest. I spotted a few resorts and restaurants off the road, clearly this is the place to come if you want a quiet retreat. After 15 minutes I got off at El Panchen and paid 15 pesos for the ride.
El Panchen is a collection of a few restaurants and several small resorts in the jungle. I found a hut in the jungle lodge with a double bed next to a stream that was only 120 pesos a night. The hut even had a small balcony overlooking a fast flowing stream.
Staying at El Panchen turned out to be a very relaxing experience. Not much can beat swinging in a hammock reading a book, with just the sounds of the jungle providing a relaxing backdrop. Some of the insects in the jungle can be as loud as an alarm clock in the morning though. I spent two days relaxing just a couple of miles from the site before deciding to finally explore what I had come here to see.
A shortcut through the Jungle
I walked the few hundred metres to the National park entrance and paid the 30 peso entrance fee. From here it’s a scenic one mile walk to the museum and jungle entrance to the park. Sadly Palenque is hardly an undiscovered site, so several coaches and collectives drove past as I walked along the road. A mile down the road is the Museum of Palenque, which has some impressive exhibits. The cost for entrance to the museum and archaeological zone was only 50 pesos. Prices here are certainly lower than at the sites close to the Riviera Maya. The most impressive exhibit of all was the Sarcophagus and burial mask of Pakal the Great, which was discovered inside the temple of the Inscriptions in 1952. Pakal was the greatest ruler Palenque had, and built the temple of Inscriptions in 683 AD.
After leaving I noticed there was an entrance to the park that led up the hill into the jungle. This looked a lot more adventurous than following the road round, so of course I decided to take this route.
A few hundred metres of walking up this path is what brought me to the waterfall and swinging wooden bridge. After crossing the bridge I came to the first of the smaller ruins that are spread out in the rainforest leading up to the main site. Ruined houses and small temples had plants and trees growing around and over them, so that they looked as if they were organic pieces of the forest. I clambered over the slippery rocks, climbing down into passageways and rooms that would have once housed the cities elite. The air was warm and heavy here, with thick clouds rising above the rainforest canopy. Unlike the Yucatan Peninsula which is very dry in winter and has a distinct dry season, the area around Palenque is true tropical rainforest with a much wetter climate. The vegetation here is lush and verdant; trees, bushes and plants grow in a rich profusion everywhere you look.
Exploring the Ruins
After climbing further up the mountain side through the jungle past more decayed buildings almost lost in their green tombs, I came at last the central plaza. As I walked out into the clearing I was surrounded on all sides by magnificent buildings, this was some of the most beautiful architecture I’d seen in Mexico.
From the south side of the plaza I was able to climb up a temple and look out at the view that stretched down the slopes of the hills and across the valley to the plains beyond.. From here it was easy to see why Palenque had been built in this location. The city occupied a strategic location on a plateau at the edge of the mountains, with the only way for an invading army to access the city by climbing up the hills. This meant that any invading army would be spotted from miles away, and would have to fight there way up heavily defended steep slopes.
Thoughts of warfare were apt here as Palenque was the site that made academics realise the Maya were just as warlike as other civilisations. Amazingly before Palenque had been fully excavated, many people thought the Maya were a peaceful, pacifist society. Hard to image a people with a penchant for ripping peoples hearts out and drowning them in cenotes were once thought to be peaceful.
The Archaeologist Count
One of my favourite buildings was the temple where Jean Frederic Walpeck lived with his mistress for two years while investigating the site from 1832-1834. Just imagine waking up to that stunning view every morning and having your breakfast on a 1500 hundred year old porch. Sitting on the steps it was easy to see why the colourful count had ended up spending two years here, it really is a stunning location.
The count himself certainly had an eventful life. He was an explorer, artists, engineer and sculptor among other things. Before coming to Mexico he had already explored South Africa and accompanied Napolian on his expedition to Egypt. The count moved to Mexico aged 55 in 1825 as an engineer, before leaving his job to explore the pre-Colombian ruins. From 1832 he spent nearly two years living in Palenque so he could study the ruins. He went on to study other Mayan sites including Uxmal. Allegedly he died at the age of 105 in Paris, when he was hit by a carriage while stopping to admire a beautiful woman – what a character.
What really makes Palenque stand out from other Mayan sites is the quantity and quality of the inscriptions and carvings here. The extensive iconography at Palenque gave academics there first complete dynastic list of any Mayan city, and led to many breakthroughs in our understanding of the Mayan. Due to the beauty of the architecture and the similarity to other ancient sites in countries like Egypt, many people have claimed that Palenque was built by groups as diverse as the Egyptians and the lost tribes of Israel. Clearly the site was built by the Maya though, and has features which have since been uncovered in other Mayan sites.
I spent the next couple of hours exploring the central and western plaza of Palenque. The beauty of the buildings and dramatic location was somewhat spoilt by the crowds of people. Although Palenque is not as busy at Chitchen Itza it is still firmly on the tourist trail, and there are some souvenir stands inside the sight too. It made me image what it must have been like to have explored this place in the 19th century, when the entire site was was covered in thick rainforest.
The site I found most intriguing apart from the temple of Inscriptions was the large central Palace. The Palace is a huge jumble of buildings, staircases passageways and tunnels. I spent an hour looking around all the different rooms and areas, admiring the intricate inscriptions and carvings. Palenque really is quite a unique site, although it shares features with other Mayan cities the style is clearly also different. Walking through the low tunnels and passageways of the palace is an exciting experience too.
The western Plaza is filled with three more amazing pyramids built in the classical period, known as the Temple of the Cross group. The pyramids are all on the side of the hills, giving great views from the top. Each of the pyramids has a temple on top with elaborately carved reliefs inside. I was impressed by the detail of the carvings, clearly the Mayans were extremely skilled artisans. Unfortunately I wasn’t the only one who was impressed, as there were lots of people drawn to these temples. Still the crowds couldn’t mar the views from the top of the main pyramid here, which gave superb views of the whole site and surrounding jungle. I imagine it must be amazing to stand up here at night and watch the stars from this vantage point.
Temple of the Inscriptions
The most spectacular site in Palenque is without doubt the pyramid known as The Temple Of The Inscriptions (a name that really fits the place). This pyramid is stunning and set against a lush backdrop of tropical rainforest. What really makes the pyramid special is what is inside it though.
Part of the inside of the Pyramid is open to visitors, so I was able to go inside the pyramid and look at what had made this site so famous. Inside the pyramid the air was hot and heavy, and I could feel the weight of the stone above me. At the end of the corridor was a large tomb where the sarcophagus of Pakal the Great was found. Although the sarcophagus had long since been moved to the museum, the slab it had lain on was still intact. This giant limestone slab was covered in intricate inscriptions. It was amazing to think that the sarcophagus had lain there undiscovered for 1400 years. At the very end of the passageway was another tunnel leading down, but unfortunately this one was closed to the public.
Being inside that tomb in the pyramid made me think about the great lengths people will go to to leave their mark on the world. Most of us would like to be remembered long after we are dead, and elaborate burial chambers are one of the ultimate manifestations of that. Ultimately we all want to leave are a mark on this planet one way or the other, and cities like Palenque are some of the most dramatic examples.
I really enjoyed exploring Palenque. The site is set in a picturesque location that gives the site a wild beauty. Not much is better than exploring temples and pyramids amid a backdrop of tropical rainforest. The burial chambers and underground passageways also help Palenque to stand out from most other Mayan sites. In my opinion the beauty of the architecture here is also unsurpassed by any other Mayan sites in Mexico; with perhaps only Uxmal and Chiten Itza comparable. The only downside to the sight is the large crowds here and souvenir stands. I would certainly recommend everyone travelling in southern Mexico to visit the site.