When we visited Chiapas – Mexico’s southernmost state – a trip to the Archeological Zone of Palenque was high up on our list of things to do. Exploring Mayan Ruins is a right of passage for anyone who visits Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, or the north of Central America. Palenque is one of the best examples of Mayan architecture and quickly rose the ranks to become our favourite Mayan Ruins.
Set in a dramatic backdrop of rolling hills and dense tropical jungles, Palenque has a certain mystique to it that sets it apart from other archeological sites in the region. The Ruins at Palenque are grand, built around the main plaza (which surrounds the main Palace) and has many great pyramids which you can climb.
The Mayans occupied parts of modern-day Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, and northern Honduras, and have left behind many great archeological sites that are being used to piece together the history of these Mayan City States. There is still a lot of mystery behind the Mayans, and many of the sites were abandoned, only to be reclaimed by the jungles, waiting to be explored by future generations. The inscriptions found in Palenque have been an important part of writing the history of this lost civilization and it is one of the most studied cities in the region.
The site was likely known as Lakamha to its original inhabitants, and it was an important Maya city state in southern Mexico that flourished in the 7th century, with its peak dating from 226 BC to AD 799. When the inhabitants abandoned the city around 800 AD, it was quickly reclaimed by the jungle. There are still much of these ruins that are in the process of being “re-discovered”, with only about 10% of the city having been uncovered so far.
Palenque wasn’t as large as some of its more famous counterparts like Chichen Itza, Calakmul or Tikal, but it was an important cultural and political powerhouse during its peak. The city was built where the lowlands surrounding the Gulf of Mexico met the mountains, and it’s proximity to the Usumacinta River, would have made it an important trading city. It’s history included war with other nearby cities, such as Calakmul sometime around 599.
After being invaded and sacked by Calakmul, the city had three great rulers (Pakal the Great being the most famous) and most of the great architecture was built during and after his reign and was followed by his son and grandson. The main plaza – which surrounds the palace – has many great buildings and structures, including the temple of Inscriptions, which was the burial place of Pakal.
This UNESCO World Heritage Site has many great structures that have been carefully rebuilt and excavated to showcase how amazing the city might have looked during its peak. The “temple of the cross group” had three important temples (temple of the cross, temple of the sun and temple of the foliated cross) built atop step pyramids, located above the main ruins area. From the top of these pyramids, you can get a pretty great view of the surrounding area. It is built on the hillside with many buildings and structures still being explored and discovered today.
We spent several hours walking around here, and there are many distinct to areas to explore. Hiking around the hot and humid jungle works up quite a sweat, so it is worth trying to plan your day around a visit to one of the nearby waterfalls for a dip in one of the natural water pools. We visited these Three Waterfalls in Chiapas that would all be acceptable ways to cool off after a day of exploration.
Without a doubt, the ruins are worth making the trek from the beaches of the Yucatan (a 1 or 2-day drive from the Riviera Maya) or worthy of a specific trip to visit Chiapas. There are many other great Mayan sites in the area worth exploring (such as Yaxchillan and Bonampak) as well as the many natural wonders that Chiapas has to offer.