Shrouded in mist and hidden by the deep jungles of southern Mexico, the Mayan ruins of Palenque are a startling historical site to behold.
Lost for centuries, visiting this ancient archaeological site today means taking a step back in time. Mayan temples and palaces sit crumbling amidst the dense forest and humidity as the shriek of howler monkeys surrounds it all.
A visit to Palenque is a truly unique experience, as you confront both history and nature in equal measure. To help you plan your adventure to this off the beaten track temple complex, here’s our guide to Palenque.
Brief Background of Palenque
Palenque is one of the most mysterious archaeological sites in Mexico. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is thought to date back to at least 200 BC, while the newest buildings excavated date back to 799 AD.
Palenque was an important city, with close ties to other famous Mayan cities, including Tikal and Chichen Itza. The impressive temples and palaces were built at the height of Mayan power, but this all rapidly crumbled and Palenque is thought to have suddenly fallen and been abandoned in 799 AD.
The once-powerful city was slowly absorbed again by the jungle until it was ‘rediscovered’ by Spanish Conquistadors in the 16th century. It was not until the 1830s however, that much archaeological work was carried out. Most of the excavations and restorations that you see today have been undertaken in only the last few decades.
Best Time to Visit Palenque
Palenque is hot and humid for most of the year, but the short dry season does offer some respite from the heat.
The best time to visit Palenque is between November and March when the weather is cooler and there’s little rain. If you’re unaccustomed to tropical weather though, you’ll still feel the humidity.
December and January make up the high season for southern Mexico so you can expect more tourists to travel to Palenque in these months. Compared to the Caribbean coast though, few tourists actually venture into this region, even in peak season.
Get here early in the morning to see the ruins shrouded in the jungle mist and to avoid the worst of the heat.
How Long to Visit Palenque
The accessible Mayan ruins that have been excavated are concentrated in a small area within the UNESCO World Heritage Site – many more remain hidden by the jungle still. For visitors planning a trip to Palenque, that means you only need a day to actually explore the ruins and visit the museum.
However, as Palenque is very remote, you’re going to need at least two nights in the town, even if you’ve got your own transport. In the surrounding national park there are also plenty of waterfalls and hiking opportunities, so you could turn it into a multi-day trip with one day at the ruins and one or two days spent exploring natural sights.
The archaeological site is open from 8 am until 4.30 pm every day.
How Much Does the Entrance Fee to Palenque Cost
The entrance fee to Palenque is remarkably cheap. You’ll only pay about half the price of a ticket to the much better known Mayan ruins of Chichen Itza which are close to the tourist hub of Cancun and Playa del Carmen.
You have two fees to pay when you enter Palenque. The ruins are found within the protected borders of the Palenque National Park, for which there is a 35 MXN entrance fee. To enter the actual ruins themselves you have to pay a further 75 MXN per person, which includes entrance to the museum on the main road too. In comparison, the entrance to Chichen Itza is 230 MXN, so Palenque is a bargain!
How to Get to Palenque
The UNESCO World Heritage Site where the ruins are located, is about 7 kilometers from the town of Palenque, which shares the same name. The small town will be your base, where you can find hotels and restaurants as well as the main bus terminal. Some Eco-hotels are located along the road leading from the town to the ruins.
A regular minibus service connects the town and the ruins and will stop off and pick up passengers anywhere along the road to the entrance. The bus terminates at the entrance, so it’s hard to get lost. The minibus is labelled Ruinas and costs just 20 MXN per ride.
Palenque is located in the state of Chiapas and is a remote place to visit. It’s not exactly close to any other major tourist destination. There is a small airport, but there are few scheduled flights, except to Mexico City.
If you’re wondering how to get to Palenque, you’ll likely be arriving by bus, with ADO having the most comfortable and regular services to Palenque. From Cancun, it’s an overnight journey of at least 13 hours. From Campeche, it’s 5 hours and from Merida, it will take at least 8 hours.
San Cristobal de las Casas, also in Chiapas, is often the next stop for travelers visiting Palenque. The fastest route is 5 hours, and you can even join minibus tours that stop off at waterfalls on the way. Be aware though, the ‘fast’ route goes through politically and economically unstable territory, and tourist buses have been known to be held up by Bandidos along the way. If you take the ADO bus to San Cristobal de las Casas, it takes around 12 hours, because it goes the long route to avoid this part of Chiapas. If you want to be totally safe, take the longer ADO bus route.
If you are really short on time, you can also visit Palenque on a day tour from San Cristobal de las Casas.
How to Get Around Palenque
Once you are at the ruins themselves, the only way to get around Palenque is to walk. From the main entrance walking paths connect the major temples and sites of the UNESCO World Heritage Site. More mysterious, overgrown paths also lead to the less excavated areas. There are maps on information boards, but bring a guidebook or try to find a map at the entrance.
Where to Stay in Palenque
When you visit Palenque, you’ll be happy to know that there’s a great range of accommodation nearby. Most of the accommodation is centred around the town of Palenque, and is just a short walk from the bus station.
More isolated accommodation – perhaps more peaceful too – can be found along the main road connecting the town and the ruins. With increasing interest in the ruins, there’s a growing number of hotels and hostels available.
Casa Janaab is located in town and offers a mixture of dorms and basic private rooms. It’s clean and cheerful, and a great base if you’re trying to save some pesos. If you’re after something a little more upmarket, Hotel Chablis is a four-star hotel with a swimming pool in the center of Palenque town.
Staying along the road towards the ruins – where you’ll be surrounded by the sounds of the jungle – also makes for an interesting experience. Hotel la Aldea del Halach Huinic is a luxury, jungle-based hotel, complete with swimming pool. You can also find some smaller, more rustic guest houses along the jungle road.
For more accommodation options in Palenque check out Booking.com. They continuously offer the best rates and their custom service is on point.
Tips for Visiting Palenque
To make your visit to Palenque that little bit smoother and more enjoyable, here are a few of our top tips to take on board when you’re planning your adventure.
1. Guide or No Guide
At the entrance to Palenque, it’s possible to hire a guide for a short tour of the archaeological site. For an English speaking guide for a group of up to 7 people, you’ll pay around 1,600 MXN.
If you’re on your own this can be a steep price to pay, but you might be able to haggle it down considerably. If you are in a small group, it’s not a bad price between all of you.
If you’re interested in the history of Palenque, then it might be worth paying extra for a guided tour, as there isn’t a huge amount of information available inside. There are a few information boards, but not much detail.
2. Timing Your Visit
One of the best tips for visiting Palenque is to arrive early in the morning. The archaeological site opens at 8 am, so try to be one of the first people inside. You’ll beat the crowds and the heat, but best of all, this is when the mist still covers the ruins. You’ll feel like a Conquistador stumbling across a lost city in the jungle.
3. Climbing Temples
Most of the temple complex is open, and you can climb to the top of many of the temples. You can also explore inside the palaces and inside the temples, where royal burials took place. Follow the signage and listen to the wardens inside the park, as some areas might be off-limits. The steps are often steep and in some cases, crumbling, so take care.
4. Things to Pack
For your day out at the Palenque ruins, you’re going to need plenty of water, a good sunhat, sunscreen, and some strong insect repellent. It gets hot and humid and the jungle is swarming with insects, unfortunately. Strong walking sandals or hiking shoes will help while you’re exploring. There are a few vendors at the entrance selling local food, but you might want to bring along some snacks, or lunch from town.
5. Get Travel Insurance
Make sure to purchase travel insurance. You never know what will happen and trust us, you do not want to get stuck with thousands of dollars in medical bills. As a wise man once said, “If you can’t afford travel insurance, you can’t afford to travel.” So don’t leave home without it. We recommend World Nomads and SafetyWing. You can get a quick quote with World Nomads below:
Even if you don’t get travel insurance with one of our recommended companies, please make sure to get travel insurance from somewhere.
Best Things to do in Palenque
Templo de las Inscripciones
When you walk through the entrance you’ll first be confronted by the mighty Templo de las Inscripciones, the largest temple in the ruined city.
The Temple of the Inscriptions is flanked by smaller, but equally impressive temples, and dates back to around the 7th century AD when Palenque was at the height of its power – shortly before the city’s demise.
The temple was built to hold the tomb of a Mayan king and is filled with inscriptions and depictions of the Mayan world.
Grupo de las Cruces
Standing on the hill overlooking Palenque, you can find the Grupo de las Cruces. The Group of the Crosses is a group of temples standing on tall earthen mounds and facing into a central square.
You can climb to the top of these mounds for outstanding views of the forest and across the archaeological site of Palenque. These temples are also full of unique inscriptions in the Mayan language and are some of the best-preserved Mayan relics in Mexico.
Between the temple groups, you can admire the sprawling Palenque Palace. The palace was built over several generations, with different rulers adding their own unique touch and extensions to the royal palace.
Today the palace is incredibly well preserved, but it’s also a maze of rooms, tunnels, plazas and underground chambers that are delightful to explore when you are inside the Palenque UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Museo de Sitio Palenque
The Museo del Sitio Palenque is the archaeological site’s main museum. It’s located along the main road, just along from the secondary, or back entrance, where you can end up after exploring the main temple complex.
Inside you’ll find a wealth of information. Much more information, in fact, than you can find at the ruins themselves.
You can learn all about the rise and fall of Mayan civilization in southern Mexico and Central America, and you can see many of the important archaeological finds removed from the site itself, and put on display here.
Agua Azul Waterfall
The most popular day trip from Palenque is a visit to the Agua Azul waterfall. It’s around one and a half hours from Palenque, and it’s often included as a stop off if you brave the tour bus towards San Cristobal de las Casas.
This beautiful waterfall is surrounded by jungle and features several distinct levels of cascades. The water, as the name would suggest, is a vibrant shade of blue.
That’s it for our detailed Palenque guide, and now all that’s left is for you to explore these ancient Mayan ruins on your next visit to southern Mexico. Palenque is one of the most underrated archaeological sites in the country, and you’ll be enthralled by these mist-shrouded temples steeped in history!