The Ruins of Palenque: Archaeology in the Jungle

Thick Jungle and Ancient Ruins…

Palenque is a small town in Mexico that boasts, in many’s opinions, the finest of Mexico’s Maya sites. Set amongst the jungle, The Ruins of Palenque has one of the most spectacular settings and the small site will awake the archaeologist in everyone.

Where To Stay…

It may be unfair to say, but there is very little to do in Palenque except visit the ruins. There has, however, been a recent increase in the number of hostels in the town. You have two options on where to stay, you can choose one of the many places on the rather noisy streets leading from the bus station to the plaza. Or, for a more peaceful option, there is an area called La Canada, which is set on the other side of a ravine and amongst the trees, (so be ready for the audible wildlife in the morning.

I stayed at the Yaxkin Hostel, which wasn’t the best I had stayed in, but not the worse. It had hot water and a bed in one of the dorm rooms was comfy enough. The main drawback was the lack of an included breakfast, plus the wifi left a lot to be desired, so It’s not a place to try and contact home. There was a restaurant attached so you could eat easily enough. To be honest, the food in Palenque is pretty basic, but then you are only there for the ruins anyway. A bed in the dorm room set me back $10 a night.

The Ruins of Palenque…

It’s easy enough to catch a Colectivo to and from the ruins, Unfortunately, I can’t recall how much it cost, but it wasn’t much. You have to pay twice to get into the ruins, once to enter the national park, which was 22 pesos, and then 65 pesos to enter the ruins, however, that does also include entrance to the museum. Last entry is around 4: 30 pm and the ruins open at 8 am. Best to get there early to avoid the heat of midday, plus it is a fair sized site so it will take some time to get the most out of it. Now that the more practical information is out of the way, let’s talk about the ruins themselves.

Now if you are coming from the Yucatan peninsula and have visited other sites such as Chichen Itza and Tulum you will notice how the ruins here don’t seem to match the style of those sites. Superficially, Palenque resembles the Maya ruins of Guatemala more than those of the Yucatan, however, the style of this impressive ruins are unique. Which is expected of such a significant city.

The yet to be excavated Temple 11

From the entrance to the ruins I passed temple 11, which hasn’t been excavated and restored yet, so is basically just a mound of earth with the occasionally noticeable bit of ruin breaking it up, but it’s interesting to see them in that state. Unlike Chichen Itza, it only takes a few short steps from the entrance to reach the main centre of the ruins. As I rounded temple 11 the main palace, El Palacio, came into view. It’s impressive watchtower standing over the open area under it. However, the path leads you to the right, towards a row of smaller but equally impressive temples. I visited the three temples first, after stopping for a brief moment to take in the view of so many gigantic structures in view.

The first of the three is the aptly named Temple of the skull, due to a stucco relief that depicts a skull. Unfortunately, you couldn’t climb this ruin so I could only get a long distance shot. Like most Mayan ruins, it would have been painted red and blue and was built over two structures that previously occupied the site.

The Temple of the Skull

The middle structure, which you could actually enter into, was the tomb of the red queen. Guarded by an armed man, you could climb the front stairs and enter under the canopy and walk around the crypts. The interior was parallel with two chambers on each side, one with a tomb. The walls of the sarcophagus were covered with cinnabar, a red mineral, that inspired the name. The one thing I will say is those Mayans didn’t build these things with anyone of my height in mind, and I had to duck for most of my time inside.

The Tomb of the Red Queen

The last structure in the line and the biggest was the Temple of Inscriptions. Named after three large limestone tablets that decorate the central room, this temple contains the tomb of Pakal II, one of the more well-known rulers of Palenque. The three tablets described the life and rule of Pakal II and the Tomb sounded incredible. Unfortunately, you couldn’t enter his structure either, but it was incredibly impressive from outside, especially with the jungle surrounding it.

The Temple of Inscriptions

Despite the awe-inspiring nature of those temples, the centrepiece of the site was still the Palace in the centre. Built in a series of phases, this was the residence of the ruling family and its court. Built during the reign of Pakal, but with many additions made after his death, this building was the seat of political power in Palenque. You could climb the palace steps and walk around some of the courtyards and get a closer look at the square tower that I mentioned earlier. I called it a watchtower, but its actual purpose is unknown. Throughout the palace, you will find beautiful relief carvings, the most interesting of which show the rulers of defeated cities in various poses of humiliation.

The Palace

Just passed the Temple of Inscriptions, there is a nice treat for anyone willing to get their hands dirty. There is a small temple, Templo del Jaguar, and beyond that, you can see more temples that are being uncovered. You won’t be able to pass much beyond the temple without a guide but it is easy to imagine you are climbing over unexcavated buildings, I had a feeling that some of those stones didn’t look naturally formed.

The Count

The sun was out in full force by this point so I took a slight rest in the shaded area in front of the palace before walking down a slight hill, trying to stick to the shade wherever possible, to a group of lesser temples and the ball court, known and Grupo del Norte. Most weren’t as well restored, or anywhere near as impressive, as the previous structures. One of the buildings was known as the count because it was used by Count Jean Frederick Waldeck during his stay during the first half of the nineteenth century.

One of the Temples from Grupo de la Cruz

I then followed the path around and crossed the Rio Otulum, one of the streams that flow through the site, I was seriously suffering from the sun by this point and charmingly sweating through my shirt. The path leads to another group of buildings, the Grupo de la Cruz. A central square which was dominated by three temples on three sides. All as large and impressive as I had come to expect. Each was tall and narrow and contained carved panels representing rituals.


I then headed back to the Palace, to take one last look at it and to rest in one of the few shaded areas again. The howler monkeys didn’t seem to mind the heat though, as they continued to howl throughout my visit to the ruins. The whole site is amazing, and certainly, a must see if you visit Mexico. Unlike Chichen Itza it’s much more natural looking, you can actually imagine the place having been lived in. The surrounding jungle really helps with that.

The interior of the Palace
One of the ruins of Grupo I and II

To get back to the road I walked down passed Grupo I and Grupo II, intricate ruins of interconnected rooms. The path then leads you through the jungle, past a huge waterfall that cascaded into the river, which would have been used for fresh water by the Mayans. Unfortunately, swimming isn’t allowed, which is a shame because I needed it by that point.

At the entrance there is an excellent museum, which was included with the ticket, and provides a good idea of what life was like at Palenque and proudly displays some of the beautiful things found there. It is well worth a look and helps to bring some of what you have seen at the ruins into context.



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