Palenque in 2012
The first time I heard of Palenque, I was in a cheap hospedaje in Managua, far south of Maya territory. I had not yet been to Mexico, Guatemala, or anywhere outside of Nicaragua, where I was stationed for two years as a Peace Corps Volunteer, so listening to tales of lost worlds from a freckled, blond Canadian backpacker made for inspiring travel dreams.
She lit up as she talked about Palenque and struggled to describe the place, thus ensuring it a spot on my epic list. When she uttered the phrase “better than Tikal,” the crowd in Hospedaje Santos hushed and turned their heads.
Palenque (or “fortification”) was so named in 1567 by the first Spaniard to glimpse its buildings peeking above the jungle on a hill above the Usumacinta River. Palenque was a small site, supporting perhaps 6,000 inhabitants, but it is a powerful and mysterious place.
Palenque’s importance lies “in its naturalistic sculpture, architectural inventiveness, and detailed epigraphic record,” states Michael D. Carrasco, an assistant professor of art history at Florida State University.
Palenque was attacked by Calakmul in A.D. 599 and again in 611. A century later, Toniná sacked the city, but by A.D. 800 construction had stopped, and the city was abandoned soon after.
Palenque’s multi-storied Palace is unparalleled in the Mundo Maya for its sheer size and height, as well as its maze of rooms, hallways, and carvings.
The Temple of the Inscriptions is home to one of the most amazing archaeological discoveries of the 20th century. Mexican archaeologist Alberto Ruz Lhuillier found a secret passageway under the temple stairs that led him to the tomb of Hanab-Pakal, Pakal the Great, one of the great kings of Palenque who ruled in a successive dynasty of 17 rulers for over four centuries.
There are numerous “deep time” and future dates at Palenque, including one count that indicates 20, not 13, b’aktuns make up the Long Count cycle (which means the 2012-ers are off by 2,762 years). Several large branching World Tree images appear with quetzal birds. Other cross-like imagery is found in the Temple of the Cross and in nearby South Group (or Crosses Group), erected to mark the A.D. 684 ascension to the throne of Kan B’alam, or “Snake Jaguar.” Archaeologists Linda Schele and David Friedel argue that this is symbolic of the Maya creation myth.
Temple XIII and the Tomb of the Red Queen are where Mexican archaeologists discovered the regal sarcophagus of a noblewoman; her remains and coffin were caked in red cinnabar. The Temple of the Skull actually only has one remaining skull, a bas-relief carving that is visible if you look up toward the top level. The temple was built atop several earlier ones, the oldest of which had a burial with an enormous jade offering.
Palenque’s sole ball court was built around A.D. 500, a typical I-shape with low benches, now covered with neat grass. This is where Maya players once battled it out while reenacting their sacred creation myth.
Palenque is open 8 a.m.–5 p.m. daily. Entrance is US$5, or free after 4 p.m. Definitely save time for a visit to the Museo Arqueológico de Palenque (10 a.m.–4:30 p.m. Tues.–Sun.). The latest display is a reproduction of The Tomb of Pakal with a life-size reproduction of the sarcophagus.
There are plenty of places to stay in the area, including many campamento backpacker havens, Spartan budget hotels in Palenque town, or budget accommodations in the surrounding area, all specializing in Palenque tours. Santo Domingo de Palenque is located 8 kilometers (5 mi) from the entrance to Palenque. It is a basic town with the basic necessities for travelers and little else. The jungle community of El Panchan, on the edge of the entrance to ruins, is a better bet with a handful of hotels and restaurants.
Visit on summer solstice (June 20) to witness the powerful lighting of the Temple of the Sun.
From 1998 through 2000, Dr. Edwin Barnhart, working with a team from the University of Texas at Austin, led a site-mapping project that identified and recorded 1,478 structures, most in the outlying city area. Barnhart, director of the Maya Exploration Center is leading several trips in 2012.
Getting to Palenque
Villahermosa is the closest city to Palenque and is located 93 miles northwest in the state of Tabasco. To reach Palenque, rent a car in Villahermosa or take a bus (US$9.50, 2.5 hrs). From San Cristóbal de las Casas, it’s a four-hour drive to Palenque.
There is an ADO bus terminal about 100 meters (328 feet) from the entrance to the Palenque ruins with bus connections to Campeche, Cancún, Mérida, San Cristóbal, Villahermosa, and Mexico City. You can reach various sites in the Usumacinta Valley by combi (a shared public minibus) from Palenque town, including Bonampak, Frontera Corozal, and the Lacandón village of Lacanjá Chansayab.
More Travel Information
For more travel information on things to see and do at Palenque and in the surrounding area, please visit the Palenque section of our Moon Chiapas travel guide.
© Josh Berman from Moon Maya 2012