“ Country: Mexico / World Region: Central America „
It would be wrong to describe the Mayan ruins of Palenque as being off the tourist-trail - hundreds visit the atmospheric abandoned city daily, and the dusty, if convenient nearby town of the same name is unashamedly directed at visitors. However, tucked away in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas, it doesn't get quite the attention that the more celebrated site of Chichén Itzá so regularly courts. Those who do make it down towards the Guatemalan border, however, are rewarded by an ascent to a dramatic location. Surrounded by verdant jungle which still covers most of the site, a series of excavated temples rise up from the cleared plateau whilst a number of trails shoot off into the undergrowth. If there's one advantage Palenque has over the likes of Chichén Itzá, it's the freedom granted to visitors to explore - most of the temples (which the exception of perhaps the most iconic, the Temple of the Inscriptions) are open to inquisitive feet, allowing one to stand atop the well-preserved and carefully-restored edifices and imagine how the city looked in its prime, 1,200 years ago. ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ Orientation ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ Chances are, you'd be approaching Palenque from one of three cities; Merida to the north-east, Villahermosa to the north or San Cristobal de las Casas to the west - each has its own aiport, and comfortable first-class buses are very reasonably priced. Villahermosa is the closest, although the others are more attractive tourist destinations - San Cristobal being a delightfully bohemian little city that deserves a visit, and at 2000-odd metres above sea level is spared the insufferable heat of the lowlands, but is unfortunately separated from Palenque by five or six hours of twisting, turning mountain roads that will test your stomach. Assuming you arrive in Palenque town by bus, you'll be a ten-minute walk from the Zocalo (main square). There's nothing to recommend the town beyond its serving as a base from which to visit the ruins and surrounding attractions, but if you do stay, there's no shortage of options for accommodation and eating. Some of the restaurants around the bus station serve decent, cheap food if you're waiting to move on. To get to the ruins, you can easily grab a taxi anywhere along the main drag Calle Juarez (directly in front of the bus station), but a cheaper and almost similarly easy option is to track down one of the combis that wait on Calle Allende - a couple of hundred yards eastwards of the bus terminal. Jump into one of the vehicles marked "Ruinas" and expect to pay around ten Pesos (50p) for the ten-minute drive to the site. If you need to wait for a combi, you can entertain yourself by trying to keep the wasps off your food at the café opposite. ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ The Ruins ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ You'll need to pay twice to get to see Palenque - one for each stop you'll make. The first is an entrance fee to the national park surrounding the ruins, the second the ticket to the site itself. At the first stop (20 pesos/£1) the site museum offers a background and context to the ruins if you opt to go minus a guide (of which there are many, officially sanctioned and otherwise, around the entrance). Additionally, a path opposite the museum snakes up the jungle-bound hill towards the rear of the ruins, crossing a series of pools and slowly-tumbling waterfalls known as the Queen's Baths. Apparently swimming is banned, but it's maddeningly tempting in the intense summer heat and oppressive humidity. You can enter or exit via this path, and it's well worth doing at least one way - coming out is easier, as apart from being downhill, you need to head up to the main entrance to buy the site ticket (40 pesos/£2) before returning if you want to enter here. The ruins of Palenque are dramatic in scale and surrounded by dense jungle and stunning hillside vistas over the surrounding area. They are, however, also only a fraction of the extent of the city that once stood here. The other 75% or more still lies in the clutches of the jungle, yet to be liberated. A few trails lead off from the clearing and give an impression of just how much of Palenque, choked by vegetation and hidden beneath the canopy, remains to be reclaimed - and also give an idea of how the ruins must have appeared when they were first discovered, a millennium after the city was abandoned. Assuming you start from the main entrance, the first buildings you'll see upon emerging from the trees will be a bank of temples seemingly reclining against the vertiginous jungle wall. The last of these is the Temple of the Inscriptions, which houses the jade sarcophagus of Pakal, a notable ruler of Palenque. Sadly, the tomb isn't open to the public, but a dazzling reproduction is housed in Mexico City's Anthropology Museum, alongside the jewellery in which Pakal was buried. The inscriptions which give the temple its name are also off-limits at present, telling the story of the lineage of the Mayan rulers in a series of carvings and hieroglyphs which gave scholars unprecedented insights into the civilization. At the centre of the large clearing, Palenque's Palace is a considerable complex which can be climbed and explored. Much of it is being restored little-by-little, but there are numerous carvings and murals that suggest at the city's past. A series of tunnels, passageways and courtyards make up the complex, and are fascinating to explore. The site is roughly cut in half by the River Otulum (although "river" is overstating it a bit). A cluster of smaller temples are on the same side as the aforementioned, along with a small ball court (Juego de Pelota) that requires a bit of imagination to make out. On the opposite bank, a short, sweaty climb up the slope (spot the avocado trees leaving presents on the path) takes you to the Temples of the Cross, the tops of which offer probably the best views over Palenque and the surrounding jungle. If this part of the site is at one o'clock from the main entrance, the path descending back down to the museum via the Queen's Baths is around ten. ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ Hot Stuff ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ Although Palenque offers some impressive, sweeping views back across the countryside, the site is at an altitude of barely 200 metres, and as such, incurs the full wrath of Mexico's oppressive summer heat. If you've got a choice of seasons, it's best to visit between November and April - if you've no choice but to put up with the heat, though, it pays to visit early, to avoid the worst of both the sun and the crowds. The site opens at 8:00; three to four hours is likely enough for leisurely exploration. If you can't take the humidity any longer, bear in mind that a bus to San Cristobal to the west ascends a couple of thousand metres, letting you out into an entirely different, much more bearable climate at the other end. ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ Why Visit? ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ It would be fruitless to recommend one Maya site over another, insomuch as they together make up an impression of this civilization, and each offers something quite unique. Whilst Chichén Itzá is the most accessible, both in its location and as a well-presented, information-rich site, and beach-side Tulum the most serene, Palenque is the more dramatic, making a stunning first impression when you emerge into its great clearing, with towering pyramids holding back the encroaching jungle. Additionally, it offers much more scope for exploration than other Maya ruins, where you'll quickly tire of the recently-appeared abundance of roped-off areas, and it's fascinating as a work of restoration and excavation in progress. Potentially, the site could be much-changed in years to come. If time and budget allow, a sweeping journey through the Yucatán and down into Chiapas offers the chance to see numerous wonderfully preserved ancient cities - and while Tulum, Chichen Itza, Coba, Uxmal and Palenque are only the most famous of these, plenty of others exist. Mexico is a country with an enormous array of attractions on offer, as rich and diverse as any other region, all competing for (and inevitably deserving of) your attention - make time for the ancient, only partially-unearthed wonders of Palenque, though, and you'll have chosen wisely.
Address: Chiapas / Palenque / Mexico