Spending nine months in Mexico and doing spots of travelling here and there, I often met travellers who had been to the Mayan ruins of Palenque, or had it on their list. To my ears, there was always something incredibly exotic about the sound of the lost city’s name, and the fact that it was in the depths of the jungle in the state of Chiapas made it seem even more exciting. When planning my adventure around Belize, Guatemala and Chiapas to round off my time in Mexico, I wanted to go out with a bang and keep Palenque for the grand finale. Even after visiting Chichen Itza over on the Yucatan Peninsula, Tulum perched on cliffs on the Caribbean coast, Cahal Pech and Xununtanich (good luck figuring out how to pronounce that one) in the Belizean jungle and Guatemala’s crowning glory, Tikal, Palenque still managed to wow us, and I think the feeling of peace found sitting atop a pyramid gazing out at the jungle will stay with me for a long time to come.
You can reach Palenque from the east or north, coming from the Yucatan Peninsula, or by crossing the border from Flores in Guatemala. A lot of people, however, come in from San Cristobal de las Casas, a tourist honeypot in Chiapas which still manages to be extremely charming despite the crowds and the chilly weather, which is thanks to the altitude at which this colonial town was built. We’d been intending to take the ADO bus, the biggest bus line in this part of Mexico, but we were told by the lovely people at Akumal Hostel (can’t recommend it enough!) that our best option was to go via collectivo as the locals do.
Next to the bus station, you’ll find countless people shouting ‘Ocosingo’ at you. That’s the halfway point between SCDLC and Palenque, and will set you back 75 MX per person. It might be a minivan or just a regular car, which was cozy, to say the least. It’s about 2 hours to Ocosingo, where you’ll then (if you look like as much of a gringo as I do) be shepherded directly onto the next van to Palenque, because it’s pretty obvious where you’re headed. Palenque is the name of both the Mayan city and the modern-day town which has grown up a couple of kilometers away. You’re dropped in the modern town, where you can get another little collectivo out to El Panchan for 20 pesos a person, or, if you’ve had quite enough of collectivos by that point (as I had), a taxi for 60.
Where to stay
There’s a lot of accommodation in the town itself, and some people prefer that option, but if you’re a fan of waking up to the sounds of the jungle and don’t mind getting back to basics slightly, El Panchan is a kind of village of hostels with cabins between the trees that have grown up just outside the gates to the national park. It’s famous for being home to plenty of hippies that turned up here and never left, and people either love it or hate it it seems.
We loved it. We actually spent the first couple of nights at Kim Balam, which is on the other side of the road from El Panchan proper. It’s a little pricier than some of the other options but also a little nicer and there’s Wi-Fi at the reception so you can let people know the jungle hasn’t claimed you (yet). It was 480 for a twin room with private bathroom and a nice terrace, but there were also doubles with shared bathrooms and dorms. The best part was that they’ve got a swimming pool. Now, I know that might make me sound like I’m not a very hardened traveller, but trust me, after a long day trekking around ruins in something approaching 80% humidity there’s nothing nicer than a dip. We were there when the rainy season was just ramping up (June) and on our first evening, no sooner had we got into the pool than the heavens opened and the biggest thunderstorm I’ve ever experienced was unleashed directly over our heads. Confident that the trees would attract the lightning (?!) and reluctant to get out of the warm pool into the cold rain, we stayed put and enjoyed the show, using the little plastic tables as sunbeds to keep the cold rain off our heads (as we’re nothing if not resourceful!).
The general rule, apart from maybe in the super-high season, is that you should just turn up at El Panchan and see rather than booking ahead. Kim Balam is the only one on Hostelworld and the others don’t usually have any internet with which to accept bookings, so you can’t really book anyway.
On our last night, returning from the overnight adventure that I’ll get onto later, we went for Margarita and Ed’s, in El Panchan proper. A twin cabin with private bathroom was 370. We went for that option rather than any of the cheaper cabins (you can get a private one for 100 pesos) as they all looked a bit flimsy, and this one had bars on the windows, a proper door and a padlock. You probably want to err on the side of caution where security’s concerned.
Where to Eat
My first tip for staying out at El Panchan is to come armed with snacks as they do rather have you over a barrel, with the town being 4km away. Don Muchos restaurant is where most people end up, and there are queues out the door (or over the bridge) on a Saturday night. The prices seem a bit steep by local standards, but bear in mind that the portions are absolutely huge so if you don’t over order (like we did) it turns out being okay value for money. And it’s great fun. At the weekends, there’s normally a band playing salsa and cumbia, and everyone gets up and dancing, and there’s a nightly fire show.
For breakfast try the other restaurant hidden round the back past Don Muchos, where they do 50% off on breakfasts making it more affordable. If you’re just after a filling plate of local fare, Dona Felipa’s is over the bridge at the second restaurant and is the kind of place that has no menu, they just tell you what there is. We ate here and then went to Don Muchos for dessert and a 25 peso Cuba Libre.
As is the general rule with all of these archaeological sites, go early. Palenque opens at 8am, and if you’re staying at El Panchan it’s really easy to get up and grab one of the combis that will take you another 3km through the national park to the actual ruins. Entry to the park is currently 30 pesos, which gives you a wristband which is valid for 5 days if you want to do any other exploring, and the ruins themselves cost 70 pesos. Being in there early is wonderful as you have the place practically to yourself and the vendors that line the paths haven’t yet got their gear set up yet so they don’t hassle you.
It’s breath-taking. It would’ve been fascinating to have a guide to explain it all, but we’d come to realise on our many visits to ruins that you get a different version of events from each guide you have. We’d had enough of tour groups and we didn’t want to spend the money on a private guide, but if this the only big site you’ll visit it’s probably worth it. We revelled in the opportunity to wander around at our own pace whilst it was still empty and the sun wasn’t yet beating down. The view from the top of the Temple of the Cross, looking down onto the palace and the jungle stretching into the distance beyond, is something else. We had our breakfast up there found it hard to drag ourselves away.
You probably need a good 3 hours to do the ruins themselves. You then wander down through the rainforest and over the crystal-clear river, dotted with waterfalls, with more structures to inspect on the way, until you come out at the entrance by the museum. We had very limited time in there, but it’ll keep you engrossed for an hour and really helps put everything in perspective.
There are several options for other things to do in this area. Most famous are the waterfalls of Agua Azul (Blue Water) and Misol-ha, but we opted against them as we’d been told that during the rainy season the water is more mud-coloured than blue. Some people do those on a day trip which includes a ruins tour and ends up dropping you in SCDLC, or the opposite, which seems like a good option. There are also the Roberto Barrios waterfalls, which we heard great things about and which are much less of a tourist-trap than the other two.
Another thing you’ll see advertised is a jungle walk, ‘caminata en la selva’, which is what we went for as it was right there and we didn’t want to spend more time on minivans than necessary. It was 300 pesos per person and our guide Juan took us into the National Park (same wristband as for the ruins), where we started on the main path but quickly branched off. Wear shoes and clothes that you don’t mind getting wet, as we ended up literally walking up this insanely picturesque river, clambering up waterfalls. There were 1400 buildings in the whole of Palenque and only 37 have been excavated, so everywhere you look there are mounds that look natural but are in fact the remains of temples. We got to climb into mini-caves created where roofs had fallen in and get an idea of what the whole thing must have looked like in the eyes of the explorers that first came across them. There were howler monkeys just hanging out in the trees and there were plenty of points when you just couldn’t help bursting into a rendition of ‘I’m the king of the swingers’. Juan was a bit bemused.
You’ll also hear about the ruins of Yaxchitlan and Bonampak. You’ll be given the option of doing a one day tour, with transport, breakfast, lunch and entrance fees (guide not included) for 750 pesos, or doing an overnight tour, with 5 meals and accommodation and a jungle walk for 1300. We fancied some real jungle time and didn’t want to spend too long on buses, so we decided to stay overnight, something which I wouldn’t recommend. The two ruins are very much worth visiting, as it’s a half hour boat ride to get to Yaxchitlan and the perfectly preserved murals at Bonampak are fascinating, giving you an idea of what the ruins would once have looked like, as once everything would have been painted in the vivid reds, blues and greens you can see there.
The 2-day tour is just the same as the 1-day tour on the first day, but then you’re dropped off at your accommodation for the night. Now there are plenty of places you might end up, but our cabin was a little too rustic for our liking, and we like rustic. It’s probably different depending on where you stay, but the food was served in a completely soulless room, and the vegetarian option was quesadillas 3 meals in a row. The jungle walk the next day is nice, but not as good as the one at Palenque itself. The moral of the story is stick with the 1-day.
There you have it. Everything you need to know to spend a few blissful (if slightly hot and sweaty) days in the depths of the Mexican jungle. Turn off your phone and completely disconnect for a few days. Marvel at the power of nature, which has completely reclaimed a once-great city, and will inevitably, one day, do exactly the same to our modern metropolises.
Image Sources: Palenque – Mexico by Dennis Jarvis – cc by sa 2.0, Cascada en Palenque by Guillén Pérez – cc by nd 2.0, hut at El Panchan by monkey sidekick – cc by nd-nd 2.0, Ruins at Palenque by Carlos Adampol Galindo – cc by sa 2.0, Palenque Houses by Jacob Rus – cc by sa 2.0, Templo de la cruz foliada by 16:9clue – cc by 2.0