Namesake of the nearby Maya ruins, the town of Palenque often gets labelled a pit-stop. But this sleepy town, located in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas, has more to offer than just a base for exploring the ruins. The town makes for a comfortable place from which to explore the wider area too.
The ruins of Palenque sit amid dense jungle, or what little of it is left. The town itself is surrounded by fields and the occasional copse. The buildings are mostly of cement cinder blocks slathered in colourful paint. Trucks, cars and motorcycles zip down streets where the sidewalks are narrow, if present. Charming is not a word often used to describe Palenque. But waking up early in the morning – while the jungle mist hangs low in the air, the avian dawn chorus serenades and howler monkeys call out across the canopy – it’s hard not to appreciate the town.
Chiapas, Mexico’s poorest state, has been branded with a reputation for fomenting indigenous rebels and insurgent uprisings. The Zapatista movement has maintained their presence in the area since the early 90s, demanding that control over the land and resources be more fairly distributed among indigenous people. But even in 1994, during the Zapatista rebellion, Palenque was spared from much of the violence.
Palenque Archaeological Zone
The archaeological remains of Palenque, while not as celebrated as the world-renowned Chichén Itzá to the north, or Tikal to the east in Guatemala, form one of the most remarkable Maya sites. The ruins were discovered by Europeans in 1567, having been abandoned nine centuries before. Like many other major Maya settlements across the region a cause of the decline, which began in the 9th century, is still open to speculation.
Currently only around 10% of the ancient city has been uncovered, with much more still buried beneath the vegetation. A stroll along jungle paths at the site reveals glimpses of former homes and temples now consumed by nature. Stacked rocks and crumbled structures are seen everywhere. Those that have been excavated reveal architectural nuance, while well-preserved hieroglyphs lend the site further historic significance.
Palenque was called Lakam Ha by its original citizens, meaning ‘Big Water’. The ruins were built beside a river. It’s a rare day that visitors here aren’t soaking with sweat and aching for a swim after exploring the temples and palaces. The Queen’s Baths are a series of small waterfalls with gushing fresh, cool water; a welcome oasis in which to dunk your head, splash your face, or jump right in and banish the jungle humidity. At least for a while.
If there’s time, Cascada Misol Ha (Camino a Cascada de Misol-Ha, Chiapas) is located even deeper in the thick jungle beyond the ruins. This 35-metre cascade of water drops into an ample circular pool that’s perfect for a quick swim. There is a visitor centre and restaurant at the entrance. Fun fact: This waterfall was prominently featured in the Arnold Schwarzenegger film classic, Predator.
Beyond the Ruins
A more perfect respite from the heat and humidity than the waterfalls of Agua Azul (Reserva especial de la Biosfera Cascadas Agua Azul, Palenque) may not exist. In the right season, when the river water is clear, it is imbued with some of the finest blues you are likely to see in any waterfall. The ethereal hues come from minerals in the limestone rock of the falls.
Where the water comes crashing down off the rounded limestone boulders there is a large pool that dissipates into winding streams that carve small islands out of the earth.
An 8.1 magnitude earthquake in September 2017 cracked the riverbed and briefly caused the water level at Agua Azul to drop. Locals, who depend on the waterfall’s tourism for their livelihood, restored the waterflow.
Where to stay
In recent years, the la Cañada zona hotelera area of town was constructed to meet the growing demand of tourism. It’s far more curated than the centre of town and designed with travellers in mind. New and updated hotels are draped in lush foliage. Here you can find comfortable hotels with great amenities and still be close enough to walk into town and get an authentic feel for daily life.
Hotel Chablis Palenque (Merle Green No. 7 La Canada) is a great option for a stay in Palenque. This hotel has all the essentials needed: comfortable beds, air-conditioned rooms and a swimming pool. Make no mistake, air conditioning and a swimming pool are essential for a comfortable stay in this sweltering town.
If you want to stay in the centre of town and be able to hear when the marimba music starts up in the central park, consider Hotel Palenque (1a Avenida Sur Pte. 15, Centro). This modest inn has comfortable, air-conditioned rooms that make it easy to get a night’s rest. The swimming pool and courtyard, entangled with jungle plants and palm trees, are just what’s needed on a hot afternoon.
Close to the archaeological zone there are several hotels and cabaña resorts. At Chan-Kah Resort Village (Km 3 Carretera a las Ruinas, Palenque) it’s not unusual to see coatis scurry across the pavement stones leading between buildings, or toucans flying by in the early morning hours. Don’t be startled by the noisy howler monkeys; rest assured they’re just playing in the canopy. In the palm-thatch roofed cabañas here, huge windows let the exotic jungle vibe in while keeping the humidity and the bugs out.
Where to eat
Maybe it’s not written anywhere official, but roasted chicken is the official dish of Palenque. Restaurants with huge open air, mechanized rotisseries are found on practically every street, all exuding the tantalizing aroma of charcoal-grilled meat.
Pollos La Brasa (2a Avenida Sur Pte. 121, San Jose) doesn’t draw in crowds for its ambience. To the contrary, it’s a small one-room operation with rickety tables and chairs. But the food here leaves an impression that’s hard to forget. A homemade, secret seasoning blend is generously applied to each bird before being roasted to juicy perfection over the hot coals. Served in true Mexican style with freshly made tortillas, spicy salsas, beans and rice.
Upscale dining experiences do exist as well. At Restaurante Bajlum (Carretera Palenque-Ruinas Km 2.8, Palenque) diners are treated to pre-Hispanic fusion fare in a deep jungle setting. The restaurant aims to create dishes that pay homage to the types of food the Maya would have eaten during times the civilization was thriving. Meats, fruits and vegetables found in the jungle are used to create dishes that are just as impressive to set eyes on as they are to eat.
For a quick bite in the centre of town, there are plenty of options. Among the most popular is Tropi Tacos (Central Pte. 41, Centro). This is a two-story restaurant just down from the central square with plenty of taco varieties and combination plates to choose from, although vegetarians may dispute this. Tropi Tacos is famous for their agua de guanabana, a tropical drink made with water, sugar and the guanabana fruit, a local delicacy.