Palenque Ruins are easily among my favorite Mayan sites in Mexico – so much so that I have visited 3 times!
Completely surrounded by the jungle, in the lesser visited state of Chiapas, what’s special about these Mayan ruins isn’t just the incredible state in which you’ll find the pyramids and temples, but also the nature around it, that a variety of wildlife species – first and foremost the tiny but loud howler monkeys – call home.
If you happen to be traveling around Chiapas, you certainly can’t skip visiting Palenque. This guide will tell you everything you need to know to plan your visit and make the most of it.
A History Of The Palenque Ruins
Palenque Ruins are also known by their name, Lakamha (literally, “Big Water”). This was a medium-sized city, smaller compared to Chichen Itza or Tikal in Guatemala. Despite its size, in its heyday, the city actually controlled a vast swathe of Chiapas and part of northern Guatemala.
The ruins of the city date from around 226 BC to around 799 AD, boasting over a thousand years of history – so it’s not hard to see why it’s been granted a UNESCO World Heritage Site status. Here among the ruins is some of the finest architecture that can be found anywhere in the Mayan world.
From a decorative roof combs to bas relief carvings, there’s also a rich history that has been unraveled through deciphering the hieroglyphic inscriptions that decorate many of the monuments. Historians have been hard at work decoding the history of Palenque Ruins, revealing the Lakamha’s ruling dynasty as well as their rivalry with other city states – namely, Calakmul and Tonina.
In 599 AD, Calakmul actually invaded Lakamha and sacked the city. They attacked again in 611 when the Calakmul king assumed control.
But a 12-year-old king, Pacal the Great (also known as K’inich Janaab Pakal), took the throne back in 615. He then ruled for almost 70 years, restoring the city to its former greatness. He also allied with Tikal and Yaxchilan, which led to the trio’s dominance of the region.
The city gradually fell into decline and was left to be consumed by the jungle. In fact, by the time the Spanish conquistadors arrived in the 1520s, the population was much diminished.
Today the area of the Palenque Ruins that has been uncovered spans about one square mile, which is just an estimated 10% of the original extent of the ancient city.
Where Are Palenque Ruins?
You’ll find these ancient Maya ruins located in the eponymous Palenque National Park. That’s in the foothills of the southern state of Chiapas, close to the modern-day town of Palenque (thus giving the ruins their popular name today). Surrounded by the Lacandon jungle, the area feels adventurous and almost untouched.
What To See In Palenque Ruins
Exploring the ruins of the ancient city of Lakamha makes for a fascinating day of history and atmospheric nature. The only way to get around is on foot, but don’t worry – from the main entrance, there are signposted and well maintained trails that lead around the temples and major sights of this UNESCO World Heritage Site.
As you walk around the ruins, it’s amazing to think back to a time when Lakamha’s power was at its peak, and the now-grey stone structures would have been painted in bright blues, daubed with red and accented with yellows. It definitely would have been a striking place to explore!
The Temple of the Inscriptions
The Temple of the Inscriptions is the first thing you will see as you walk through the entrance of the ruins. It’s the largest temple in the complex, and dates back to around the 7th century AD.
It is thought to have been built as the final resting place for the most famous ruler, Pacal the Great. Construction on this funerary monument began in the last decade of Pacal’s life (and reign), and was completed by his son and successor, Kan B’alam II.
The stepped temple is quite an important structure. That’s not only because of what it looks like and who it was for, but also because of the hieroglyphic Inscription Tablets that were found here (hence the name of the temple). The discovery of these tablets greatly increased the world’s knowledge of the ancient Maya civilization.
The Grupo de las Cruces
Translating to the “Group of Crosses,” this is a complex of several temples that began life as an ambitious construction project. Planned by King Kan B’alam II, the Grupo de las Cruces sit high up on a hill and were constructed on earthen mounds facing a central plaza.
It’s made up of three main buildings – the Temple of the Cross, the Temple of the Sun, and the Temple of the Foliated Cross. The Temple of the Cross is the most famous of the three, and it boasts bas relief carvings inside. It was built to commemorate the rise of of Kan B’alam II after his father’s death, with the carvings inside aptly showing the king receiving a great gift from his predecessor.
It might be named the Temple of the Cross, but in reality, it has nothing to do with Catholicism – in fact, it is a representation of the World Tree, which is the center of the world in Mayan mythology.
The Palace is a series of buildings connected by courtyards and passageways, built over generations across a four-century period. Starting in the 5th century AD, this place is considered to have been the home of Lakamha’s rulers and is located at the center of the ancient city.
It is thought that ritualistic ceremonies, parties, and cultural celebrations would have taken place here. There’s even evidence here of baths and saunas, with fresh water provided by diverting the Atulum River to flow below the plaza.
The most eye-catching structure in the palace is the eighth-century Observation Tower. This four-story tower, complete with a Mansard roof, is believed to be an astronomical observatory, designed specifically to watch the winter solstice sun. Today, you can only admire this amazing tower from afar as entrance is not permitted.
The Palenque Museum
Best visited after you’ve had the chance to stroll around and get to up close and personal with the ruins of Lakamha, the museum offers a great insight into the history of the ancient city.
The Palenque Museum will help you to tie up any questions you may have after visiting the ruins themselves, with plenty of information to read up on and artifacts removed from the site and placed on display in the museum.
Practical Information For Visiting Palenque Ruins
Now that you know all about the history and what to see at the ancient city of Lakamha, it’s time to figure out the nitty gritty of just how to best go about visiting these stunning ruins.
Cost of visiting Palenque Ruins and opening hours
A trip to the Palenque Ruins does not have to be an expensive trip at all. In fact, it can be very budget-friendly, costing around 200 MXN ($10 USD) for a whole day of exploration at the park.
This is a breakdown of the costs:
PALENQUE RUINS – 80 MXN ($4 USD) for international visitors. There are concessions for students, children, and seniors too. Note that the admission fee to the ruins also includes entrance to the Palenque Ruins Museum.
PALENQUE NATIONAL PARK – 35 MXN ($1.75 USD). You will have to pay this fee before you are admitted into the archeological park.
PHOTOGRAPHY PERMIT – 45 MXN ($2.25 USD). It’s definitely worth it, in my opinion!
GUIDE – If you want to get an official guide for the site, these are available at the ticket office and at the entrance. As an estimate, a two-hour tour for up to seven people will cost approximately 1,300 MXN (little over $65 USD) (but this is in Spanish only). For a tour in English, French, German, or Italian, it’ll cost around 1,600 MXN ($80 USD). If you are traveling alone, the best way to get a guide is to join another group. Someone is bound to pop by the entrance looking for a guide and you can easily share. That’s how I did it my first time there.
MISCELLANEOUS – If you want to buy food or snacks while you’re there, then I would suggest factoring around 20 MXN ($1 USD) for that. Don’t forget about the bus ride to the ruins themselves, either – this should cost about 20 MXN.
Palenque Ruins are open daily from 8:00 am to 5:00 pm.
Should you get a guide to visit Palenque Ruins?
I am all in favor of getting a guide when visiting Palenque Ruins. This is a fairly large site, and you can definitely benefit from someone who can take you to the most important places and give you enough information to be able to put everything in context.
Of course, if you are traveling alone the price of a guide may be a bit steep – but you can easily find a group you can join once you are at the site. Just ask other visitors at the gate if they would like to share a guide in your language of choice. Alternatively, simply book yourself on a guided tour such as this one.
Last time I visited Palenque I hired a guide named Francisco Anaya. He’s honestly one of the best guides you can hope to have in Mexico. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org to enquire about his fees and availability – just make sure you email him well in advance before your visit as he is quite popular! If he’s not available, opt for a guided tour you can book online such as this one.
The best time to visit Palenque
Being surrounded by the jungle, Palenque is a hot and humid place all year round. But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t ever any respite in the temperature. Things get cooler between November and March when the rain of the wet season has eased a little – It doesn’t feel as sticky.
Between December and January is southern Mexico’s high season. This is when places like Palenque will be at their busiest. However, Palenque Ruins themselves only sees an average of 1,000 visitors per day, so it will never be completely overcrowded. If you want no crowds at all, then it is best to go early in the morning at opening time. This is when crowds are at their thinnest, and temperatures are at their coolest. The ruins are also picturesque at this time of day when jungle mist wraps the temples in an atmospheric haze.
How to get to Palenque Ruins from Palenque Town
Most people stay in the Palenque when visiting the ruins of the same name. They are situated around 4.5 miles (7 kilometers) from the town, and therefore make for a perfect place to base yourself. It may be a relatively small town, but there are still plenty of places to stay, places to eat and drink in the area, as well as other conveniences and amenities.
You have several options of getting to Palenque Ruins from Palenque Town. Here’s a brief outline.
The town is connected to the ruins via a regular minibus service which leaves around every 15 minutes from the ADO Bus Termina, which is located close to the main roundabout in town. If you don’t know what bus to get, just look for one with a sign that says “ruinas” and “Palenque Ruins” in the window. Colectivos usually run from 7:00 am to 7:00 pm every day.
It costs as little as 40 MXN ($2 USD) to get there, takes about 20 minutes, and terminates at the entrance of Palenque Ruins making it a very easy trip to make.
If you don’t want to go to the bus station, along the road to the ruins, you could stick your hand out if you see such a bus coming towards you – most likely, it’ll pick you up (if they have space).
By Private Taxi
Alternatively, you could hop in your own private taxi to ferry you to the ruins – this will cost you around 100 MXN ($5 USD).
Surprisingly, quite a few travelers in Mexico rent cars to get around. This is no different in Palenque. It’s a great way to travel if you want to explore at your own pace and have some flexibility. And since it’s a short distance between Palenque and the ruins, it’s not a very stressful drive at all. There are places to park at the entrance of the ruins.
On a guided tour
For a completely hassle free day, you may want to consider joining a guided tour. The tour will likely also take in other destinations nearby, such as Agua Azul and Misol-Ha waterfalls. You could also do this same tour, departing on a day trip from San Cristobal instead of Palenque.
How to get to Palenque Town
Getting to the town of Palenque is pretty easy since it’s quite well connected to other major towns and cities in Mexico.
From San Cristobal de las Casas
Driving from San Cristobal de las Casas to Palenque is no piece of cake. The trip takes about 5 hours for around 124 miles (200 km), over a very windy road full of speed bumps and with possible road blocks at Ocosingo. I was fortunate enough never to encounter one, but alas – you’ve been warned. Make sure to never drive that route at night. If you are driving yourself, you can stop at Agua Azul and Misol Ha waterfalls along the way.
From San Cristobal you can also take an ADO bus (usually quite comfortable, and you can book them online, too). This goes via Tuxtla Gutierrez and Villahermosa.
You can book your bus from San Cristobal to Palenque Town here.
Merida and Campeche have a direct bus service which is both efficient and reliable.
To book your bus from Merida, click here.
From Mexico City or Cancun
If you’re really short on time and budget doesn’t matter much to you, then it is also possible to fly to Palenque. There are direct flights from Mexico City or Cancun. Once you’re at the airport in Palenque, simply take a taxi from the stand to the town – it costs around 250 MXN ($12.50 USD). All in all, flying is a super easy and very speedy way to get to Palenque, even if it is expensive compared to the bus.
What to bring with you for a day trip at the Palenque Ruins
For a better experience when visiting Palenque Ruins, make sure to carry the following items with you:
- Insect repellent – it’s the jungle, so of course there will be mosquitoes!
- Comfortable shoes as there is some walking involved.
- Water bottle – preferably refillable and with a filter (save on plastic waste).
- Camera, for obvious reasons.
- Small change for snacks and refreshing drinks from vendors.
- Sun hat to protect you from the midday sun.
- Sunscreen is very important!
BONUS! Where to stay in Palenque
There are plenty of good accommodation options in Palenque – either in town or closer to the ruins. As I have visited 3 times, I can recommend a few good places to stay:
- LUXURY: CHAN-KAH RESORT VILLAGE – Blissfully immersed in nature, this resort features a lush garden, massive rooms and an even larger pool. The on site restaurant serves local staples and international dishes too. As it is a bit isolated, you will need a car to get there.
- MID-RANGE: CHABLIS HOTEL – A nice, more budget friendly option in the main hotel area of Palenque Town. Rooms are nice and large and there is a small but delightful pool.
- BUDGET: CABANAS KIN BALAM – One of the most popular hostels in Palenque, with nice private rooms and comfortable dorms. It’s about 30 minutes walk to the ruins.
Make sure to read my other posts about Mexico:
- The Best Things To Do In Chiapas
- The Best Guide To San Cristobal De Las Casas
- A Guide To Visiting San Juan Chamula, Chiapas
- The Ultimate Guide To Agua Azul, Chiapas
- The Best Travel Tips For Mexico
- How Not To Get Sick In Mexico
- The Best Itinerary For 3 Days In Mexico City
- The Complete Guide To Visiting Teotihuacan
- The Best Mexico Itinerary
- The Best Beaches In Mexico
- The Best Things To Do In Yucatan
- What To Eat In Mexico
- The Best Tours In Oaxaca