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Looking to visit a lesser-visited area of Mexico? Do you loathe Mayan ruins overflowing with tourists? Do you like chasing waterfalls and spotting colourful and exotic birds in the jungle? Then you will love visiting Palenque in Chiapas state.
After our Yucatan road trip, we were looking to get off the beaten path and we were able to do that in Palenque and later, San Cristobal de las Casas. In this post, we will show you why it is worth the extra effort to visit Palenque, what to do in Palenque, and a great accommodation choice for your visit.
- 1 Why Visit Palenque?
- 2 The Best Things to Do in Palenque
- 3 Where to Stay in Palenque
- 4 El Panchon in Palenque
- 5 Getting to Palenque
Why Visit Palenque?
Chiapas was home to some of the most powerful city-states in Mayan civilization during the classical period (250-900 AD). What makes these ruins extra special is that the ruins were overgrown by the jungle and not discovered again until 1746. The ruins have been exposed for you to see and explore, but trees wind their way through buildings, very similar to the Angkor Wat temple complex in Cambodia.
The jungle hangs heavy and moist over the ruins and you can hear the cries of howler monkeys and parrots in the National Park that surrounds the ruins. Aside from the ruins, the nearby area is home to some great waterfalls, wildlife spotting opportunities and makes a great spot to slow down for a few days. I would recommend a 2-night stay, but you could certainly stay longer.
The Best Things to Do in Palenque
The Palenque ruins are what brings most visitors to Palenque and is the headlining thing to do on your visit. The ruins see 1000 visitors a day, many of them in large tour buses. Our recommendation is to get there as the park is opening, which will also avoid the heat of the day. There are hundreds of ruined buildings, but only the central area has been excavated.
As you enter, the jungle opens to reveal many of the major buildings of Palenque. You can climb most of the ruins giving you gorgeous views of the site. The walkways are lined with vendors selling Mayan handicrafts and there are some beautiful things to purchase.
TIP: take a taxi or colectivo (mini-van bus) up to the upper entrance, see the major ruins and then walk downhill to the museum. Entrance to the museum is included and its air conditioning is a great escape from the heat. There are Mayan artifacts from the site, including Pakal’s sarcophagus (a copy) with signage in English and Spanish.
Practical Information: The ruins are open from 8 am-5 pm daily. Entrance costs for the ruins is 75 pesos/adult and free for children under 13. Additionally, you will have to pay the National Park entry fee of 35 pesos per person, including children. Colectivos run between the town and ruins for 25 pesos/person or a taxi will cost you 60-100 pesos.
Agua Azul & Misol-Ha Waterfalls
These are the most popular waterfalls to visit in the area and the most convenient way to visit them is by organized tour. Agua Azul is a powerful white waterfall in the jungle with turquoise pools. Misol-Ha is a tall and narrow waterfall 35 m high that cascades into a wide pool at the bottom. If you have to choose to only visit one, pick Agua Azul, as the turquoise pools are stunning. You can swim at both, but the current can be strong during the rainy season.
Practical Information: Most Palenque travel agencies sell full-day tours that visit both waterfalls for 350 pesos/person. If you have your own car, they are short detours off the Ocosingo-Paleque road, 1.5 hours from Palenque.
Roberto Barrios Waterfall
While travelling we are always looking out for lesser visited places, ones that are up and coming that you find out about from locals. Roberto Barrios may not be a secret, but it isn’t in the Lonely Planet AND it should be! Most people who have been to all of the Palenque waterfalls, prefer Roberto Barrios. It is quieter and features the same turquoise pools as Agua Azul. In fact, there are 6 different pools to explore.
Practical Information: Most Palenque travel agencies also sell a half-day tour to Roberto Barrios (12-5pm) for 200 pesos. This includes your transportation and entrance and you have the afternoon to enjoy the pools.
The wildlife around Parque National Palenque is beautiful. This is why we recommend staying in the jungle between Palenque town and the ruins, so you can enjoy the jungle life. The lush jungle is home to howler monkeys and colourful parrots, which are most likely to be spotted at dawn and dusk. There is a paved walkway along Highway 199 (which is a very quiet road). We walked between our hotel (Casa Lakyum) and El Panchan, near the ruins, and saw many beautiful birds and heard howlers off in the distance.
Bonampak, Yaxchilan & the Carretera Fronteriza
To get further off the beaten path, you can visit the ancient Maya cities of Bonampak and Yaxchilan, which are even more picturesque than Palenque, and receive a fraction of its visitors. Situated along the Guatamala border, in addition to visiting these ruins hidden in the jungle, you can also visit untouched waterfalls, ecotourism projects and Lacandon (Mayan people) villages.
Practical Information: It is time consuming to get to Carretera Fronteriza and while you can visit on a daytrip from Palenque, it is worth spending a couple of days in the region. You can use local transportation to get to Frontera Corozal, the gateway to these ancient ruins, but from there you will need to hire a boat to get to Bonampak and a Lacandon colectivo to get to Yaxchilan. For this reason, it makes the most sense to book a tour from Palenque (1 or 2 day). These are full day tours, that leave at 6 am because it is a 3-hour drive to Frontera Corozal.
Where to Stay in Palenque
Palenque town is 9 km from the ruins and is the cheapest place to stay and offers lots of amenities. We opted to stay in the surrounding area to experience the stunning jungle and wildlife. We loved and can recommend Casa Lakyum, which has gorgeous views over the jungle from its hilltop perch. The manicured gardens, swinging hammocks, and refreshing pool were just what we needed.
The owner was very friendly and our kids had a blast playing with her son, even though they didn’t share a language. We arrived at 5 am and they sweetly let us check in and access our room right away. In addition to the great pool, there was a ping pong table and rock climbing wall that kept our kids busy. Casa Lakyum serves breakfast and lunch and you can go to nearby El Panchon or into Palenque town for dinners.
Click here to check the latest prices of Casa Lakyum.
El Panchon in Palenque
Lonely Planet describes El Panchon as a “legendary travellers’ hangout”. Its dense rainforest, located just below the Palenque ruins has rustic places to stay, a couple of restaurants and lots of young backpackers. We visited for dinner and used the travel agency there to book our waterfall tours. Our kids really enjoyed the Don Mucho Restaurant, getting their fix of pizza and pasta. Unfortunately some visitors feed the monkeys, which have become very comfortable around people.
Getting to Palenque
Air – Interjet flies twice weekly from Mexico City to Palenque. There are more frequent flights to/from nearby Villahermosa (2 hours away).
Bus – ADO buses are the most commonly used service by travellers in Mexico.
From Palenque, you can connect to Bacalar, Campeche, Cancun, Merida, Mexico City, Oaxaca, San Cristobal de las Casas, and Tulum, Tuxtla, Villahermosa. We took the overnight bus from Bacalar to Palenque (7.5 hours, 600 pesos ($32 USD), children half price). We arrived into Palenque in the early morning and took a taxi out to our hotel which was between Palenque town and the ruins for 80 pesos.
We took another overnight bus from Palenque to San Cristobal de las Casas (8.5 hours, 370 pesos, children half price). Due to security reasons, buses go the long way, staying clear of Ocosingo.
Rental Car – a hired car provides the most convenience and flexibility. There are no car rental companies in Palenque; cars need to be hired in nearby Villahermosa (2 hours away). We have rented with Mex and can recommend them, but be aware that you will need to purchase Mexican insurance, tolls roads are expensive and there are speed bumps (topes) everywhere.
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