The best Maya ruins to visit, #4: Palenque

Maya ruins to visit, #4: Palenque, Chiapas, Mexico

And then, after naming my personal Top #3 of 12 (the podium places) …. we arrive at the gate of the amazingly beautiful Maya ruins of Palenque. Palenque was the first Maya site I brought a visit, after entering the Mundo Maya from the north in 1992.

View of the Palace and Temple of the Inscriptions (to the left), Palenque.
View of the Palace and Temple of the Inscriptions (left). Picture taken from one of the temples of the Cross Complex.

Before that visit I already was fascinated by the Maya civilization, but man… Palenque confirmed it all. What an impression this impressive old Maya city made on me.

I have to say though, in those years it was more an adventure to visit Palenque than nowadays. Mainly, because then you could still climb every temple, enter every room.

Temple of the Inscriptions, Palenque, Chiapas, Mexico.
Temple of the Inscriptions, Palenque, Chiapas, Mexico.

The best example is the Templo de las Inscripciones, which houses the most famous Royal grave of the Maya area. The tomb of Pakal the Great, the highest king or ajaw  Palenque ever knew.

Pakal ruled the city for almost seventy years – between 615-683 – during what we now call the Classical period. The reign of Pakal represent the heyday of the Maya city of Palenque 

  • Note: Palenque was named after the nearby village Santo Domingo de Palenque. It’s real name was Lakamha’ (Lakam Ha), meaning “Big Water”.
  • Pakal’s full name was K’inich Janaab Pakal I/Radiant War Shield. 

The night before our ’92 visit I finished a chapter in one of Charles Gallenkamp’s famous books about the Maya civilization (See below). The chapter was titled: Palenque yields a “Royal” tomb. In it Gallenkamp described the fascinating discovery of Pakal’s grave, excavated between 1948 and 1952.

It’s discoverer was a French-Cuban Mexican by the name of Alberto Ruz Lhuillier. His find was so wonderfully adventurous that we may safely call him “The Howard Carter of the Mundo Maya”. 

A Royal visit to Palenque

The next day we were the first to arrive at the Temple of the Inscriptions. After we climbed the high stairs up this immens temple, we only met a lonely guard. He still had to switch on the few lightbulbs that had to lead us downstairs. Into the damp shaft, treacherous high steps, moist & slippery. Until we reached ground level again. 

Here we found the tomb of Pakal. A Royal grave, an enormous sarcophagus closed with an impressive tombstone. Outer worldly beautiful. Because I just read about the adventurous discovery of the grave, I felt part of that history. As if the tomb was just opened yesterday. 

Replica of Pakal’s tombstone, bought during our last visit to Palenque, Mexico.
Replica of Pakal’s tombstone. I bought this artwork the last time I visited Palenque. Named it “Overtaken by history” because of the million year old fish print in the top left corner.

For Ruz Lhuillier the discovery of Pakal’s grave was his life’s work. So much so, that he wished to be buried in front of the Temple after his death in 1979.

A recent visit to Palenque 

After 1992, I’ve visited Palenque four more times. Always an honorable thing to do, but things have changed nowadays.

Please don’t misunderstand me. Palenque is still a beautiful place to visit, but you can’t climb all the structures anymore. Like for example, the mentioned Temple of the Inscriptions.

Of course, I understand the danger climbing the temple, or even more descending into the grave. But, … what can I say? 

Besides that, on the Mexican side of the Mundo Maya commerce has taken its toll on the Maya ruins. The mayor sites allow artisans (& salesmen) to sell their handicrafts inside the park. Luckily they can’t do that up or too near the temples, but still… For me, it’s a bad decision.

Souvenirs for sale near the temples of Palenque.
Souvenirs for sale near the temples..

The other times I visited the Maya ruins of Palenque the handicraft market was located outside. At the main entrance, near the parking lot. And why not? Palenque is for many people, as for me a sacred place. It’s like selling food and souvenirs inside the Vatican, the Basilica di San Marco in Venice or St.Paul’s Cathedral in London. You just don’t!


  • Note: Palenque is well investigated, but so far this has led to more questions than answers. That’s something you’ll notice soon enough when you visit Palenque. Many constructions surrounding the ceremonial centre are barely touched. 

And then for some useful tips …

Don’t forget to visit the Palenque Site Museum. Named after Alberto Ruz Lhuillier.

Many pieces found in Palenque are shipped to the famous & beautiful National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City, or elsewhere. However, in the Palenque museum you can still admire a fine selection of original, artistic pieces.

Besides that, one corner of the museum is selected for a detailed introduction to the famous tombstone of Pakal. In the middle of the room you’ll find a life size replica of the massive stone.

  • Note: In many other Maya sites, like Copán, replicas have replaced the original monuments (which are exhibited in the Copán Museum). In Palenque though, you can still admire the original artwork on the wall, surrounded by hundreds of inscriptions. The most elaborate stucco work you’ll find in the three temples that belong to the Cross Temple Complex.
Inscriptions and images found in one of the temples of the Cross Complex, Palenque.
Impression of the inscriptions and images found inside the Temple of Cross. A temple built by Pakal’s son Kan Bahlam II .

The Palenque museum is located outside the park, on the road to the ruins. But if you plan to start there, you can enter a second entrance gate nearby. From that gate you climb up little by little to the ceremonial centre of Palenque. That’s the way all the earlier explorers arrived at the site, like for example John L. Stephens & Frederick Catherwood (see Introduction to the Mundo Maya).

A really adventurous way to visit Palenque. The last time I went to Palenque I reserved a second day to revisit the Maya temples and entered the city through this “Back gate”. On my way I discovered new places for myself. No other visitors around – while it still was high season. I even spotted a monkey family very near some outlying ruins that, like me, had escaped the crowd. Beautiful really. 

Reading about Palenque

All the general works on the Maya civilization will mention Palenque. One of best books is:

  • Sharer, Robert & Traxler, Loa P., The Ancient Maya, 2006 (originally 1946), Stanford University Press, Stanford California. ISBN 0 8047 4817 9.

Besides that, I recommend:

  • Stephens, John Lloyd, Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas & Yucatan, 1841, Harper & Brothers, NY (with beautiful drawings by his companion/assistent Frederick Catherwood)

A MUST read before you visit Palenque (see my Introduction to the Mundo Maya).

Catherwood’s drawing of the top part of the Temple of the Inscriptions. At the time still partially overgrown with high trees.
Catherwood made detailed drawings of the stucco art on the temple walls. A work still highly appreciated by the experts, who nowadays study the inscriptions and are able to read them. Inscriptions & images that have deteriorated heavily after Catherwood’s visit to Palenque.

Another book I’d like to recommend, is the one I referred to earlier in this post:

  • Gallenkamp, C., May­a. The riddle and rediscovery of a lost civilization, 1959, David McKay Company, Inc. (NY).

Another, specific title on Palenque I really enjoyed was:

  • Stuart, David & Stuart, George, Palenque – Eternal city of the Maya, 2008, Thames & Hudson Ltd, London/NY. ISBN 978 0 500 05156 6 

For an overview of my personal favourites, go to: Top #12 Maya-sites

For an overview of all travel posts of my blog, go to: the Home Page.

  • Final message, for fellow travel writers & bloggers: TravelPayOuts is a global integrated affiliate program focused exclusively on travel offers. If it works for me, it will probably work for you too: TravelPayOuts.
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