The archeological site of Palenque is much different and for many, has more character than the more well-known and easier to get to sites in the Yucatan Peninsula. This reinforces my opinion that the truly interesting areas of Mexico are better visited by cars, motorcycles and RVs. Palenque is in the northeastern end Chiapas state, near the Gulf of Mexico. It is a natural stop if you are driving from Veracruz to the Yucatan Peninsula.
Even though Palenque is perhaps the most studied and written about Mayan site by archeologists, it does not get nearly as many tourists as Chichen Itza (Yucatan) and Tulum (Quintana Roo). Since it gets fewer foreign tourists, it is less crowded, less commercial and more natural. Even today the jungles around the site and the town are alive with howler monkeys. Today, they are less common than when I first came here in the 1980s, but one screaming you awake in the morning is plenty. Chichen Itza is on a flat, barren plain. Palenque is actually in a jungle. I’m amused by tourists who rave about the jungle setting of Chichen Itza. Palenque is the real deal. In summer it is really hot and really humid. In winter it is just humid and warm.
Palenque had been abandoned by the Mayans hundreds of years before the Spaniards arrived. Only an estimated ten percent of the ancient city has been uncovered. The most well-known temple there is the Temple of Inscriptions which was both a temple and a funerary monument housing a sarcophagus.
Mystery of Palenque
Even if you are not into archeology, you can enjoy Palenque. To get to the temples “in the back,” you walk a path through some barely trimmed jungle. If you stop, close your eyes and still your mind, you might have an other-worldly experience. I know several people who have had visions or “vibes” of long-dead Mayans communicating with them in the area around the Palenque ruins.
If visitors from the past are not your bag, you can sit on one of the concrete benches in the first (flat) section of the site. Some are blessedly under trees. You will see wandering tribes of backpackers, mostly European, all on the Lonely Planet trail. On my last visit, I was treated to a show by a painfully single American guy clumsily trying to pick up European chicks. His shtick was that he knew all the ruins and the best hostels and cheap hotels. Of course, like all the backpackers, his knowledge was from the Lonely Planet guide, so he had nothing to offer. As soon as the Euro-birds figured that out, they flitted away. I wondered – was I ever that way? Yeah, probably. But I’m sure I was smoother.
Listening to the young tourists made me sad. It wasn’t that I am an old man and they were young. I was saddened that they were traveling in packs of other tourists. Their “Mexican experience” was limited to bus stations, finding cheap hotels and following LP slavishly. They didn’t experience Mexico – they experienced the same people, the same cultures of their tribes. Was that why they came to Mexico?
These same people (and I was a member of the tribe in the 1970’s) deride older Americans who traveled in bus tours. But what difference was there in terms of experiencing the culture of the country they were visiting?
Follow Mike Nelsons Advice – Drive Yourself
You can do better because you are in a vehicle. As you travel, stop at some spots less well-known. Get to know some Mexican people along the way. You might find that one or two people you meet on your travels will make your trip many times more rewarding than following some guidebook – even one I wrote.
Palenque has many hotels, mostly overpriced or rock-bottom. Some of my old favorites have turned into chichi spa resorts or frou-frou bed and breakfasts. There are also a couple of RV parks. I should warn you that the Mayabell, which is both a hotel and RV Park, is full of stoners and not for everyone. Those clouds of smoke are not from tobacco. However, that might be exactly what you are looking for. Either way, it’s good to know in advance. It has a great location in the archeological zone, walking distance to the site, but the rooms are a real crap shoot. The screens on the ones I saw would not discourage a mosquito with any sense of pride. For RV’ers, they may be the only game in town. They have a nice grassy area to park with hookups. The only other location left (several closed in the past two years) is the Nututun Hotel about 2 miles past town on the road to San Cristobal de las Casas. And that is without hookups.
1. Howard Johnson, on the right about half a mile before the Big Head is a good hotel, reasonably-priced, secure parking, pool. Internet in some rooms (closer to lobby). The best deal going.
2. Hotel Maya Tulipanes. Downtown and very nice. www.mayatulipanes.com/eng/
3. Hotel La Cañada – Inexpensive, but seen better days. Still has monkeys in the trees.
4. Chan-Kah Resort. 3 star quality, 5 star price. This used to be my favorite, but now snotty & overpriced. I wrote extensively & glowingly about them for guidebooks in the old days. Greed and commercialism triumphed over a gentle serenity that used to rule this hideaway. I included it because everybody asks about it. You may like the jungle atmosphere combined with California New Age. Look before checking in. Prices are $150 and up. 3 kilometers from the Big Mayan Head (at entrance to town). On the road to ruin.
You can drive from Palenque to Agua Azul (blue waterfalls) and Bonampak (a truly stunning Mayan site, only recently accessible by road) in day trips. San Cristobal de las Casas is a full day’s drive.
About the Author
“Mexico” Mike Nelson is an expert on Mexico travel. He has written several books on the subject. You can find him on his website, www.mexicomike.com where he offers trip guides, travel advice and just about anything else you need while in Mexico. Please stop by his site and take a look.