Palenque has Plenty
Palenque (Pronounced Pah-len-kay), for me, is as I always imagined an ancient Mayan ruin site to be. Beautiful architectural stepped pyramids surrounded by a green jungle of tall trees. Verdant green grass fills the courtyards between light colored stone structures with steep steps ascending to platforms featuring an artistic temple upon the mount. I can easily say that Palenque might be my favorite ancient site I have ever explored. The overall feeling is wondrous, and it is easy to feel a connection with the ancient people who built Palenque one and a half millennia ago.
The pyramids here are smaller than I have seen at most other of the most popular Maya sites, but they are arranged in what was clearly a planned city. The monuments lay one next to another like a row of neat houses with large, accommodating courtyards between. The grass is lush and inviting – I wanted to spread a picnic blanket and marvel at the surroundings.
Unlike the Mayan sites in the Yucatan like Chichen Itza or Uxmal, where the jungle is short and stunted due to limited rain, here the jungle loomed over our heads. The Yucatan sites are likewise on flat ground, but Palenque is built in the hills. Ridges rise above the town, festooned with canopy trees making for a picturesque background for the monuments. From places in the town, I looked off to a wide vista of the surrounding plains below the hills, providing an enviable view that sets Palenque apart from the Yucatan Mayan archeological sites.
Palenque was founded in the 3rd century BC and reached its zenith in the 7th century. It was abandoned around the 9th century for unknown reasons, and the jungle took it over quickly. But this helped to preserve the site for the intervening centuries. Today, less than 10% of the city has been recovered from the jungle, and I saw plenty of examples of temples still waiting repair and exploration. It’s amazing to me to realize just how little of the ancient Mayan civilization has actually been excavated – most of the work still remains to be done.
TEmple of Inscriptions
Dominating the history of Palenque is the king who built much of its best structures – K’inich Janaab Pakal I (Pakal the Great). He was found buried in the most impressive pyramid in Palenque – the Temple of Inscriptions, so named for the large inscription tablet found within. His tomb is one of the most significant graves yet found from the Ancient Mayan world. He wore a jade mosaic mask over his face and a suit made of jade with each piece held together by gold wire. The carved lid of Pakal’s tomb is a very unique and famous piece of art. I remember when the book, Chariots of the Gods came out (along with a movie of the same title), the stone was compared to a Mercury astronaut as he claimed that it was evidence of extraterrestrial influence on the Maya. Plenty of others have postulated all manner of things about the image. A duplicate of the lid and sarcophagus are at the museum on site, but the actual piece is still in the temple itself, unreachable for visitors.
Temple of the Foliated Cross
His sons carried on his legacy and expanded the city further. Pakal was succeeded by his son, K’inich Kan Bahlam II, built additional structures, including the Temple of the Cross Complex. This complex includes the Temple of the Sun, the Temple of the Cross and the Temple of the Foliated Cross. All can be climbed, with the trip up the tallest, the Temple of the Cross, affording nice views of Palenque and the surrounding jungle.
In the center of town and amongst all these temples is the Palace complex which sites at a right angle to the Temple of Inscriptions. Most of the Palace is open for exploration and was a great deal of fun. Towering over the place is the Observation Tower, a four-story building that rises above the Palace and is a dominant feature of all of Palenque. Some hallways feature A-shaped Corbel arches and unusual T-shaped windows. Good examples of bas-relief carvings can be viewed here as well.
Further beyond are additional temples and ruins. It was fun to walk about these and the crowds were small enough that we never felt crowded or failed to be able to get a picture devoid of tourists when I wanted to. There is a small museum on site that we passed on due to time constraints but I hope to visit my next time through.
I enjoyed Palenque more than I thought I would, and I was looking forward to seeing it. It was a leisurely stroll with great views everywhere I looked and climbing the steps of pyramids or exploring the rooms of the Palace or other structures was fun. It was easy to wonder at what the town was like in its hey-day and imagine the people who lived here. If you can make the trip, I heartily recommend it.
I offer tips and advice on how to see Palenque here.
A gallery of pictures from our visit is here.
To see my list of favorite Mesoamerican ruins I have visited, go here.