Architecture / Art / Mexico / Travel

The Ruins at Palenque: A True Jungle Gem

Honestly, you never know what those wacky Mayanist scholars are going to say next. In their book The Maya, authors Michael Coe and Stephen Houston describe a stone relief as “God L, the patron of warriors and traders, smoking a cigar,” The minute I read this, I knew that I had to see it. I mean really – a one-letter god that sounds more like Rambo than an important Maya deity.

God L, having a smoke.

God L and his stogie are impressive, but he’s only one of many reasons to visit the majestic and extraordinary ruins of Palenque in Chiapas, Mexico. Surrounded by dense rainforest in the foothills of the Usumacinta Mountains, the mysterious ambience of this archaeological all-star made it one of our favorites. And even though it’s smaller and less well-known than many other Maya sites, the discoveries made here prompted archaeologist David Stuart to call it the

“American equivalent to King Tut’s tomb.”

Your introduction to Palenque’s mountainside ruins begins with a  taxi ride up a narrow, zigzag road that ends in a small parking area clogged with trinket vendors and tour touts. But once through the gate all the hubbub ends, and a well-groomed, jungle path leads up to a mesmerizing view through the trees to the main plaza.

Lining the right side of the clearing is a series of terraces with steep stairs leading to temples which barely seem to be winning the battle against the rainforest’s towering trees and choking vines.

Directly in front of you is the creepy-sounding Temple of the Skull,  which is named for the carved skull at the base of the building. Experts claim that it’s the skull of a rabbit, but given its sinister look, I’m not buying it.

This part of Chiapas is one of the rainiest areas in Mexico and it shows on the facade of this temple. Compared to the rest of the ruins, this building doesn’t look like much. But an ancient grave discovered here contained a rich cache of 700 pieces of jade which has helped archaeologists unravel some of the mysteries of the ancient city.

At the end of this line of impressive temples is what’s recognized as the most famous building at the site: The Temple of the Inscriptions. It’s an outstanding Maya temple and the tourist anchor of the ruins. But what makes it exceptional is the 1952 discovery made here by Mexican archaeologist Alberto Ruz – who, BTW is buried under the tree across the way.

The initial discovery began with stone panels covered in hieroglyphs – 620 to be exact! The project morphed into a four-year excavation of a stairway, deliberately clogged with rubble, leading to a chamber with skeletons of sacrificed victims. Inside the well-hidden crypt was a grandiose, relief-carved sarcophagus containing the remains of Pakal the Great and a treasure trove of his funerary riches. Indiana Jones would be jealous, and the comparisons to King Tut are apt.

The other large building on the main plaza is the lower profile, larger footprint Palace. This royal residence is open to tourists, and after a climb up the not-too-grueling stairs it’s fun to wander the labyrinth of rooms and courtyards. It’s a rare chance to feel like an insect on an archaeological ant hill. The reward on the top level is a 360° view of the rest of the ancient city and the valley below.

Just east of the Palace and main square the footpath meanders through a gauntlet of local craftsmen hawking their wares, over a lovely mountain stream called the Rio Otulum, and up through the forest to a small hill with a trio of temples known as the “Palenque Triad.”

This group includes the Temples of the Sun, Cross, and Foliated Cross. There’s some disagreement about the purpose of the original buildings, and depending on which theory you like, they were either sanctuaries for the gods or steam baths for pregnant women; which should be an indicator of how many questions about the Maya remain unanswered.

If you want to see God L indulging his tobacco habit, you’ll have to hike up to the Temple of the Cross. You can’t miss it because it’s the one with the tallest, steepest set of stairs. And of course, stud that he is, he’s at the very top.

Each of the maya ruins we visited had its own unique feel. Palenque is smaller and has fewer temples than Uxmal and Chichen Itza, but the characteristic that sets it above the rest is its dramatic location. The hillside setting is breathtaking and the rainforest closing in all sides gives it a mysterious feel that was missing in the other ruins we visited. It truly is a gem in the jungle that shouldn’t be missed.

Happy Trails,
James & Terri

Tip for Visitors: After touring the ruins, hike down the jungle path to the museum at the bottom of the hill. It’s small, but has a reproduction of Pakal’s sarcophagus, informative exhibits, and an excellent collection of Maya artifacts.

45 thoughts on “The Ruins at Palenque: A True Jungle Gem

  1. Alie studied the Maya while in college in the 1960s — and almost everything she was taught is now known to be false. Your post makes me think it is time for us to revisit the subject.

    • Ray, as always, science moves on and new ideas abound. I think that because so many of these ruins are easily accessible and cheap to access, they get studied a good deal – particularly for US universties. And after our recent trip, I can wholeheartedly recommend a follow-up visit. ~James

  2. Wow, it is so green and beautiful. Do you know if the blue on the last picture, painted on part of the image is original to it? If it is, another Wow!

  3. God L should have known smoking cigars would stunt his growth and not help his looks.
    Hope you and Terrie both are well,would love to see you. Take care love .

    • Joyce, I guess that if you’re a god you don’t have to worry about health and looks, unlike the rest of us. We would like to see you guys as well and on our next trip down, we’ll get together. I hope you and Dascal are doing well and enjoying the summer. Love, JH

    • Susan, I loved the name “God L,” but don’t really understand why someone at some point didn’t come up with something a bit more creative. I also read that he’s the god of the underworld, so his bad habits are probably natural. 😉 ~ James

  4. Thanks for showing us the image of God L smoking his cigar, at least we didn’t have that formidable climb. Lovely photos and great commentary James & Terri hopefully we’ll get to see it ourselves someday.
    Leslie

    • Thanks Ben. And you’re right, we’re lucky to be able to visit places like Palenque. But, we never take for granted our ability to travel. Our philosophy is that we will always be able to stop traveling, but we won’t always be able to keep traveling. So, in the meantime, we’re going to keep at it. Thanks for continuing to follow along. ~James

  5. When my perennial travel buddy James and I were discussing about our future trip to Mexico, we were pondering which Maya sites to visit. For me Uxmal is on top of the list, while for him it’s Palenque. This post confirms that despite the latter’s location far from the Yucatan Peninsula, we really shouldn’t give it a miss. Even just by looking at your photos I can already imagine how magical this place must be.

    • Bama, I think that you’ll find Palenque worth the trip. And BTW, there’s a small airline that flies from Merida, Yucatao to Villahermosa in Tabasco. Then, you can catch a small bus to Palenque. As I said in the post, the ruins at Palenque have a totally different feel than Uxmal or Chichen Itza and it will round out your experience. Have a fun trip. ~James

  6. The rabbit skull is a bit creepy, but he has such lovely heart shaped eyes. If I can ever get Steve to Mexico, this is one of the places I’d love to see. Thanks for taking us along. Hope you and Teri are well.

    • Laura, we noticed the heart-shaped eyes, and you’ll be seeing the rabbit again next year in our hearts from around the world post. It’s sort of a mixed message, but it should add a bit of spice to the post. We are both fine, thanks, and hope that you and Steve are enjoying your summer in Alaska. It was 93° here today … lucky you. ~James

  7. Oh my gosh this looks magnificent!!! What a combination of incredible architecture, history and nature all rolled into one. Your photos are fabulous and I know if we got there we would love it. The “cigar” looks way more like some kind of pipe, no? Thanks for sharing.

    Peta

    • Peta, one thing that we learned about Maya art is that it’s very stylized and almost impossible to interpret. So on this one, I’ll have to defer to the opinion of the experts. While I was there, I had the thought of how ironic the use of tobacco is. Mesoamericans introduced tobacco to the rest of the world, and it became a worldwide habit. But, now that we know the health effects, I guess that the Maya had the last laugh. ~James

  8. I’ve known about Palenque for years but have never really pursued seeing it, making the Yucatan my Maya-viewing locale. Given our current proximity to Mexico and my husband’s frequent need to be there, perhaps this needs to be added to the list?! I love the smaller size as well as the usual embedding in the greenery, my favorite setting for ruins!

    • Lexie, Palenque town isn’t much to see, but the ruins definitely are worth the trip. There’s a flight from MEX to Palenque, but if you fly from Merida, you have to fly to Villahermosa and then bus or rent a car to Palenque. And we didn’t get to visit, but Bonampak, which has very famous Maya murals is relatively close by and may be of interest. I hope you can make it. ~James

  9. James if that skull is a rabbit then i would not want to seethe other animals of the forest let’s say that. As always I can count on yu to find the unusual or lesser known gems in any area. It looks as though you didn’t have a lot of crowds to contend with after making your way through the vendors. Nothing like a good slog to see the one thing most wanted on an outing. I shall keep this one in mind for mexican ventures in the future. Hoping you and Terri are both doing well.

    • Sue, rock climbers like you and Dave, unlike most folks who visit, will find the Maya temple steps a nice workout. I was determined to climb most of the temples that we saw, but every one had me huffin’ & puffin’ by the time I hit the top. But once I caught my breath, the views were worth it. As for the rabbit skull: not sure where that interpretation came from, but look again, because you will see this photo again in our “hearts from around the world” post. ~James

  10. Love the tale of the stogie smoking god! We took the ADO bus from San Cristobal de las Casas to Palenque and spent a few days exploring the not-so-impressive town and the over-the-top OMG Palenque ruins so I enjoyed taking this trip down memory lane with you. We even took pics posed next to prehistoric-size leaves like you did, James. 🙂 The whole site was breathtaking and we really enjoyed the fact that it was relatively undiscovered by the hordes. The jungle walk was lovely but what really stands out in my memory was hearing and seeing the howler monkeys for the first time. Spine-tingling amazing! Anita

    • Anita, we took a bus from Villahermosa to get to Palenque, and I totally agree about Palenque town. But, we did find a nice hotel on the main tourist street (you probably stayed on the same street) that really reminded us of Bali’s Monkey Forest Road. It was an island of green and quiet in an otherwise gritty, noisy town. We loved the Palenque ruins as well for all the reasons you mention. Our hike down the mountain to the museum added a bit of jungle authenticity as we got caught in a pretty good downpour, but the mountain stream wonderful. ~James

  11. Sounds like you found another gem in your travels. This place looks fascinating and as usual, you captured it well on camera. Hope you are both doing well.

    • We are well Darlene, thanks for asking. Before our research, strangely, we hadn’t heard of Palenque. But lots of folks say if you can only see one ruin, Palenque is the one to see, and we’re certainly glad to have discovered it. Thanks for stopping by. ~James

  12. This was a lovely post, which I read offline and admired the images.. the site reminds me a lot of Tikal, though it’s been a long time since I was there, but it too is surrounded by bosque… Thank you for allowing us to go there without having to leave home!

    • It’s good to hear from you Lisa, and thanks. Any recommended list of Maya ruins always includes Tikal, and the photos make the setting look very much like Palenque. I haven’t read how the Maya decided on locations for their cities, but it seems that rather than looking for necessities (water, etc), they relied on other criteria. It probably had something to do with religious significance or some alignment of the planets. Whatever the case, in places like Palenque and Tikal, it certainly made for beautiful scenery. I hope your healthy and doing well. ~James

  13. I think Palenque was our favorite archeological site as well. I loved the mysteriousness of it all, with the jungle pressing in from all sides. Thanks for sharing! It brought back some great memories.

    • LuAnn, Uxmal and Palenque were our favorites, and each for different reasons. I think that you’ve seen both, so I’m sure you can relate. We wouldn’t have missed either, but Palenque just had a special feel, and the jungle location was a big part of that. ~James

  14. Your close-ups put me right into this place — a place with daunting steps and an even more daunting skull face. But the more I look at the smoking god, the more I realize that civilizations may have more in common than we initially think. I loved your comment about the trinket vendors — they must be everywhere around the world! I would visit here in a heartbeat — beautiful gardens, ruins, and history. Thanks for sharing it with us.

    • Rusha, one thing about the vendors we saw in the Yucatan and Chiapas is they were very low key. Unlike, if memory serves me correctly, the ones you probably ran into in Morocco. I’ve always been interested in the Maya, and I got a major dose on our last trip. It’s wonderful to have such extensive ruins so close to the US. BTW, welcome home. ~James

      • It’s great to be home, but I do love seeing the people and places of the world! Glad your vendors were low key. Moroccan vendors weren’t nearly as aggressive as I read they would be. The worst was probably Nepal where two women selling necklaces walked behind us for an hour and a half!!! Yikes!

  15. You have inspired me! I have visited ruins in Peru, Guatemala, Belize and Honduras—but none in Mexico. Your photos are wonderful. And I agree—the setting is glorious.

    • Shelley, as I’ve said in earlier posts, the ruins we saw were easily accessible and the trip was a breeze – no jet lag, no long flights, inexpensive hotels and good food. Make your plans and go for it! ~James

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