Tracing the Footsteps of the Ancient Mayans at Palenque

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Temple of the Inscriptions

Set deep in the jungle of Chiapas, Mexico, Palenque is one of the most impressive Mayan ruins, with temples dating back to 100 BC.

I was 15 years old when I first felt the rush of discovering an ancient artifact. I had joined the University of Alabama’s Museum Expedition – a hands-on archaeology dig to find the trail of explorer Hernando de Soto. On a sweltering summer day, I kneeled over a pit of red earth, and with the tip of my trowel peeled up a triangular shard from a smashed pot. I held the muddy thing in my palm, and it was beautiful. No, it wasn’t exactly gold from Tutankhamen’s tomb, but it felt electric to unearth a possible clue to the past.

At the age of 40, I felt the same rush as I passed through the tree line of a Mexican jungle to see the vast green fields and massive temples of Palenque, a Maya ruin dating back to 100 BC. A light mist fell as I gazed at the sprawling village of stone structures surrounded by a thick curtain of trees. Though I was following in the footsteps of thousands of tourists who visit this ruin each year, it felt to me like a fresh discovery – as if I were one of the Spanish explorers that encountered Palenque in the 1700s.

Palenque felt new in part because the ruins are tucked away in the foothills of the Tumbalá Mountains, in the state of Chiapas. The towering rainforest canopy lords over even the tallest structure, the Temple of the Inscriptions, which rises 66 feet. Encircling the entire Palenque compound is a seemingly impenetrable wall of dense brush and massive mahogany trees.

As I walked farther across Palenque’s main plaza, my sense of discovery waned a bit as I passed locals peddling souvenirs laid out on bright blankets. They can give the place a bit of a touristy feel, but that quickly disappeared as I climbed the steep steps of the Temple of the Inscriptions to view hieroglyphs etched into rock panels around 692 A.D.

A wonderful aspect of Palenque is that visitors are afforded great access to the ruins, and there are very few boundaries blocking you from touching and feeling things forged centuries ago. The structures at Palenque house a great number of etchings and inscriptions that record details about rituals, important events, daily life and the succession of rulers. Ever since 1952, when Mexican archaeologist Alberto Ruz Lhuillier found the burial tomb of ruler Pakal the Great in the Temple of Inscriptions, Palenque has been one of the most studied archaeological sites in North and South America.

Climbing the Palace at Palenque

Sculpture of the Maize God

As I climbed the steps of the ruin’s main Palace – a sprawling complex of stone buildings, hallways and courtyards – I paused to study a carving of the Maize god. From my Palace perch, I looked back over my shoulder to see the forested plain below and imagined it dotted with fields of corn – the staple crop of the Maya people. I could also imagine other rituals that took place where I stood, including human sacrifice. Our guide explained that individuals chosen to move on to paradise first had their bodies cleaned in a steam bath. Fortunately, they were then given alcohol and other mind-altering substances so they would be unconscious before their heart was removed and consumed in front of a massive crowd below. As I tried to envision the scene, a breeze blew up, and I felt a shiver run down my spine.

I continued through the Palace, ducking into the dark corridors that once served as steam baths fed by the five streams flowing around the Palenque compound.  Pale light filtered into other dark hallways that held large stone slabs. These platforms once served as beds for Mayan royalty, and I wondered if these cool chambers provided some relief from the balmy conditions outside. I stepped out to stand atop a stone ledge and studied the surrounding forest. In the near distance, I could see a hill poking up like a knot on the landscape, and a tour guide said it was likely another structure not yet excavated. Remarkably, only about 10 percent of the suspected ruins have been unearthed, and there might be a thousand temples and other structures lying hidden in the jungle.

No one is sure why, but around 800 A.D., the Mayans abandoned Palenque and migrated to the Yucatan Peninsula. The general consensus is that Palenque was sacked in the 700s and lost its position as a seat of power. By the time the Spanish arrived in the area in the 16th century, the Mayans were long gone.

Since the 1950s, many teams of anthropologists and archaeologists have ventured to this place to study the Mayan culture. And, yet, despite the passage of time, there are still things here left to be discovered.

Inside the Palace Complex

I thought about that as I shouldered my daypack to descend the Palace steps. And when I hopped down to the first stone, I felt like I was 15 all over again.

Traveler’s Notebook:

Getting there: The best way to access Palenque is via the Villahermosa airport, which is about a 2-hour drive from Palenque. Many people recommend staying in the village of El Panachan, which lies near the entrance to Palenque National Park. El Panchan is not only much closer than the actual town of Palenque, but can also be more affordable. A favorite spot to stay is Margarita and Ed’s. You’ll find more info on transportation and lodging at www.palenquepark.com and www.travelchiapas.com.

When to visit: Since Palenque lies in a rainforest, it rains year-round. But a good time to visit is during the dry season, from November to April. It’s probably best to avoid visiting during the rainy season, from June through August.

Essential gear: The mosquitoes can chew you up any time you’re near the jungle, so bring a good repellent. (Click here to read our story on choosing a repellent). Also, you’re likely to encounter rain, so carry a light rain jacket or poncho, plus a daypack or other gear to keep your camera protected from moisture.

Souvenirs: At the parking areas for Palenque National Park, locals have set up a bustling hamlet of shops. You might want to bring a little extra money to purchase souvenirs, or get a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice.

About The Adventure Post

Veteran journalists Wendy Geister and Marcus Woolf launched The Adventure Post to share their passion for travel and outdoor adventure. They chronicle their journeys to inspire others to explore and provide insider tips that steer people toward richer travel experiences. The Adventure Post also includes contributions from other experienced travelers, as well as detailed gear reviews and reports on trends in outdoor recreation and adventure travel.