Pre-Hispanic City and National Park of Palenque

By Megan

What is the Pre-Hispanic City and National Park of Palenque?

The Pre-Historic City of Palenque was once one of the most important cities of the Mayan Empire and evidence suggests it was a powerful capital city probably around 500 A.D. What makes the site so delightful to visit is that it lies smack dab in the middle of a fertile and lush jungle. The wild vegetation actually reclaimed and helped preserve the ancient city of Palenque. Only 10% of the once-grand city can be seen today; the rest remains hidden by the jungle overgrowth.

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A stepped pyramid at Palenque, looking up the stairway that goes up its middle. At the top, a small building. Both sides of the pyramid are still overgrown by the jungle.

Why is the Palenque a UNESCO site?

According to the UNESCO World Heritage website, “The archaeological site of Palenque in the state of Chiapas is one of the most outstanding Classic period sites of the Maya area, known for its exceptional and well conserved architectural and sculptural remains.”

Another highlight is the site “has a planned urban layout, with monumental edifices and some of the largest clearings found in all the Maya area. Numerous residential areas with habitation units, funerary, ritual and productive activity areas were placed around the administrative and civic ceremonial centre.”

UNESCO also praises the quality of the Mayan art at Palenque: “The expanded interior space, multiple openings, and the use of galleries give the architecture a rare elegance, richly decorated with sculptures and stucco of a type never previously seen.” The interior reliefs teach us much about Mayan rituals and beliefs.

As you can see, this Mayan site was a significant place in the Maya Empire.

A stepped pyramid with an altar on top at Palenque. The building on top is small and plastered white. It's not clear whether it's original or not. The stone pyramid is barely visible, covered almost entirely with grass, and surrounded by jungle.

What can you expect on a visit to the Pre-Hispanic City of Palenque?

The Palenque Archaeological Zone is beautiful, especially in the early mornings when the fog still covers many of the sacred temples. You can actually feel the mysticism walking through the ruins. The site is well laid out and there are informational signs for many of the buildings.

The buildings on the site include a palace, several stepped pyramidal temples, tombs, and many smaller temples.

  • The palace: a group of buildings on a raised platform right in the center of the archeological zone. It includes various ceremonial and meeting rooms, and a tall observation tower, as well as an aqueduct.
  • The Temples of the Cross: a group of temples on top of step pyramids.
  • One of the more unique structures is the Temple of the Inscriptions: where some of the most important writings of the Mayan culture were found. Supposedly, the writing found here told of events that took place 1 million years ago with predictions that go into the future to the year 4722.
  • An assortment of other temples and tombs, as well as a ball court and a bridge.

Make sure to allot enough time to appreciate the magic of this place. There is also a museum included in the ticket price that is packed with intricate artifacts.

After visiting the Pre-Colonial City of Palenque walk along one of the jungle trails. Some of the paths are free, or opt to go in with a guide deeper into the jungle.

Part of the "palace" complex shows 3 buildings, one story, built of stone, standing on a a stepped platform, also of stone.

Is Palenque worth visiting?

Absolutely! Palenque is worth visiting and oftentimes a highlight for travelers visiting Chiapas. Most people visiting Mexico skip over Chiapas, which is filled with incredible nature areas, unique waterfalls, Mayan cities scattered throughout the jungle, small communities that are still practicing ancient Mayan rituals, and magical villages, like San Cristobal de las Casas.

What sorts of travelers would like Palenque?

Any type of traveler will love visiting Palenque. Cultural travelers will love the ancient city that is packed with Mayan ruins and art. History buffs will love the on-site museum and taking a guided tour. Intrepid travelers will love climbing the view points and walking down to the small waterfall on-site. Those seeking more of an adventure can take a full-blown jungle tour of the National Park, or walk along the well-marked wilderness trails.

Tips for Visiting Palenque?

Palenque is a LONG day trip from San Cristobal de las Casas. In fact, most tours depart around 3 or 4 a.m. and don’t return back to the city until late into the evening. Expect to spend only a couple hours at the site and more time commuting back and forth.

It’s best to reach Palenque City via the night ADO bus, which takes a longer, but safer route. Oftentimes the road to Palenque can be blocked, due to disputes between the government and the autonomous communities.

Text: Pre-Hispanic City and National Park of Palenque, Mexico
Images: Above, a mostly overgrown step pyramid with a small temple on top; below, three small buildings on top of a large stone platform.

Once in Palenque, plan a full day to visit the Pre-Hispanic City and National Park of Palenque. Over the next few days, explore some of the popular waterfalls like Misol-Ha, Agua Azul, or Roberto Barrios. If the jungle is calling to you, book a night tour.

From Palenque, it’s possible to visit a few more incredible Mayan sites, like Bonampak with colorful murals, or Yaxchilán, which can only be reached via a 40-minute boat ride.

Palenque City warrants at least a few days, especially for those who love nature and are intrigued by the Mayas.

Think about visiting other Mayan ruins on the region: Chichen-Itza and Uxmal.

Where is Palenque?

The UNESCO Site of Palenque is less than 15 minutes from Palenque City. While the modern city isn’t much to see, there are many hotels, guesthouses, and places to stay on the stretch of road to the National Park, with a few lodging options within the park.

Book your accommodations using the map below:


There is an international airport just 6 km out of town. Multiple tours depart daily from San Cristobal de las Casas to Palenque. San Cristobal de las Casas lies over 200 km to the south of Palenque, but is a popular place to base in Chiapas, since it is an official Mexico “magic village.”

For more information about the Pre-Hispanic City and National Park of Palenque, its opening hours and admission fees, see its official government website here (in Spanish – use Google Translate).

Have you been to Palenque? If so, do you have any additional information or advice about this UNESCO World Heritage site? Please add your comments below!

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