Palenque is easily one of the most impressive archaeological site in all of Mexico. The rating was given for the extent to which the ruins are preserved as well as the sheer beauty of this site. What you will see is impressive, yet to date only a small percent of this 25 square mile site has been excavated.
About the Palenque Ruins
Palenque is thought to have its origins some time around the first century and continued to flourish until around 900 AD which corresponds to the time when the Yucatan was scourged by a drought that lasted for years, drying up even the largest lakes and killing everything that remained. In any event, while some may debate the demise of Palenque, it is the fact that it was uninhabited and therefore unknown to the Spaniards when they first arrived in the region that spared Palenque the fate of so many ancient places in Mexico. Their thousand plus year old city would have been stripped for its stones, the governors palace would use the steps and base of the old palace, but would replace everything else and a cathedral would have been erected on the pyramid where the natives used to worship.
For many years, the speculation as to what brought about the sudden end of what we call the classic Mayan empire continued to argue opinion over fact as there were no "facts". The "facts", however, are now a scientific certainty. This lush rain forest was once turned into a deserted waste land by a drought of epic proportions that lasted so long, everything that stayed in the region, died in the region. While this is not proof positive about what happened here, the most likely explanation is now that they suffered the same fate as their Maya neighbors in the Yucatan.
Anyway, now comes 1773 when a bored priest named Father Ramon de Ordonez y Aguilar in what is now San Cristobal de las Casas hears of this city from the Indians. He finds it to be what he considered to be the most beautiful ruins in Mexico . . . This peaks the curiosity of King Charles III of Spain who in 1787 sends Don Antonio del Rio. In typical Spanish fashion, he hires some local natives to tear through the site looking for treasure.
It is not the purpose of this site to give you a Mayan history lesson or to tell you of each and every aspect of Palenque that some have called an enigma because it raises more questions than it answers . . . However, we do suggest searching sites like wikipedia.org or getting a book on the Maya civilization which includes Palenque before you go.
Getting There :
The easiest way to get to Palenque is from Villa Hermosa. The city of Palenque is only an hour and a half away (140 km).
The not so easy way to get there is from San Cristobal de las Casas. You may read in some guide book that it is only 199 km and guess that it is only a couple of hours away . . . WRONG! The distance is correct, but the fact that you are traveling through on poorly maintained winding roads that make it impossible to average more than 20 to 25 MPH (no more than 30 to 40 KPH). I don't care if you have a 4wd vehicle, you can't make any speed with one hairpin turn after another. The only straight places are when you hit a small village that has speed bumps designed to flay the bottom of your car even if you are going the posted speed limit. -- Plan on 5 hours each way.
The City of Palenque :
It's small, old, has lots of flavor, some of the nicest people you could ever meet, a few decent hotels and great food.
The more adventurous will find the campgrounds on the road to the ruins extremely popular with Euro-hippies. . . COOL PEOPLE! If you are 18 to 35, and traveling alone, I would strongly suggest doing the campgrounds any day of the week . . . but the facilities are not up to your typical KOA standards . . . so up-tight anal retentive types suffering from cranial-rectosis are excluded from this suggestion.