In this guide, you will find all the necessary information for your Palenque Mayan Ruins visit. You will also learn why Palenque is so much more than just the ruins and why it’s worth staying for more than a day.
Palenque is often visited on a day trip (often from San Cristobal) or a quick one-night stopover. It is home to one of the best Mayan ruins in Mexico. But what many travellers don’t realize is it is also a lovely town, and it actually is one of Mexico’s pueblo magicos. It’s probably not the most magical of them all, but it’s definitely worth checking out, especially if you are planning to visit the ruins anyway.
I wasn’t planning on visiting Maya ruins in Palenque at all. I saw Tikal a few weeks earlier, and I thought not much would come close to it. But I had to stop at Palenque on my San Cristobal to Cancun route, so I thought I might as well book a couple of nights and see the ruins. Given the whole expedition is also much cheaper than Tikal or Chichen Itza, there was no excuse.
And I am so glad I went! Don’t hate me for it, but I actually liked Palenque more than Tikal. It felt more intimate, and the hike I found on my way back was gorgeous. I loved the feel and beauty of Palenque ruins, and probably because I managed to arrive before the crowds, I really felt the connection to the forgotten world.
What also came to me as a surprise was how much I actually liked the town of Palenque itself. In my usual manner, I don’t just satisfy myself with the main event. I go further and try to explore the less explored.
All guides and blog posts I found on the internet totally ignored the town of Palenque, so I had no idea what to expect. Palenque town surprised me, and in a good way.
While visiting Palenque, you can also take a couple of really cool trips to waterfalls, so it really is worth staying that one extra night.
What I really enjoyed about my stay in Palenque was how close to nature I was and how overwhelmingly stunning the surroundings were. The constant sound of howler monkeys (heard even when I was in the hostel), the neverending spread of lush jungle and the peacefulness of jungle walk – even if just for that, Palenque is worth visiting.
Due to all my findings, I decided to write this guide and give you a few insights into what you can expect when visiting and why it is worth visiting Palenque beyond the Maya ruins.
Table of Contents
Palenque Maya Ruins Overview
Palenque was a Maya city-state in southern Mexico, with its beginning dating from 226 BC. Its glory came to an end in the 8th century, and just like all other Maya states – Palenque was slowly abandoned and eventually overgrown by the jungle.
Discovered again in 1746 and since excavated and restored, Palenque is a medium-sized site, smaller than Tikal or Chichen Itza, with which towns had very close thighs. It is, however, considered one of the most important archaeological sites of the Mayan civilization. Palenque is known for being one of the best-conserved sites, and it contains some of the most exemplary architecture, sculptures and carvings that the Mayas produced.
Both, Palenque archaeological site and the national park are included on the UNESCO World Heritage list. Set in the jungle in the beautiful but lesser-known Mexican state of Chiapas, the site consists of 10 miles containing 200 architectural structures and constructions.
How to get to Palenque
It is the easiest to get to Palenque either from San Cristobal or Merida on ADO overnight busses. Although it doesn’t look so far, It takes around 12 hours to get to Palenque from San Cristobal because bus detours via Tuxtla and Villahermosa to omit the politically unstable territory.
But don’t worry. Because of that detour, taking an overnight ADO bus from San Cristobal to Palenque and the other way around is safe, and many travellers choose to take this bus every day. I do not recommend taking fast overnight private shuttle buses. ADO is your best bet!
Typically many tourists arrive in Palenque from Merida, Campeche or Cancun. If you travel from Cancun or Merida, I recommend taking an overnight bus as it is a pretty long journey. It takes at least 8 hours to get to Palenque from Merida and gruelling 14 hours from Cancun. 5 hours from Campeche.
If you are travelling from Mexico City, you can take a non-stop commercial flight into the Palenque airport – Thursdays and Sundays on Interjet Airlines.
The closest international airport to Palenque is in Villahermosa, from where you can take a taxi to the bus station and jump on a bus to Palenque.
It is very straightforward to get to the ruins once you are in Palenque, and there is no need to book a tour. You can catch a colectivo minivan from in front of the ADO bus station, which will take you directly to the park entrance. The journey costs MXN20 one way.
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Where to stay in Palenque
Strangely enough, I found booking perfect accommodation in Palenque a bit challenging. There are probably just around three feasible options that will give you a good social vibe, a hostel-like experience and semi to good quality. But I guess it is because not many travellers arrive in Palenque for a backpacking experience, and many don’t even stay the night as Palenque can be visited on a day trip.
If you are looking for a social hostel with a pool in the middle of the jungle and very close to Palenque Ruins – stay at Cabañas Kin Balam. The majority of the bus from San Cristobal was heading there so it will be a great place to meet other travellers. It is also very conveniently located near the national park and ruins. With the pool and large garden, this could be a great jungle break. However, please be aware that that hostel isn’t located in the town centre, but you can easily hop on a collectivo in case you need a supermarket or a bus station.
Casa Janaab Palenque is another popular option amongst backpackers. It is fantastically located 5 minutes walk away from ADO bus station and a big supermarket. You can also easily walk from there to Palenque town.
This hostel is a popular stopover for many Mexico and Latin America travellers, and it can get pretty social. The dorms and rooms are great, and I liked the kitchen too. Couple of things to keep in mind, though. There is not much of a common space outside of the garden, so if it rains, there is not a lot of room to hide, especially if you didn’t check in yet. You need to pay for a water refill, and if you want to stay at the hostel after the checkout, there is a fee (MXN70 when I stayed there). I wasn’t very impressed with that, but if you don’t mind, it is a great hostel to stay in Palenque.
There is also a super budget option in the form of Posada Nacha’n – Ka’anKa’an, which, in fact, I nearly booked when I was initially planning to stay only for one night. It has pretty good reviews for a price, and it could be a great budget option if you just need a place to crash for a night.
Important tip – unless you are driving or taking a private shuttle, be mindful that most likely you will arrive in Palenque early in the morning and leave late into the evening on the overnight bus. For this reason, choose your hostel carefully. I didn’t do my research properly, and it left a bad taste in my mouth. Choose a hostel that will allow for earlier check-in (i didn’t check in until 4 pm) and that will not charge for using their toilet or lockers after check out.
I still recommend taking an overnight bus even if you will end up waiting for your room. What is great about those departure/arrival times is that you will get a full day of exploring. But it would be great to be able to store your luggage without paying half of your accommodation fee. But I might be just picky here.
How to visit the Ancient Mayan Ruins of Palenque
First things first – arrive at the Palenque ruins as early as you can! The organized tours start arriving at around 10 am, so if you manage to get there at the opening time, you will have the place nearly to yourself. There were few people when I arrived, but it was nothing compared to what happened 2 hours later.
The Palenque National Park opens at 8:30 am and closes at 5 pm.
The easiest way of getting to Palenque ruins from town is by taking a colectivo minivan for MXN25 from in front of the ADO bus station. I waited maybe 10 minutes for mine, so they run pretty frequently. The one that you want will have a sign on the window saying ‘Ruinas’. It takes around 15 to 20 minutes to get there.
The collectivo will drop you at the entrance to the National Park. The ruins are located within the park so you will have to purchase both tickets, for the park and for the archaeological site – hence, you will have to stand in 2 queues. The entrance is very affordable, though. National Park entrance is MXN35 and the ruins MXN80, which comes to MXN115 ($5.60 / €5)
Your entrance ticket will include both access to the archaeological site as well as the museum. The museum is located just a few minutes after the park entrance, but I recommend visiting it on your way back. You do want to arrive at the ruins as early as you can.
If you just want to visit the ruins, don’t take a tour. It will be overpriced, and if you really want to, it’s possible to hire a guide for a short tour of the archaeological site right at the gate. For an English-speaking guide for a group of up to 7 people, you’ll pay around 1,600 MXN, so get the group together if that’s what ticks your fancy.
Only take an organized tour if you want to see Aqua Azul, the waterfalls Misol-Ha and having a guide explaining everything to you is very important for you. You can take this tour from Palenque.
If you just want to explore the Palenque ruins and take a nice hike around, you can easily do it alone without a guide. The Palenque archaeological site is much smaller than Tikal or Chichen Itza and can be walked around in about 2 hours.
Once at the site, you will have an opportunity to discover some notable buildings like the Temple of the Skulls, The Temple of the Inscriptions or the Palace, which was my personal favourite.
The Temple of the Inscriptions was built to contain the tomb of a Mayan king and is filled with inscriptions and portrayals of the Mayan world. This is the largest temple and the one that will immediately catch your attention as you enter the site.
The Palace, on the other hand, was where the Maya kings resided. It was built over several generations, with different kings adding their own modifications and extensions. It’s a maze of rooms, tunnels, chambers, plazas and viewpoints that I really enjoyed exploring.
For the best view over the park, head over to Grupo de las Cruces, a group of temples located on the higher slopes beyond the Palace.
The routes around the park are well-marked, and there is plenty of space to relax on the grass and have a picnic.
Once you are done exploring the ruins, make sure you take the jungle trek towards Hidden Palenque Ruins. On my way to the site, I passed the trek exit, and the lady guarding it told me the entrance was located at the main car park. I was super excited to make the trek. The entrance is not easy to find, though.
As you leave the ruins, keep to the left, and as the car park turns into the road, you will find a path to the left. Once there, you will see the sign for the Sandero Motiepa.
What a lovely hike that is! If you are a nature and adventure lover, you will love this walk. You can watch and hear several monkeys (especially spider monkeys and howler monkeys), and even some wild cats like a jaguar (that is, if you are lucky!)
You will walk past many streams and a few small waterfalls, and if you don’t mind treading over the mud, eventually you will get to Hidden Ruins, Queen’s Bath and Sombrillas waterfalls.
The route is muddy and slippery, so wear appropriate footwear. I wore my hiking sandals and really enjoyed washing my feet in fresh streams I found on my way back. I could not recommend this hike highly enough!
And on your way back visit the museum – Museo del Sitio Palenque. It is the Palenque archaeological site’s main museum. You can learn all about the rise and fall of Mayan civilization in Central America and admire many of the important archaeological discoveries removed from the site itself.
You can catch the same Colectivo bus back to Palenque from in front of the ticket shop. I was back in town well before 2 pm.
If you go early enough, you will be back in town and have enough time for a glass of wine or a coffee in the town.
The town of Palenque / the forgotten Pueblo Magico
I couldn’t find much information about the town itself so decided to explore it and find out if for myself.
I was surprised to find out that Palenque town is an actual pueblo magico, and I really enjoyed the afternoon I spent there. There are plenty of restaurants and bars as well as a local market where you can get your fruit and vegetables. Palenque is also very affordable (although a bit pricier than San Cristobal), and if you need to stock up on anything or just have a nice meal or cup of coffee – I recommend heading to town instead of staying in the hostel.
Other things to do and places to visit near Palenque
There are a few day trips you can take while in Palenque, and the most popular is a tour to Agua Azul Waterfall. You can easily get to Agua Azul by taking a colectivo from in front of the ADO bus station in Palenque. You need to catch colectivo to Ocosigno and ask the driver to drop you att at the waterfall. From there it is recommended to take a taxi to the entrance as the road is meant to be unsafe to walk alone. The colectivo and taxi should cost you around MXN100 one way. There is an MXN50 entrance fee to Aqua Azul. As the name would suggest, the water is a vibrant shade of blue and features several distinct levels of cascades. This breathtaking waterfall is surrounded by jungle andis definitely worth visiting!
Another popular waterfall trip is the Misol-Ha Waterfall. This one and aqua Azul are often done as one-day trips combined with Palenque ruins, but you can also visit it independently. Yet again, you would have to take a colectivo, but I have not done it, and I don’t know anyone who did, so comment below if you’d like to add any info here.
You can also visit the lesser-known ruins of Yaxchilan and Bonampak. This time it is recommended to take a group tour as those ruins are located in a ‘complicated’ part of Chiapas, and independent travel is not advised. You can book a tour here or ask at your hostel.
Is Palenque worth visiting?
If you are visiting Chiapas in Mexico, Palenque is definitely worth stopping by. Palenque is not only home to some of the most significant Mayan Ruins, but it is beautifully located in the midst of the Mexican jungle. With the town of Palenque offering a tranquil and affordable experience and outstanding waterfall trips on offer – Palenque will be a great addition to your Mexican trip!
That’s it, folks! Here is my guide and everything you need to know about visiting Palenque and the Mayan Ruins. Please let me know if I missed anything important or if you have any recommendations.
Until then, happy travelling!
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Where to next?
If you are wondering if Merida is worth visiting, click here to find out! And if you are looking for a complete guide to Valladolid, you will find it here!
If you are ending your trip in Cancun and wondering if Cancun is even a good stop for budget backpackers, read about what I think about it here.
My favourite Travel Resources
- For most of my accommodation, I use Bookings.com and Hostel World. With both booking platforms, you will often get free cancellations and access to tons of reviews. Read them! You will also get the most extensive selection of all types of accommodation. I hardly ever look elsewhere. If you are travelling in Asia – Agoda is definitely worth checking out!
- Make sure you download Google Maps and, for each new destination, download an offline map of your location and surrounding area. This way, even without the internet or Wi-Fi, you will be able to get to navigate around the town.
Moovit is also an excellent and very underrated travel and journey-planning app. It works great in many countries and will show you all possible routes by public transport, including the timetables.
123Go — Great for tickets for trains, buses, ferries and charters in Southeast Asia! The best way to buy your ticket for the overnight Bangkok train! Rome2rio – Another great journey-planning app. If your way of travel is mainly public transport – you will use this app for sure!
The travel insurance I use is Heymondo, and their plan suits me perfectly. They have clear policies with no deductibles, the price is excellent for what they offer and the price doesn’t go up when you are over 30 years old. They have a dedicated, easy-to-use app and free assistance calls.
I can get a cover for a month or three months and I know I can travel with peace of mind and get the best product for my money. And it also covers COVID-19.
- I carry two debit cards with me. Given I don’t have a permanent country of residence, Revolut and Wise work fantastically. In case one gets frozen, stolen or simply lost, I have a backup. The great thing about both cards is that you can freeze them straight from your phone and transfer money between them in case you need to. You will also get a great exchange rate and create separate foreign currency accounts.
- I booked most of my tours via either Get Your Guide or Viator. You can also book locally, but I advise you to ask around and follow the local recommendations.
For more travel tips and recourses, visit Pati’s Travel Tips page!