Beautiful and mysterious Palenque in the jungles of southern Mexico's Chiapas State symbolizes the might and majesty of the Maya civilization at its peak. To walk the hallowed ruins is a step back in time to the days of the Jaguar sun...
There are special places you can visit the world over, mystical and mysterious locations that some call "places of power", where the Earth's energy seems to ebb and throb like the distant memories of a time long gone - yet ever present and just a half step away.
Palenque, carpeted by a sea of green jungle and clothed in history and legend, is a stark reminder of how early American civilization flourished for hundreds of years in this lush, tropical region of southern Mexico. Located in the foothills of the Tumbalá mountains of Chiapas, Palenque is situated on the edge of a dense rainforest that surrounds the Usumacinta River valley. In ancient times it was home to the jaguar. According to Maya myth, in fact, it is the place where the sun descends into the underworld, the realm of the jaguar. Jaguars still roam the forests of Chiapas in fact, one of the few regions where wildlife populations remain relatively steady.
Regardless how many times you visit this tropical and eerie environment, like a drug, it is immediately intoxicating, surreal, and even addictive. You could close your eyes and still sense the power of your surroundings. There is electricity to the air, a sense of wonder and awe when you walk into the ruins of the ancient city.
Palenque is still being excavated, but already researchers have uncovered tombs of ancient leaders and rulers and are uncovering more of the mysteries and enigmas surrounding the ancient civilizations of the Maya. Some of the site is roped off to visitors as work to uncover the hidden treasures, reclaimed by nature over centuries of disuse, continues. Only a relatively small number of the estimated 500-plus buildings have been excavated.
But those that you can see are stark and dramatic, monuments to the greatness of the builders and engineers who put this city together. The main, and most attractive ruin is the Templo de las Incripciones (Temple of Inscriptions). This is the first structure you will see as you climb the hill up to the old city.
Adjacent to this Temple, you'll find Templo XIII and Templo de las Calaveras (Temple of Skulls) - both are ancient burial Temples - the former was only recently discovered (1993).
El Palacio (The Palace) is an interesting and intricate maze of courtyards and corridors leading into rooms and includes the distinctive Tower - once opened to visitors - but now closed. Other Temples and structures of interest include Templo del Jaguar (Temple of Jaguar), Templo de la Cruz (Temple of the Cross), Templo del Sol (Temple of the Sun), Templo XIV, and Templo de la Cruz Foliada (Temple of the Foliated Cross). There is also an interesting museum on site which records Palenque's history, as well as artifacts from the site.
Palenque began as a farming hamlet, perhaps some time around 100 BC, that is, during the so-called Formative Period [2500 BC - 300 AD].
Over the Early Classic Period [300 - 600 AD] the village grew, and in the Late Classic [600 - 900 AD] became the city which ruled much of what is now the states of Chiapas and Tabasco. At that time, Palenque's development peaked, as evidence in the complexity of its architecture, ceramics, and particularly its inscriptions.
The interpretation of Palenque's inscriptions and other archaeological information has provided us with the names of its rulers and other leading figures. Moreover, even birthdays, marriages, and the start and finish of armed conquests can be dated; and Palenque's alliances have been pinpointed and its rituals and the accuracy of its calendar definitely established.
The site was already long abandoned when the Spanish arrived in Chiapas. The first European to visit the ruins and publish an account was Father Pedro Lorenzo de la Nada in 1567; at the time the local Chol Maya called it Otolum meaning "Land with strong houses", de la Nada roughly translated this into Spanish to give the site the name "Palenque", meaning "fortification".
Palenque produced what is arguably the best-known Maya king, Pacal the Great, who ruled from 615 to 683, and left one of the most magnificent tomb-works of ancient Mesoamerica, beneath the Temple of Inscriptions. This is a grand temple atop a step pyramid dedicated in 692; inside is an elaborate, long hieroglyphic text carved in stone detailing the city's ruling dynasty and the exploits of Pacal the Great. A stone slab in the floor could be lifted up, revealing a passageway (filled in shortly before the city's abandonment and reopened by archeologists) to a long interior stairway leading back down to ground level and the shrine/tomb of the semi-divine Pacal. Over his crypt is an elaborate stone showing him falling into the underworld.
In the last 15 or 20 years, a great deal more of the site has been excavated, but currently, archaeologists estimate that only 5% of the total city has been uncovered.
If there is but one Mayan site you visit in this lifetime, Palenque qualifies as a good candidate. Visit Palenque and discover the might of the Maya!