Palenque is not a really cute place, but it has all the services you will need when visiting the ruins of Palenque. The colonial houses are colourful enough, with buildings in coats of vivid yellow, orange, and blue paint.
The name Palenque comes from Spanish and means 'wood stake fence'. It is a literal translation of the Ch’ol word otulún which means fenced or fortified place. The modern town was founded by the Spanish in the 16th century to congregate the Ch’ol indigenous families that were dispersed in this part of the Lacandón rainforest. The ancient Mayan site of Palenque was unknown to the Spanish when they founded the town, but since its discovery in 1740 by Father Antonio Solís, it has been important to the city and municipality both culturally and economically.
The area has a significant indigenous population, mostly of the Ch'ol people, a Mayan descendant. The city is the only urban area in a municipality of over 600 communities and it is surrounded by rainforest.
The main tourist attraction is the archeological site of Palenque, located 7km from the city, and the Palenque Museum, just before the ruins. The site is part of the Maya Route, which also includes sites such as Yaxchilán, and Bonampak in the Lacandón jungle. Locals have opened a string of restaurants and lodgings on and around Avenida Juárez. Other hotels and hostels, mainly cabaña style, are on the main road to the ruins.
The first building you notice on your arrival at the large roundabout, is a mural of a Maya ancient scribe (left photo below). The ancient Palenque city could be nicknamed the 'Scribe City', if you ask me, because there are so many hieroglyphs preserved there. And when you get to the main square, zócalo, you can't miss the green building of the town hall (right photo below).
Adjacent to the town hall is a semi-pedestrian zone (we actually arrived on this road), a quiet street but if you are looking for a restaurant, it is better to go to one on the side of the main plaza. There is also a pedestrian zone but on our visit in April 2017 we found it absolutely empty.
In Ha' Ki' restaurant we enjoyed the company of Cuauhtémoc. No, not the last Aztec king, but the owner of the restaurant. He has an Aztec name because he is from Mexico City and moved here a couple of years ago to open a restaurant, with his Venezuelan wife. Needless to say, they served us perfect coffee. From Chiapas (not Venezuela), equally good. And not Nescafé, as so often happens when you are on the road in Chiapas. The locals do not always offer their excellent Chiapas coffee; you need to specifically ask for it.
We did find some life around the main plaza, and certainly around this yellow building (photo on the left) . Cuauhtémoc's wife told us that it was the first primary school of the town, and there are plans to make it into a museum, but currently it is used as the government tax office.
However, behind the building there is a little fair and that is where all the families with children gather.
The schools are no longer bilingual in Palenque; children are taught in Spanish only and have to learn the Ch'ol language at home from the family. This is not the case in the mountain villages of the Chiapas highlands, where they still teach the relevant Mayan language, either Tzotzil, Tzeltal, Ch'ol or Lacandón, as we discovered when driving from San Cristóbal de las Casas to Palenque across the Chiapas highlands. Saying so, their teachers are often not qualified, which is now the government requirement, and as a result, the government is not paying them (the cause of many demonstrations). This is the reason why the Zapatistas block the road through the mountains (in the village of Ocosingo) and collect money from the drivers as a 'toll fee', as we also experienced (not a pleasant encounter but not dangerous, if you are prepared to pay 200 pesos). You are certainly bound to see some Lacandón Maya by the ruins where they offer their traditional bows and arrows and even a tour in the jungle around the ruins, just outside the town.
We saw another crowd of people around the church, as there was a service there when we arrived (at 7pm). We were lured to peep in by the sound of the church bell.
The city was founded in 1567 by Fray Pedro Lorenzo de la Nada, who in 1573 gave the community three bells as a symbol of the foundation; of these bells only the largest is preserved today. It is considered as the only witness to the town's foundation. Generally speaking, you definitely feel you are in a village, despite the town status. And that has its own charm.
How to get there:
Palenque airport has direct flights from Mexico City with Interjet and Tuxtla Gutiérrez with Ka'an Air. The airport in Villahermosa is about 2.5 hours away by road.
There are two bus stations in town, just 2 minutes apart on foot. There are many buses daily from San Cristóbal de las Casas (five hours), Tuxtla Gutiérrez, (six hours), Villahermosa (2.5 hours), Mérida (8 hours), Campeche (5 hours), Cancún (13 hours). Daily (one or two buses) also ply from Mexico City (16 hours), Oaxaca (15 hours), Playa del Carmen (12 hours), and Tulum (12 hours).
You can also take a colectivo (small van) from Tuxtla Gutierrez bus station to San Cristóbal de las Casas (2 hours/50 Pesos), then to Ocosingo (3 hours/65 Pesos) and finally from there to Palenque (3 hours/ 60 Pesos).
Mix & Match:
The choices are obvious: Palenque ruins, Palenque Museum. If you have more than one day, add the waterfalls of Agua Azul or Misol Há (you can do both waterfalls in one day). If you have another day or two, travel to the ruins of Bonampak and Yaxchilán. You could do a walk in the Lacondón jungle, stay at Lacanjá where you can walk or kayak and even see the Lacanjá ruins after your swim at the waterfall of Moctuniha.