Hola! I’m super excited to tell you about my adventure in Palenque, some of the most amazing Maya ruins in Mexico, dating back to 200 AD. Those of you that know me are aware that I grew up wanting to be a flight attendant! I did want to get a degree first though (just in case my career airline ever went belly up) and I thought it’d be wise to have a back up plan. I wanted to study something I could use when I was traveling so I majored in Cultural Anthropology with an emphasis in Maya Civilization Archaeology. I’m going to do my best to give you a flight attendant’s guide instead of an archaeologist’s guide to Palenque. What I mean by that is, I’m going to give you the basics of why to add Palenque to your travel bucket list. If I get enough feedback though, I’d love to write a second, more in-depth post, diving into some of the amazing artefacts, temples and inscriptions that you can find at Palenque.
What/Where is Palenque?
(For all you non-Spanish speakers, this is pronounced pah-leyn-kay)
Palenque is an ancient Maya site located in the Chiapas (southern) region of Mexico.
Why is it special?
King Pakal, once ruler of Palenqeue, was the longest reigning ruler in Mayan history, 80 years! You can witness the majesty of what he reigned over, the temples still awe-inducing in their majesty. Even more incredible is that Palenque has so many inscriptions and stelae that archaeologists haven’t even been able to decipher them all yet. That is absolutely mind-blowing! Inscriptions not your thing? Palenque’s white, limestone temples peek through lush jungle and glitter in the sun, demanding their greatness shall not be forgotten, making the Palenque temples amongst the most iconic and magnificent in the realm of the Maya.
I have been to many Mesoamerican ruins, Toltec, Zapotec, Olmec, Maya, Aztec, and Palenque still holds a special place in my heart.
Why is it my favorite?
Palenque is much unreconstructed compared to other ruins like Chichen Itza, which is cool, but disappointing as ruins because you feel like you’re walking onto the set of a postcard. Other ruins like Teotihuacan are mostly reconstructed as well, but still grand enough to demand a visit, check out my post on climbing the pyramids there.
You arrive at the entrance of Palenque, walking past locals trying to sell thing to tourists, and you catch your first glimpse of the Temple of Inscriptions. You’re transported. I don’t care if there’s one hundred other tourists there, or you have the place to yourself, it’s impossible to step on to the park grounds and witness that first sight of Palenque’s white temples peeking through the jungle, haze hugging the city like a mystical barrier, and not feel as if you’ve been transported in time.
Get past your awe and explore the park on foot. I recommend not visiting with a group because there is so much to navigate, including jungle where you’ll find more temples and buildings that haven’t even begun to tell their stories, held captive by hundreds of years of jungle, winding their tentacles around the limestone. Hike to the top of the temples and sit. Sit for a moment and listen to the monkeys clamoring in the surrounding jungles and wonder if this is where someone got the idea of King Louie, guarding an ancient city. Or imagine ancient life if you can.
Or take a selfie (preferably after said introspective wondering).
We’ve established that this place is incredible, but how do you get there?
Not easily. Unless you fly, but that’s no fun…said the flight attendant. ; ) Part of what makes Palenque so cool is that it’s in the middle of nowhere, surrounded on all sides by jungle. Rather than fly, (this was a backpacking tip after all) I opted for a fifteen hour bus ride from Oaxaca. That’s right… fifteen hours! Experience the real Mexico, I thought. Experience, I did!
Let me begin by giving you a bit of my travel background so that you don’t think
I recommend this to everyone. If you are an experienced or at least semi-experiences traveler, I do recommend traveling by road or bus because it allows you to see more of the country. If you’re anywhere that has warnings or advisories (and sometimes Mexico does), and you are a novice traveler, air travel might be safer and less stressful for you.
I have been traveling forever since I grew up with airline travel benefits and had already done much solo backpacking across the world as a woman. On top of that, I’m semi-fluent in Spanish, so I was comfortable getting information when things went wrong and how to find my way. Also, some of my family live in Mexico and my aunt (who does humanitarian work there) keeps me pretty appraised of struggles in different regions. For these reasons, I felt comfortable back packing through Mexico for a month.
When things do go wrong, it makes for the best stories!
And so with my tale of getting to Palenque…
If you’ve read my post on a Flight Attendant’s Tips to Air Travel, you’ll know that I always have alka seltzer in my purse in case of a rough flight, or let’s face it- a hangover. I bet you can already sense the ominous tone and where I’m going with this. But Jaye, did you use your own air travel tips for the bus ride? *Face palm* That would be a no. There were so many flight attendant fails during this bus ride that I can not begin to tell you. But I will.
From Oaxaca, Palenque by way of San Cristobal de las Casa (also a cool place) is about fifteen hours. At least six hours of that is through mountains for those of you that get car sick (like me). See where this is going? Those of you that have traveled around Mexico much will know that quite frequently, you’ll see traffic stops and trucks full of men armed with gigantic guns. I’m not a gun aficionado, but they’re basic automatic rifles that you see in movies like SWAT. There’s no need to freak out if you see these on the road, and sometimes they’ll even come aboard. You do however, when traveling anywhere, need to be aware of your belongings because tourists are always victims of petty theft.
On this trip, I was traveling my grandma, a gypsy at heart, who had inspired all of her children to be travel addicts. Since we were traveling during the rainy season, she had her favorite yellow rain coat. Our family is from Seattle, so we take rain coats pretty seriously. We both wore our coats on the bus, and placed our backpacks at our feet so that we had all of our belongings on us. Halfway through the mercilessly bumpy ride, we were both exhausted (there’s no sleeping on this overnight ride) and feeling quite green around the gills. Finally, sensing disaster impending, I made my way up the bouncy aisle to tell the driver that my grandma (and probably I) was about to be sick. He then told me (in unimpressed Spanish) when the next stop was. Grand…
Flight Attendant Travel Tip: Always travel with a sick sack 🙂
My grandma very discreetly removed her rain coat and got sick into the coat pocket in the most lady-like fashion that I’ve ever seen someone be ill. We then twisted up the coat so nothing could spill, and put it in the overhead bin. My grandma contested a bit, preferring to hold onto it rather than place it where someone could steal it. My reply was that it was only a rain coat and nothing was valuable in it so no one would take it. Feeling nauseous myself, I wasn’t super excited to have said coat on our person. Grandma looked at me with a calm expression that said something like, “I’ll probably never see this coat again.” I on the other hand, assured myself that would not be the case, because the coat was right above us in the bin, and who would steal a bright yellow, vomit-soiled rain coat. By the next stop, my grandma’s favorite rain coat was gone. The next six hours of mountain-hugging roads were the most miserable of any road trip I’ve ever it couldn’t take away our excitement to arrive in Palenque.
But travel is magical…and wouldn’t you know it…the rain that trickled arrived at our destination, subsides not long after we stepped foot at Palenque. : )
As a matter of fact, you’ll see by my pictures that I was wearing shorts and a tank top and my cheeks look quite flushed. Being in the middle of the jungle at the ruins of Palenque is the sweatiest I have ever felt. The temperature probably wasn’t too high, but the humidity was nuts.
But it never once lessened the awe I felt at being there. Palenque is special because you can climb the stairs of the temples and walk through ancient tunnels and into dark, limestone corridors where locals, maybe even Kind Pakal walked. Temple is amazing. I’ll never forget doing that climb with my grandma and just resting on the limestone at the top, gazing over the ancient city.
Flight Attendant Travel Tip: Beware of Monkeys and Bats 🙂
Wander the grounds, get lost in the corridors, and jungle paths. You’ll find colorful stelae, hidden temples and even waterfalls back in the jungle outskirts of the main landing at Palenque.
The Maya ruins at Palenque need to be on your travel bucket list because:
- History at it’s finest! More stelae and inscriptions than archaeologists even have time to decipher
- Many real ruins on site, left as they were found and minimally maintained
- Not too crowded (compared to sites like Tulum or Chichen Itza)
- You can actually walk through most of the corridors and hike the temple stairs for a view
- Experience the jungle, howlers moneys and all!
- Palenque has many amazing waterfalls and sacred cenotes
Getting to Palenque is not for the faint of heart, but experiencing this ancient city will be one of the most vivid travel experiences you’ll ever have. Add the ancient Maya ruins of Palenque to your travel bucket list. You won’t be sorry.
So, have you ever had one of those travel experiences where everything goes wrong, but it makes a funny story to tell after?
The Luv Aviatrix
Thinking of having a Palenque adventure of your own? Pin this for later 🙂
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