From Merida, the bus passed through variable scenery from the murky coastal greys of the Gulf of Mexico, to the vibrant shopfronts of beach towns, and finally to the richly verdant, rolling landscape surrounding Palenque.
The enchanting ruins of Palenque are completely different to most of the bigger ruins you’ll find in the flat jungle plains of the Yucatan peninsula, including Chichen Itza. Set among lush forest over undulating landscape, this site displayed pure Mayan architecture. There are no aggressive Toltec influences here.
Yet given how enchanting the landscape and ruins are, it’s amazing they’re not more internationally renowned. In fact, I’d barely heard of Palenque before embarking on my continental American trip.
So I’m just going to assume you know as little as I did before my visit. So here’s a bit of a history lesson:
Whilst the area was first settled in 100BC, the city of Palenque grew steadily until it became a Mayan powerhouse between 600 and 900AD.
Today, archaeologists have located some 4,500 buildings in the precinct, although few of them have been excavated thanks to forestry protection laws.
Our little tour group hired an enthusiastic guide, Raul, who told us about the elite who controlled the area and whose power was passed down through the family. Their residence was the palace, El Palacio.
Raul’s descriptions of the art-cum-propaganda adorning the palace and funerary temples brought the now crumbling stucco artwork back to life. He explained the significance of each carving, how each one showed the leader’s attempt to legitimise his rule by lauding his successes and ridiculing his enemies.
When left alone, we explored the site thoroughly, intoxicated by the surrounding forest that has steadily reclaimed the land.
The density of the forest is perhaps the single most marvellous miracle about Palenque. When the Mayans occupied this area, the land became serious overpopulated and prolific deforestation led to the abandonment of the city.
Yet where once the ground was parched and barren, now rainforest has made the most impressive of comebacks, an optimistic testimony to the persistence of nature as well as to the antiquity of the ruins.
The Residential Zone
To get to the residential zone, we walked past tumbling waterfalls, ducked to avoid stiff overhanging vines, and tried to find the howler monkeys who emitted low growls around us.
The theme of la zona residencia – the first I’d seen of Mayan origin – was humble simplicity, the buildings meagre, the rooms pokey.
Nature displayed its dominance in full here, the bricks murky green with moss, the gargantuan roots of towering trees extending spider-like over the crumbling ruins, pushing their way into the open cavities of what were once people’s living spaces.
Visitors were scarce and at times, I had entire ruins to myself. It lent a haunting quality to the place, this lack of excavation and of people, but I found myself finally properly able to imagine the communities that would have lived here.
In the darkness of the forest, sweltering in the humidity as I clambered rocky stairs and entered gloomy rooms, I felt I was getting to know the Mayans intimately for the first time.
Get to know more of Mexico
My word, does Mexico have a lot to offer. Keep exploring this beautiful country – seriously, you can’t miss a beat.
- … Although you can probably do with skipping Cancun
- Dive deep underground in Valladolid’s cenotes.
- Continue on from Palenque to the gorgeous San Cristobal
- And while you’re there, don’t you dare miss the amazing rituals at San Chamula church