If you are only going to see one Mayan site in your life, I would recommend Palenque. With its gleaming white lime stone buildings, intact roof combs, intricately carved stele and lively jungle atmosphere, Palenque has it all. It’s not nearly as large (a lot of promising mounds in the jungle have not yet been excavated) as Tikal or Chichén Itzá, which means you can enjoy it without becoming too overwhelmed. There are some other cool things to visit nearby, waterfalls and, of course, more Mayan ruins. Furthermore, there is a really fun place to stay.
Palenque, located in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas, is Classic Maya. Ruins date from around 226 BCE to 799 CE, and the city appears to have reached is peak in the 7th century. Once the site was abandoned, it was quickly swallowed up by surrounding jungle. Like Copán, Palenque has a lot of information written in hieroglyphics. This allowed archeologist to reconstruct its history. There was a time when many historians believed that Mayan were peaceful people and that war was not a part of their story. Now we know that’s not really the case. The written record of Palenque documents a long rivalry with the neighboring city-states of Calakmul and Toniná.
Meet the Monkeys
You’ll hear them before you see them. And it’s a sound you won’t soon forget. The fearsome screech made me imagine a terrifying, extra-terrestrial monster devouring a dog. Actually, they’re just friendly, little, leaf-eating monkeys, called Howlers because of the blood-curdling noise they make.
Two other Mayan sites lie within a short distance of Palenque. Yaxchilan, about 195 km from Palenque, has to be reached by boat. Though the architecture is less spectacular than at Palanque, the jungle is awesome. If you haven’t had enough howler monkeys, this is the place.
Bonampak (148km from Palenque) is a well intact site famous for its murals. For its colorful, gruesome, bloody, penis-impaling, fingernail-pulling-out murals. Ouch! So much for the myth of the “peaceful Maya”!
There are also some not-to-be-missed waterfalls nearby, most famously Agua Azul.
The bus rumbles through a small, un-noteworthy modern town of Palenque on the way to the ruins. I didn’t stop there, and I don’t think you should either. The place to stay is in the delightful, jungle hippy-camp “El Panchán”. Nestled in the greenery, El Panchán is a completely self-contained little colony with lodging, restaurants and fun. The sounds of the monkeys mixes with the drum circles – a great place to hang out after a day of hiking around the ruins.