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Palenque Ruins - Historical Building Palenque - Mexico

Deep in the forests of South Central Mexico sits a ruined city, once known as Lakam Ha, capital of the B’aakal city-state during the classical Maya era (roughly the fifth century to the ninth century A.D.) During the centuries of B’aakal rule at Palenque, the city became the most important center for culture and commerce in the western Maya area. Without use of the wheel, metal tools, or beasts of burden they forged a great city from stone: the achievement still boggles the mind today. Palenque was ruled for almost a century by one of the greatest of the kings of the Maya: K’inich J’aanab Pakal, or Pacal the Great (ruler from 615-683). When he died, he was buried in an elaborate tomb in one of the temples and he was revered as a God after his death.


Wars and natural disasters sent the various city-states of the Maya into decline by the tenth century. Palenque itself was deserted around the ninth century, although local farmers knew of it, and referred to it as Otolum, or “the land with strong houses.” Before long, the jungle had reclaimed the great city of the B’aakal, and the only inhabitants of the land were the toucans, parrots and monkeys of Southern Mexico’s great swampy lowlands.


The city was first visited by the Spanish in 1567, when they named it Palenque, or “fortress” because of the impressive stone walls and structures that still stood centuries after the city had been abandoned. Different Spanish-led expeditions to the site occurred over the years, which unfortunately resulted in a great deal of damage to the site, particularly to the palace.


The Mexican government funded two different archaeological and preservation projects at the site, from 1949-1952 and again in the 1970’s. Although digs have continued, archaeologists estimate that only 5% of the more than 500 structures of Palenque have been uncovered.


The Temple of the Inscriptions is an impressive pyramid on the southern side of the central plaza, but for centuries it held a fascinating secret. In 1948, a Mexican Archaeologist named Alberto Ruz was investigating the floor at the top of the pyramid. He found a descending passageway filled with rubble. Once the rubble was removed (which was no easy feat), the archaeologists discovered an ornate tomb, with panels of historical glyphs and an elaborately carved sarcophagus containing the remains of Pacal the Great, one of the most important kings of the Maya. The massive, five-ton lid of the sarcophagus shows a man in an elaborate setting of designs and symbols. Some have suggested that the Maya had flying saucers and refer to the man as an “astronaut,” but most archaeologists believe that the design shows Pacal descending into the Maya underworld. There is also a curious duct that leads from the burial chamber to the top of the temple above. Some believe that it allowed the spirit of Pacal to communicate with his descendents or for them to appease his spirit with blood from sacrifices. Pacal was buried with a beautiful jade death mask that was stolen from the Mexican National Museum of Anthropology in 1985.


Another highlight of Palenque is the palace. Sitting on an artificial platform, the palace is a maze of buildings, walls and courtyards. It is home to the distinctive tower structure. Other highlights include the temple of the sun and the temple of the jaguar.


Digs and preservation are ongoing projects at Palenque. The temples still hold many fragile stucco walls, painted centuries ago, as well as priceless pieces of Mayan art such as the incensarios, ceramic incense burners which stand about three feet high and are decorated with fantastic masks of gods and monsters. These incense burners are only found at the Palenque site. Some have been restored and are on display at the on-site museum.


Today, Palenque is one of Southern Mexico’s most important traveler destinations. Travelers come to visit Palenque from around the world. Visitors can stay in the nearby small town, also namerd Palenque, where there are hotels of different classes and prices. Guides are available.

6km from town
Palenque, Mexico

Historical Building

Travel Tips:

Spread over a compact area this ruin truly comes alive with a good guide as there are many inscriptions to interpret and small corridors to explore. The main section has the Temple of Inscriptions, home of the tomb of King Pakal which is now closed to preserve it, and the impressive Palace building, and up on the hill is the Temple of the Crosses, a group of three nicely refurbished ruins from which you get a great overview of the site. There are other less interesting sections around the jungle setting en-route to the museum, which is worth a good hour or so after the main site.

Price Description: Collectivo 10 Pesos, National Park entrance 10 Pesos, Ruins entrance 75 Pesos, Guide 650 Pesos for up to 6 people.

By Christopher Minster
I am a writer and editor at V!VA Travel guides here in Quito, where I specialize in adding quality content to the site and also in spooky things like...
05 Dec 2006

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