Hidden for centuries, deep in the Mexican jungle near the Guatemala boarder, are the ruins of the Mayan city of Palenque. Although it was a little out of the way on our travels, we were intrigued to check out this lesser-visited location; and it was entirely worth the effort.
Whether you’re visiting from Oaxaca or San Cristobal, we’ll let you know how to get to Palenque at the bottom of this post.
The Night Bus from Oaxaca to Palenque
Sixteen and a half hours is a long time to sit in a chair.
Budget travellers as we are, there are just some things we’ll spend a little money on; there have been enough too-long local bus rides in the past, we paid for a proper bus for this leg. At just over 500 pesos per person, it was a fair bit of change to throw for a bus trip; but being a night bus it was easier to justify as it also technically acted as our accommodation for the night.
Kylee slept alright, myself not so much. It was a long, restless ride.
Arriving in Palenque
Upon arrival in Palenque, spaced out and starving in the hot sun, we stumbled into the first restaurant we found and grabbed a seat.
Palenque is known for one thing above all else, the ancient Mayan ruins around ten kilometres outside of town. Having a place already booked near the small cluster of backpacker accommodation known as El Panchan, roughly half-way to the ruins, once breakfast was finished we quickly headed out of town and checked into our little hut.
Although we only had two full days to explore the area, we saved the ruins for the following day and spent the first just relaxing, enjoying the scenery and fresh jungle air we’d been craving for weeks. Tired as we were from the long bus ride, we didn’t sleep, the surroundings were far too beautiful to waste time with our eyes closed.
Late in the afternoon we wandered down the highway a little to the small road leading to the heart of El Panchan and wandered through the tiny backpacker community of bamboo shacks thrown together haphazardly and typical menus found on the gringo trail. Grabbing a seat at Don Mucho’s, we ordered a couple of much needed cervezas and a soup to share.
Considering this is a tourist-focused restaurant, the food was surprisingly good; the soup was large and thick, full of chicken and avocado. Being one of only a few options in the area, prices were a little steeper than they could have been, but nothing budget blowing by any means. The only real surprise was when a howler monkey showed up and wandered right into the restaurant and hung out curiously for a while before wandering back into the jungle.
The evening was spent with a little more relaxing and catching up on some work, sitting at the small table separating our hut from a wall of dense jungle; the prehistoric growl of howler monkeys echoing through the trees.
After a while, right around the time the mosquitos were beginning to get unbearable, I felt something crawl over my foot. I thought it was probably a small cat, but it startled me nonetheless and I kicked at it; to my shock I saw a huge agouti run off and out of sight. What is an agouti you might ask? It’s a foot and a half long jungle rat.
With that fresh on my mind, it was time for bed; early morning to come.
Arriving in at the Ruins
Collectivos, or shared busses, roll up and down the highway between Palenque and the ruins very frequently, picking up anyone along the way for about 20 pesos; just stand on the side of the road and wave one down. After paying the 70 peso entrance fee at the ruins themselves, and passing through the gauntlet of hawkers selling everything from keychains to weed I arrived at the entrance.
The only hiccup was that I had to check my tripod, as any professional camera gear requires it’s own – and very expensive – permit. Arriving only a few minutes after the 8 am opening time, I had to get moving with the camera before the light became too harsh; as much like Monte Alban you’re unable to catch any sunrise shots.
Seeing as the ruins are lesser known than many others in Central America, the crowds were fairly minimal; and it was fairly easy to get around and see everything in a few short hours before it got too hot – and it got hot fast. One of the nicer aspects of being less popular is that you can not only climb the majority of the buildings, but some areas you can even walk inside ancient corridors, giving an interesting perspective to how life must have been like centuries ago.
A Surprise Encounter
Although most of the areas are obvious to the eye and impossible to miss, head to the farthest north structure and look for the stairs heading down into the trees. Follow these to see some small waterfalls and several crumbling, moss covered structures seemingly left to nature.
Before heading back to the road, I stopped to take a rest on one of the more remote foundations and as I was climbing down, I nearly stepped on a three foot long lizard. It startled me pretty good, but it was kind enough to pose for a few snaps before I left.
Aside from the ruins, most of what we read prior to heading here had little good to say about the town of Palenque itself. However, later that afternoon when we headed back to purchase our bus tickets for the following morning, we were pleasantly surprised!
The city itself is fairly small, but has some great restaurants, a beautiful centre square that was decorated for Christmas, several markets and some cool little shops. So while staying out in El Panchan was a great experience, being situated right in nature, Palenque would be a great option as well!
First thing the next morning, we ate a quick breakfast of a stale bus station sandwich and boarded another bus, this time only a brief nine hours, on our way to the city of San Cristobal de las Casas, way up in the Chiapas highlands.
Check out the video here!
How to Get from Oaxaca or San Cristobal to Palenque
Unless you’re pressed for time, the cheapest and easiest way to make this journey is by taking the ADO bus. If visiting from San Cristobal, there are many popular day-tours to the ruins, but time and freedom are often very limited. On top of that, like some friends of ours experienced, there can be even more complications than expected.
- From Oaxaca, the ADO bus prices range significantly. Though we paid 500 pesos in December, prices rise upwards of 1500 during the peak season a few months later;
- From San Cristobal, prices tend to hover between 150 and 400 pesos;
- Prices for most ADO journeys increase significantly closer to the date of travel, so always buy your tickets as far in advance as possible;
- The ADO website has detailed ticket information, but gave us errors when trying to actually purchase the tickets. Buying from the ADO station is the safest option;
- Buy your ongoing ticket when you arrive at the Palenque station, it just makes sense;
If Staying in El Panchan, Palenque
Most people decide to stay in the jungle “village” of El Panchan, about half way between Palenque city and the archeological site. Accommodation prices are a little higher out here, but you’re staying out in nature and surrounded by howler monkeys, which is worth the cost.
- Collectivos run every 15 minutes from outside the Palenque bus station to the El Panchan, the cost is 15 pesos per person;
- Taxis are 70 pesos for the same route;
- In El Panchan, there are a few simple restaurant options, but little else;
- At time of writing, no ATMs exist in El Panchan
- We stayed at Cabañas Kin Balam, which was a nice, laid back spot with a pool that was perfect after a hot afternoon at the ruins;
Visiting The Ruins
- To reach the ruins themselves, take a collectivo from the Palenque bus station, El Panchan, or anywhere on the side of the road to the ruins;
- The price at time of writing is 20 peso per person, regardless of where you’re picked up;
- It costs 36 pesos to enter the national park area, which begins just passed El Panchan;
- To enter the archaeological site itself, the fee is 75 pesos and the grounds open at 8 am
- ”Professional” photography and videography requires a special (and expensive) permit. I’m not sure what is considered professional gear though. I entered with my DSLR, three lenses and aGoPro. My tripod is the only piece I had to leave at the gate. This has been reconfirmed as of January 2019;
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