5 Best Things to Do in Palenque

While there are many ancient Mayan cities in southern Mexico, some of them stand out a little more than others. The Mayan city of Palenque is particularly remarkable because it is situated right in the heart of the jungle. And not just any jungle that you often see in Yucatan, but a lush one, teeming with towering trees, howler monkeys, vibrant parrots, and cascading waterfalls. Take a look below and discover all our recommendations for exploring Palenque.

How to get to Palenque?

Palenque is located off the beaten path of popular tourist destinations, which means that you may need to travel for several hours to reach it. We visited Palenque while taking the long route from San Cristóbal de las Casas to Bacalar, which are also two common starting points for visitors traveling to Palenque.

From San Cristóbal de las Casas to Palenque

By rental car: it is a 5-hour drive through the mountains. There have been horror stories of robberies occurring on this route, although we experienced nothing uneventful when we drove it ourselves. We did encounter some local women and children on several occasions who strung a rope across the road to make us stop, but we continued driving calmly, causing them to lower the rope at the last moment. To minimize the risk of incidents, ensure that you never drive this route at night and don’t stop for anyone. Alternatively, you can take the route via Villahermosa, which adds an additional 2 hours of travel time. It’s worth noting that the shorter route may occasionally be closed due to protests. Before you leave, ask your hotel for the latest update on this route.

By bus: The (night) bus takes 9 hours. See current departure times here and book your ticket in advance.

From Bacalar to Palenque

By rental car: 6 hours away.

By bus: The (night) bus takes 9 hours. Find departure times here.

What to do in Palenque?

Naturally, the primary attractions in Palenque are the Mayan temples, but nearby you’ll also find several large waterfalls and a native animal preserve. To make your visit more leisurely, we recommend staying two nights in Palenque.

Go back in time and wander through ancient Mayan city

Mexico is home to many temple sites from the Mayan era, but the temple ruins of Palenque are unique. These temples have been covered by jungle growth for about 1,000 years, and for a long time, people were unaware of the existence of this ancient Mayan city. It is estimated that only 10 percent of the city is still visible today, and many temples remain hidden in the jungle. 

Palenque, along with Tikal and Chichen Itza, was among the most important Mayan cities and became powerful around the 7th century under the rule of King Kʼinich Janaab Pakal. He was buried in the Temple of Inscriptions (see photo below) and in 1952, his burial mask and other adornments, such as jewelry, were put on display in the museum near the entrance. Palenque was eventually taken over by nature in the 9th century.

Tips for visiting Mayan temples

  • Bring mosquito spray.
  • To avoid disappointment, it is good to know that you are no longer allowed to climb the temples.
  • Be sure to go early to get ahead of the crowds. Temples open at 8:00 a.m. and we recommend you be at the box office by 7:45.
  • After you buy the entrance tickets, you can go to the temples in two different ways. If you have a car you can drive a little further into the park and be among the temples in no time. You can also park your car at the entrance and take the route that others without a car also take. This is a beautiful path through the jungle that we recommend to anyone who can climb stairs. This path takes you past small waterfalls, over two suspension bridges and after some steps up you will arrive at the temples after about 15 minutes. Maps.me shows the trail so download the map of Palenque in advance.
  • Also, don’t forget to visit the museum. This is included in your entrance ticket and well worth a visit because the museum has an interesting collection of artifacts from the time of the Maya.

Visit the waterfalls around Palenque

Palenque has more to offer than Maya temples. In fact, around Palenque you will also find some cool waterfalls.

Agua Azul: This is a beautiful wide waterfall with azure pools just under 1.5 hours drive from Palenque. Don’t expect to be the only one here because Agua Azul is very touristy. There are dozens of market stalls and you are often accosted by vendors. This is mainly at the entrance and the further you are from the entrance, the quieter it gets. The waterfalls of Agua Azul are very long and a path runs along the waterfall. In a few places you may take a dip in the clear pools. Walk a long way and find a nice quiet spot to enjoy Agua Azul.

Misol Ha: Is a 35-meter-high waterfall a 30-minute drive from Palenque and a lot less crowded than Agua Azul. The nice thing about Misol Ha is that you can walk behind the waterfall. Standing so close to the waterfall, you can feel the power of the water. Very impressive!

Cascadas Roberto Barrios: Find a 45-minute drive from Palenque. Cascadas Roberto Barrios is perfect if you want a nice swim in a not too crowded waterfall. There are six different pools of bright blue water, just like Agua Azul.

Welib Yes: This is the least known of this list and is found about a 40-minute drive from Palenque. The waterfall is not as impressive as Agua Azul, for example, but this is a perfect alternative if you like to avoid the crowds. Again, don’t forget your swimwear.

Wildlife spotting at Aluxes animal shelter

If you have enough time in Palenque, it’s worth visiting the Aluxes Wildlife Sanctuary. This sanctuary cares for wild animals that were previously kept as pets or have been healed from injuries in the wild. Aluxes’ goal is to release the animals back into the wild, but unfortunately, this is not always possible, and some animals permanently reside in the park. The sanctuary is a large park where you can spend a minimum of one to two hours. During our visit, we saw howler monkeys, jaguars, black panthers, crocodiles, flamingos, and macaws, each with a sign next to their enclosure describing their story.

Aluxes Wildlife Sanctuary does great work for these animals, and at the entrance, you’ll find a passionate lady who will tell you all about her park. Unfortunately, they also offer a photo shoot with different animals, which is inappropriate. Wild animals should never be used for photo shoots with tourists. Aluxes aims to teach visitors that these animals are not suitable as pets, which is super good, but offering photo shoots sends the wrong message. Although we kindly informed the lady about our concerns, it’s likely that immediate change will not occur, as they may not yet realize the negative impact of these practices. If everyone who reads this politely informs them that photo shoots with wild animals are not appropriate, they might stop offering them after a while. It’s important to compliment them on their efforts to care for the animals but explain that offering photo shoots gives a false image of how we should treat wild animals. Remember to always have a respectful conversation and avoid being confrontational.

The choice of good restaurants is limited in Palenque, but there are several recommended places. For breakfast, lunch, and dinner, Café Jade is the trendiest spot in town, and you can enjoy a cozy atmosphere on the terrace. Don Mucho’s is a very nice local restaurant located just before the park entrance, often featuring live music in the evening, and a pleasantly lively environment. Although it’s not a fancy restaurant, sitting on a cheap plastic chair has its charm. Chivos Restaurante serves delicious Mexican food, while Monte Verde Trattoria Pizzeria is highly recommended for Italian cuisine.

Where to stay in Palenque?

Palenque has a subtropical climate so it is very nice to book a hotel with a pool. We stayed at the beautiful Cabañas Kin Balam located in the middle of the jungle, just before the entrance to the park. In the morning you will wake up to the roaring of the howler monkeys, and with a little luck you will see macaws and toucans flying overhead like we did from the pool or restaurants. They have many different types of rooms for every budget and there are also dormitories. If you have a more generous budget then Hotel La Aldea is a top choice. This hotel is also located at the entrance to the park and in the middle of the jungle. If you prefer to stay in a hotel in the town, the Hotel Chablis Palenque comes highly recommended. The location is ideal because there are many restaurants and a large supermarket that is within walking distance. A fine swimming pool is also available here.