Into the Lacandon Jungle: Our guide to Palenque
Chiapas, Mexico's southern state that runs along Guatemala's northern border, is a lush paradise that is home to the Lacandon Jungle. Rolling, fertile mountains and dense, tropical jungle make this one of Mexico's most agriculturally productive regions. Home to fierce rivers and countless waterfalls, it's no wonder that this captivating region attracts travelers from around the world.
Nestled within the verdant mountains of the Lacandon Jungle are several worthwhile attractions, including the Mayan ruins of Palenque and the cascades of Agua Azul and Misol Há. Though difficult to get there, the remoteness of these stunning places adds to their mythical aura.
We spent only two days in the region but wish we had allotted more time to discover all that this lush area has to offer. Below are our tips of how to make the most of your visit.
What to do
The biggest and most well-known reason to visit Palenque are the ancient Mayan ruins located just a short distance from the town. What makes these impressive structures particularly stunning is their untamed surroundings. Whereas Teotihuacán in Mexico City features a structured layout in a vast valley that stretches for miles and miles, and Monte Albán in Oaxaca sits atop a mountain with panoramic views, the ruins of Palenque are scattered seemingly haphazardly and practically hidden by a dense jungle. Massive palms and dangling vines entangle the temples and edifices, as if nature were proving that all great empires will eventually succumb to its forces. If you're lucky, morning mist might hang around for a bit enveloping these pyramids.
Only ten percent of the identified 1,400 structures have been explored. Of the ruins we've been lucky enough to explore in Mexico, Palenque seemed to have the most variety of buildings for religious, political, and daily life that have been excavated and are open to the public. Climb pyramids, enter a tomb, or simply walk around the jungle peering at these light, intricate structures and imagine what daily life was like during the height of the city.
To make the most of your time exploring these ancient grounds, we recommend arriving early. The park opens at 8 a.m., and while you won't beat the crowds (tours arrive from San Cristóbal around opening), getting there early offers the best light. Entrance to the park is $70 pesos per person ($3.50 USD), plus there is a $34 peso ($1.80 USD) entrance fee to the ecological reserve you must traverse to get to the ruins. Make sure to bring water and snacks, since there is nowhere within the park to buy them and if you're like us, you don't want human urges to cut your visit short. However, if you do need to grab some chips or a drink outside the park's entrance, you can enter and exit the park throughout the day as long as you hold onto your ticket.
The other big attractions that draw travelers to this region are the turquoise cascades of Agua Azul and the towering waterfall of Misol Há. The heavy rainfall that Chiapas is known for feeds rivers and waterfalls that make this state so dense with nature and wildlife.
Misol Há is a 115-foot waterfall surrounded by tropical foliage. Take a refreshing dip and walk behind the falls to explore the caves. Entrance to Misol Há is $20 pesos per person ($1 USD), plus there is a $10 peso ($0.50 USD) road fee. A visit to the caves costs another $10 pesos ($0.50 USD).
Unlike the tall, singular cascades of Misol Há, Agua Azul is a a series of waterfalls located on the Xanil River. Pool upon pool of turquoise water flows over natural platforms, creating a cascading staircase. The rushing water weaves through the jungle, surrounding pockets of land and forming natural swimming pools. While it's possible to visit this stunning natural wonder with a tour, we recommend making a day of it and bringing a picnic lunch or buying some empanadas and a refreshing drink from one of the many food vendors that line the walkways. Entrance to Agua Azul is $40 pesos per person ($2.05 USD).
How to get there
While it's possible to take a tour from San Cristóbal de las Casas, we don't recommend it. The drive itself is about five hours one way, which means you'll spend most of your day trip in a van or bus — not at the sites themselves. Instead, we recommend allocating at least two full days in the area.
There are a few ways of getting to the town of Palenque. The most straightforward but potentially longest path is to take a first class bus. ADO and AU both run regular services from many major cities in the Yucatán and southern Mexico. While this usually doesn't involve transfers and you can purchase your ticket in advance, it's often a roundabout way of getting to Palenque because the buses can't travel through the switchback mountain roads.
If you're coming from San Cristóbal, the cheapest option is to take a colectivo to Ocosingo for $60 pesos ($3 USD), and then another colectivo from Ocosingo to Palenque for $80 pesos ($4 USD). This trip is significantly shorter than the ADO bus between San Cristóbal and Palenque (approximately 5 hours versus 10), but does involve a transfer in Ocosingo. The transfer is super easy and is usually at the same drop off/pick up point for heading in either direction.
Despite the brutally windy roads, if we were going to do the trip over again we would very likely rent a car from San Cristóbal or Tuxtla Gutiérrez. The primary reason is that once you're in Palenque, the ruins and the two cascades are far apart. Without your own transportation, you're entirely reliant on the colectivos that travel between the various sites. For one, the cost of these multiple rides can quickly add up, so it may be financially more prudent to have your own car. And second, the colectivos — especially later in the day out at Agua Azul and Misol Há — fill up quickly and you may be waiting around for hours to catch a ride or forced to pay up for a private taxi. Another added bonus of having your own car here is the freedom to explore and take in breathtaking vistas along the Ruta Maya between San Cristóbal and Palenque.
Lastly, you also have the option of booking a tour that will take you to these attractions once you're in Palenque. While reasonably priced, the setback as always with a tour is that your time at each site is constrained.
Where to stay
It's important to know that the town of Palenque and the ruins are distinct places separated by several miles. You can find plenty of hostels and hotels in the town itself, which offers the conveniences of several restaurants and grocery stores. It's also where the bus station is located and is the central hub for colectivos.
Scattered along the road from the town to the ruins are several additional hotels, hostals, and campgrounds. The most prominent place to stay outside of the town of Palenque is El Panchan, which is best described as a little village of restaurants, cabañas, and campgrounds in the jungle. Located at the entrance of the ecological reserve that leads to the ruins, this is where we chose to stay during our two nights there. A private cabaña with a shared bathroom with hot water at Jungle Palace costs $170 pesos ($8.70 USD), and camping was $30 pesos ($1.50 USD) per person. We opted to do a night of each.
Staying at El Panchan was an experience in itself. During the day, backpackers can be seen lounging around playing cards, selling jewelry, smoking weed, or participating in drum circles. At night, El Panchan becomes a hotspot for travelers staying in the town of Palenque. With lighted pathways connecting tiny restaurants and bars in the jungle playing live acoustic music, it's a pleasant and relaxing place to spend an evening. Falling asleep in a cabaña in the treetops listening to howler monkeys was pretty awesome, too.