Surrounded by thick, verdant jungle and serenaded by a chorus of hooting howler monkeys, the Mexican city of Palenque captivated me. Located in the foothills of the rolling mountains in the state of Chiapas, Palenque was once a major Mayan city in the 7th century A.D. Now it’s filled with friendly locals, refreshing waterfalls and some of most impressive Mayan ruins anywhere. Below please find my list of five favorite things to do in Palenque, Mexico, along with recommend arrival and accommodation information.
My 5 Favorite Things to Do in Palenque, Mexico
My 5 Favorite Things to Do in Palenque, Mexico
- 1 – Mayan Ruins of Palenque
- 2 – Agua Azul Waterfalls
- 3 – Misol Ha Waterfall
- 4 – Roberto Barrios Waterfalls
- 5 – Eat a Seafood Dinner at the Huachinango Feliz
- 6 – Arrival and Accommodation Information
1 – Mayan Ruins of Palenque
The archaeological remnants of the ancient city of Palenque represent some of the best preserved Mayan ruins in all of Latin America. With an average of 1,000 visitors daily, I suggest arriving at 8am when the park opens to avoid the crowds. As an alternative you could ask around for an unofficial after hours tour for roughly two times what a normal private guide would cost in the daytime. However, this option would be considered impossible and against park policy. Nevertheless I’ve heard it covertly exists.
Regardless of when you visit, Palenque certainly merits at least a couple of hours of your time. For me it was hard to envision what life was like for the Mayans two thousand years ago. How could they build all this without metal tools, the wheel or pack animals?
Most notably, see the Temple of Inscriptions (seen below) with the sarcophagus of Pakal, the Mayan king. His jade mask now sits on display in Mexico City at the Museo Nacional de Antropologia. Although the temple is the most famous structure, Palenque offers over a dozen interesting buildings to see. Back in the day of Pakal these would have been painted in blood red, green and blue.
Furthermore these ruins are very much part of the jungle. While exploring we heard howler monkeys in the trees above. We even caught a glimpse of a toucan with its signature orange beak flying past. And if you manage an evening tour, that’s when the colorful birds come out.
2 – Agua Azul Waterfalls
The iceberg blue waters of the Agua Azul Waterfalls rush down the mountains in a series of sequential falls. As this site ranks second only to the Palenque ruins in the number of visitors in the region, we left our hotel in Palenque at 6:30 am to arrive ninety minutes later when the park opened. That way we were the first visitors, and had at least an hour to ourselves to admire this wonderful creation.
We walked along wooden paths lined with steep steps and locals selling handicrafts. Around each bend another incredible fall appeared on a trail that seems to go on forever. And each new viewpoint appeared more dazzling than the next. From calm streams at the bottom to real rushing water at the top, I had to pause to absorb the millions of gallons of water flowing by. You can also swim at the foot of the falls like I did.
Although arriving at Agua Azul can be treacherous on the narrowly winding mountain passage, the voyage merits every blind curb. Plus the drive navigates through many indigenous villages. As a result expect eager natives to serenade you at every speed bump with their food and clothing stands. It’s a cultural experience worthy of your attention.
3 -Misol Ha Waterfall
One hour northeast from Agua Azul resides the Misol Ha Waterfalls. In fact if you came from Palenque you would have passed them on the way to Agua Azul. However, I suggest seeing them second since they are less trafficked and more easily enjoyed and photographed at any time of day.
Unlike the series of sequential cascades at Agua Azul, Misol Ha showcases one strong, yet solitary storm of water that arches over a cliff into a circular pool below. After a few photos, I jumped into the refreshing waters in my shorts. Immediately I drastically ripped open my decade old bottoms, prompting me to purchase another pair from the indigenous vendors onsite.
New shorts on, I then strolled along the slippery path behind the falls and fell on my behind. My wrist caught my collapse, thus saving another pair of shorts from the garbage can. However, fearing another spill, I opted against touring the cave under the cascade.
Overall, while less imposing than Agua Azul, Misol Ha certainly impressed me with its serene and simplistic beauty. Furthermore, since it’s on the way to Agua Azul it would be foolish to skip it. It’s worth at least an hour or two of your time.
4 – Roberto Barrios Waterfalls
From Misol Ha travel thirty minutes north to Palenque and then thirty minutes east to my favorite falls in the area: Roberto Barrios. They are located in a small village that shares the same name. Plus they are rather unknown and hence less crowded. And you can enjoy viewing and swimming in the gigantic falls, or verging off to play with the locals in the lesser cascades.
First we started going off path to the right where the indigenous swim. Small groups of boys under ten seemed curious by our presence while simultaneously showing off their bravery. Some fearlessly ran over the falls, plunging into deep pools. While others with monkey shaped feet gingerly climbed up a hanging tree to plunge from towering heights into the water.
I jumped into the swirling waters with my newly purchased shorts. Although I did try climbing the same tree, reason and fear set in, and I quickly backed down. Instead I played the responsible adult and tried to have fun while not risking my life.
Some of the boys were naked, while a couple of girls washed clothes in the water. Certainly we felt like Roberto Barrios provided a more authentic, local experience. Plus as an adult I rediscovered some of my youth in these rejuvenating waters. This natural waterpark would have been my ideal playground when I was a boy.
Once finished with the locals section, we headed over to the more impressive and touristy series of five larger falls. We meandered down steep steps and winding paths to discover these towering beauties pouring over robust rocks. Although some visitors swim here, I decided to wait till we returned next time to get wet in this more touristy area.
5 – Eat a Seafood Dinner at the Huachinango Feliz
Our guide to Palenque recommended this out of the way restaurant visited primarily by locals. Tucked back on a dirt road near a farm, the entrance road to the Huachinange Feliz appears to lead into a rundown village. However, once you pull into the parking lot, the restaurant assuaged my fears with its first class facade.
Since we arrived for an early dinner after our trifecta of waterfall visits, the restaurant was mostly empty at 5pm. Relishing the tranquility, I feasted on scrumptious shrimp with garlic while Allan enjoyed shrimp skewers with bacon and peppers. To wash down my meal, I opted for a piña colada which was made fresh and not from a machine.
We savored our meals and will definitely return on our next trip to Palenque. Eating in less touristy joints is a priority of ours. Plus the diverse menu at the Huachinango Feliz left us craving many dishes we haven’t yet tried. I guess they will have to wait till next time.
6 – Arrival and Accommodation Information
The Best Way to Get to Palenque is to Fly:
I recommend flying into Palenque using Calafia Airlines. They offer inexpensive flights within Mexico on well-maintained jets with friendly staff. For example, my flight from Cancun to Palenque only cost $80 USD one way on Calafia. Otherwise, you can fly with VivaAerobus, but I’ve heard many complaints from friends who have used them.
Bus to Palenque:
The main ADO bus station sits right in downtown Palenque. Traveling within Mexico on the ADO is both cheap and reasonably comfortable. For example, the bus from Playa del Carmen to Palenque costs only $73 USD one way, but it takes twelve hours.
Car Rental in Palenque:
Dollar Rent a Car has an office right at the Palenque Airport. I rented a vehicle on the spot upon arrival for only $20 USD per day. It was easy and cost-effective. Plus you really need a car if you want to see the waterfalls.
Where to Stay in Palenque:
For an upscale jungle experience, I recommend staying at the Boutique Hotel Quinta Chanabnal. The grounds offer forrest views with monkeys and macaws at around $150 USD. This is my first choice when staying in Palenque.
If you would like to stay in downtown, the Hotel Chablis offers nice rooms for around $50 USD per night. They are located in one of the better sections of Palenque, within walking distance to some great restaurants like Cafe Jade.
READ MORE ABOUT CHIAPAS, MEXICO