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Palenque, the magnificent realm of King Pakal the Great

Archaeology Monday provides historical background, photos, and practical information about the wonders of Mesoamerican antiquity and how to get out and enjoy them for yourself. This week we explore one of the most majestic ancient cities of all Mesoamerica, Palenque.

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Carlos Rosado van der Gracht
Born in Mérida, Carlos Rosado van der Gracht is a Mexican/Canadian blogger, photographer and adventure expedition leader. He holds degrees in multimedia, philosophy and translation from universities in Mexico, Canada and Norway. Sign up for the Yucatán Roundup, a free newsletter, which delivers the week's top headlines every Monday.
A view of the Temple of Inscriptions and Palace in Palenque Chiapas. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Palenque is an archaeological site located in the state of Chiapas, just outside the contemporary town of the same name. In antiquity, the city was known as Lakamha, meaning “big water.” The site was first settled in the 3rd century BC but did not reach its peak until the rule of K’inich Janaab Pakal, more commonly known as Pakal the Great.

Structure 12, or Temple of the Calavera in Palenque Chiapas. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

It is interesting to note that Pakal was preceded to the throne by his mother, Queen Muwaan Mat, also known as Lady Sak Kʼukʼ. Other examples of Queens do exist in the Mayan world, such as Wak Chanil Ajaw of El Naranjo, but are overall quite rare. 

An oval carving depicting the coronation of a 12-year-old Pakal by his mother Sak Kuk in Palenque. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht.

Pakal the Great reigned for an astonishing 68 years and was responsible for some of Palenque’s most notable monumental architecture. But he is perhaps most well remembered for his depiction on the carved lid of his sarcophagus. 

The massive lid of Pakal’s carved stone sarcophagus shows the king emerge along with the cosmic tree as he is reborn into eternal life. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

In the early 8th century, Palenque was invaded by the kingdom of Toniná, and its king K’inich K’an Joy Chitam II was taken prisoner. Little is known about this period but is presumed that he was executed in Toniná. 

Bas-relief reproduction depicting Upakal K’inich, who reigned during the turbulent 8th century CE. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Palenque is one of the most spectacular archaeological sites in all of Mesoamerica, with visitors comparing it to the likes of Tikal, Copan, and Calakmul. Aside from its impressive architecture, carvings, and stucco work, the ancient city lay in the middle of lush rain forest packed to the rim with exotic birds, monkeys, and waterfalls. 

Howler monkeys are abundant in Palenque. Their howls are extremely loud and can be heard over great distances. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht.

When entering the site, one of the first structures most visitors notice is the famous Temple of the Inscriptions. The temple superstructure houses the second longest glyphic text known in the Maya world, recording nearly two centuries of history — from the vantage point of King Pakal the Great, of course. 

The stunning Temple of Inscriptions in Palenque, Chiapas. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht.

In 1952, Pakal’s tomb, a richly adorned stone sarcophagus, was discovered by the archaeologist Alberto Ruz Lhullier. The tomb’s entrance revealed a long stairway to the sarcophagus itself, in which lay Pakal covered in a green jade funerary mask, fine clothing, and a variety of other archaeological treasures. Much can be said about this discovery, and in the future, we will dedicate an entire article to it, but for now, it is sufficient to say that Pakal’s tomb represents one of the greatest archaeological finds in the history of Mesoamerican archaeology. 

Palenque’s museum offers a great interactive presentation of the sarcophagus and the meanings behind its symbology. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht.

The complex known as the Palace is made up of several connected buildings and courtyards built over several generations atop a massive artificial platform. 

It is still possible to take a stroll through the corbel arched interiors of the Palace in Palenque. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht.

Within the palace, visitors can see several surviving sculptures and carvings. The complex is famous for its large corbel arched interiors, as well as its four-story tower.

View from the central courtyard of the Palace in Palenque Chiapas. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht.

The area surrounding the Palace was fed by a large aqueduct that delivered water to the complex’s many baths. 

Remains of the large aqueduct used to bring water to the Palenque’s Palace. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht.

The Temple of the Foliated Cross, also known as the Temple of the Sun, is a large step pyramid covered in elaborate carvings depicting two figures paying homage to the lord of the city. The temples get their name from their reliefs depicting the crosslike tree of creation at the center of Maya cosmology. 

Inscriptions on the Temple of the Foliated Cross tell us of King Kʼukʼ Bahlam I, the founder of the Palenque dynasty. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht.

The Temple of the Count is an elegant structure that gets its name from the count and early Palenque explorer Jean Frederic Waldeck, who lived in the building for some time. Like many structures in Palenque, it is topped with a crest that would have been painted bright red.

Like many structures in Palenque, it is still possible to climb the Temple of the Count, but don’t put it off for too long as access is likely to be restricted soon. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht.

The main ballcourt at Palenque sits in a wide-open plaza near the Palace and several other important monuments, denoting its importance to the life of the city. 

The ball court was a focal point of life in Palenque and symbolized the city’s power. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht.

Palenque is also home to several other large temples and residential complexes, some of which have only been partially restored. 

If you venture out of the main plazas of Palenque you will come across the archaeological remains of a great many residential complexes and smaller ceremonial centers. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht.

Outside of the core of the site, visitors to Palenque are able to enjoy walking along jungle paths full of large trees, wildlife, rivers, and waterfalls. Most of these paths eventually converge and lead out to the site and to Palenque’s museum. The museum is a must and entrance is free with your entrance ticket to the archaeological site.

One of several beautfiul waterfalls in Palneque Chiapas. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht.

If you go

Palenque is one of Mexico’s most visited archaeological sites, and as a result, you will have no problem finding tours to the ancient city from just about any major city in Mexico’s south. Driving to Palenque from Mérida takes roughly eight hours, but the roads are good and signage is plentiful.

Map showing the location of Palenque in southern Mexico. Image: Google Maps.

There are several hotels nearby in the city of Palenque, in just about every price range. It is also possible to rent eco-cabins within the grounds of the Palenque national park  — but not in the archaeological site — for those wanting to spot wildlife and get the most out of the jungle experience. 

Palenque’s thick jungle is full of exotic plant life and flowers. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

As with all archaeological sites in Mexico, it is prohibited to bring in food or drink, other than water. The entrance fee is 80 pesos Monday through Saturday. And on Sunday admittance is free for Mexican nationals and foreign residents of Mexico with ID. To access the archaeological site it is also necessary to pay a 35 peso entrance fee to the surrounding national park. 

Temples in Palenque’s Grupo Norte, just across from the Temple of the Count. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

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