What do MOH and MAYA actually mean?

Palenque tips: Mayan ruins with waterfalls Agua Azul and Misol-Ha

Tips for Mayan ruins and excursions in the area

One city could not be missing on my 3-week trip to Mexico: Palenque with its pyramids and the fascinating Mayan culture! All tourists want to go to Chichen Itza, but the Mayan ruins in Palenque are no less fascinating and I even liked them better.

In addition, these are much less crowded. The location in the middle of the rainforest is simply brilliant and beautiful. Of all the Mayan cities in Mexico that I have visited, Palenque is one of the most beautiful and fascinating.

So what can you do in Palenque? My advice:

In the morning visit the Mayan ruins in the rainforest of Palenque on your own, in the afternoon to the waterfalls Misol-Ha and Agua Azul and then continue straight into the mountains to San Cristobal de las Casas. If, like me, you only have 3 weeks (click here for the Mexico travel report with route).

If you have more time, I advise you to stay in Palenque for at least an extra day. There are small cafes, a market and otherwise the place is very cozy.

More tips for Mexico:

Where is Palenque actually?

The locality Palenque (85,000 inhabitants) lies at the foot of the Usumacinta Mountains in the highlands of the southern state Chiapas. The city itself doesn't have much to offer other than small cafes. It serves travelers (like us) as a starting point for excursions to the Mayan ruins in Palenque and the waterfalls of Agua Azul and Misol-Ha.

Therefore there are numerous accommodations in all price ranges in Palenque, a good selection of restaurants, as well as a bus terminal with important connections to San Cristobal de las Casas, Merida and also Oaxaca (to name just a few).

Collectivos leave the city center for the ruins several times an hour. In the late afternoon we had found and booked our planned tour with a tour operator (Tour Operador Na Chan Kan), so that we were picked up directly at the hotel. Our plan was: to visit the pyramids in the morning, then drive directly to the waterfalls Agua Azul and Misol-Ha and from there directly to San Cristobal de las Casas. So we had gained a day to discover more of San Cristobal.

A huge advantage of traveling in the off-season is: At the time of my trip, all admissions to the tour operator were included in the final price. Usually the operator's flyer says: “Entrance fee not included”. As a result, we didn't have to pay an additional entrance fee to the Mayan pyramids in Palenque.

Highlight: Tour to the Mayan ruins

The tour starts at 8am. The journey time to the most impressive archaeological sites in Mexico in the rainforest is approximately 30 minutes.

The original name of Palenque was Lakamha ’ ("Big water"). Which is probably also due to the fact that numerous small streams flow through the complex and also a larger waterfall lies within the Maya site.

The Mayan ruins are arguably some of the most extraordinary in Mayan culture. They are also considered to be one of the first to be discovered and at the same time best preserved (except for Tikal in Guatemala).

Best time to visit the Mayan ruins in Palenque

Short answer: early in the morning. The sun has not yet hit the Maya city in the jungle of Chiapas with full intensity. There is hardly a shady place here. There are hardly any visitors and the locals are only slowly starting to set up the souvenir stands - a very good time to visit the ruins in Palenque.

At the entrance, children come up to us in traditionally colored clothes and offer us necklaces made of leather cords with clay tablets for sale. The tablets represent talismans with the Mayan horoscope signs. I decline with thanks.

Walking tour of the Mayan ruins in Palenque

Morning exercise with a difference ...

We start the tour of the pyramids in Palenque on our own. I brought a guide with detailed descriptions myself and read through the individual passages to the corresponding pyramid myself.

There are always a dozen guides at the entrance who offer their services. We refuse in a friendly manner, but still receive a plan of the temple complex from an employee. Incidentally, here in Palenque you can climb all temples and so it goes up and down. I climb pyramid by pyramid.

Templo de las Inscripciones - "Temple of the Inscriptions"

The Templo de las Inscripciones - “Temple of Inscriptions” - rises right at the beginning of the complex. A stepped pyramid that housed the extraordinarily large sarcophagus of King Pacal, the last great ruler of Palenques. This sarcophagus can be seen in the adjacent museum, the death mask made of 200 jade stones is unfortunately in the museum in Mexico City.

Of course we will climb the most famous temple in Palenque right away. The high steps lead up to the pyramid to the platform with the burial chamber. Here we have to wait a little, as the entrance is very narrow and the only tour group other than us is blocking it.

El Palacio - the "palace"

Opposite the Temple of the Inscriptions is the El Palacio - the "palace" and at the same time the largest architectural building of the complex with 100 by 80 meters. A four-story tower protrudes from the inside of this building, which is said to have served as an observatory or watchtower in the past:

Behind it, around a small square, are the Templo de la Calavera (Temple of the Skull - the name came about because of the relief sculptures of skulls), the Templo del Sol (Temple of the Sun - with the best preserved roof structure) and the Templo de la Cruz (Temple of the Cross). Steep steps lead up here:

To get a better impression of the size of the terrain, we have to climb again and again and work up a sweat in the process.

The extent of the city at that time can only be approximated from above.

Palenque is 20 square kilometers and 20,000 people are said to have lived here during its heyday in the 7th and 8th centuries. As in Tikal only 7% of the site was excavated and cleared of the jungle thicket - a fraction of the area. Even so, the Maya site has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1987.

A visit to the museum in Palenque is worthwhile

After the tour we visit the museum near the entrance to the ruins, where some finds (especially the great grave) are on display.

Here we can finally see an example of the once bright and colorful temples. The colorful finds (especially stones, panels and masks) are exhibited here.

The visit to the Maya ruins in Palenque was definitely worth it.

Tips for excursions in the area

Misol-Ha waterfall

The onward journey to Misol-Ha takes approx. 45 minutes, as the route is very mountainous and rich in serpentines. The waterfall is spectacular for many travelers: from a height of around 30 m, the water splashes into a large basin, surrounded by the tropical vegetation of the rainforest. On a slippery path we get behind the water curtain and get soaking wet. That's why there are only pictures taken with the GoPro here.

Everyone is impressed - for us it is simply a waterfall that has been advertised and visited umpteen times in Thailand or Cuba. So less spectacular, but still nice to look at and it was definitely a cooling off through the spray.

More information about the Misol-Ha waterfall:

The Misol-Ha waterfall is about 20 km south of Palenque and on the way to San Cristobal de las Casas. It is best to combine a visit with a tour to the other waterfalls in Agua Azul, see below.

Waterfalls in Agua Azul

The onward journey to Cascadas Agua Azul, appropriately baptized because of the clear blue water, takes about 1 hour (maybe it was half an hour longer). These waterfalls are really beautiful. In the middle of the rainforest, the Rio Yax plunges down over wide stone dams. Due to several larger and smaller waterfalls, the river loses height to disappear into the tropical forest of Chiapas as a river.

We stay here for almost 3 hours. A path leads up to the left of the waterfalls, over small bridges and steps along the shore. After every curve and bend in the path, a new sight of the turquoise water basins of Agua Azul opens up. In some, for example at the top or at the bottom at the entrance, you can swim and bathe wonderfully.

But there is often a strong current, which means that you are not allowed into the water in many sections. The water is ice cold, but a welcome cooling for the brave. I am simply too lazy to get changed and content myself with cooling my legs.

On the way down to the starting point, we use the time to inspect the many souvenir and food stalls. We treat ourselves to five empanadas for only 10 M $ (note: the further down you go, the less empanadas you get for your money) and a freshly squeezed orange juice for 25 M $. Yes, the fresh drinks are more expensive than the food, often something new.

Since our onward journey to San Cristobal de las Casas will certainly take longer than the hip 4 hours, each of us will buy another 5 empanadas. The group leaves at 5 p.m. Are brought to an intersection where we have to change to a large bus. Since we are all strangely eyed by the local men (the Zapatistas live here) the drivers wait until the bus is finally there and we and our luggage are safely stowed away.

More information about excursions to Agua Azul and Misol-Ha:

The Agua Azul Falls National Park is about 60 km from Palenque. We recommend the tour with a visit to the waterfall from Misol-Ha connect to. Possibly with the further transfer to San Cristobal de las Casas or vice versa.

The journey with a 2nd class bus or Colectivo takes you to the Cruzero Agua Azul and is often cheaper. From here there are other colectivos with which you can cover the last 4 km to the waterfalls. Much easier but often more expensive (doesn't always have to be) is an organized day tour.

In Palenque and San Cristobal de las Casas there are many providers who combine the excursion with a visit to the waterfall of Misol-Ha and the waterfalls in Agua Azul. The onward journey to San Cristobal de las Casas (as in our case) is also offered as an option. This is useful because the waterfalls are on the route.

The bus ride from Agua Azul to San Cristobal de las Casas takes just under 5 hours. Warm clothing is not only recommended for the air-conditioned bus: it is very cool and fresh in the mountains in the evenings.

The bus ride from Agua Azul to San Cristobal de las Casas takes just under 5 hours. Warm clothing is not only recommended for the air-conditioned bus: it is very cool and fresh in the mountains in the evenings.

Accommodation in San Cristobal de las Casas: Parador Margarita

With a “Smart Deal” at booking.com, we are very cheap at that Parador Margarita booked (see special rates on the internet via booking.com, it's worth it).

Why Parador Margarita:

  • The accommodation is only 2 blocks away from the center, nice and quiet away from the hustle and bustle and yet the center can be reached in 5 minutes on foot
  • From the street, inconspicuous, it has a wonderful inner courtyard and spacious rooms (we had 1 room on the first floor).
  • Free and fast WiFi is free
  • Breakfast is included and was sufficient for the duration of the stay.
  • Important in the mountains: You have enough warm duvets available here. Really warm water also comes out of the shower.
  • Costs: The accommodation cost us 780 M $ (approx. 46 euros) for 2 nights for 2 people. (Book now)

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