Chiapas is one of the most incredibly beautiful and historic states in all of Mexico. While San Cristobal de las Casas may be the cultural and touristic hub of the state, Palenque is the explorer’s paradise. For travelers seeking adventure, few places in Mexico compare to Palenque. From hidden waterfalls to ruins buried deep in the jungle, it’s easy to get your Indiana Jones or Lara Croft on in this region.
While many people who visit Palenque do so from San Cristobal, I believe it’s best to take on the region on your own. The typical tour from San Cristobal is a long and arduous journey. It definitely doesn’t allow you as much freedom as adventuring to Palenque on your own. Tours leave at 3 AM from San Cristobal. That was all I needed to know before deciding that I would find a way to explore Palenque at my own pace. I ain’t waking up at 3 AM for anything.
Getting to Palenque From San Cristobal
The city of Palenque is about five hours from San Cristobal, which is why most day tours require you to leave at around 3 AM. While Palenque town doesn’t boast much worth seeing, it’s worth putting up with for the multitude of adventures in the region.
Getting to Palenque By ADO Bus
From San Cristobal, you can catch an overnight ADO bus for just under 400 pesos, or about $20 USD. Personally, this is how I’d recommend getting from San Cristobal to Palenque. It is much more comfortable, safer, and the timing is honestly pretty great. You leave San Cristobal at night and arrive to Palenque at 8 AM. The timing allows you to have a full day of adventure right away. While the quickest way to Palenque only takes five hours, the night bus takes a few hours longer because the ADO bus takes a longer, safer route to get to Palenque.
Getting From San Cristobal to Palenque By Colectivo
If your goal is to get to Palenque as quickly and as cheaply as possible, then colectivos are the option for you. From San Cristobal, you can catch a colectivo headed to Ocosingo for 70 pesos. The journey to Ocosingo takes about two hours through the winding mountain roads. Once you arrive in Ocosingo, you can catch a colectivo to Palenque for 100 pesos. This ride takes around three hours, but is quite scenic all throughout.
If you want to hit some waterfalls on the way to Palenque, you can get dropped off at Agua Azul Waterfalls and Misol-Ha Waterfalls, both of which are on the main road from Palenque to Ocosingo. If you’re traveling light, it could be worth it to save a few hours of travel time by knocking them out while you’re already on the way.
Flights to Palenque
Palenque has a decently-sized airport, so it’s possible to fly into Palenque if you want to spend a little more money and save yourself the arduous journey by road. Depending on where you are in Mexico, flights can be pretty infrequent, or require a layover in a larger airport. It’s worth looking up if you have the money to spend.
The Best Things To Do in Palenque
Okay, so what are all these dope adventures that I keep hyping up? Let’s get to it.
Palenque Archaeological Site
To no one’s surprise, the main attraction of Palenque is none other than the ruins of Palenque itself. While the neighboring town is also called Palenque, no one actually really cares about the town itself. It’s all about the stunning archaeological site buried in the jungle just minutes away from downtown Palenque. These were my favorite ruins I visited in Mexico, edging out Teotihuacan and Uxmal. Its location in the jungle truly makes it feel like you’re exploring another world.
Apparently, only about 10% of the archaeological site has been excavated, and the rest of this sprawling Mayan city could still be buried underground and deeper in the jungle. It’s crazy to think just how much more of this amazing site has yet to be seen.
To visit the ruins of Palenque without a tour, you’ll need to catch a colectivo from the center of town. If you’re lucky to get a straight shot to the entrance, it should only cost you 20 pesos. However, when I went, there were COVID restrictions and specific entrance times, turning one colectivo ride into three. You have to pay two entrance fees to get into the ruins, which combined to around 170 pesos if I remember correctly.
About 40 minutes from downtown Palenque, you’ll find some of my favorite waterfalls in the Chiapas region. Misol-Ha is absolutely gorgeous. Many people visit Misol-Ha to take a magical dip in its beautiful waters. It’s a quick visit, as it is a lone waterfall. You can walk along the path behind the waterfall and also explore some caves near the back. Besides that and going for a swim, there’s not much to do but admire the stunning views.
Agua Azul Waterfalls
Agua Azul is the most popular waterfall in the area. That’s evident by the dozens and dozens of stalls lining the pathway along the river. While it is the most touristy and developed waterfall near Palenque, it’s definitely still worth the visit. It’s easy to spend the entire day here swimming, eating, and admiring the numerous waterfalls. To get here, you need to catch a colectivo headed towards Ocosingo and ask them to drop you off at Agua Azul. From there, it’s another taxi ride to get to the park, which costs 10 pesos per person. There are two entrance fees, but both are pretty low, adding up to 65 pesos total if I remember correctly.
I unfortunately didn’t get to stay too long in Palenque. As soon as I got there, I desperately wished that I gave myself more time to explore the area. That’s the reason why you should try visiting Palenque on your own and without a tour. For those who have a little more time to explore Palenque, here are a few of the other must-visit attractions in the region.
Other Archaeological Sites
Where To Stay in Palenque
For my fellow backpackers, there aren’t too many options to choose from in downtown Palenque itself. I was meeting my sister in Palenque, so we opted to stay at a hotel to treat ourselves after weeks of hostel life.
The place I’d recommend for my fellow backpackers to stay would be at Jungle Palace in El Panchan. With cheap dorms and private rooms, it’s a hard value to beat. The jungly vibe is also much more immersive than staying in Palenque town, which quite frankly doesn’t have too much to offer.
If you look on Hostelworld, there are only a couple of hostels in Palenque. And honestly, none of them are all that great. Palenque is more of a stop-over town for many travelers, so hostels are more just a place to crash than a place to feel at home and meet people.
I don’t usually stay at hotels while traveling, but I made the exception for Palenque. A nice, air-conditioned hotel room is honestly just fantastic to come home to after a day of adventuring in the jungle. I stayed at Posada Kin, which was great value for its price and close to Palenque’s main plaza.