What’s Palenque?

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Palenque is a Mayan site in Mexico with intricate sculpture and stunning architecture. Its history is still unclear, but it was ruled by K’uk Balam and later Pacal the Great oversaw major building projects. The Temple of Inscriptions is the most famous attraction. The city was abandoned in the mid-8th century and is relatively unexplored. It can be reached by plane or bus.

Palenque is a small Mayan site in Mexico. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and has been since 1987. Although much smaller than the Copan or Tikal sites, the site features some of the most intricate sculpture in the Mayan world and has truly stunning architecture, making it one of the most popular destinations in Mexico.
Palenque’s history is still somewhat obscured, as excavations have not yet been completed at the site. It was probably the location of the first settlements far back in the Mayan civilization. The recorded history of the site dates back to the early part of the 5th century when the city was ruled by K’uk Balam, or Quetzal Jaguar, the history of the following century is a bit murky, with a number of dynastic kings ruling the city.

Much of the city’s building history began in the late 6th century. Around that time, Palenque was attacked several times by the neighboring city-state of Calakmul and its allies, triggering a wave of new construction. The city was in political crisis for the next few decades, in the wake of attacks and dynastic instability.

The great builder of the city came soon after this period. His name was Ajaw K’inich Janaab ‘Pakal, or simply Pacal the Great. He oversaw many of the major building projects and was responsible for the site’s most impressive art. When he died, an impressive monument was erected to him, now known as the Temple of Inscriptions. The temple is the most famous attraction in Palenque and one of the most famous in the Mayan world. A high stone staircase leads up to the monument, which rests on a grass-covered step pyramid. The temple has numerous long, almost perfectly preserved inscriptions on it, making it a stunningly beautiful and extraordinarily important archaeological find.

After the rule of Janaab’ Pakal, Palenque continued to prosper for some decades. Building and art continued to play an important part in daily life in the city, and things continued well until Tonina invaded in the early 8th century, kidnapping and possibly killing the king. A period of kinglessness followed, and although a king was finally crowned a decade later, the kingdom never regained its former glory. The city was finally abandoned in the mid-8th century, coinciding with the abandonment of many important Mayan sites.

Palenque is relatively unexplored and in fact Pacal’s tomb was only discovered in the 1950s. There are thought to be around 500 distinct building projects at the site and just over 30 have been discovered so far. It is truly an archetypal city lost in the jungle, and its mysterious beauty is part of what gives it such an enduring appeal.

Getting to the site by plane involves flying into Villahermosa Regional Airport, via Mexico City. By bus the site can be reached from Mexico City, San Cristobal de las Casas, Cancun and Oaxaca, although most of these trips take at least half a day. Buses run from the town of Palenque to the site approximately every ten minutes, and taxis are also readily available.

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