A guide to how to get to Palenque in Chiapas, Mexico – and how to visit the Mayan ruins in the Palenque Archeological Zone…
One of the largest Mayan sites in Mexico, but far less known than Chichen Itza, the ruins at Palenque are an incredible sight.
This was a huge Mayan city from around 200BC to 800AD. After it was abandoned, the city was overtaken by the jungle – and today only about 3% of the buildings have been excavated. The rest remain lost to the jungle, overgrown by towering sequoias and tangled vines, their mossy walls blending into the ground.
For those seeking Mayan ruins with fewer crowds than Chichen Itza and Tulum, the Palenque ruins are a must-visit. The modern-day town of the same name is also an ideal jumping-off point for evocative jungle adventures, waterfall tours, and exploring Chiapas state.
But getting there can be a bit of a challenge! Palenque is tucked away in the corner of Chiapas, not far from the Guatemalan border, and it’s not really near any other major tourist hubs.
So, I’ve outlined the best ways to get to Palenque – as well as how to get to the Archeological Zone ruins (with or without a tour guide) and some tips for visiting them.
Don’t want to read the whole guide? Use the table of contents below to jump straight to the section you need! Buen viaje…
- How to Get to Palenque (the Town)
- Visiting Palenque Ruins with a Tour
- How to Get to Palenque Ruins
- Do I need a guide for Palenque?
- Is Driving in Chiapas Safe?
- More on Palenque and nearby
How to Get to Palenque (the Town)
The closest airport to Palenque is Villahermosa in neighbouring Tabasco state. From there, it’s about a two-hour drive or 2.5 hours by bus to Palenque.
You can also fly into Tuxtla Gutiérrez, the capital of Chiapas state. This is around a 6-hour drive to Palenque (7 hours by bus), but you could always stop off at the beautiful mountain town of San Cristobal de las Casa along the way.
FYI – driving in some parts of Chiapas isn’t always safe due to an ongoing conflict between some local indigenous groups and the Mexican government. I’ll share more details at the end of this blog post.
ADO run several buses a day to Palenque from Villahermosa (starting from $110 MXN). From Tuxtla, OCC (a partner company of ADO) run a few buses each day to Palenque, including overnight buses. These take about 7 hours and cost around $380 MXN.
Getting from Cancun to Palenque by bus takes 13 to 14 hours, so it’s not an easy trip. You can take an overnight bus and travel the full distance in one go.
If you prefer to break the journey up, you could stop in Campeche for a day or two. It’s 7-8 hours to Campeche, then 6 hours from Campeche to Palenque. You could also stop in Merida or Valladolid on the way to Campeche to break the journey up even further.
From Merida to Palenque is about 9 hours by bus. ADO run both a day and a night bus (around $950 MXN) so you can choose whichever suits your schedule best.
From San Cristobal de las Casas
The road between San Cristobal de las Casas and Palenque is known to have frequent blockades (see the section on driving in Chiapas at the end of this post).
Either for this reason, or simply because it’s such a winding mountain road, the ADO buses go the long way round (via Tuxtla Gutierrez and Villahermosa) – resulting in a 9+ hour bus ride.
A much better alternative is to book a private transfer or a tour that includes a transfer. Many local companies offer a waterfalls tour which includes a transfer from San Cristobal to Palenque (or vice versa). This is what I did (click here for the tour I booked) and it was a great way to travel between the two towns.
Worth noting: after the waterfalls tour, we were transferred onto another bus for the journey to San Cristobal. A police escort guarded us while we swapped! It was a little unnerving to know this was necessary, but good to know that the authorities are taking care of tourists.
Visiting Palenque Ruins with a Tour
Most people who head to Palenque are there to visit the ancient Mayan ruins at the Zona Arqueologica de Palenque (Archeological Zone). These are within the Palenque National Park just outside of town, about a 20-minute drive from the centre.
You can drive there yourself, or take a cab or public transport (more on that below). But if you’re the kind of person who prefers joining an organised tour, there are plenty of options. Pop into one of the tour company offices in the tourist area, or book one of these tours online:
- GetYourGuide: Agua Azul, Misol-Ha and Palenque Ruins Day Tour (from US$99pp)
- Viator: Private tour of Palenque Ruins (from US$115pp)
- Viator: Archaeological Zone, Misol-Ha Waterfall and Agua Azul (from US$51pp)
How to Get to Palenque Ruins
Don’t fancy a tour? It’s VERY easy to visit Palenque Ruins yourself using public transport.
You can hire a guide when you get to the park entrance, or simply explore the ruins alone. Here’s how to visit Palenque Archaeological Zone…
- Take a colectivo (minibuses that run a public transport service) to the ruins. These leave from directly outside the ADO bus station and usually have a sign in the window that says “Ruinas” (ruins). The fee is 20 MXN per person – try to have the change ready.
- The colectivo will drop you at the ticket office so you can pay your entry fee. As of January 2023, the cost was 104 MXN to enter the National Park, plus 90 MXN to enter the ruins.
- FYI – the Museo de Sitio de Palenque is here at the ticket office. You can visit it before or after you explore the ruins.
- If it waited, hop back on the colectivo to get to the actual entrance to the ruins. You can also walk – it’s about 1km from the ticket office to the ruins following the road.
- Show your ticket and enter the Palenque Ruins. You can hire a guide if you like (see below), or explore at your own leisure.
- Once you’re done exploring, take the Motiepá trail through the forest back down towards the ticket office and Museum. This trail will take you through the jungle and past a pretty waterfall.
- Take a colectivo back to Palenque town centre.
Food, facilities and toilets at Palenque Ruins
There are a lot of vendors and few different food stalls in front of the entrance to the ruins. I recommend bringing some snacks with you as the prices will generally be higher within the Archaeological Zone.
Inside the ruins, I saw vendors selling souvenirs etc, but no food or drinks. So be sure to buy water before entering.
There are several toilets within Palenque Archeological Zone. You’ll find them at the ticket office (these are the nicest), as well as just before the entrance to the ruins, and within the ruins site itself.
What to take to the ruins
- Plenty of water!
- Mosquito repellent is VITAL – the ruins are surrounded by forest and the mozzies here are no joke!
- Suncream, sunhat etc.
- Wear loose, comfy clothing and try to keep covered – the sun can be pretty fierce!
- Trainers/sneakers or sturdy walking sandals are a good idea. Although there are paths throughout the main Archeological Zone site, it’s a large area and you’ll be walking a lot. Plus, you can climb some of the pyramids (which are uneven stone steps) – and if you head into the jungle the paths can be muddy.
Do I need a guide for Palenque?
A LOT of guides will offer you their services, both at the ticket office and park entrance. Having one can be helpful if you want a more in-depth history of the ruins and some info about how the Mayans lived, but it’s not essential.
The Zona Archeologica is well signposted, there’s a map at the entrance and a path leading around the site. There are signs in English and Spanish at all the pyramids and temples, so you’ll get a pretty good overview of what you’re looking at. And you can learn a lot more at the Museum before or after you visit the ruins.
How much do guides cost?
If you do want a guide, it’s worth noting that you pay one price for the guide rather than per person. So if there are a few of you you can split the cost. If you’re visiting Palenque solo it works out more expensive, but you may find some other solo travellers who want to team up.
The official prices for guided tours are advertised as 1300 for the “tour corto” (short tour – just exploring the main area) and 2600mxn for the “tour largo” (the long tour, which also features a short walk through the nearby jungle). You can sometimes haggle these prices down, especially on quieter days. The best price we were able to get offered was 1300mxn for the long tour.
The Palenque “jungle tour”
The “jungle tour” is an add on to the main tour, and rather an expensive one for what you get. Some guides will also offer you just the jungle tour, without the ruins, for a cheaper price – which is what I ended up doing.
In fairness, the tour was pretty cool. But it was basically a short, one hour walk in the jungle close to the entrance to the ruins. We saw traces of moss-covered walls belonging to un-excavated ruins, towering trees, jungle plants and howler monkeys.
However, it wasn’t quite as exciting as the guide made it sound when he pitched it to us. Plus, you can actually enter the jungle yourself on the Motiepá Trail – and we saw howler monkeys in the car park outside the Archeological Zone. On balance, I would say you could probably skip the jungle tour.
Is Driving in Chiapas Safe?
As mentioned above, some of the roads in Chiapas state are considered to be unsafe. Most notably, the road between San Cristobal de las Casas and Palenque.
Many will advise you to take the highway via Villahermosa – it looks like a longer way around on the map, but is actually about the same drive time as the winding mountain road.
On the whole, Chiapas is a safe state and very popular with tourists – so I don’t want the following to put you off visiting! But if you’re planning a road trip in Mexico, it’s worth being aware of the situation.
There is an ongoing conflict within Chiapas between a local group fighting for indigenous people’s rights – known as Zapatistas – and the Mexican government.
Within Chiapas, there are several autonomous territories, called Rebel Zapatista Autonomous Municipalities. The region’s autonomy isn’t recognised by the government, so tensions can be high at times.
Although there is currently no active conflict, there have been instances of protests and blockades along the road between Palenque and San Cristobal. I’ve also heard reports of locals putting a rope across the road and not letting cars pass until they buy something or hand over some cash.
Public buses take the longer highway road between the two towns (via Villahermosa), while private transfers that take the mountain road seem to have protection from the local police force. I took a private transfer here recently and we had an armed police guard while we changed buses after our tour! My friend travelled a couple of days before and told us she had a police escort for part of the journey.
If you do drive, only travel during the day. It’s a good idea to have some $100 MXN notes ready in case you encounter a blockade.
More on Palenque and nearby
I hope you found this guide on how to get to Palenque and the Archaeological Zone ruins helpful. Got a question? Scroll down and leave me a comment – I’ll try to help if I can!