Located on the western edge of the Mayan empire within the state of Chiapas, the ancient and UNESCO protected site of Palenque is one of the most outstanding, and well-preserved archaeological sites in the region. Archaeologists estimate Palenque's initial construction at about 220BC, with the city rising to be a great power in the region by 500AD. The site spans 1780 hectares, and 1,400 buildings have been recorded though only 10% of these have been fully explored. Today, Palenque's ruins sit within a jungle of cedar and mahogany trees, and showcase some of the finest Mayan sculpted reliefs in Mexico.
Palenque is best explored in the early morning, to avoid both the crowds of visitors – which top 600,000 per year – and the humidity of tropical Chiapas. A private evening tour is also an option. Using Palenque as a base, it is also possible to visit the ruins of Yaxchilan and Bonampak in one day.
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Palenque enjoyed the peak of its power from 500–700AD, at which point its influence extended throughout the Usumacinta River basin. The site demonstrates some intelligent urban planning from the Mayans, with residential areas, monumental edifices and an administrative centre. The creativity of Palanque's Mayan creators is further demonstrated through the intricate bas-reliefs that adorn the pyramids, telling tales of Mayan mythology. After the fall of the city, Palenque was overtaken by vegetation, which protected the site from both looting, and weathering.
If travelling to Palenque from San Cristobal, we'd suggest a visit to the ancient city of Toniná, which is much less visited than Palenque. Ironically, it was Toniná that caused the demise of Palenque, with the capture of ruler K'an Joy Chitam II, but this Mayan powerhouse is nowhere near as infamous as Palenque today. Toniná has over 100 carved monuments, mostly dating from the 6th century.