Located in the foothills of the Chiapas altiplano of modern Mexico, Palenque was an important Mayan city first occupied around 100 BC, and flourished from around AD 630 to around 740. The name Palenque derives from Spanish, meaning ‘fortified place’, but the original Mayan name, we now know, was Lakamha.
Situated where the highland and coastal plains join, the site prospered as an inland trade center which allowed Palenque to control a large territory and form beneficial alliances with other powerful cities such as Tikal, Pomona, and Tortuguero.
Built on three different levels, the city follows the contours of the local terrain, and many of the limestone structures are built on natural hills. With over 1,000 different structures, it was one of the most densely populated Mayan cities. Eight small rivers running down from the surrounding mountains wind their way throughout, and the most important stream was called Otulum, which was redirected to bring water directly to the royal palace, and, in places, made to follow an underground aqueduct which supported platforms and walkways.
Architecture at Palenque was arguably the most innovative creations that arose from this Mayan civilization. For the first time in Mesoamerica, corbeled roofs were constructed, often in parallel, which brought greater interior space and, via the central supporting wall, improved structural stability.
However, after AD 900, Palenque was largely abandoned. In an area that receives the heaviest rainfall in Mexico, the ruins were soon overgrown, and the city remained unknown to the Western world until 1746, when Mayan hunters revealed the existence of a jungle palace to a Spanish priest named Antonio de Solis. Later explorers claimed Palenque was capital of an Atlantis-like civilization. The eccentric Count de Waldeck, who in his 60’s lived atop one of the pyramids for two years, even published a book with fanciful neoclassical drawings that made the city resemble a great Mediterranean civilization.
Today, on your visit to Palenque, be sure to stop by the impressive museum. The vast collection of sculptured art, busts, jade jewelry, and other relics of the Mayans offer up a small glimpse into their ancient world, and the broader sentiments regarding the complex history of Mexico.
The ruins of Palenque extend far beyond the boundaries of the small area visited by most tourists. Take time to explore, partake in bird watching activities, or take a break at one of the waterfalls to cool down and share stories with fellow travelers. It is hard not to think of Palenque as paradise.