Like many of the places that I have visited on my trip around Mexico, Palenque was not somewhere that I had previously heard of. It was only as I arrived in Mexico, and I heard others talking about it that I decided it was a place that I needed to visit.
In reality, the reason for my visit to Palenque was twofold. Firstly, it was the perfect point to stop off on the long journey between Bacalar and San Cristobal des las Casas. Secondly, it is home to possibly the second most famous Mayan ruins in the whole of Mexico.
I had also been told that it was not really worth spending a lot of time in Palenque as a city. This is not something that sits very well with me. I like to take my time when travelling. In destinations that others dismiss, I enjoy finding places that are unique. That might be a wonderful little museum, a tiny restaurant hidden down a back alley, or just a great spot to sit and watch the world go by. So, upon my dishevelled arrival into Palenque, the night bus from Bacalar had been a rough one, I made it my aim to not only see what the tourists love about Palenque but find something that made the city of Palenque worth a visit.
My first order of business was to drop off my bags in the hostel. There were not many choices for cheap accommodation in Palenque so I had opted for the cheapest that I could find and hoped for the best. I was pleasantly surprised upon my arrival. It was barely 8 am, yet there was no problem for me to check in and be given my bed in the dormitory. Most importantly, this mean that I was able to shower and change my clothes. Something that believe you me, I needed to do after the overnight bus.
The main reason that I had wanted to come to Palenque was the Mayan ruins. I had heard people say throughout my travels in southern Mexico, that the ruins in Palenque were far superior to those at Chichen Itza. I personally was slightly disappointed by Chichen Itza, so the promise of better ruins was one that I relished.
The ruins themselves are very easy to get to. It costs 20 mex in a collectivo from the town centre straight to the ruins, a journey that only takes about 15 minutes. Once you reach the ruins, you will have to pay two separate entrance fees. The ruins are located in a national park which you will have to pay to enter, 98 mex, before you then have to buy the ticket for the ruins themselves, 85 mex.
This makes the whole trip to the ruins cost only slightly more than $10 USD. I have to say, the ruins surpassed my expectations. Not only were they less than half the price of Chichen Itza, but I also thought they were far better. There is the option to take a guided tour of the ruins, something we opted against as we had read that there were plenty of signs that provided more than enough information. Luckily, in this instance the information online was totally accurate. I am sure that I would have found out plenty of interesting material had I taken a guided tour, but as a poor backpacker, it didn’t seem worth it.
Not only were there far fewer tourists, but I could also actually move without an American in a sports jersey bumping into me, the ruins themselves were more impressive. Granted, the main pyramid at Chichen Itza is stunning, but I felt that the rest of the site was a let down. Palenque on the other hand, had a plethora of buildings that were better preserved than those at Chichen Itza. The carvings that can be found throughout the site are beautiful and really demonstrate how advanced and complex the Mayan society was. The setting, in the rolling mountains of Southern Mexico, also added to the beautiful nature of the ruins.
However, I have to mention that even at Palenque you will not escape people attempting to flog you a variety of “handmade” goods. I really do have to respect the Mexicans in this regard, they are the ultimate hustlers. If there is money to be made somewhere they will make it. A lot of the time that involves bombarding tourists. I have no doubt that some of the items that they sell are truly handmade, but dubiously almost every single stall seemed to sell identical items, so I will leave that one up to you do deduce.
After spending a couple of hours at the ruins, I headed back to town. This was my first mistake of the day. The problem with Palenque as a city is that it just isn’t very appealing. Mexico has created a system of 132 Pueblos Magicios (magical towns) across the country for towns that have “maintained their original architecture, traditions, history, and culture. As well as to those that have been of great relevance to the country’s history”. Palenque is somehow one such town.
The Visit Mexico website describes Pueblos Magicos as places of “exceptional beauty” that will “most definitely captivate you”. Now I don’t mean to be rude, but whatever the person was taking who decided that Palenque had “exceptional beauty”, I want some. As I mentioned, I always try to find somewhere beautiful in every town or city that I visit. In the city of Palenque this was just not possible. Not the main square, not a lovely little café and not even a cute little museum in the whole town was able to captivate me.
The only thing about Palenque that made me curious was the absurd number of barbers that it had. Now, I have been to a fairly large number of places across the world, but I can honestly say nowhere has ever had as a greater density of barbers than Palenque. In the centre of the city, there was at least one barber on every block, often two next door to one another. Why the people of Palenque need their hair cut so much is beyond me. The city only has a population of around 110,000 for goodness’ sake. They must be the best groomed people in the entire world.
Short of anything better to do in the city, it seemed as though a haircut was the perfect activity to undertake that afternoon. This was my second mistake of the day. I have to preface this by stating that my Spanish is basic, however, the phrase un poquito (a very little bit) is one that is firmly party of my vocabulary. So, upon choosing a barber, named Elegante Barbero (I mean if they are elegant, they must be good right?), I requested, in my finest Spanish, that the barber only use scissors and crucially only trim my hair only “un poquito”.
It seems that somehow my un poquito, which the barber acknowledged by repeating back to me might I add, was lost in translation. I spent the next 20 minutes sat in the chair, watching in horror as my head was, for lack of a better word, sheared. How can a city whose specialism seems to be cutting hair fail at such a basic task as understanding the phrase, un poquito? Part of me was quite interested to see what would have happened should I have asked for a lot taken off my hair, but luckily for everyone involved I didn’t.
The only positive of the whole experience was that the barber managed not to cut my ear. This might seem to be a very low bar to be setting but believe me you weren’t sat in that chair. Never before have I had a barber watch the television whilst cutting my hair. When I say watching the television, I don’t mean a casual glance every now and again. I mean that this man was fully engrossed in the questionable Mexican soap. So much so he would laugh at the jokes. This might not seem like a problem, but I would rather a man holding scissors, or at times even a razor, to my head was not laughing whilst still in the process of cutting my hair. Maybe though, that is just me.
I paid a whole 50 mex (£2) for the privilege of having my hair entirely ruined, which I guess could have been worse, but I was still very glad to get out of Elegante Barbero.
Not only was there nothing worth doing in the city itself, even if you wanted to you would have struggled. Palenque is not close to any body of water, very humid, and when I was there, had temperatures in the mid-30s. All of this together meant that trying to do anything between the hours of 10 and 4 was impossible. You might think that is an overstatement, but I can honestly tell you it isn’t. Within about 37 milliseconds of leaving any building, you are dripping with sweat. I am talking wet through. As if you have just showered fully clothed. On its own this is very uncomfortable but added to everything else that Palenque didn’t have going for it, it was the final straw.
After one night, without air conditioning, I was more than happy to be leaving this “magical town”. The problem is that no trip to Mexico would be complete without visiting the city of Palenque. It has arguably the best Mayan ruins in the whole country and is a perfect stopping point for those travelling between the east and the west of the country. However, whatever you do, don’t get your haircut there.