San Cristóbal to Palenque and other Maya sites

Not far from San Cristóbal lie the waterfalls of Agua Azul, Agua Clara and Misol-Há, (although Agua Clara is currently out of bounds due to a Zapatista-military dispute), all easily reached on a day trip. The town of Palenque does not have much to offer, but the jungle settings of its nearby Maya ruins, as well as Bonampak and Yaxchilán further afield, are a big draw, with the possibility of crossing into Guatemala by boat.

Ocosingo

Palenque can be reached by paved road from San Cristóbal de las Casas, a beautiful ride via Ocosingo, which has a local airport, a colourful market and several hotels. It was one of the centres of fighting in the Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional (EZLN - Zapatista Army of National Liberation) uprising in January 1994 .

Toniná

Toniná is one of the last Classic Maya sites, with the palace high on a hill to your left. It is worth visiting the ruins, which were excavated by a French government team. The temples are in the Palenque style with internal sanctuaries in the back room, but influences from many different Maya styles of various periods have been found. The huge
pyramid complex
, seven stone platforms making a man-made hill, is 10 m higher than the Temple of the Sun at Teotihuacán and is the tallest pyramidal structure in the Maya world. Stelae are in very diverse forms, as are wall panels, and some are in styles and of subjects unknown at any other Maya site. Ask the guardian to show you the second unrestored ball court and the sculpture kept at his house. He will show you round the whole site; there is also a small
museum
.

Agua Azul

The series of jungle waterfalls and rapids at Agua Azul run for 7 km and are breathtakingly beautiful. They are easily visited on a day trip from Palenque. All the travel agencies and many hotels offer a tour there for about US$8.50, including a visit to the waterfall at Misol-Há. Agua Azul's main swimming area has many restaurants and indigenous children selling fruit. Swimming is good, in clear blue water during good weather, in muddy brown water during bad (but still refreshing if very hot, which it usually is). Swimmers should stick to the roped areas where everyone else can see them; the various graves on the steep path up the hill alongside the rapids are testament to the dangers of swimming in those areas. One of the falls is called 'The Liquidizer', an area of white water in which bathing is extremely dangerous. On no account should you enter this stretch of water; many drownings have occurred. Even in the designated areas, the currents can be ferocious. Beware of hidden tree trunks in the water if it is murky. The path on the left of the rapids can be followed for 7 km, with superb views and secluded areas for picnics. There are also several
palapas
for hammocks, plenty of space for free camping and some rooms to rent.

Agua Clara and Misol-Há

Eight kilometres from Agua Azul along the river is
Agua Clara
, a nature reserve. At the time of writing this was reportedly closed due to a dispute between the Mexican army and the local Zapatistas. Check with tourist office in Palenque if it's reopened. At
Misol-Há
, there is a stunning waterfall usually visited first on day trips from Palenque. A narrow path winds around behind the falls, allowing you to stand behind the immense curtain of water. Swimming is possible in the large pool at the bottom of the tumbling cascade, but it is usually better to wait until you get to Agua Azul for a good swim. However, during the rainy season swimming is reported to be better at Misol-Há, so go by bus or check with your tour operator, as most allow only a brief half-hour stop at Misol-Há.

Palenque town

A friendly and, at times, hot, humid and airless little town whose sole reason for being is to accommodate the large number of tourists heading for the famous archaeological site nearby. There is plenty of accommodation for every budget, with dozens of cheap
posadas
around the centre, and a new tourist
barrio
,
La Cañada
, with more expensive hotels, restaurants and bars. Souvenirs are available at lower prices than elsewhere on the Ruta Maya, making Palenque a convenient place to stop off en route to the southerly Chiapanecan towns of San Cristóbal and Tuxtla Gutiérrez. Travellers coming to Palenque from Mérida, Campeche and other cities in the Yucatán Peninsula will find it much hotter here any time of year, but particularly in June, July and August.

Five kilometres from Palenque town, but 3 km before the ruins,
El Panchan,
www.palenquemx.com/elpanchan
, is host to a fascinating mix of philosophies, food and intellectual interests. Don Moisés, founder of El Panchan, first came to Palenque as an archaeologist and was one of the first guides to the ruins. He bought a plot of land, named it El Panchan - Maya for 'heaven on earth' - and started to raise a family. Now he has divided lots among his children who run various businesses. It is about 10°C cooler at El Panchan than in Palenque town due to the dense foliage cover. Although vastly different, all businesses at El Panchan have intertwined themselves into the natural jungle that surrounds them, creating an almost Robinson Crusoe setting - if you don't want to stay in town and like the idea of being based in the forest, get a bus or taxi here soon after arriving in Palenque town.

This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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