Palenque was, for us, a location we had no previous intentions of visiting (we had no idea of its existence until about a week before we went there), but, as fate sometimes makes decisions for us, we eventually ended up indirectly finding our way there from Guadalajara.
I finished the previous post, “Grand Old Guadalajara – 2022,” by recounting how, after a night of overindulgence, we woke up late, rushed to the airport with no hope of making it on time, and missed our flight. That ended up being a rather costly little blunder.
Where we were headed (and finally made it to) was Chetumal, a completely forgettable town in the south-westernmost state of Quintana Roo, right on the Mexico/Belize border.
Chetumal wasn’t a bad place to be; it’s just that it’s rather boring and not very pretty, with few attractions for visitors. There are a few decent restaurants in Chetumal; the people are quite friendly, and the delivery services are really good, but after a month of holing up in our clean (albeit sparsely furnished) little apartment, there isn’t much to talk about.
During our month at Chetumal, we did go for a two-day getaway to beautiful Bacalar, where, instead of doing any of the many adventurous things on our list, we went out until the wee hours of the morning (which was excellent fun) and were, let’s say… bedridden on day two, finally managing to drag ourselves out of our hotel room and across the plaza for some delicious hamburgers.
Bacalar is fun and beautiful, with many things to do and see, but I intend to write a full post on it if we ever return (which is more than likely). I think that little town requires a stay of probably at least two weeks to get an honest feel for it, and I have a feeling it could end up being our favourite place in all of Mexico. We’d like to spend the time testing that hypothesis. Until then, though, a post on lovely little Bacalar will have to wait.
A Few Pictures of Bacalar Anyway
Following our very reclusive and productive time in Chetumal (which is brutally hot, by the way), we decided to cure our cabin fever with a trip to Palenque, a smallish town in the north-eastern corner of the state of Chiapas.
One thing that was immediately noticeable about Palanque was the absence of the quintessential Mexican garbage problem. The town, though it’s in one of the poorest states of Mexico, is very well-kept and nice. Another quite obvious difference in Palenque was the quality of the food. Most places in Mexico (not Guadalajara) don’t provide consistently delicious dining. In every new place you try, there is an equal chance of potential disappointment as there is of a pleasant surprise. In Palenque, those odds don’t apply.
Welcome to Palenque
After about a week in town, we became fairly confident that anywhere we might find food would most likely satisfy not only our basic nutritional needs but our palates as well. I can’t remember being disappointed anywhere we dined. Even the street food was good. Actually, one of those street-side BBQ’s (made out of a grubby barrel) served us some of the most delicious chicken I’ve ever had, for as close to free as it’s possible to be without actually being free. And that’s saying a thing, because in ALL of Latin America, people know what’s up when it comes to preparing the pollo.
To anyone reading this post who has read other posts on this blog, it’s probably obvious to you how important food culture is in the lives of my wife and I. If this is the first post you’ve read on the blog, then let me just tell you that food culture is very important to my wife and I. I’d say that the two most important factors in deciding whether we like a place or not are the people and the food. In that order.
We spent a total of six weeks in Palenque over two separate stays, with a two-week excursion to Guatemala to break up the time, and our overall impression was that Palenque was pretty cool. It’s not what I would call the greatest place in the whole wide world, but it’s far from the worst. It has some definite good points and one or two not-so-good qualities.
Seeing as I’ve already begun the post about Palenque on a positive note in general, and about food in particular, and because I always write in detail about the culture of gastronomy in every place I’ve been (because I’m deeply in love with good dining), I might as well continue.
As with any town we stay in for any length of time (which is almost all of them, even the shitty ones, unfortunately), to include every decent place (or even remember them) that served yummy grub would not only be nearly impossible, it would also be time consuming and boring. So, as usual, I’ll include the disclaimer that I’ve likely forgotten a few establishments that could have been mentioned, but I’ll try and do better should I ever return to… blah, blah, blah.
My dear wifey and I ate at quite a few great restaurants, a lot of really good ones, and some not so good. I remember some of them; I don’t remember others, and that’s the way it is. C’est la vie.
To get to Palenque from other parts of Mexico, it’s possible to fly to the Palenque International Airport, drive your own vehicle, get a driver, or take the bus. There are probably other ways as well, but you and I probably won’t be doing any of them, so we’ll go on the assumption that what I’ve previously stated is true.
Because we had massive amounts of luggage, we took the bus, a method that, from what I noticed, seemed to be very popular with locals and foreigners alike.
Buses arrive in Palenque along Highway 199, unloading and picking up passengers at the ADO terminal on the west side of town. Just on the other side of the traffic circle and slightly to the north is the swankier area of Palenque, called La Cañada, where most of the nicest hotels and restaurants are found. On the very eastern edge of Cañada, just before the bridge that takes one into “regular” Palenque, is a nice restaurant going by the name of “Cafe Jade.”
Cafe Jade, La Cañada, Palenque
This was one of the first places we ate, and like most of the hotels and restaurants in the fancy area of town, it caters almost entirely to tourists, both Mexican and otherwise. That in no way detracted from the quality of the food or service, though, and we went there frequently over the course of our time in Palenque.
Right across the street from Cafe Jade was another place that became a semi-regular haunt for us, though more as a place for an evening drink than for its food (which was also great). We would have dined there more often, but we usually didn’t remember that they served great food until we’d already eaten elsewhere.
The name of that one was “Chivo,” which just means goat in Spanish.
I’ve come across a lot of places throughout Latin America called “Chivo,” even though they don’t seem to have anything goaty about them but the name. I never figured out what the draw to goats is in Latin America, and I never asked about it either. Maybe it’s the same draw that some northern Colombians have to donkeys, in which case I don’t want to know.
On the other end of Cañada from Chivo and Cafe Jade is a restaurant we didn’t discover until just a few days before leaving Palenque. Bleto Brunch and Dinner served truly exceptional fare, and in the last few days we were in town, we ate there three times. The staff were also notably fantastic and friendly. I would recommend the place to anyone.
Outside of Cañada, in the “regular” part of town, are many more restaurants, catering to locals and tourists alike. And, although, as I’ve previously stated, all of the food in Palenque was good, there were a few places that still stand out to me.
Cafe De Yara, on Primera Avenida Nte. Pte. and Calle Abasolo, served up good drinks, great dinners, and great desserts. It was another place we felt the need to go on multiple occasions. The service was a bit slow, but friendly and well worth the wait.
El Fogon Norteño, whose food was not especially outstanding (not especially good, really), always provided excellent service, had a good street view, and offered big tabletop beer kegs for a ridiculously low price. And as far as I could tell, the beer wasn’t watered down much, if at all. After sharing a keg of beer with my wife, I certainly felt like we’d gotten our money’s worth.
A Big Beer at El Fogon Norteño
For the best wings and burgers (in a town where good wings and burgers aren’t hard to find), La Papita Vintage Palenque really stood out. The wings are huge and smothered in home-made (and very creative) sauces made with delicious local ingredients. The burgers were obviously crafted with as much care and creativity as the wings, and we departed La Papita weighing a few more pounds than when we entered it.
Of all these eateries, however, the one that actually surprised us the most was Taqueria Tropitacos.
From the street, it has a very fast-food/caféteria kind of look, and we passed it by a good number of times before agreeing that if there were always so many locals there, it must be okay. So we decided to give it a go.
It was no life-altering “I saw God” kind of experience or anything, but Taqueria Tropicanos definitely delivered far more than we had initially expected it would. The beef was better quality than a lot of beef in Mexico, the portions were more than adequate, there were a lot of options, and the service was great. What more can you ask for? Oh yeah, the cost.
For two big adults to fill up on delicious tacos and get a large Jamaica juice each, the grand total was under $15 US. We went back again.
Sometimes looks can be deceiving.
We were rather pleasantly surprised with the food in Palanque, for sure. It may have been part of the reason we stayed in the little town for so long.
When not eating at restaurants (which did happen), we found the Chedraui Palenque Pakal more than adequate to supply our rather picky appetites and daily living needs.
Not only do they carry all of the fruits, vegetables, beer, wine, and other staples one becomes familiar with in Mexico, but they also carry a considerable array of foreign products we tend to miss so dearly in many countries around the world. Essential goods such as tea (real tea), various wines, good butter, actual loaves of bread (not the bleached blocks of lifeless dough that most places in Mexico pass off as bread), all kinds of meats and cheeses, pasta, and much more.
The apartment where we ended up staying the longest was only a five-minute walk to the Chedraui and no more than ten to Cañada. And for those days when a five-minute walk was too taxing, there was a decent abbarote (small shop) right around the corner and an OXXO not much past that.
For travellers not looking to set up in Palenque for as long as we did, there are plenty of good short-term options. Of the accommodations we found besides our apartment, there were three hotels and a B&B we stayed at that I figure are worth mentioning. I’ll list them from the nicest to the best value on a budget.
Hotel Maya Tulipanes Palenque is a big, three-star establishment located in the in the Cañada area of Palenque, not even a three-minute walk from the ADO bus terminal and even closer to Bleto Brunch and Dinner (which I had previously mentioned as being an excellent place to eat).
The hotel is big and clean, has a nice outdoor pool (which, as usual, we didn’t use) with a comfortable poolside lounging area, and is run by very friendly, professional, and accommodating staff. There’s also an on-site restaurant called Bambu (which we never went to because we’d already established our favourite spots around town) and a bar.
If we’d stayed for any length of time, we almost certainly would have enjoyed an entire day inside the walls of Hotel Maya Tulipanes, swimming, lounging, eating, and drinking within easy stumbling distance of our room. Perhaps one day.
In addition to all of these good things, I believe that on-site tour bookings are offered at the hotel, with transportation for said tours picking up guests and dropping them off right outside the front door.
The Maya Tulipanes Palenque Hotel was excellent. It’s clean, in a killer location, has a lot to offer, and is definitely worth checking out.
Hotel Maya Tulipanes
Not even a three-minute walk from Hotel Maya Tulipanes (and about ten seconds away from Bleto Brunch and Dinner) is another very pleasant place to stay. Hotel Cañada Internacional (in, yup, you guessed it, the Cañada area) wasn’t quite as nice overall as Hotel Maya Tulipanes, but the rooms are much bigger, albeit a bit older (and lacking electrical sockets), and our stay there was also quite comfortable.
It’s also got an outdoor pool and lounging area, which, again, we never used.
* * *
I don’t know why we stay at hotels with pools. In every ten hotels we stay at that have pools, we might swim in two of them. Maybe hotels with pools are generally a bit nicer than those without, or something like that. I think we just enjoy being near water. For us, the pool thing is in the same category as an included breakfast, which we also almost never take advantage of. I suppose it’s better to have options and not use them than to have no options.
* * *
Hotel Cañada Internacional doesn’t have a bar or restaurant like Maya Tulipanes does, but there are a couple of cozy sitting areas in the lobby, and a covered area that’s close to the entrance.
The staff were very friendly and helpful, the rooms were big and clean, and our stay there was relaxing and nice.
Outside of the Cañada area, we only stayed in one hotel. Hotel Maya Rue is two short blocks from the central plaza of Palenque and, thus, close to everything downtown. It’s a funky little building that incorporates rustic log accents in the rooms and has big, super comfortable beds.
Breakfast there was included in the booking price, and we actually took advantage of that on one of the days. It wasn’t really anything to write home about, but it was good for a little morning boost and temporarily staved off starvation, affording us the luxury of taking a bit of time at the hotel before heading out for the day.
Often, when we skip included breakfasts, I end up hangry and impatient and occasionally find myself and my dear wife (who is growing less patient every year, understandably) eating crap food in some close-by greasy spoon.
Included breakfasts are something I endeavour to take better advantage of, whether I wake up hungover or not. If not entirely for my own sake, then for the sake of my wife.
For a few days (while temporarily low on funds), we needed to find cheap accommodations until one of our bank accounts got an essential cash infusion. Because we have standards, and because cheap doesn’t always have to mean shabby, and because my wife is a… determined (STUBBORN!!!) person, she found us a very well-appointed and affordable B&B in Palenque’s downtown area called apartment Frieda Khalo.
As I’ve stated, it was in an excellent location and very cutely put together, but on top of that, it had good wifi, a refrigerator, a two-burner hot plate, a few pots and pans, and enough dishes to make simple meals. I can’t exactly remember what we paid for the few nights we were there, but it wasn’t much, and we didn’t feel like we had been forced to greatly lower our standards due to the cost.
Palenque is known for its beautiful nature, and there are many attractions in all directions surrounding the town, and plenty of tour operators who are more than willing to take visitors to them. But the Zona Arqueologica Palenque (Palenque Archeological Zone) was the main reason we decided to go to Palenque.
Located in the foothills of the Chiapas altiplano of modern Mexico, Palenque was an important Maya city which flourished between c. 600 and 750 CE. The name Palenque derives from the Spanish, meaning ‘fortified place’, but the original Maya name, we now know, was Lakamha. Situated where the highland and coastal plains join, the site prospered as an inland trade centre which allowed Palenque to control a large territory and form beneficial alliances with other powerful cities such as Tikal, Pomoná, and Tortuguero. Palenque is listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.
By Mark Cartwright
published on 07 October 2014 – World History Encyclopedia
We planned on making at least an entire day of Palenque, so we booked two nights at Margarita and Ed’s Cabañas in a beautiful little area called El Panchan, right beside Paraiso Maya Palenque. To get to El Panchan, we flagged down a taxi driver near Palenque Centro who drove us to the edge of town to find an ATM (which didn’t work out) and then back into Centro to a machine that worked with our foreign cards. When we had that sorted out, he zipped us out to El Panchan and waited with us until someone who could help us arrived.
He didn’t charge much at all for all the driving around and helping us, even with the extra time and distance to find a working ATM.
Arriving to El Panchan
In all of the time we’ve spent in Mexico, very few cab drivers have been anything less than honest and helpful, even late at night when we’ve been inebriated and potential “easy targets.” I speak Spanish, though, and we’re both very friendly and talkative, so I think that must have something to do with it.
You can also get to El Panchan (and the ruins and many other attractions) by taking one of the many collectivo buses that can be found throughout Palenque. They leave from designated areas in town on semi-regular intervals and cost very little. They’re safe and reliable, and many people choose to get around in this manner.
Margarita and Ed were, of course, super friendly and helpful, and although the cabin we stayed at was indeed rather rustic, it was in the middle of a beautiful jungle and only a short walk to what would be considered the centre of Panchan. We loved it.
The Path to Margarita and Ed’s
Along one of the many very well-marked and well-maintained trails in El Panchan sits the restaurant you see when first arriving at El Panchan, Don Mucho’s.
All Roads Lead to Don Mucho’s
Don Mucho’s is very big, with seating for probably as many people as can fit in all of the surrounding cabins and bungalows. It’s also staffed by people who are even friendlier and more personable than the already incredibly friendly and personal waiters and waitresses in Palenque Center. Not only that, but the food out there in the jungle was over-the-top delicious.
Mucho Delicioso, Don Mucho’s
As I’ve stated numerous times throughout the Mexico posts on this blog, in most areas of Mexico it’s difficult to find consistently good grub. And, for some reason, pizza is one of those items that, almost everywhere we went, never quite met our standards or expectations. But, once again, Palenque (well, close enough to Palenque) came through big time. Every meal at Don Mucho’s was exceptional. Our couple of days in El Panchan in general were a nice treat.
On the day of our visit to the ruins, we caught a collectivo out on the highway in front of El Panchan, which brought us to the entrance of the park. After arriving at the park entrance, we realized we could have saved the 40 pesos ($2 US) and walked, but, really, it was only $2, so who cares?
All visitors have to buy a relatively inexpensive entry ticket before continuing to the ruins. After purchasing tickets, there is an option to either get a ride the rest of the way up the hill or hike through the jungle. We hiked through the jungle. It was so worth it.
There are remnants of smaller parts of the settlement along the hiking trail and a beautiful stream, and the pace and peacefulness of the jungle was so relaxing that the steep portions of the trail (including numerous sets of stairs we had to climb) didn’t seem all that difficult. It was worth the sweat and the sore muscles.
A Nice Little Hike to the Ruins
Luckily, the trail is fairly short, and we arrived at the main site quickly.
The main structures of the Palenque ruins are situated on quite a large plateau, with at least four other notable structures sitting on a small terrace above the main area. There are a number of huge trees offering much-appreciated shade dotting the landscape, and vendors can be found under many of them. The rest of the trees provide only shade, which is free.
We spent nearly five hours exploring the ruins and sitting under trees, and it was certainly time well spent. The ruins are an important part of Maya history and culture, and the site is amazing and intriguing, but, to be very honest, after visiting Athens and exploring the Acropolis (which was built at least 600 years before Palenque), it’s not really as mind-blowingly spectacular as it might be to someone who hasn’t seen truly amazing ancient ruins before.
The Ruins at Palenque
That being said, what impressed me most about Palenque were the intricately inscribed stone sheets found in the museum below, at the entrance to the park. The details on some of the inscriptions are a study in perfection, and the sheer size of some of the pieces is truly impressive. What got me as well was the fact that these people used a character alphabet and inscribed it into stone sheets with an astounding level of precision, considering what tools they must have been working with.
At the Museum
So, though some of the other ancient sites I’ve seen around the world are more visually and architecturally amazing, I’m not downplaying the historical importance or even the coolness of Palenque, and if I am ever in the area again, I’ll definitely be visiting the ruins. And I’ll definitely stay at El Panchan and dine at the fabulous Don Mucho’s again too.
For people on a tighter schedule, or just want the simplicity of a tour to the ruins straight from your hotel or nearby pickup point, I would strongly recommend this one.
Our roughly six weeks in Palenque were mostly well spent (some of the best times were at Club Deportivo Billar Olimpico, playing pool well past closing time and drinkin’ beer), and I’m glad for the experience, even with some of the blatant whitey-hating racism I experienced. It wasn’t anywhere near as bad as Guatemala (which I’ll cover in a different post), or even Merida (in the Yucatan state of Mexico), but it was enough to affect whether or not I would actually consider another visit.
After leaving Palenque, we spent a week in Merida, which was derelict, grubby, flooded, racist, and grossly overrated, in my opinion. All the Merida pictures online are of the only nice area of the city, and it’s not that great. From there, we continued on to Cancun and stayed for a few relaxing days in a quiet little resort, about a ten-minute drive from the city center. Then, after two solid years of travelling, we finally returned to Canada.
After the first two weeks in Palenque, our six-month visitor’s stamp for Mexico was up, so, to reset our time, we decided to take a trip to Guatemala. We had no concrete plan and considered making our way across Guatemala to Lake Atitlan to stay there for a while, but, as is probably apparent, that didn’t happen. Guatemala is beautiful and mostly fun, with great food to be found everywhere, but we decided that the country had too many issues to make such an adventure worthwhile.
Stay tuned to find out more about our short trip to the small, quaint, and interesting town of Flores (the island of Flores, particularly), on the southern side of Lago Peten Itza.