Palenque Aqueduct Systems

Water Control at the Maya Capital

Temple Aqueduct at Palenque
The aqueduct that regulates the Otulum stream in the main plaza of Palenque. Frank_am_Main

Palenque is a famous Classic Maya site in the foothills of the Chiapas highlands. It is famous for the tomb of the king Pakal the Great (ruled A.D. 615-683), discovered in 1952 by the Mexican archaeologist Alberto Ruz Luhillier, as well as for its royal palace and temples immersed in a lush tropical forest.

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Palenque Aqueducts

Although Palenque is a well-known Maya site and a famous tourist destination, not everybody knows that it also has one of the best preserved system of aqueducts in the Maya region.

Ancient inhabitants of Palenque had to face the not-so-common issue - for the tropical Maya Lowlands, where rain is abundant, but water is immediately captured into subterranean channels - of having plenty of superficial water but limited usable land for farming and dwelling. Also, with more than 50 springs and 9 rivers and streams running in the urban area, Palenque's elite had to face incredible organizational problems in order to create the space for their monumental architecture. One of the main efforts for the planners of the city was to manage this surplus of water and incorporate it into the urban plan.

This led to the construction of aqueducts, bridges, channels, pools that represent a unique example in Maya architecture.

The Palace Aqueduct

Today's visitor entering the archaeological area of Palenque from its north side is guided on a path that leads him/her from the main entrance to the central plaza, the heart of this Classic Maya site.

Most of the visible monuments in the plaza date to the period in which the great king Pakal and his sons ruled (ca. AD 615-750) In the main plaza, on the south-east side of the palace, is visible the aqueduct that contains the water of the Otulum river. The Otulum river, the main water stream that runs through Palenque's core, was channeled into a subterranean aqueduct by the ancient Maya in order to create a wider area for the central plaza.

Today, large tracts of the aqueduct are exposed, due to the collapse of its vault. A visitor walking down from the Cross Group, on the hilly south eastern side of the plaza, and walking toward the Palace, will have the opportunity to admire the stone work of the aqueduct's walled channel and, especially during the rainy season, to experience the roaring sound of the river flowing under his/her feet. Variances in building materials made researchers count at least four construction phases, with the earliest one probably contemporaneous to the construction of the Palace.

Water Symbolism at Palenque

The river that runs from the hills south of the plaza was not only carefully managed by the ancient inhabitants of Palenque, but it was also part of the sacred symbolism used by the city rulers. The spring of the Otulum is in fact next to a temple whose inscriptions talk about rituals associated to this water source. The ancient Maya name of Palenque, known from many inscriptions, is Lakam-há which means "great water". It is not a coincidence, then, that so much effort was put by its rulers in connecting their power to the sacred value of this natural resource.

Before leaving the plaza and continuing toward the eastern portion of the site, the attention of the visitors is attracted to another element that symbolizes the ritual importance of the river.

A huge carved stone with the image of an alligator is posed on the eastern side at the end of the aqueduct's walled channel. Researchers link this symbol to the Maya belief that caimans, along with other amphibian creatures, were guardians of the continuous flow of water.

After being channeled and running under the surface of the plaza, the water of the Otulum flows down the slope of the hill, forming cascades and beautiful water pools. One of the most famous of these spots is called "The Queen Bath" (Baño de la Reina, in Spanish).


The Otulum aqueduct is not the only aqueduct in Palenque. At least other two sectors of the site have aqueducts and constructions related to water management. These are areas not open to the public, almost 1 km away from the site's core.

The history of the construction of the Otulum's aqueduct in the main plaza of Palenque offers us a window into the functional and symbolic meaning of space for the ancient Maya.

It also represents one of the most evocative place of this famous archaeological site.


French, Kirk D. 2007. Creating Space through water Management at the Classic Maya Site of Palenque, Chiapas. pp 123-132 in Palenque. Recent Investigations at the Classic Maya Center, Damien B. MArken ed., Altamira Press

Lucero, Lisa. J. and Barbara W. Fash. 2006, Precolumbian Water Management. The University of Arizona Press, Tucson.