Palenque - A Walking Tour of the Major Mayan Buildings

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Palenque Walking Tour

Panoramic View of Palenque
Panoramic view of Palenque with the Palace tower and the Temple of the Inscriptions in the background. Dennis Jarvis

Palenque is a famous Classic Maya site located in the lush tropical forest of the state of Chiapas in the Maya Lowlands of Mexico. The site is well known for its elegant temples and buildings emerging from the green forest, the numerous carved monuments and stucco reliefs, as well as the impressive discoveries of royal tombs and offerings, including the famous Tomb of Pakal the Great, and the ​Tomb of the Red Queen (Reina Roja).

Palenque is located in the northwest of Chiapas state, about 290 km from the capital, Tuxtla Gutierrez. The archaeological zone is about 7.5 km from the modern town of Palenque and it can be reached by private car or public transport. The site entrance is next to the parking lot and leads the visitor directly to the site's main plaza.

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Group IV at Palenque and Tablet of the Slaves

Tablet of the Slaves from Group IV, Palenque
Tablet of the Slaves from Group IV, Palenque. Peter Langer / Getty Images

Just west of the main entrance to Palenque, you'll find Group IV, an unromantic name provided by the archaeologists who excavated Palenque. Group IV is believed to have been the residence of an important military chief in Palenque, Chak Suutz. In the 1950s, archaeologists found a stone tablet in the central structure called the Tablet of the Slaves. The table included information which helped to identify the purpose of these buildings and to date this complex at AD 730.

Group IV includes the elite residential complex belonging to the military chief, arranged around a roughly rectangular plaza. The main buildings are three structures, rising from a platform that marks the west side of the Main Plaza. The Tablet of the Slaves is on display at the Alberto Ruz Lhuillier Site Museum at Palenque.  

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Temple of the Skull at Palenque

Stucco Rabbit Skull Effigy at the Temple of the Skull (Temple XII) at Palenque
Stucco Rabbit Skull Effigy at the Temple of the Skull (Temple XII) at Palenque. Richard Well

Continuing east of Group IV, and by climbing a series of steps, you will reach the Main Plaza and the Templo de la Calavera (or Temple of the Skull). This temple is the westernmost of a series of three temples--the others are Temple XIII and Temple of the Inscriptions--that mark the south side of the main plaza.

The Temple of the Skull is only partially preserved, but it has the typical temple form of a central room with two lateral spaces, divided by pillars, and was probably covered by a vaulted roof. Its name derives from the presence of a stucco relief visible on one if its pillars representing a skull.

The temple rises over a five-level platform reached by a central stairway. This temple was constructed on top of a series of earlier structures, the most ancient of which contained a burial with an offering of 700 pieces of jade ​greenstone.

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Temple XIII and the Tomb of the Red Queen

Temple XIII in the foreground, next to the Temple of Inscriptions
Temple XIII in the foreground, next to the Temple of Inscriptions. Tarik Lebbadi / EyeEm / Getty Images

Sharing the same platform as the Temple of the Skull and the Temple of the Inscriptions is Temple XIII. This temple is divided into three rooms with a frontal porch, and it was roofed by a masonry vault. On the front stairway is an accessway to a substructure.

In 1994, when the Mexican archaeologist Arnoldo Gonzales Cruz entered the sealed structure, he discovered the funerary chamber and sarcophagus of a noble woman. The woman, nicknamed the Red Queen because her tomb was completely covered in red cinnabar, was accompanied by a rich offering containing jewelry, a jade mask, shells, and whistles. It has been speculated that the noble woman could be​ Lady Sak Kuk, mother of Pakal the Great, but this has not been proved yet.

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Temple of the Inscriptions at Palenque

Temple of the Inscriptions at Palenque
Temple of the Inscriptions at Palenque. Tjeerd Wiersma

The Temple of the Inscriptions is probably the most famous building in Palenque. It rises over a pyramid composed of nine levels visible on its front side, reaching a height of about 21 meters (~70 feet). The top temple has five doorways and is covered by a masonry vault. The entrance pillars are decorated with stucco reliefs and its interior walls are covered by the second longest glyphic inscription of the entire Maya area, which is how the temple came to be named.

The most famous finding related to this building is the subterranean accessway discovered in 1952 by the archaeologist Alberto Ruiz Lhuiller leading to the burial chamber of Pakal the Great, one of the most important rulers of Palenque, who governed the city in the 7th century AD.

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The Palace of Palenque

Pacal the Great's Royal Palace at Palenque
Pacal the Great's Royal Palace at Palenque. Laurent de Wallck

Continuing eastward from the three temples you'll reach the center of the main plaza where you'll find the Palace at Palenque. This building covers an area of 70x100 meters (210 x 320 feet) at its base.

The structures visible today are the result of many centuries of construction and additions. The Palace rises over a 5-level platform with central stairways, arranged around four patios. The northwest and southwest patios are divided by the Tower. The northeast patio is also known as the “Patio of the Captives” because of the images on its side walls of what appear to be war captives. Other important buildings include Houses A, B, C, D, and E. Along the internal walls of the buildings are still visible traces of painted images and stucco figures representing different Palenque rulers.

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The Main Plaza Aqueduct at Palenque

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

Continuing southeast as you leave the Palace you will encounter the remains of one of Palenque's many aqueducts. The main aqueduct at Palenque regulated the water of the Otulum stream, one of the most important of the city, although there are many other aqueducts located throughout the city.

The construction of the Main Plaza's water control system helped Palenque's builders to enlarge the buildable surface enough to construct large civic-ceremonial buildings and control the water course of the stream. The subterranean tunnel where the stream once flowed is now almost completely collapsed, leaving the internal masonry construction visible.

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Las Cruces Group at Palenque

Climbing the hill east of the Palace and the Otulum stream will lead the visitor to the spectacular plazas of Palenque, the so-called Las Cruces (The Cross) Group.

The Las Cruces Group was constructed by Kan Bhalum, son of Palenque's most important ruler, Pakal the Great. It is considered one of the most elegant and harmonious buildings at Palenque. It is composed of three temples standing on artificially remodeled hills that surround a rectangular plaza.

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Temple of the Sun at Palenque

Temple of the Sun, Las Cruces Group, Palenque, Chiapas
Temple of the Sun, Las Cruces Group, Palenque, Chiapas. Arlen Zwegers

The Temple of the Sun is part of the Las Cruces Group, located on the west side of the Palenque's main plaza. Its architecture is typical of the classic Palenque-style: a three-level platform on top of which stands the temple. The temple is divided into three rooms and at its interior is a shrine dedicated to the Maya Sun God, K'inich Ajaw. The top of the temple roof is decorated by a stone crest or comb, typical of many Mayan buildings.

Within the internal shrine was found the Tablet of the Sun, which portrays the scene of the birth and the ascension to the throne of Kan ​Bhalum II, accompanied by his father Pakal. Many elements of this building led archaeologists to suggest that the Temple of the Sun was somehow related to the Sun as patron of war and the underworld.

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Temple of the Cross at Palenque

Temple of the Cross at Palenque
Temple of the Cross at Palenque. Arian Zwegers

The northern side of the Las Cruces Group is occupied by the Temple of the Cross. This is the highest of the three temples that make up the group, and it sits on top of a 13-level pyramid.

The Temple of the Cross includes two small side rooms and a central room where the actual shrine is located. The interior walls were covered with images of the gods of Palenque. At the rear of the shrine is the famous Cross Tablet, where a cross formed by serpents symbolizes the center of the world. Archaeologists suggest that this temple was somehow related to fertility rituals. The temple was built to honor Kan Bhalum's ascension to the throne in AD 684.

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Temple of the Foliated Cross at Palenque

The Temple of the Foliated Cross (Templo de la Cruz Foliada) occupies the east side of the Las Cruces group plaza. It rises over a natural hill which was partially modified by the Maya.

The temple has three doorways that lead to a central chamber, the main shrine, and two side rooms. In the back of the central room there is a stone tablet, showing two figures, Kan Bhalum II and his father Pakal with a cross-like element representing a maize plant. According to the tablet, the temple was dedicated in AD 692 and was sacred to Chaac, the rain and fertility god of the Maya.

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The Ball Court at Palenque

Ball Court at Palenque
Ball Court at Palenque. goodhike

Moving back northward from the Cross group, towards the main plaza, the visitor will find just north of the Palace is the ball court. Unlike other Maya sites, which typically have multiple ball courts, this ball court is the only one in Palenque.

The Ball Court at Palenque has the characteristic I-shape and it also features two low benches on the inner sides of the buildings. However, none of the walls have a stone ring, like the one visible at Chichén Itzá. Archaeologists believe that the court may have been marked by perishable, perhaps wooden, markers.

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The North Group at Palenque

Northern Group, Palenque, Chiapas, Mexico
Northern Group, Palenque, Chiapas, Mexico. Peter Langer / Getty Images

The Northern Group is located on the northern side of the site, at the very end of the escarpment where the site was developed. It is composed of a series of buildings constructed in different periods over a multi-level platform.

The Northern Group structures run east-west, and each of them has its own access stairway. Two of the buildings are small and are interpreted as altars called adoratories. The two main temples of the North Group are Temple IV and V. Temple V, the westernmost, features five access ways in the front. Temple IV, the central one, features two large stones with inscriptions that were probably from a different structure and moved here by the Maya at a later point.

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The Temple of the Count at Palenque

Temple Of The Count, Palenque, Chiapas, Mexico
Temple Of The Count, Palenque, Chiapas, Mexico. Peter Langer / Getty Images

The Temple of the Count marks the west side of the North Group. Its name refers to the explorer Frederic Waldeck, who claimed to be a count. Waldeck lived within the temple buildings for almost two years at the beginning of the 19th century, while he was documenting the site.

The main building of the Temple of the Count is a tall pyramid, facing eastward. On top of the pyramid sits the temple, which is accessible through a long stairway. The temple is a typical construction for Palenque, with three entrances and divided into a rear and front passageway. Its pillars were covered with stucco images. The structure is covered by a masonry vault and the roof is decorated by a roof comb. Three burials with elegant offerings were found within its interior.

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Maestri, Nicoletta. "Palenque - A Walking Tour of the Major Mayan Buildings." ThoughtCo, Feb. 26, 2017, Maestri, Nicoletta. (2017, February 26). Palenque - A Walking Tour of the Major Mayan Buildings. Retrieved from Maestri, Nicoletta. "Palenque - A Walking Tour of the Major Mayan Buildings." ThoughtCo. (accessed October 19, 2017).