Exploring Palenque

When you think Palenque, you probably think of this:

Or maybe this:

These are the stunning ruins of Palenque, in Mexico’s southern state of Chiapas. They’re easily one of the country’s greatest archaeological treasures. However, you might not know that just a few minutes away from the ruins, there’s an actual city also called Palenque. Since it’s listed as a pueblo magico (magic town), I had to check it out for my special series, Exploring Mexico’s Pueblos Magicos.

For first time readers, the basic idea is that I’m checking out all 80 or so of Mexico’s pueblos magicos, which are a bunch of towns the government has highlighted as offering visitors a “magical” cultural experience. I want to see if these towns really do deliver on the magic. Some towns, like Zacatlan, have already proven their mettle. Others like Tlaxco have been somewhat less impressive, but still held their own.

So what about Palenque? Surely, this city right next door to one of the greatest ancient Mayan sites must have something to offer the visitor, right? Yeah…no.

If we were talking about the Palenque ruins, I’d have nothing but praise for this wonder of the world. But Palenque city? How do I describe this place …

Imagine roads.

Then imagine those roads are lined with huge hotels with lame names like “Mayan Adventure” or whatever. Sandwiched between these big colourful blocks of tourist bullshit are the slums were the actual locals live. It turns out, Palenque is the poorest major city in Chiapas – which by the way, happens to be Mexico’s poorest state. Indeed, if you want to see how badly tourism has fucked Chiapas, look no further than Palenque. Look at those glistening resorts, then look down the road at the indigenous farmers struggling to put food on the table. But perhaps I’m just being a pessimist, and one day the wealth will trickle down as promised.

For now though, it looks like a few wealthy investors are making a killing, while locals are being screwed hard. Strangely though, relatively few tourists actually stop in Palenque. Most backpackers visit the ruins as part of package tours from San Cristobal, and bypass the city of Palenque entirely. During my time in Chiapas though, I did run into a few folks who stayed overnight in the city. Most suggested crashing in one of the super cheap jungle lodges on the edge of town, within walking distance of the ruins. These lodges can cost as little as MX$70 (US$4) a night. If you’re into getting a bit of a jungle experience, this is actually a pretty good idea. Plus, by staying in one of these places, you can hit the ruins first thing in the morning, and beat the tour buses from San Cristobal by a good three or four hours. Moreover, these budget shacks seemed to be run by actual locals, so that’s nice.

If for some reason you decide to stay in one of the larger resorts that line the road to the ruins, then you can go ahead and eat your own face or something, because your choice of accommodation is terrible. I’m not judging you morally, because frankly my choice was to simply GTFO ASAP, and I don’t think that’s fair trade certified. Primarily, I’m judging you on your taste. I’m just not sure what kind of person wants to drink cocktails in the tropical heat, in a resort with stupid fake fibreglass stone walls, and dumbass tiki torches everywhere. I didn’t realise the ancient Mayans were such big fans of plastic pillars and the Papyrus typeface, but I suppose the mysteries of their majestic civilisation will forever amaze us. Mysteries like: why does Palenque city have so many steakhouses that locals clearly can’t afford to eat in? Were they big fans of SUVs? Who knows?

The biggest mystery of all is why the fuck Palenque is listed as a pueblo magico. The only magic here is how anyone is stupid enough to be lured into any of those shitty resorts that seem to characterise this place. That’s some serious Harry Potter bullshit right there. More to the point: what spell do they use to keep guests from vomiting when they look out the window, and compare their stupid accommodation with the extreme poverty of their neighbours?

So how did Palenque fare in my new pueblo magico rating system? Well, the scores are in, and Palenque gets a …

Score: 0/10

This means Palenque is the first pueblo magico I’ve reviewed that has received no points. That makes it a total shithole. Here’s the breakdown:


Plenty of bars where you can drown your sorrows, and contemplate how your life is a disaster.


It’s Palenque.

First published at dissentsansfrontieres.com.

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