The road from San Cristobal to Palenque is long and bumpy, but the good news is that there are quite a few really exciting stops that you can incorporate into the journey.
IN AND AROUND SAN CRISTOBAL
It’s worth spending at least a couple of days in San Cristobal itself. The town is beautiful and it feels very safe. As you explore the markets, gift stores, cafes and bakeries, it becomes clear that many travellers have stranded themselves here intentionally because it’s such a welcoming place to be.
Also worth a look are the Sumidero Canyon and the nearby town of Chamula, which has a very interesting church where rituals are performed.
THE ROAD FROM SAN CRISTOBAL TO PALENQUE
If you’re driving a rental car and driving from San Cristobal to Palenque, there are two stops you can’t miss – the natural pools of Agua Azul and the Misol-Ha waterfall.
If you’re relying on public transport, there are tours that will pick you and your luggage up from San Cristobal, take you to these magical places and drop you off in Palenque after an included couple of hours at the ruins. Be warned: it’s a ridiculously early start.
With such obvious natural beauty en route, as well as the incentive to cool off, splash around and play on rope swings, it would be hard to avoid Agua Azul and Misol-Ha, but there’s one additional reason you’ll be keen to break up this journey. The road is brutal. Your backside will need a break from all of the road bumps and potholes, and your stomach will be relieved not to have to take on another sharp curve for a while.
CASCADAS DE AGUA AZUL
About 65 km from the end of your journey from San Cristobal to Palenque, the Cascadas de Agua Azul – or waterfalls of blue water – are made up of multiple cataracts. They originate in the municipality of Tumbalá, where the Shmulia, Otulun and Tulia rivers meet.
The turquoise water gathers in cool natural pools that are perfect for a refreshing dip on a hot day. Some areas are cordoned off and can only be admired from man-made boardwalks and viewing platforms. The swimming areas are clearly marked and easily located thanks to the shrieks of people flinging themselves from rope swings. Only swim in the designated areas and don’t get out of your depth as the currents can be strong and people have drowned. Also note that the water can be dirty and murky after heavy rains. Don’t leave your belongings unattended as theft is not uncommon here.
While most images of the area make it look idyllic, it’s important to note that this is a popular spot for both tourists and locals. It can get very busy, and where there are crowds, there are stalls and food vendors. It’s a shame that Agua Azul’s beauty is somewhat marred by this, but at least you can grab yourself a handful of fried empañadas for next to nothing. You’ll also probably appreciate the shower block – a rare luxury as natural swimming spots go.
Expect to pay an entrance fee of up to 40 pesos and consider visiting of your own accord because you might want to spend the whole day here.
Misol-Ha is a spectacular 35-metre waterfall in the middle of the jungle. At its base is a huge plunge pool surrounded by lush vegetation and perfect for swimming.
A slippery path leads behind the falls to a cave that you can pay 10 pesos to explore. At the time of writing a plank of wood was balanced precariously over the cliff edge. It may look like a diving board or a good place from which to view the falls, but it’s neither. If someone hasn’t already toppled off the edge, they will one day. Don’t be that person.
Just out of view, along a footpath and short stretch of road, is a car park and restaurant. Bear in mind that if you visit Misol-Ha independently, you will have to pay an entrance fee – twice. This is due to territory disputes. The total cost should be around 20 to 30 pesos, which, despite the double admission, is still a bargain.
As ruins in Mexico go – and there are many – Palenque is one of the best.
This ancient Mayan city dates back as far as 226 BC and is remarkably well preserved. While Palenque is quite small in comparison with some other ruins, it is thought that the majority of the city remains undiscovered behind dense jungle.
Having travelled from San Cristobal to Palenque, it can be difficult to accustom to the heat and humidity of Palenque.
The wildlife may come as a bit of a shock as well. Howler monkeys bellow from deep within the jungle, toucans flash their colourful beaks and ocelots prowl in search of prey. Keep a close eye on the ground foliage and you might even spot a snake or tarantula.
The entrance to Palenque is a giant car park filled with touts selling everything from refreshments to hats and souvenirs. Many of the paths within the gates are also lined with vendors. At the entrance to the site, official guides vie for your attention. Just past the entrance, young, unofficial guides try to impress you with their knowledge of your country’s football players and, failing that, offer to be your boyfriend. They may mean well, but you can glean almost as much information from plaques dotted around the site and it’s arguably more enjoyable to explore the ruins at your own pace.
Admission is a reasonable 60 pesos, which is remarkably consistent with pretty much any ruin in the country except Chichen Itza. If you’re basing yourself in the area, the only selling point of the town of Palenque itself is its proximity to the ruins and the bus station. A much more attractive option for accommodation is the nearby forest hangout of El Panchán.
WHERE TO STAY
I’ve recently started using HotelsCombined to search for accommodation as I travel. It’s become one of my favourite tools because it aggregates the results of online searches from over 40 travel sites to bring you the best deals much faster than if you had to look them up to compare them separately. The road from San Cristobal to Palenque is a long one and you’ll be arriving at your destination late, so it’s best to have your accommodation booked at either end in advance. I had to run around between four or five hostels in San Cristobal and move half way through my visit because I hadn’t planned ahead.