48 Hours in Palenque: Agua Azul, Misol-Ha, Aluxes EcoPark
I didn’t know how many shades of green existed until I visited Palenque.
Palenque is a small town located in northern Chiapas, Mexico. The city is home to a large indigenous population, primarily made up of the Cho’l people, who are direct descendants of the Mayans.
Oh, did I mention that it’s located smack dab in the middle of a rainforest? Hence all of the green that I mentioned earlier.
While extremely stunning, Palenque is apparently the poorest (economically) city in Chiapas. And Chiapas is the poorest state in Mexico. The natives here rely heavily on tourism to survive, so after you read this post you should book your ticket immediately and support this lovely place and it’s people with your dollars. You won’t regret it.
Quick note on this post: There was so much to do and see in this city that I feel that whatever I manage to write will not do it justice. I feel overwhelmed trying to thoroughly describe everything that I packed into the short 48 hour span, so this post, unlike many of my others, will rely heavily upon photos as a form of storytelling. If you have any specific questions or need more detail on anything, please do reach out and ask me personally. I’d love to answer any questions about this rainforest paradise.
Now, back to our regularly scheduled programming.
You reach Palenque the same way that you get to everywhere else in Mexico (unless you’re rolling in the dough, which I am not) — via bus.
Ya’ll, ADO has become my best friend. It’s opened up so much of the world to me. Plus, the buses are nice. Not like your aunt tells you, “Oh...that’s nice” when you tell her your future plans over Thanksgiving.
Like wooden floors and electrical outlets and seats that recline allll the way back nice. Greyhound who?
Anyway, we headed from San Cristobal de Las Casas to Palenque at 2:30pm. The bus ride itself was a little over 10 hours long. That’s the only downfall of traveling via bus — the journeys can be extensive. But it’s always worth it. The scenery, on this ride in particular, was breathtaking. See for yourself:
For all of the Daddy Warbucks out there, Palenque does have a small airport that you can fly into from Tuxtla for about $120 USD (round-trip). You’ll save yourself 18 hours (round-trip) of travel time, but you’ll lose $85 USD that you could spend on your trip itself. Choose wisely.
I guess renting a car is also an option, but the bus had to swerve around 4 cows at various points on the road on our way there, so it’s a no from me.
Where to Stay
After much debate, we opted to stay at Hotel Casa Lakyum. Ya’ll know that I’m usually an AirBnb girl, but with all that money that I saved by opting to take the bus over the plane, I was able to splurge a bit.
We went to Palenque for the adventure, but the hotel itself was honestly an attraction in its own right. We actually ended up booking another night just so that we could stay and enjoy it a little longer. Located closer to the rainforest than the city center, the property is surrounded by lush gardens and trees as far as the eye can see. The rooms, while very clean and spacious, are fairly basic. But the views are anything but.
That was the view from our room. Complemented by the soundtrack of the wildlife that surrounded us.
This was the view from the pool. Which, by the way, we had to ourselves for the majority of our stay. Heavenly.
To top it all off, it was our first time having air conditioner since July, so that was a welcomed surprise. The staff was also super friendly, doing their best to navigate my choppy Spanish and serving up the best flautas that I’ve ever had in my life. There was no problem with us checking in at 11:30pm, and they even swapped out our room for one with a better view when we asked. Did I mention the flautas? I ate them for 4 days in a row and I forgot to take a photo every time. They were that good.
Shameless plug: If you’d like to stay at Casa Lakyum (and why wouldn’t you?) get $25 off using my booking code.
The ruins are the main attraction in the city of Palenque, and for good reason. Palenque, also known as Lakamha (“Big Water”) is considered one of the most important archaeological sites of Mesoamerica. As in other Mayan areas, there was vigorous development here, in religious and civil architecture, as well as in arts and crafts. The earliest evidence of occupation dates back to 100 B.C. during the areas formative period when it was just a small farming village. By 600-900 A.D., the city grew into a power center that ruled over the states of Chiapas and Tabasco.
I can’t recall having ever visited any ruins up to this point in my life. They never got me super excited or made their way to the top of my wishlist, but there was something about Palenque that immediately drew me in. Maybe it was the lack of crowds, the freedom to explore or the fact the indigenous Mayan people still lived very near to the site. Whatever “it” was, it made me feel like there was still more to discover, and, let’s be honest, who doesn’t have a little Indiana Jones inside just waiting to emerge?
We arrived at Palenque archaeological site via collectivo just after opening, around 8:15 am. I hadn’t done much research on the site beforehand, and was expecting only a few ruins (people online seemed to have all taken photos with the same ones), so I was overwhelmed when I was greeted by 24 groups of ruins, including tombs, living quarters, and temples, spread across 1,772 hectares. That’s 1,772 baseball fields.
And these were just the ones that had been unearthed — some still lay tangled in vegetation, waiting to be excavated.
We wandered around half of the site, dizzy with excitement (and heat exhaustion). Unlike many other archaeological sites, at Palenque, you’re allowed to climb on the ruins themselves. Believe it or not, this is quite the task, especially if you’re clumsy (me) or have big feet (also me). The steps on most of the sites are short (width-wise) and excruciatingly steep. I had to either walk on my tippy toes or turn my feet sideways in order to walk up and down.
I was out of breath by the time I reached the top of most of them, but that didn’t prevent me from appreciating the remarkable views. How could actual people have built this...with their bare hands? We even heard the growl of what I swear was the spirit of King Janguar II at one of the temples!
Eventually, the heat got to be a bit overwhelming (and it was only 10 am!) so we headed out and made our way to our next destination.
This wasn’t on my original list of places to visit in Palenque, but our taxi driver insisted that we check it out. We weren’t disappointed.
From their site (translated):
“Before the brutal destruction of nature, derived from burning, logging, trafficking of species of flora and fauna and other acts of barbarism committed by people and companies colluded with federal, state and municipal authorities, a family originally from Catazaja and Palenque decided to start a project to rescue the regional wildlife.”
Aluxes is similar to a zoo in that there are technically animals being held in captivity, but unlike zoos in that the animals held there are held solely for rehabilitative purposes. For that reason, the park doesn’t have that stifling, depressing feel that a lot of zoos tend to have. In fact, in 1971, the scarlet macaw was declared extinct in Palenque, save for the few that were being held at Aluxes. By the early 2000s, Aluxes had successfully bred 101 of the birds and released them into the wild. Today, the scarlet macaw population is thriving as a result.
That’s right, this ecopark is single-handedly responsible for the re-population of scarlet macaws in the region. How incredible is that?
In addition to the macaws, we got to see a boatload of other animals native to Chiapas that you don’t commonly see in zoos. One such animal is the howler monkey, which I’ve affectionately dubbed the “demon monkey.” These little monsters roam freely throughout the trees of the park. If you’re wondering why I gave them that nickname, have a listen.
Aluxes is completely non-profit — they receive no government assistance in their wildlife conservation efforts. We paid $150 pesos (about $7 USD) each for the visit and practically had the entire place to ourselves. The staff was so kind and helpful and you could tell that they’re really passionate about the work that they do there.
Oh man, where do I even begin with this one? Agua Azul may very well be the most beautiful place that I’ve ever laid my eyes on. It costs $50 pesos to enter. Worthiest money that I’ve ever spent.
This is where the photos come in, because there’s no way that I can do this place justice with my words. First off, there were too many mini cascadas (waterfalls) to count. When we first arrived, there were loads of vendors and a single waterfall to the right. Being the eager beaver that I am, I ran to it immediately, ready to jump in. It wasn’t until Sol pointed out that this was only a miradoro and that I realized that there was still so much to see. We veered off to the path to our left, and, well…
What is there to say really? We went on a cloudy day, so the water wasn’t nearly as vibrantly turquoise as it usually is. If you happen to go on a sunny day, here’s what you’re in for.
I even tried to go for a swim, but it only lasted for a few minutes before my feet began to sink into the sand and paranoia set in. After drying off, we grabbed a couple of empanadas and fresh coconut waters in the charming little town surrounding the falls before making our way back to our car, in awe of all we’d just experienced.
Located about 45 minutes from Agua Azul, Misol-Ha was our final destination of the trip. This one was a tad more expensive at $70 pesos each, but, again, worth every cent. Here lies another situation where photos will serve better than my words:
It was absolutely massive. I decided not to swim in this one because it reached depths of 25 meters (!!!) in some areas. I can swim, but I’m not a swimmer, so that was too deep for my comfort.
Taking extra precaution on the slippery steps, we took the trek to venture behind the waterfalls for a different vantage point. To my surprise, there was a secret mini waterfall waiting for exploration in a cave behind the main attraction (it was an additional $10 pesos to get in — worth it!). Because it’s located inside of a cave, it was pitch black. Even though the guy at the entrance handed us flashlights to use, I could really only hear the waterfall. Here’s my feeble attempt at a photo inside the cave:
See? Plus, the rocks in the water threatened to cut my feet and I started having thoughts of a cave monster being attracted to the scent of my blood and attacking me from below. I nope-d out of there shortly afterwards.
Misol-Ha is a much smaller site than Agua Azul, so it got much more crowded, much faster. Sol also slipped on the aforementioned slippery steps on our way out of the cave, so we left shortly afterwards.
Getting to the Waterfalls
There are only two options for reaching Agua Azul from Palenque: joining a tour or hiring a private driver. We opted for the latter, dropping $1300 pesos (about $65 USD, our biggest expense of the trip) for a private car that picked us up at our hotel and took us to both Agua Azul and Misol-Ha. This is the way to go, in my opinion, as most tours severely limit the time that you can spend at both sites.
Plus, our driver was super sweet and stopped to let us take photos on the road when he saw us getting excited about something. Shoot me a message if you’d like his contact info!
Every once in a while, I take a trip that’s the perfect combination of beauty, education, relaxation and inspiration. With it’s waterfalls, ruins, and wildlife, Palenque so effortlessly checks all of these boxes, making it one hell of a getaway.