After years of anticipation, the Maya Train finally launched from Cancun in late 2023, connecting Mexico's busiest resort city to all of the trendiest spots around Yucatan, as well as secondary yet incredibly beautiful destinations in the peninsula.
One of these secondary destinations is the historical route to Palenque, a scenic drive most visitors to Cancun would have ignored altogether due to the long distances and inaccessibility from the resort zone: with the train, everything changes.
Starting this year, you can travel from the heart of the Mayan Riviera to Palenque and see impressive Maya ruins and stunning nature simply by following the railroad South all the way to the last stop:
One Of The Most Beautiful, Scenic Train Journeys You Could Ever Embark On
Though the Maya Train's official launch date was December 15, with trains from Cancun completing the journey to Campeche on the same day, not every planned section could be opened as expected due to delayed construction in certain parts.
Fortunately for visitors who cannot wait to travel on a loop around Yucatan, discovering all of its hidden gems, yet another section has just been inaugurated on January 1, and dare we say, it's the most exciting one yet, as it links Cancun to the railroad's Southernmost tip, or how we're calling it, the ‘tail'.
Looking at the Maya Train's railway map, you can see it essentially follows the shape of the Yucatan coast, with a slight bend inward in the North section, where it connects to cities like Valladolid and Merida, which are located further inland.
In the South, Escarcega is the meeting point between two lines, one leaving for Merida via Campeche and another traveling East to Chetumal before connecting to a Northbound train for Cancun, completing an imperfect square.
There is still one minor section that had been all but ignored by commentators: a tail-shaped, short rail line starting independently from Escarcega, leaving the Yucatanese peninsula altogether and calling at Palenque, in the neighboring state of Chiapas.
It will include eight additional stations, and though the journey's long – 523 miles, to be exact – it is certainly worth the effort and all the hours spent on the Maya Train. This is why:
The Wonders Of The Maya Train's Tail End
The neighboring states of Campeche and Chiapas may be lesser known, located at the far end of the South line of the Maya Train, but together they boast not only an abundance of nature – part of the reason why Mexico is so popular with American tourists – but also their cultural weight.
Though they are located at the outer edges of Yucatan, Campeche and Chiapas too were a part of the wider Mayan World, where the ancient civilization built their majestic cities, and the latter in particular is home to a huge archaeological site.
Palenque is a UNESCO World Heritage Site comprising the ruined remnants of a Mayan settlement, as well as a national park.
It hosts a few of the Mayan's finest architectural efforts, such as the Observation Tower, a four-story building replete with bas-relief carvings.
Still in the fields, the Temples of the Cross sit atop a step-pyramid, offering panoramic views of Palenque's avenue, while the Temple of the Inscriptions is renowned for being incredibly ancient, with buildings beginning as early as 675 AD.
In this very temple, tourists can find the second longest Mayan glyphic text experts have found to this date, beaten only by the Hieroglyphic Stairway at Copan in the Central American country of Honduras.
Palenque is only one of numerous monuments left behind by the pre-Hispanic peoples upon their empire's demise, and if you're taking the Maya Train all the way down to Chiapas for an immersion in Mayan culture, you should probably add Pomona to your bucket list.
A smaller ruined city sitting by the foot of the Northern Chiapas mountains, it is not officially on the Maya Train route, but seeing it is a short one-hour drive from the Palenque Archaeological Park, it can complement your itinerary.
The Kingdom of Pomona reached its apex between 600 and 900 AD, and it's a largely unexplored zone yet to be ruined by overtourism, unlike Chichen Itza or Tulum.
Be Prepared For Some Truly Majestic Nature
Still on the cultural side, a major point of interest on the Escarcega-Palenque section of the rail is the quaint, charming town of Candelaria.
Officially dubbed a ‘Magical Town' by the Mexican Government, it has a rich culinary tradition, blending Mayan and Hispanic cooking practices, and it offers access to Rio Candelaria, a fast-flowing waterway popular for water-based activities.
Spending an overnight in Candelaria, you can attempt a visit to Itzamkanac, or ‘El Tigre', a mysterious Mayan city with origins lost to time, and almost totally reclaimed by nature, off-the-beaten-path waterfalls, and hot springs.
Speaking of nature, if it's lush green reserves and hiking paths that make your heart beat faster, you'll be glad to know there is a plethora of natural wonders in the Southern tip of Yucatan that should keep you busy for days.
Just over an hour's drive from Palenque, the Mexican rainforest hides the Agua Azul waterfall, aptly named after the turquoise hue of its warm waters, perfect for swimming in this freezing winter.
Further away, Usumacinta has been a source of fascination for adventurers for years, as it translates from the local Mayan dialect as ‘Sacred Monkey', and it follows the course of a deep canyon, flanked by dense vegetation and inhabited by native apes.
Though you can't get to Tabasco by train, tours to Usumacinta are routinely offered from Palenque.
Last but not least, the new section of the railway will bring you closer to Calakmul, a UNESCO-protected biosphere reserve and the largest of its kind in Mexico, where around 50 Mayan-descendant communities live, mostly in the vicinity of ancient, abandoned cities.
One thing to note is that Calakmul is not located on the tail end of the Maya Train. Instead, it sits halfway between Chetumal and Escarcega.
A World Of Wonders Worth The Long Journey
The journey from Cancun to Palenque takes almost a full day, and it involves a number of stopovers in between, but that should not discourage you from going.
If anything, you should see it as an opportunity to take longer to brave the Mayan heartland.
You can always break up your trip with overnights in intermediate stops, and thanks to the way the Maya Train has been planned, with stations placed at strategic towns or within walking distance of important landmarks, you will truly never cease being amazed every step of the way.
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This article originally appeared on TravelOffPath.com
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