Hidden away far from the hustle and bustle of the main tourist track is the archaeological site of Yaxchilan, containing the ruins of this once-powerful Maya city. The ruins are found on the banks of the Usumasinta River.
History of Yaxchilan
Yaxchilan was first settled around 350AD: nestled in the curve of the Usumacinta River, it’s extremely well protected as it uses the river as a natural moat. The city peaked between 650 and 800AD, when it was locked in a struggle with the city of Palenque for dominance.
Not only did the river provide defence, but it also meant Yaxchilan had booming trade with other city states, and whilst it never defeated Palenque, it remained one of the most important city states of its time.
The majority of the building which still exists today was completed in the 8th century, including Yaxchilan’s famous carved lintels, which tell the story of the city and surrounding area and have proved extremely useful to historians and archaeologists. There’s a particularly full list of rulers (including Yaxchilan’s Jaguar dynasty) and their accomplishments – it’s worth looking up English translations of what’s what as the signage on site is relatively limited.
Yaxchilan was ‘rediscovered’ in the early 19th century, but only really full exploring in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Look out for large, slightly weathered, animal sculptures, relief carvings and remnants of roofcombs. Edificios 39-41 are atop a hill and are worth visiting for a vantage point.
The city’s remoteness (until the 1980s there were no roads within 100 miles of it) means it feels extremely special, and there’s unlikely to be swarms of people. The jungle climate can be intense and unsurprisingly there are extremely limited amenities. Bring plenty of water, insect repellent, food and loose, light clothing. Torches can also be useful in order to see some of the lintels properly.
Yaxchilan has plenty to explore so come prepared to walk and climb: it’s a full day’s excursion even without factoring in travel.
Lacandon Maya still make pilgrimages to Yaxchilan to carry out religious rituals: the site is still sacred to them and it should be treated accordingly.
Getting to Yaxchilan
Yaxchilan is buried deep in the Chiapas jungle, literally right on the border with Guatemala. Unsurprisingly, it’s not the easiest to get to! Your best bet is to head to the hubs of San Cristobal de las Casas or Palenque, and organise onward travel from there. You’ll need to catch a boat at least some of the way as there’s no real road access. It’s easiest to go on an organised tour, but it’s possible to visit solo if you have good enough Spanish to sort your various methods of transport.
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