Yaxha in Guatemala’s Petén region is an ancient Maya site containing several incredible pyramids as well as other structures such as ball courts and also carved stelae.
History of Yaxha
Yaxha literally means ‘blue green water’ which is apt given its lakeside location. It’s believed that there are over 500 structures at Yaxha, and that at its peak, the city would have spanned over 92 square miles and had a population of over 40,000 people. As such, it is the third largest Maya city to be uncovered behind Tikal and El Mirador.
The site has been occupied since the Preclassic period (about 500BC), and expanded rapidly over the next 1000 years, becoming a dominant power in the region until its abandonment around 1000AD. Unlike neighbouring cities, it doesn’t seem that Yaxha’s decline was rapid – in fact, it appears to have expanded to welcome inhabitants who had been affected by the Classic Maya collapse around 900AD.
Whilst stelae detailing Yaxha’s history have been found, they’re mostly too eroded to help decipher the city’s history. It is clear that Yaxha was under the protection of the bigger Tikal at certain points, and also had a fierce rivalry with the nearby city of Naranjo.
Yaxha was first ‘rediscovered’ in 1904, by the explorer Teoberto Maler: excavations and mapping were undertaken in the 1930s, and stabilisation work has been going on since the 1970s.
Yaxha is remote, but all the more magical for it, and it’s definitely worth the effort it takes to get here. Some even find they prefer it to the nearby Tikal.
Built on several hills, structures and groups were joined by sacbes (walkways) and staircases, many of which are still used today. The Acropolis del Norte (North Acropolis) is particularly spectacular, comprising of three pyramidal temples which rise above the jungle canopy. Structure 216, atop a hill, affords the best view and is worth the sweaty climb: you’ll be able to see the jungle, the site of Yaxha, and the nearby lake from which it derives its name.
There’s a small interpretation centre at the entrance of the site, which contains some of the finds made on site. Yaxha covers a big site so wear good shoes and come prepared – insect repellent, hat, water and snacks are all advisable. It can be extremely humid in the jungle so stay hydrated.
You can normally find guides by the entrance and they can be very helpful: alternatively, read up on the site’s history before you get here and go it alone. There are also plenty of guides who will offer their services in Flores if you want a prearranged visit.
Getting to Yaxha
The site is 11km north of the Puente Ixlú–Melchor de Mencos road: east of Flores, heading towards the Belize border. You’ll either need to hire a car (or a guide with a car) in Flores, or go on an arranged tour – public transport won’t get you this far! It’s undeniably remote, but all the more special for it.
There’s a lodge by the entrance to the Yaxha National Park if you want to stay the night, but you’ll still need transport to get to and from the ruins.