Yaxchilán: Jungle Ruins in Chiapas
One of the most important archaeological sites in the state of Chiapas, Yaxchilán is an ancient Mayan city set deep in the Lacandon Jungle and only accessible by lancha, or motorboat. Yaxchilán is situated on the banks of the Río Usumacinta (Usumacinta River), which serves as the border between Mexico and Guatemala. The Lacandon Jungle is home to diverse plant and animal life, and the natural setting welcoming you to this region of Chiapas is spectacular; crocodiles sun themselves on the river bank, colorful birds sing from the tree tops, tree frogs buzz in the background, butterflies flutter overhead and howler monkeys swing noisily through the jungle canopy over ruins of pyramids and temples.
Yaxchilán, meaning “green stones” in Mayan, is best-known for its impressive monolithic limestone steles, carved stone lintels, alters, mural painting, ornamental stucco facades and roof combs. The large central area of the archaeological site is made up of three main building complexes – the Great Plaza, Grand Acropolis and Small Acropolis – and contains more than 120 structures. Yaxchilán was once the most powerful ancient city in the Usumacinta Province, yielding influence over much of the region, including Bonampak. Yaxchilán was settled prior to AD 250, peaked in power and influence between AD 681 and 800, and was abandoned shortly thereafter.
Today, Yaxchilán is a favorite destination among visitors to Mexico’s southernmost state of Chiapas and a popular stop along La Ruta Maya, the tourist route that connects important Mayan archaeological sites in southern Mexico, the Yucatan Peninsula and parts of Central America.
Part of the adventure of visiting Yaxchilán is getting there; after a rough overland journey, you’ll arrive at Frontera Corozal, the border town that serves as the jumping off point for visits to the ruins at Yaxchilán. In Frontera Corozal, you’ll find long, narrow and colorfully-painted flat-bottom boats waiting to shuttle passengers the remaining 13 miles (22 km) along the river to the archaeological site.
After a scenic forty-minute boat ride along the Usumacinta, you’ll arrive at a staircase that leads up over the river bank to the site entrance. From here, you can follow the main path to El Laberinto, an impressive two-story structure located on the northwest end of the Great Plaza. A path leading off to the right takes you to the Small Acropolis, a group of ruins on a small hilltop. Many of the important structures at Yaxchilán can be found in the Great Plaza. A staircase off to the right of the plaza leads up to the best-preserved structure at the site, a temple that houses a statue of one of the city’s ancient rulers. Further up the hill is a clearing that houses several more structures and offers excellent views across the river to neighboring Guatemala.
The jungle ruins at Yaxchilán can be easily explored on foot, though it does require a bit of climbing to reach all of the structures. Most of the signs at the site have information in English; however, hiring a local guide is a great way to get a better understanding of the history and significance of the site.
Because of its remote jungle setting in Mexico’s southern border region, Yaxchilán receives fewer visitors than many of the other well-known archaeological sites in Mexico. When I last visited in 2010, Yaxchilán had yet to be developed into a major tourist destination, and unlike many of the Yucatan Peninsula sites, there was no on-site café or gift shop, no souvenir vendors and best of all, no crowds. Instead, visiting the site was an experience that felt very real and authentic.
If You Go: Yaxchilán is best visited on day tours from Palenque and San Cristóbal de las Casas. Day tours depart early in the morning and typically don’t return until late in the evening. Public transportation in the area is unreliable at best, and visiting the archaeological site independently is challenging and can end up taking several days. Travelers to the region can also visit local Lacandon Maya villages and take part in several interesting local ecotourism projects that are currently in development.
Day tours to Yaxchilán also include a visit to the jungle ruins at Bonampak. The name Bonampak means “painted walls” in Yucatec Maya and the archaeological site is best-known for its monolithic limestone steles and the colorful murals that are found inside the Templo de las Pinturas.
Visitors to Mexico City can also explore a bit of Yaxchilán: many of the carved stone lintels that the site is famous for are on display at the Museo Nacional de Antropologia.
For more information visit: www.inah.gob.mx/paseos/palenque/ and www.visitmexico.com/en-us/yaxchilan-archeaological-site-in-chiapas-mexico