Yaxchilan is an ancient Maya city located on the banks of the Usumacinta River in the southern state of Chiapas, Mexico, near the border with Guatemala. Yaxchilan was a large center, important throughout the Classic era, and the dominant power of the Usumacinta River area. It dominated such smaller sites as Bonampak, and had a long rivalry with Piedras Negras to the north, and it was even a rival of Palenque, with which Yaxchilan warred in 654.
The site is particularly known for its well-preserved sculptured stone lintels set above the doorways of the main structures. These lintels, together with the stelae (stone tablets) erected before the major buildings, contain hieroglyphic texts describing the dynastic history of the city.
Yaxchilan is within a comfortable driving distance from other popular archeological sites in Chiapas such as Bonampak archeological site (13 miles southeast); Palenque (about 120 miles north); and Piedras Negras (25 mi north across the river in Guatemala). Yaxchilan is a mini-adventure because it is not accessible by roads. You have to fly in or better yet take a boat from Frontera Corozal. (See How to Get There, below)
Yaxchilan has its origins in the Preclassic Period, but reached its peak during the Late Classical period of 800 to 1000 AD. The known history of Yaxchilan starts with the enthronement of Yopaat B’alam I, on 23 July, 359, and over the centuries Yaxchilan developed into a very powerful and influential urban and trade center on the banks of the Usumacinta River. Much of what is known of the history of the city comes from the hieroglyphic texts in the ruins.
As with most Mayan cities, it was abandoned and later was covered in jungle vegetation before the arrival of the Spanish in the 1500′s.
The site was briefly mentioned in 1833 in a published article by the Royal Geographic Society, and gradually came to the attention of the Europeans and North Americans over the following century, who explored and mapped the site. The Mexican Instituto Nacionale de Antropologia y Historia (INHA) preserved the central portion of the site. Yaxchilan has been a remote location, accessible only by small plane or long boat rides on the Usumacinta River, since there were no roads within 100 miles. However, the federal government constructed a highway, The Carretera Fronteriza also known as Highway 307, into the area in the 1990′s opening it to tourism.
The Yaxchilan Archaeological Park is open seven days a week from 8 to 5, and the usual small entry fee of less than US$10 is charged. It is best known for its detailed facades and large ornamented roof combs and its lintels. Over 120 structures made up this city, grouped into 3 main areas: the Great Plaza, the Grand Acropolis and the Small Acropolis.
When you get off your boat at the small pier, you will walk up a ramp that leads to the entrance where you will find the ticket booth, rest rooms, drink stand and local guides who will take you through for a fee. You go through a dark tunnel under a building and then into the north west corner of the Grand Plaza—an open space overlooking an ancient plaza, surrounded by structures in varying conditions.
The site contains impressive ruins, with palaces and temples around a large plaza. The architectural remains extend across the higher terraces and the hills to the south of the river, overlooking both the river itself and the land beyond. Yaxchilan is famous for the large quantity of sculpture, such as the monolithic carved stelae and the reliefs carved on stone lintels spanning the temple doorways. In fact, more than 120 inscriptions have been identified on the various monuments. The major groups are the Central Acropolis, the West Acropolis and the South Acropolis.
The archeological items of most interest at Yaxchilan are the numerous carvings on lintels (stone blocks above doorways), steles (stone blocks or tablets) and carved hieroglyphic stairways depicting events and people of the classical era. Several were removed from the site in the 1900′s and are now in museums in London and Mexico City. All the lintels, steles and carvings are numbered as are all the buildings at the site.
One important carving is lintel 24, structure 23 which depicts a sacred blood-letting ritual which took place on October 26, 709. King Itzamnaaj B’alam II is shown holding a torch, while his wife draws a barbed rope through her tongue.
Other interesting or unusual buildings are building 17 (a sauna) and two ball courts.
Structure 19 in the Central Acropolis is also known as the Labyrinth. The structure is a temple with rooms spread over three levels, linked by interior stairways. Two sculptured altars are located in front of the structure, which still has the remains of a perforated roof comb.
The best preserved building is number 33, which you have to climb up to see properly.
How to Get There
By Air: The closest airport to Yaxchilan is Villahermosa and Tuxtla Gutierrez.
By Bus: Although there are some local buses traveling from Palenque to Frontera Corozal (the small town where the boats embark), these are not recommended.
By Car: You need to travel to Frontera Corozal on Highway 198 and park your car in town. Driving in Chiapas requires special caution to avoid serious problems. Do not drive after dark. You will be driving in a remote area with no gasoline stations or repair service. You will probably pass through at least one or more military checkpoint if you drive in Chiapas. Unless you are an experienced driver in Mexico, it is best to take a tour instead of driving yourself or taking the bus.
Boat Ride: To reach Yaxchilan, you must take a boat ride from Frontera Corozal, a small town that also has a good restaurant and a hostel. If you are part of a tour then all the arrangements will be made for you. Otherwise you will need to hire a boat yourself speaking Spanish. The boat trip is pleasant and takes an hour to get to the ruins, and an hour and a half to get back. You may see wildlife including toucans, howler monkeys and crocodiles. Yaxchilan has a small pier where you get off the boat and get back on again for the return trip. Your boat driver will tell you to return in 90 minutes, but will wait longer if you can make this clear and leave a little extra tip.
Tours: Tours are available from Palenque that visit Yaxchilan and nearby Bonampak. It is best to take a tour due to the remote location of these parks. The tour buses travel in convoys with police escort departing Palenque about 6:30 am. and returning about 12 hours later. It is a scenic drive on Highway 307. Don’t drive after dark, and exercise caution on this road. In fact, why not join the bus convoy if you really need to drive yourself.
Protect Yourself – This is jungle climate, hot and humid. Wear loose fitting comfortable clothes of cotton, no denim. Sturdy shoes are needed. Protect yourself with sun screen, bug spray, a hat, sun glasses and water. Drink water before you get thirsty.