Yaxchilan (yax-chee-LAN), which means “Place of Green Stones” in Mayan, is a place of wondrous temples, plazas and story-telling carvings and sculptures. Poised on the banks of Rio Usumancinta in Chiapas (bordering neighboring Guatemala), this imposing compound has been swallowed by its jungle surrounding—ceiba and gum trees are home to chatty howler monkeys and toucans. Yaxchilan is where nature and man meet in inspiring harmony.
When visiting spectacular Yaxchilan, you really feel like you’ve stepped back in time. It is the only well-trodden archaeological center in Mexico that cannot be reached by car or bus: you have to take a boat trip from Frontera Corozal—a small town on the banks of Rio Usumacinta (the river that divides Mexico from Guatemala) or much less commonly, fly in from nearby Palenque or Ocosingo landing on the nearby airstrip. The boat trip is the best bet—more exciting and less expensive, too.
During its hey-day (the Late Classical period of 800 to 1000 AD), Yaxchilan developed into a very powerful and influential urban and trade center on the banks of the Usumacinta River. Over 120 structures made up this city, grouped into 3 main areas: the Great Plaza, the Grand Acropolis and the Small Acropolis
The site is best known structurally for its detailed facades and large ornamented roof combs and its lintels, unusually carved on BOTH sides.
Yaxchilan is within a comfortable driving distance from other popular archaeological sites in Chiapas: it makes a convenient side-trip from Bonampak archaeological site as it’s just 31 miles (50km) northeast there. Palenque is about 118 miles (190km) from Yaxchilan and many visitors to Yaxchilan also take advantage of being the area to visit these two other important archaeological sites.
As you disembark at the site’s pier, you walk up a ramp and into the jungle that stops short on the bank of the river. The entrance to the site takes you through a tunnel under Edificio 19 (Edifice 19), and you break out into the north west corner of the Grand Plaza—an open space overlooking an ancient plaza, surrounded by structures in varying conditions.
On the left as you look across the Plaza from Edificio 19 are a couple of buildings—making up Edificio 17, apparently used in ancient times as a sauna.
A number of Steles (stone blocks) are dotted all over this site as in nearby Bonampak; some of them are carved on both sides and you can see an example of one of these in Edificio 20. These Steles have helped archaeologists to piece together much of the history of the site as their paintings and hieroglyphic inscriptions reveal a lot of information about the life and times of the ancient Maya people who inhabited these lands.
Visit the Steles in the Grand Plaza and continue towards Edificios 5, 8 and 20 on the southwest side of the site; double back to Stele 1, where on the left you’ll see an ancient stairway rising up to a building on the brow of the hill.
The best preserved building in Yaxchilan is Edificio 33, which you have to climb up to see properly and enjoy; there is an ancient stairway to it that rises up from Stele 1. This is the building featured as the main picture of our guide.
There’s a trail that leads behind this building and Edificio 30, and then downhill to the Small Acropolis and Edificios 42,44 & 51; alongside these you’ll also witness some unusual tree formations, where several trees have grown into one!
If you keep walking downhill from here, you’ll end up back on the main trail that led you into the site, beyond the original Edificio 19 that you walked through to arrive on the edge of the Grand Plaza and your tour of Yaxchilan will be complete.