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Thursday, December 8, 2022

The story of Yaxhá, the grand Maya capital on ‘green lake’

Archaeology Monday provides historical background, photos, and practical information about these ancient marvels and how to get out and enjoy them for yourself. This week we explore Yaxhá, one of Guatemala’s largest and most impressive Maya capitals.

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Carlos Rosado van der Gracht
Carlos Rosado van der Gracht
Born in Mérida, Carlos Rosado van der Gracht is a Mexican/Canadian blogger, photographer and adventure expedition leader. He holds degrees in multimedia, philosophy and translation from universities in Mexico, Canada and Norway. Sign up for the Yucatán Roundup, a free newsletter, which delivers the week's top headlines every Monday.

Located on a ridge overlooking a bountiful lake, Yaxhá grew rapidly to become one of the greatest ancient cities of the Petén during the early classical period. 

A restored step pyramid dating from the 2nd Century CE in the outskirts of Yaxhá’s main ceremonial center. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Belonging to the Maya civilization, Yaxhá is located in the municipality of Flores near the border with Belize.

Yaxhá translates to “green water,” likely making reference to the river of the same name.

Spectacular view of lake Yaxhá from atop Temple 216. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

With over 500 monuments, including nine large pyramids, two ball courts, and several sprawling acropoleis, Yaxhá ranks as the third-largest Maya site in the Petén, only behind the legendary cities of Mirador and Tikal

A maquette at the entrance to Yaxhá archaeological site shows a basic layout of the main areas of the ancient city. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gacht

Yaxhá came to the attention of the world when it was rediscovered by famed archaeologist Teoberto Maler in 1904, though the site was not mapped until the 1930s.

Archaeological evidence suggests the city was first occupied some time in the 7th century BCE. 

The remains of a frieze likely depicts the rain god Chaac, dating to the Yaxhá’s pre-classical age. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

During this early phase of Yaxhá’s history, homes and ceremonial buildings were likely limited to structures made from perishable materials built atop stone foundations or hills.

Construction on a truly monumental scale likely kicked off sometime in the 4th century BCE and reached its peak sometime around the 3rd Century CE. 

Most of the structures dating prior to the 4th Century BCE in Yaxhá are severely damaged, and few have received any archaeological reconstruction.

Structures dating from after the 3rd century exhibit evidence of a strong influence of Teotihuacan culture, from what today is central Mexico.

Like several other sites in the region, Yaxhá exhibits an interesting mix of architectural styles spanning three millennia. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

The influence of Teotihuacan is felt throughout Mesoamerica and evidenced through cultural practices, art, and architecture. 

Stella 11 at Yaxhá exhibits the image of a Teotihuacan warrior wearing garb reminiscent of the rain god Tlaloc. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Yaxhá’s history is closely intertwined with those of its largest neighbors, Nakum, and El Naranjo, which like Yaxhá were likely subordinate to Tikal. 

Stelae dating to the 4th century CE sits at the base of a pyramidal structure from roughly the same time period when the great power of the Petén went to war in the famous conflict known as the “Star Wars.” Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Yaxhá is also believed to have had strong ties with other major Mayan city-states including Caracol and Calakmul, the latter of which was involved in proxy wars for several centuries as an ally of Tikal. 

The power of Tikal cast a large shadow across the entirety of the Petén region during the middle of the Maya’s classical age, and Yaxhá was no exception. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Though by the late classic period, Yaxhá had been eclipsed in importance by Nakum, construction continued, though at a slower and less grandiose pace.

Architectural complex located near the entrance to Yaxhá’s entrance toward the southern end of the site. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Unlike other grand city-states of the region which appear to have been abandoned virtually overnight during the Classic Maya collapse, Yaxhá appears to have hung on for centuries to come. 

In fact, there is good evidence that the city was continuously occupied until sometime in the 16th century until it was eventually abandoned for good and would be swallowed up by the surrounding jungle. 

The core of Yaxhá is made up of a large number of plazas and architectural groups connected through a series of causeways. 

Aside from grand pyramids and ceremonial centers, elite residential complexes can also be found throughout Yaxhá. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Designated the Northern Acropolis, this large architectural complex is one of Yaxhá’s most imposing attractions. 

An aerial view of Yaxha’s Northern Acropolis shows several of the complex’s most imposing structures. Photo: Wikimedia Foundation

The architecture of the Northern Acropolis exhibits a mixture of classical Petén style architecture combined with elements imported from central Mexico, such as Tablero-Talud construction techniques.

Also in the Northern Acropolis stand several massive and extremely well-preserved stelae which have provided epigraphers with much of the information we now know about Yaxhá.

Yours truly posing next to a massive stelae in Yaxhá’s Northern Acropolis. Photo: Roque Arcudia Henandez

Near the Northern Acropolis sits one of Yaxhá’s two reconstructed prehispanic ballcourts, also known as Pok ta Pok.

The ballcourt near the northern acropolis in Yaxhá is among the most impressive and best-preserved in all of Mesoamerica. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Plaza A in the East acropolis is dominated by a number of pyramids built in the 8th century, making it one of the last major construction projects in Yaxhá’s history. 

Temple 216 in Yaxhá´s eastern acropolis towers above the vegetation surrounding the ancient city and offers a fantastic view of the lake of the same name below. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Yaxhá is also well known for its large amount of surviving stucco, especially in Plaza B’s Temple of Columns.

At just about any other site, the Temple of Columns would be considered a real highlight, but given the sheer amount of impressive structures at Yaxhá, it tends to go rather unnoticed. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht
Closeup of surviving stucco masks and within Yaxhá’s impressive Temple of Columns. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

If you go

The most logical jumping-off point to visit Yaxhá is the tiny island town of Flores on the beautiful lake Petén Itzá.

The island of Flores offers a wide range of accommodations and is extremely charming and a great attraction in and of itself. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Getting to Yaxhá from Flores is fairly easy as several tour operators offer day trips. Though Yaxhá and Tikal are relatively close to each other, it’s best to dedicate a day to visit each, as “combo” tours tend to be extremely rushed and are not really worth it. 

Thatched roofs protect surviving stucco reliefs inside several of Yaxhá’s ancient temples. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht 

Because of Tikal’s fame, Yaxhá is often overlooked by tourists who find that “one archaeological site is enough.” Blasphemous, I know.  

A map shows the location of Yaxhá in northern Guatemala. Image: Google Maps

The Petén region is extremely lush and full of beautiful vistas and wildlife, so make sure to bring along your binoculars and a good camera. 

A child runs to dry off after taking a dip in Lake Yaxhá in northern Guatemala. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht 
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