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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The influence of Teotihuacan is felt throughout Mesoamerica and evidenced through cultural practices, art, and architecture.
Yaxhá’s history is closely intertwined with those of its largest neighbors, Nakum, and El Naranjo, which like Yaxhá were likely subordinate to Tikal.
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.
Though by the late classic period, Yaxhá had been eclipsed in importance by Nakum, construction continued, though at a slower and less grandiose pace.
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.
Designated the Northern Acropolis, this large architectural complex is one of Yaxhá’s most imposing attractions.
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.
Near the Northern Acropolis sits one of Yaxhá’s two reconstructed prehispanic ballcourts, also known as Pok ta Pok.
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.
Yaxhá is also well known for its large amount of surviving stucco, especially in Plaza B’s Temple of Columns.
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.
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.
Because of Tikal’s fame, Yaxhá is often overlooked by tourists who find that “one archaeological site is enough.” Blasphemous, I know.
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.