Yaxchilán is an ancient Maya city on the western banks of the Usumacinta River, which serves as the border between the Mexican state of Chiapas and Petén in Guatemala.
Given its remote location in the lush Lacandon jungle, visitors to Yaxchilán are likely to encounter a wide range of exotic animals including toucans, tapirs, and if you are lucky even macaws.
Yaxchilán was an important player in classical Mesoamerican geopolitics and commanded the loyalty of several other city-states in the region. The city waged war with other major city-states such as Palenque, Tikal, and its chief rival, Piedras Negras, 40 kilometers downriver on what is now the Guatemalan side of the Usumacinta River.
In Mayan, Yaxchilán means green stones, a name given to the city by renowned archaeologist and explorer Teoberto Maler in the late 19th century. Epigraphists believe that in antiquity the city and its surrounding region was known as Pa’ Chan, meaning cleft or broken sky.
A great deal is known about the history of Yaxchilán thanks to the splendid preservation of a great many stelae and inscriptions on monuments. The origins of the city date back to the pre-classic period and the rise to power of king Yopaat B’alam I, on July 23, 359 CBE according to our contemporary Gregorian Calendar or 126.96.36.199.19 on the Mayan long count calendar. The dynasty of this first king would grow the tiny settlement into one of the most mighty city-states in all of Mesoamerica.
As the power and prestige of Yaxchilán grew during the classical era, the rulers of the city became emboldened and deployed troops to wage war.
The city managed to capture the lords of several cities including Bonampak, Piedras Negras, and even the powerful Tikal.
But as they say, what goes around comes around, and in the 4th century CE, King Knot-eye Jaguar I of Yaxchilán was captured by warriors from Piedras Negras, where he was forced to “bend the knee.” As you can probably tell, “Game of Thrones” has nothing on the classical Maya.
The ruins of Yaxchilán are impressive and feature several large plazas built atop artificial platforms. The city itself was quite large, but the majority of its remains still lay unrestored bellow the thick jungle.
Monuments in the city’s ceremonial centers were covered in stucco and painted red in honor of the solar deity Kinich Ahau, who was closely associated with the macaw. We can also find depictions of Kukulkán, as well as several other gods and spirits.
But for all of their piety, inscriptions on the temples of Yaxchilán are not shy about hyping up the achievements of their kings. The most commonly recorded events include conquests, the births of heirs, coronations, marriages, bloodletting ceremonies, and the capture of enemy nobles.
If you go
As wonderful as Yaxchilán is, just getting there is half the fun. Most visitors to the site begin their journey in Palenque as part of a guided expedition. We would not recommend you attempt to drive because roads in this part of the country can be quite treacherous. The ride from Palenque down to the Usumacinta River takes about two to three hours, depending on road conditions. The drive is long, but the scenery is wonderful.
Once you arrive at the banks of the river you will board a small motorboat that will take you to the archaeological site. This ride can take up to another hour, but keep your eyes peeled as this is a great opportunity to spot wildlife.
Like all archaeological sites in Mexico, Yaxchilán is administered by the INAH, at least in theory. In reality, all tours and payments are managed by local cooperatives. Local guides tend to be very pleasant and knowledgeable about the site, as well as about the plants and animals found in the region — especially if you tip generously.
Organized tours departing from Palenque to Yaxchilán usually also include a visit to Bonampak, another archaeological site. Tours usually leave at around 5 or 6 a.m. and cost between 1,200 and 1,700 pesos. It is money well spent.