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Yaxchilán, the beautiful and mighty Usumacinta capital of the Maya

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 venture off into the Lacandon jungle to discover the ruins of one of the greatest classical Maya cities of all, Yaxchilán.

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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.
The ancient Maya city of Yaxchilán. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht for Yucatán Magazine
Yaxchilán’s Structure 33 in the site’s Great Acropolis. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

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.

The ancient Maya city of Yaxchilán. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht for Yucatán Magazine
The western shore of the Usumacinta River, on the Guatemalan side. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

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. 

The ancient Maya city of Yaxchilán. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht for Yucatán Magazine
The majestic scarlet macaw in its natural environment, a truly marvelous sight to behold. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

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.

The ancient Maya city of Yaxchilán. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht for Yucatán Magazine
An ancient low lying temple in Yaxchilán Chiapas. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracth

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.  

The ancient Maya city of Yaxchilán. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht for Yucatán Magazine
A rare Maya calendar carved into rounded limestone. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

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 6.19.15.0.19 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.

The ancient Maya city of Yaxchilán. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht for Yucatán Magazine
A highly adorned man, perhaps a captured lord, in the middle of a ceremonial Mesoamerican ball game. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

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 ancient Maya city of Yaxchilán. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht for Yucatán Magazine
The stelae of Yaxchilán provide epigraphers and archaeologists with a wealth of information about life in the ancient great city. Pictured, stelae 35 of Yaxchilán. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

The city managed to capture the lords of several cities including Bonampak, Piedras Negras, and even the powerful Tikal.

More: Access the entire Archaeology Monday archive

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 ancient Maya city of Yaxchilán. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht for Yucatán Magazine
Carved image of King Jaguar II supervising a bloodletting ritual performed by his wife Lady K’ab’al Xook. Such rituals were considered essential to earn the favor of the gods, especially during times of warfare. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

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.

The ancient Maya city of Yaxchilán. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht for Yucatán Magazine
Stairway up to temple complex in Yaxchilán Chiapas. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

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. 

The ancient Maya city of Yaxchilán. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht for Yucatán Magazine
Image of Lord Kukulkán, the mighty feathered serpent. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

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. 

The ancient Maya city of Yaxchilán. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht for Yucatán Magazine
Mesoamerican ball court in Yaxchilán Chiapas. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

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. 

The ancient Maya city of Yaxchilán. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht for Yucatán Magazine
A local tour guide and his son on the Usumacinta River. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

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. 

The ancient Maya city of Yaxchilán. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht for Yucatán Magazine
Keep your finger on the camera shutter you may get lucky on the way to Yaxchilán. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

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. 

Yaxchilán is right next to the Guatemalan border. Image: Google Maps.

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.

More: Access the entire Archaeology Monday archive

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