Yaxuná, a treasure to be found off Yucatán’s beaten path

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 out deep into the jungle to unveil the secrets of the rarely visited ancient city of Yaxuná.

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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.

When traveling east on the Mérida-Valladolid toll-free highway, about 20 kilometers before reaching Pisté, you will notice some disheveled old signs pointing you in the direction of the archaeological site of Yaxuná. The small towns you will pass on your way are quite beautiful, though a little run down. The area is full of old haciendas, cenotes, and colonial churches that are worth a visit in their own right.

The dirt road can be quite rough, but fortunately, it is not very long. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

If you follow the signs correctly you will arrive at a little dirt road. Pay attention to your surroundings and you are sure to spot huge pyramids completely covered in vegetation. Follow it and after a few kilometers, you will have arrived. Although the site has no amenities at all and can sometimes be a little difficult to traverse, it offers a real sense of adventure and discovery. It may not be the 19th century and you are certainly not John Lloyd Stephens, but it’s fun to pretend.

In Yucatec-Maya, Yaxuná (sometimes spelled Yaxunah) means “first house: or “turquoise house.”

Unlike all the other ancient Mayan cities we have covered so far on Archaeology Monday, Yaxuná is not continuously maintained by Mexico’s Institute of History and Anthropology, INAH. For this reason, your experience at the site may vary, depending on how easy it is to navigate through the vegetation. 

Large mounds can be seen just about everywhere you look. These are not just hills, they are pyramids and great palaces. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

If the growth around the core of the site becomes too dense, locals who rent out small eco-cabins near the site will come down with machetes and carve out a path for visitors.  

Archaeological evidence suggests that Yaxuná was first settled by Mayan settlers in the 9th century BC. However, the city reached its zenith in the 5th century AD when it was involved in a war with Chichén Itzá. 

A very interesting, probably Toltec-style depiction of a deity or local ruler. It resembles Chaac/Tlaloc but its identity is uncertain. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Toward the end of the classical period in the 6th or 7th century, the city of Coba conquered Yaxuná and established it as a vassal kingdom. Coba built a large road or sacbe to connect the two cities over a distance of 100 km. The construction of this project is attributed to Queen K’awiil Ajaw of Coba, who ruled over the powerful city-state for over 40 years. 

Archaeologists have uncovered many tombs in the city, complete with ritualistic offerings, but also everyday objects which help us piece together a better understanding of what life in this ancient city must have been like. You will notice that although some structures have been reconstructed by archaeologists, up to a point, most pyramids and ceremonial platforms remain mostly covered by vegetation. 

Despite its geographical location, Yaxuná exhibits many architectural features more consistent with Puuc architecture than those of its large neighbors such as Chichén Itza or Izamal. Evidence of this can clearly be seen on surviving facade decorations which look like they were pulled directly out of Kabah or Sayil.

Puuc ornamentation in Yaxuná. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

One of the most interesting structures on the site is a multi-level circular platform which archaeologists believe was built during Coba’s occupation of the city, as it lines up perfectly with the sacbe that connects the two.

This round structure serves as the beginning of the 100-km sacbe to Coba. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Toward the core of the site, there is a large plaza that would have been flanked by several large, imposing buildings. However, centuries of neglect and looting have rendered the remains of these structures a pale shadow of their former glory. Look along the base of these platforms and you will notice many decorative elements that hint at the lost greatness of these buildings.

There are likely other similar plazas at the site, though they remain buried. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

To the west of the plaza, you will find a large pyramid. If you like you will be able to climb it for a truly awesome view of the site. But remember that structures at Yaxuná do not really ever receive maintenance, so if you do decide to climb, be extremely careful.

If you decide to climb pyramids at Yaxuná there will not be anyone around to stop you, but be extremely cautious . Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Grracht

Like many Maya cities of Yaxuná’s period, the city has a Mesoamerican ballcourt. But as is often the case with ballcourts, its two rings are missing, as are most of its decorative elements.

Mesoamerican ballcourt or pok ta pok in Yaxuná. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Due to a lack of visitors and relative isolation, Yaxuná is also fantastic for spotting wildlife. The grounds are known to be particularly good for birdwatching and deer sightings. 

Roadrunners are not easy to spot in Yucatán, but your best chance is probably in Yaxuná. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht
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