Yaxchilan – Exploring Classic Maya Ruins in the Jungle of Chiapas

Yaxchilan, on the bank of the Usumacinta River, in Chiapas, was once a powerful state, a large center during the Classic period of the ancient Maya civilization.

Its impressive stone lintels, ornamental facades, and roof-combs awed archaeologists for years. They studied it, living there for years, then published their accounts. A few of these books ended up in our home library. Naturally, I read them, even when my English was still not fluent. And Yaxchilan became one of my dream destinations.

Though beautiful, the best thing about visiting this site is still its remoteness. It is also the reason I took over two decades to get there.

Yaxchilan structure on plaza
Yaxchilan structure on plaza

Overgrown by deep jungle vegetation, and only accessible by boat, it gets fewer visitors than most other ruins of the same size. Howler and spider monkey families own the place, living close to the structures, and making a lot of noise, trying to chase visitors away.

A Boat Ride to Yaxchilan

During our latest trip in search of ancient Maya Archaeological Sites, we finally made it to Yaxchilan. The trip involved driving through old Mexican roads filled with topes, through the Lacandon forest, with few villages and fewer people, and finally a boat ride on the Usumacinta River. Just getting there was an adventure.

After our stop at Bonampak, we slept in a cabana about 30 km from Yaxchilan. We didn’t want to drive at night since we didn’t know what to expect on the road, so instead, we got up early in the morning and drove towards Frontera Corozal, where we would take a boat to the site. Though narrow, the road was paved and empty at the early hour, so we arrived at the docs before the stalls even opened.

Boat ride to Yaxchilan
Boat ride to Yaxchilan

One of the boat owners was there early, and he didn’t mind leaving as soon as we were ready, even if it meant he didn’t have a full boat. A local mother and her child were waiting to go to the ruins on the first boat. They boarded with us, bringing a few huge bags we guessed (correctly) contained things they would sell at the ruins. Turned out to be just fruit and drinks, some of which came in handy when we were leaving later in the day.

Getting there on the first boat of the day meant we only shared the site with monkeys, spiders, and other jungle creatures, none of them human.

We rode on the river for about 40 minutes, surrounded on both shores by jungle. Though we knew the river separates two countries, Mexico from Guatemala, nothing showed it. Both sides looked the same dense jungle as far as we could see.

Visiting the Ruins of Yaxchilan

As we got off the boat, we walked up the stairs from the doc. The only person there was cleaning the pathway or repairing part of the stairs, but no one else was at the site. He asked us to stop at the entrance booth and sign in. We promised him we would, and walked up, while he continued his work.

Once signed in, we walked on a jungle path, in a dark forest. The jungle here differs from any I’ve been to before; greener, denser, and somehow more alive. Being the first humans on the premises in the morning, I felt the eyes of forest creatures on us. It might have been my imagination since none bothered us for yet. Then again, we tried not to disturb the quiet of the forest, didn’t even talk while walking up the path.

Yaxchilan. Walking towards the ruins
Walking towards the ruins of Yaxchilan in the early mooring sun.

Moss covered the first structure I noticed. It was a small circular pyramid base; the path led between it and another small base.

Yaxchilan glimpse of the first structure
A glimpse of the first structure in Yaxchilan.

The Labyrinth ( Structure 19)

To enter the site we walked through the Labyrinth, a structure with many rooms and doorways, filled with bats and spiders. We tried to be quiet so not to disturb the bats though couldn’t help take a few photos of them. I think they are amazing creatures; besides, they eat mosquitoes, so they are my best friends.

Bat in the Labyrinth. Yaxchilan
One of the bats sleeping in the Labyrinth

I’m not sure how many rooms we walked through, but in one room, the girls waited for me to show me the biggest spider we’ve ever seen; we thought it looked like one of Aragog’s grandchildren. As fascinating as it looked, we didn’t linger much underneath, just in case it would wake up and think we were food.

We felt like we were in a labyrinth; saw the sunlight a few times, but didn’t reach an exit for a while. But finally, a few rooms past Aragog’s grandchild, we walked out into a great plaza.

When we looked back, we realized that we exited at the entrance of the building they nicknamed the Labyrinth.

Yaxchilan, the Labyrinth or Structure 19
Looking back, the entrance to the Labyrinth (this is where we exited it).

In the Main Plaza – Central Acropolis

The plaza we entered looked huge; lush green, surrounded by trees. A few stelae stand, under palapa roofs to protect them. I walked around, in no rush, and stood in front of each, enjoying the quiet of the surrounding jungle. A woodpecker was working high above me in the canopy, and other birds flew around, though so high I could barely see them.

Yaxchilan Plaza
In the Great Plaza in Yaxchilan

Looking up into the jungle, where the path led to a large structure, the most beautiful ancient structure I’ve seen was just visible through the dense forest.

Yaxchilan view of Structure 33
View from the Plaza of Structure 33

I noticed movement on the stairs. Then I saw it again and realized that monkeys were walking around, making their way down towards me. Curious monkeys, though they stayed a long distance away. I was alone in the plaza, the rest of my family moved on, and I felt an eerie silence and animal eyes on me. I meandered in silence, hoping to glimpse the forest creatures watching me. But no luck – yet.

I walked around the plaza surrounded by smaller temples and filled with stelae.

Yaxchilan structure
Temple in the Plaza of Yaxchilan

Walking through the jungle we came to more structures scattered about. One of them had a beautifully preserved stucco figure on its facade.

Yaxchilan frieze with sculpture on Structure 6
Frieze with sculpture on the facade of Structure 6

Crossing the plaza, I came across a few stelae, some of them still well preserved, under a cover.

Yaxchilan stela
Stela in the Plaza in Yaxchilan

I crossed the Plaza and walked on the side where we would eventually climb to the beautiful Structure 33. Smaller temples sat on the lower levels of the hill, surrounded by stelae.

Structure 21

This small structure has three central doorways, but what impressed me about it was the stelae inside each of the rooms. The best-known one depicts Lady Eveningstar. I love the names from the dynasties of Yaxchilan; I learned from A Forest of Kings by Linda Schele and David Freidel; they are so poetic).

Yaxchilan Room with stela depicting Lady Eveningstar
The room with stela depicting Lady Eveningstar

The roof of the structure collapsed at some point and they didn’t replace it, so we had a perfect view of the stelae in all three rooms, even though we couldn’t enter them. In front of the building, a stela sat mostly buried underground, but well preserved.

Yaxchilan. Stela partially underground
Stela on the wall of an underground chamber.

After admiring the stelae, we walked up the hill to the most spectacular structure, the one we’ve been looking at since we arrived, Structure 33.

Walking up towards Structure 33 in Yaxchilan
Walking up towards Structure 33

Structure 33

The best-preserved, almost intact large roof comb was visible from below, but the building itself is even more beautiful.

Yaxchilan structure 33
The most beautiful building at Yaxchilan, Structure 33, on the hill

I stood in front in awe, as a family of howler monkeys was yelling at me, trying to chase me away. Or maybe they were just chatty. I stood under their tree, but didn’t move much, watching them, and waiting until my daughter came to get me before they throw something at me, she said.

On another tree, a spider monkey family was watching us. I assured them all that we were only visiting for a short time; we were no threat to them and didn’t wish to take over their territory, then moved away just in case they didn’t understand me.

I focused my attention on the building instead. Three doorways lead into the rooms, all topped with beautiful lintels carved on the underside. Still, the building’s most spectacular feature is the roof comb.

Yaxchilan structure 33 roof comb
Structure 33 roof comb

A Hieroglyphic Stairway

In front of the structure, a hieroglyphic stairway comprises a row of 13 carved blocks. Some of them are in almost perfect condition, depicting the ruler called Bird Jaguar IV and two earlier rulers dressed as ballplayers.

Hiking Higher through the Jungle

A narrow path led higher on the hill through the jungle. We followed it to the South Acropolis. As I am slower than the rest of my family was ahead of me, I found myself alone in the jungle once again. I kept it slow – it was a steep hill, so that was a good excuse for it, but I enjoyed the pace, being in the middle of all this dark, lush green, tall trees, and barely discernible trail.

Yaxchilan. Walking through the jungle
Walking through the jungle in Yaxchilan

Everything was full of life around me, though it seemed quiet, with no human sounds around. Birds and most likely monkeys moved around in the canopy above, small rodents scattered in the low vegetation around me. The morning sun was occasionally peeking through the dense canopy, but other than that the dark green vegetation of the forest surrounded me.

The trail ends on the top of the hill where I saw a small hole in the dense canopy signaling the opening of the South Acropolis.

Yaxchilan reaching the highest part of the site
Sunlight and a new structure signaled the end of the jungle trail.

The South Acropolis

Three structures and a few stelae comprise the highest part of Yaxchilan, the South Acropolis. Up, high above the surrounding jungle, it didn’t impress me as much as the rest of the site below, surrounded by more vegetation. Still, the hike to it was worth it, not only for the structures but more for the jungle experience.

Yaxchilan top of the hill
On the top of the hill, the South Acropolis

Leaving Yaxchilan

By the time we explored the last structure, we knew we should make our way back, since our boat driver was waiting for us, for what he was hoping would be two hours. So we made our way down, through a different trail, towards the exit.

We met two young travelers on the way out; they were just coming in to visit the ruins. They were the first humans we encountered since we got off the boat.

Two ladies were selling drinks and fruit at the end of the trail. One of them was the Mayan lady who rode with us. She recognized me and smiled. I bought a cupful of fresh coconut pieces from her, to which she added lime juice. Smiles and farewell gestures replaced words in communication. I don’t speak Maya (yet), and a little Spanish, and I didn’t think she spoke much Spanish either.

Yaxchilan boats
More boats and a group of people were ready to visit the site

By the river, we noticed another group of people just walking in, and a few more boats. The site wouldn’t feel as deserted soon, I thought. I felt lucky to have been there before any of the other visitors. Though it won’t be anything like even Palenque, sharing it only with the creatures of the jungle made it more special for me.

On the River

Our boat driver turned the motor on when he noticed us. The keeper at the ruins packed up a few bags full of trash by the looks he hauled out on his way. When you don’t share the boat with other people, you get to share it with locals or you might be part of the cleaning crew.

On the Usumacinta River Yaxchilan
Leaving Yaxchilan. Boat ride on the Usumacinta River

Communicating with smiles gestures and instead of words, we got in and rode the river back to where we came from.

On the way out, we noticed people on the Guatemalan side of the river. Our boater greeted them like old friends, even if they lived on the other side of the border – no walls here, only the river separated them.

We got off in Frontera Corozal and started our drive back towards Palenque where we would spend the next night again.

About the Author

Emese-Réka Fromm has been visiting Maya ruins and archaeological sites for over thirty years, since the first time she set foot on the Yucatan Peninsula on her honeymoon. Besides exploring well-known and off-the-beaten track ruins all this time, she reads about the ancient Maya, and recently attended a lecture of respected Mayanist and epigrapher David Stuart at the Maya meetings at the UT of Austin. A published travel writer with bylines in publications like Lonely Planet and several others, she is also a language instructor in Phoenix.

8 thoughts on “Yaxchilan – Exploring Classic Maya Ruins in the Jungle of Chiapas”

  1. Love ancient Mayan sites, never been here or even heard of it, looks fascinating! and how amazingly quiet it looks compared to Chichen Itza! have pinned for future ref 🙂 Thanks for sharing, Garth

  2. What an experience, to hop in a boat and gesture about your plans, then go deep in the jungle and visit these ruins. Wow! I love all the green of the jungle around the stones of the ruins. Quite the adventure!

  3. After reading your post, Yaxchilan became one of my dream destinations as well! While looking at the photo of the jungle path and reading about how green and alive everything around you felt, I honestly had a wanderlust attack lol Before your blog I´ve never realized how many of the Mayan historic sites are still out there! Thanks for the inspiration! #FeetDoTravel

    P.S When you said English was not your native language I went to the About section, and I couldn´t agree more: stay-at-home parent is the most difficult job ever (especially with 3). I have two little girls, and while they make me extremely happy, I often feel like times, when I had several jobs and studied at the same time, were a simple vacation lol

    1. So now you need to plan a trip to Yaxchilan. You – and your family will love it. Yes, there are so many Mayan sites, a lot of them still covered, not even known yet – we’ve been on a mission to visit as many as possible.
      I hear you about the stay-at-home parent bit, too :). Thanks for checking out my site.

  4. Such a beautiful jungle temple, I love it when nature reclaims itself. I don’t see a photo of the biggest spider you ever saw, I was hoping you would share it for the insect theme in our Facebook Group for #WildlifeWednesday haha. Wonderful Mayan ruin for us to visit, pinned! #feetdotravel

    1. It was so dark, none of the photos of the spider came out 🙁 even though both my girls and I took some… then again, we probably didn’t take time to focus it right, concentrating on rushing out before we woke it up. ;). I agree, Angie, I love it when I see nature reclaim itself.

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