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Yaxha Guatemala: The Magical Mayan Ruins You Need To Visit

Yaxha is the third biggest Maya site in Guatemala
Yaxha is the third biggest Maya site in Guatemala

Most visitors to Guatemala make a beeline for Tikal, one of the world’s most spectacular Maya cities. Tikal is the jewel in Guatemala’s crown, a spectacular national park where towering 1200-year-old temples emerge from the thick jungle and spider monkeys and colourful birds play in the treetops.

But what most people don’t realise is that not far from Tikal there’s another Maya site, the fabulous ruins of Yaxha. Yaxha is not nearly as famous as Tikal, but this incredible ancient city also boasts crumbling ruined temples in a gorgeous natural setting, except without the crowds.

INTRODUCING YAXHA

Yaxha (spelled Yaxhá in Spanish and pronounced Ya-SHA), is located in northeast Guatemala, just off the highway that leads from the city of Flores to the Belize border.

The ancient city sits on the edges of two lakes, Yaxhá and Sacnab, in the middle of the UNESCO-listed Yaxhá-Nakúm-Naranjo biosphere reserve, a lush natural parkland of rainforest and wetlands that’s home to spider and howler monkeys, toucans, crocodiles, spoonbills, tapirs and even jaguars.

The ruins cover several square kilometres and feature around 500 structures so far discovered (compared with 3000 at Tikal) including nine huge temple pyramids, 40 stelae (carved monuments), 13 altars, four causeways, and two ball courts. It also has glorious lake views – in fact the name of the city means ‘green-blue water’, a reference to its beautiful lakeside setting.

The ancient city of Yaxha sits on the shore of Lake Yaxhá in Guatemala
The ancient city of Yaxha sits on the shore of Lake Yaxhá in Guatemala

A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE MAYA

The Maya were an advanced and powerful civilisation that dominated Central America between about 1800 BC and 1500 AD.

They began as hunter-gatherers roaming the jungles of what is now Mexico and Guatemala, but gradually settled into communities, which grew into towns, and eventually into powerful independent kingdoms, each one centred around a magnificent city with towering stone temples that still stand to this day.

Maya city states often formed alliances, traded or warred with one another but were united by a shared ethnicity, culture and belief system. At its height between the 2nd and 9th centuries (known as the Classic Period), the Maya Civilisation numbered an estimated two million people.

Tourists take photos at the Mayan ruins of Yaxha in Guatemala
Yaxha is one of many once-great cities in the Maya civilisation

In Guatemala, the three largest and most important cities were El Mirador, Tikal and Yaxhá.

But eventually, probably due to a combination of factors including drought, overpopulation and deforestation, the Maya civilisation collapsed and the cities were abandoned. When the Spanish conquistadores arrived in the 16th century, many more Maya were killed or died due to diseases brought by the Spanish.

Today, their descendants make up about 43% of the population of Guatemala.

A sign at the park entrance shows you what the layout of Yaxha would have been like
A sign at the park entrance shows you what the layout of Yaxha was like.

A BRIEF HISTORY OF YAXHÁ

The first settlement was built here by the Maya sometime between 1000–350 BC (known by Mayanists as the Preclassic period). The city prospered and grew, so that by AD 250 it was the largest city state in the region, and its size suggests it was a powerful influence in the area. At its height kingdom covered about 92 square miles (237 square kilometres) and was home to an estimated 40,000 people.

Later it was outgrown by neighbours Tikal and Naranjo – experts think Yaxha was allied with Tikal but warred against Naranjo and suffered a heavy defeat at the hands of that city in 799AD.

After that, Yaxha’s fortunes declined and eventually, like all Maya cities in the region, it was abandoned. It was swallowed by the jungle and lost to international knowledge for many centuries, before being re-explored and mapped in the first few decades of the 20th century.

Unlike other sites where Maya architects left inscriptions that reveal much about what went on, Yaxha has few inscriptions, so the stories of kings, queens and wars that happened here have been lost to history.

Palace or meeting place at Yaxha Guatemala
This imposing building would once have been an important palace or meeting place

THINGS TO SEE AT YAXHA RUINS

Unless you are a dedicated Maya expert, for most people (including me) the sheer joy of visiting Yaxha is simply in wandering through the jungle and discovering huge surprise pyramids and temples everywhere you go.

Restoration work is ongoing, and many of the buildings are still choked in thick forest. If you see an unnaturally-shaped hill covered in vegetation, the chances are high that it’s actually the buried remains of a temple.

The atmosphere is mysterious and magical, and with so few other tourists there, you’ll feel much the same way as I imagine Teoberto Maler, the explorer who first reported the site, did when he encountered it in 1904.

Ancient Mayan ruined temple swallowed by the trees at Yaxha Guatemala
Not just any old hill, but an ancient Mayan ruined temple swallowed by the trees

MAIN ENTRANCE

Entry to Yaxha archaeological site is via a visitor’s centre with a restaurant overlooking the lake. Here you’ll find a few stones and stelae taken from the site, and a handy site plan so you can get a sense of the layout.

If you’re taking a tour, your bus will drop you off here so you can pay the park entry fee (don’t forget to bring cash for this!).

Entrance to Yaxha archaeological site and ruins
Entrance to Yaxha archaeological site and ruins

MINOR ASTRONOMICAL COMPLEX (PLAZA C)

Upon leaving the entrance, you walk up a short path and into Plaza C, which is home to a restored pyramid with four tiers. On the eastern side there are three stelae which depict important rulers of Yaxha during the Classic Period.

This is the Minor Astronomical Complex, a smaller version of the Major Astronomical Complex (about which more below). The buildings you can see here today were built between about 700 and 800 BC, though experts think there are older buildings underneath. The structures of the Astronomical Complex were used to celebrate the movement of the sun and the stars, and record solstices and equinoxes.

LINCOLN CAUSEWAY / CALZADA DE LAS CANTERAS

Leave Plaza C and follow the path down a long wooden staircase, which takes you to the Lincoln Causeway. This ancient road leads from the Minor Astronomical Complex to the South Acropolis, and was used by ancient Maya builders to move the huge limestone blocks they needed to build Yaxha’s impressive pyramids.

Following this path was one of my favourite experiences, walking through the shady jungle and hearing howler monkeys calling from the treetops.

PYRAMID OF THE SACRIFICES / PYRAMIDE DE LOS SACRIFICIOS

As you walk around, you may spot weirdly-shaped hills. Of course these are not hills, but temples that have been swallowed by vegetation and are yet to be excavated. This one is the Pyramid of the Sacrifices, and is thought to be where captured prisoners of war may have been put to death.

The Pyramid of the Sacrifices at Yaxha ruins Guatemala
The Pyramid of the Sacrifices has yet to be excavated

SOUTH ACROPOLIS AND ROYAL PALACE

At the end of the Lincoln Causeway you’ll come to the South Acropolis, which was a residential area where Yaxha’s elite and governors lived. Some have been restored, and it’s fabulous to see these beautiful ruins peeking out from between the tangled trees.

One of the elite residential buildings in the South Acropolis at Yaxha Maya Ruins
One of the elite residential buildings in the South Acropolis

LAKE CAUSEWAY / CALZADA DEL LAGO

From the South Acropolis you can follow another causeway down to Lake Yaxhá. The path slopes steeply downhill to the lake (there are some steps to help you) and you may spot spider and howler monkeys jumping through the trees.

This causeway is the oldest in the city, thought to have been built in the 5th century BC. It was the main road between the city and the main jetty on the lake, and its surface was originally covered with a thick layer of stucco, to make it easier to walk along it while carrying goods up from the pier. The Maya did not have wheels or beasts of burden, so all transportation had to be done by people, and the pier was one of the main ways that goods arrived into the city.

The Lake Causeway (Calzada del Lago) leads down to Lake Yaxhá
The Lake Causeway leads down to Lake Yaxhá

YAXHÁ LAKE / LAGO DE YAXHÁ

At the bottom of the path you’ll find the lake that gives Yaxhá its name, ‘blue-green water’. It’s a beautiful part of the site, and one of the things which really sets this archaeological site apart from Tikal, which is in the middle of the jungle and doesn’t have a natural water supply. To solve this problem, engineers at Tikal built reservoirs to store rainwater instead.

Lago de Yaxhá (Yaxha Lake), which means 'blue-green water'
Lago de Yaxhá, which means ‘blue-green water’

MAJOR ASTRONOMICAL COMPLEX (PLAZA F)

Returning back up the way you came, you can now carry on to Plaza D, where there’s a ball court, and then continue towards Plaza F, the Major Astronomical Complex. This is one of the oldest sets of buildings in Yaxhá, and in the early days of the city it was used as the main square. Here, priests conducted ceremonies to commemorate the movements of the sun, and the complex may have functioned as an astronomical observatory.

Wooden staircases let you climb some of the pyramids at Yaxha in Guatemala
A wooden staircase allows you to climb the main pyramid

The large central pyramid has not been restored, but it’s been fitted with a long wooden staircase which you can climb up. From the top you can see the temples of the North Acropolis, and just glimpse Lago de Yaxhá glinting in the sunlight.

View of the North Acropolis from the Major Astronomical Complex pyramid at Yaxha
View of the North Acropolis from the Major Astronomical Complex pyramid

CALZADA DE LAS AGUADAS (CALZADA BLOM)

Once you’ve enjoyed the views and taken a few photos, descend the staircase again and follow the Causeway of the Water Supply for about 750 metres from the Major Astronomical Complex to the next highlight, the Maler Group.

Not only was this road another important route in Yaxha, it also served to capture and distribute rainwater. The surface was covered with stucco, which helped to divert the water into channels that led to storage ponds in the east of the city.

Calzada de las Aguadas (Calzada Blom) at Yaxha
Calzada de las Aguadas (Calzada Blom)

MALER GROUP / GRUPO MALER

The Maler Group is one of the highlights of your visit: a large grassy plaza dotted with trees and containing a pair of magnificent restored twin temples. It’s named after Teobert Maler, the Austrian explorer who mapped and recorded Yaxha in the first years of the 20th century.

You can climb up the steep staircase on the front of one of the temples for gorgeous views over the plaza.

NORTH ACROPOLIS / ACROPOLIS NORTE

Head back along Calzada Blom to one of the oldest and most magnificent areas of Yaxha, the North Acropolis. This part of the site dates all the way back to the Preclassic period, but has now been restored. Here you’ll find a shady central plaza with huge temple pyramids on three sides, dedicated to the sun, the moon and the stars.

Climb the temples in the North Acropolis to really appreciate Yaxha's splendour
Climb the temples in the North Acropolis to really appreciate Yaxha’s splendour

The huge central pyramid is 22 metres high and has seven levels – and you can climb up the steps for some of the best views in the city. It’s thought the North Acropolis also housed the king’s private chambers, as well as other areas used for administration and rituals.

Admiring the views from the top of the North Acropolis
Admiring the views from the top of the North Acropolis

TEMPLE 216 / TEMPLE OF THE RED HANDS

The last temple you’ll visit on your Yaxha tour will probably be Structure 216, known as the Temple of the Red Hands because archaeologists found red-coloured handprints here. This is Yaxha’s tallest pyramid, fully restored and rising over 30 metres above the ground.

Excavators also found tombs dating back to around 600-700 AD, and beneath this temple, an older temple dating back to 200 AD.

Climb up the wooden staircase to enjoy gorgeous views over the city and the lake, and if you’ve booked a sunset tour, this is where you’ll come at the end of the day to enjoy that magical moment as the sun dips behind the horizon.

WILDLIFE AT YAXHA

Yaxha National Park is teeming with wildlife, with 400 species of birds, plus monkeys, crocodiles, tapirs, deer and even pumas and jaguars. While you probably won’t be lucky enough to spot a jaguar, you’re almost guaranteed to see some sort of wildlife, from calm herons and colourful trogons to spider and howler monkeys.

When I visited it was easy to spot monkeys leaping through the trees above our heads, and at sunset we were able to watch parrots and toucans flying home to roost.

HOW TO GET TO YAXHA MAYAN RUINS

Yaxha is located in the north of Guatemala, close to the city of Flores. To get to Flores, you need to take either a bus or a short internal flight from Guatemala City. Tourist buses to Flores are also available from Lake Atitlan, Antigua Guatemala, and Rio Dulce.

Once you’re in Flores, if you’re travelling by car, take the road that goes from Flores towards the Belize border. After about 1.5 hours, take the clearly-signposted turn-off towards Yaxha.

If you don’t have a car and are travelling with a group, it could be worth getting a taxi or private transfer and asking the driver to wait while you explore the ruins.

Getting to Yaxha by public transport isn’t easy. You can take any bus that is heading to the Belize border and ask to be dropped off at the turning to Yaxhá, but there’s isn’t much traffic going that way so you may have to wait a while (or walk about 10 km) to get to the site itself. You may also struggle to get transport back to the main road after your visit and there are not many places to stay near Yaxha, so going by public transport is not recommended.

The easiest way to visit Yaxha is on a guided tour from Flores
The easiest way to visit Yaxha is on a guided tour from Flores

YAXHA TOURS

By far the easiest and best way to visit Yaxha is on a day tour from Flores. All the tour agencies and hostels in the town offer day trips, that usually leave late morning and return late afternoon.

I also think it’s much better to take a guided tour at ancient sites, so you have a clearer idea of what you’re looking at and the historical background to the place. Otherwise you can just end up wandering aimlessly looking at ruins which, while still fun (especially in a stunning place like Yaxha), does not give you the full experience.

Some Yaxha tours just show you round the site but don’t give you much background information about the Maya because they assume you have already been to Tikal. If you’re visiting Yaxha first, or not planning to go to Tikal at all, it’s worth reading up a bit about the Maya before you go so you have a better understanding of what you’re looking at.

Climbing stone steps at Yaxha ruins Guatemala
These ancient Mayan ruins will make a lot more sense if you know a bit about the Maya first

YAXHA SUNSET TOUR

Alternatively, you can do what I did, which is the sunset tour of Yaxha. This departed from Flores at about midday, arrived at the site at around 2 pm, and we had about three hours exploring before climbing Structure 216 to watch an incredible sunset over the lake. We then returned to Flores in the dark, arriving at about 7.30 pm.

The tour cost Q175 (£18.80 or $22.60), plus Q80 (£8.50 or $10.30) for entry to the park, which you pay on arrival.

Sunset over Yaxha Guatemala
Watching the sunset over the lake was one of the highlights of my Yaxha tour

YAXHA VS TIKAL: WHICH SHOULD YOU VISIT?

Tikal is the more famous of the two sites and much more popular with visitors. There is a greater choice of tours and times, and you can even stay overnight in the park.

When I visited Tikal on a weekday in rainy season, it really wasn’t crowded, but I imagine that during the peak of the dry season it can get quite busy. Still, it’s nowhere near as busy as places like Chichen Itza in Mexico, and it’s a big site with plenty of room for everyone, so I wouldn’t worry too much about crowds.

Tikal is a must-see on any Guatemala itinerary
Tikal is a must-see on any Guatemala itinerary

Meanwhile, very few people go to Yaxha, so when I went there were only about two other tour groups there. It was incredible to have the entire place pretty much to ourselves!

Tikal is also more expensive. Park entry is Q150 (compared with Q80 for Yaxha) although the day tours to both sites are around the same price. But at Tikal, if you want to watch the sunset, you have to pay an additional Q100 for late entry to the park, whereas at Yaxha the sunset is included in the price.

Thick jungle at Yaxha Mayan ruins
I loved exploring the jungle with almost no one else around

Tikal is a much bigger site. There is a lot of walking to do – for example it’s about a 45-minute walk from the park entrance until you reach your first temple. Some of the temples are much bigger and more impressive than the ones at Yaxha, but there are only a couple you can climb up.

Meanwhile Yaxha is much smaller and more accessible. The temples are not as big (though still magnificent) and because far fewer tourists go there, they are not as worried about damage, so you can climb up several of them.

Climbing the pyramids at Yaxha
It’s fun being able to climb the pyramids at Yaxha

I visited Yaxha and Tikal and I loved both. Tikal is truly incredible, the real jewel in Guatemala’s crown, and no trip to the country is complete without a visit. If you only visit one set of Maya ruins in Guatemala, you should probably make it Tikal.

However, if you prefer to avoid the crowds, are not up for so much walking, or are trying to save a bit of money, Yaxha is stunning too. It was the first site I visited, and I was blown away by the lake setting, the dense jungle full of wildlife, and the magical atmosphere.

Or why not visit both on this Yaxha and Tikal Two-day Tour?

Sunset at Yaxha Mayan ruins in Guatemala
Sunset at Yaxha is included in the price of your tour, while at Tikal it’s more expensive

WHAT TO TAKE TO YAXHA NATIONAL PARK

For your visit to Yaxha, make sure you wear light, comfortable clothes, and shoes that are good for walking (trainers or even hiking sandals are fine, but flip flops are not a good idea). Bring sun cream, insect repellent and a hat, or if there’s a chance of rain, bring a waterproof jacket and/or an umbrella.

You’ll need to bring Q80 in cash for the park entrance fee, and don’t forget your camera. There also isn’t anywhere inside the park to buy food or drink, so bring water, and snacks if you think you’ll need them.

If you’re planning to do the sunset tour, a head torch or flashlight could come in handy for walking back in the dark.

Sunset over Yaxha National Park
If you do the sunset tour you’ll return to Flores in the dark

WHERE TO STAY NEAR YAXHÁ

Most people visit Yaxha on a day trip from Flores (as I did), so you won’t need accommodation near the site. In Flores, I stayed at the warm and welcoming Los Amigos Hostel, which has dorms and private rooms and a really great restaurant and bar.

If you’re travelling independently and want to stay near Yaxha, options are very limited, but here they are:

  • There is a campsite close to the lake, with some fixed wooden platforms with thatched roofs where you can throw up a tent or hang a hammock.  The site also has a small shop, toilets, outdoor showers, and a barbecue area.
  • El Sombrero Ecolodge is about 2 km or a 30 minute walk from the ruins. They have 10 rustic cabin rooms, a restaurant and a pier on the lake from which you can take a boat trip. Basic rooms start from US65.
  • La Lancha is the luxury jungle lodge owned by film director Francis Ford Coppola. It’s located close to the village of El Remate, about an hour outside of Flores and an hour’s drive from Yaxha.
A tour group at the Mayan ruins of Yaxha
This was the only other tour group we saw during our visit
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