A Maya City that Outlived Tikal


When someone mentions the words “mayan ruins in Guatemala”, the first image that comes to mind for most people is usually that of Tikal, which offers a fantastic view of the sunrise. You know the site, and have probably seen it before in pictures or in movies. The place is nice and all, but it has this one little thing going against it: if you climb to the top of  the imposing Temple IV in Tikal to try and catch the sunset, all you’re going  get is a nice view of the rainforest stretching for kilometers.

Yaxhá ruins in Guatemala. Photo: Santiago Billy/Comvite

On the other hand, Yaxhá (pronounced yash-HA), which sits west of Tikal, offers a lesser-known and far more appealing view of the sunset. From Structure 216 within the site, you can witness the sun hiding behind a faraway tree-line as shadows overtake the plaza below, and the nearby lagoon morphs into a pond of deep and vivid colors.

The name “Yaxhá” was given by the american archeologist, David Stuart, who recognized the phonetic pronunciation of the emblem glyph on different points around the site. The glyph was “Yax”, which means “green-water” or “clear water”. What’s not clear is whether the word “Yaxhá” refers to the site in itself, a political group or nearby Yaxhá lagoon, which appears to swallow the sun every afternoon.

Mayan structures where usually built one ontop of another. Photo: Santiago Billy/Comvite

This site was first discovered by Teobert Maler in 1905. It is located 533km north of Guatemala City, and 70km west of Isla de Flores in the department of Petén, the largest and most sparsely populated region in Guatemala. From the small town of “La Máquina”, an unpaved 10km road leads to Yaxhá. It’s easy to take a small car through it year-round. However, the path does get slightly difficult right at the entrance of the site as the road edges the lagoons near the gate.

Yaxhá has over 1700 ancient structures in an area of two square kilometers. It was inhabited from Preclassic Maya period (1500 B.C-250 A.C) up until the Classic Maya period (250-950 A.C.). New studies, however, suggest that both Yaxhá and nearby Nakum both thrived after the collapse of Tikal-Naranjo during the Postclassic Maya period. As a result of their extended activity and the fact that they had to forge new economic and political relationships with other Maya city-states, Yaxhá offers different architectural modes and iconographic trends.

View from 216 overlooking the Yaxha lagoon and the island of Topoxté. Photo: Santiago Billy/Comvite

The archeological site of Yaxhá sits in the National Park Yaxhá-Nakum-Naranjo (37160 hectares) which was founded in 2003. It’s one of the newer national parks in Guatemala and it has three different archeological sites. All roads to the sites of Nakum and Naranjo, however, are only traversable during the dry season with an all-terrain vehicle, but are accesible by foot through most of the year.

The park is open from 8am until 6pm and it costs Q40.00 (USD 5.32) for Guatemalan nationals and Q80.00 (USD 10.65) for foreigners. By all means, go check out the sunset from there; it’s amazing.

A spider monkey, Ateles geoffroyi, in Yaxhá. Photo: Santiago Billy/Comvite

A Collared aracari, Pteroglossus torquatus, in Yaxhá. Photo: Santiago Billy/Comvite

Ruins in Yaxhá, Guatemala. Photo: Santiago Billy/Comvite

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