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Yaxchilán ("yash-chee-LAHN") is an archaeological site in the state of Chiapas in southern Mexico. At its peak, Yaxchilan was one of the largest and most powerful city-states in the Mayan realm, though today, its remote location makes it a relatively challenging site to visit.

Yaxchilán has many pyramids hidden in the ever-encroaching jungle.

Understand

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Yaxchilán is a large site located within the Lacodon Jungle on the Usumacinta River, which forms the border between Mexico and Guatemala. Roads do not go all the way to the archaeological site, so you will need to take a boat to get there. The site has been well documented and explored by various archaeological expeditions, and it's a well-maintained site administered by the INAH, however, its remote location makes it one of the least popular archaeological sites for travelers to visit. Most foreign tourists prefer sites that can be easily reached by air-conditioned luxury coaches. You may see few fellow visitors at Yaxchilán.

History

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Lintel 24 is one of several Yaxchilan lintels stolen by an English archaeological pirate in the late 19th century. It is displayed in the British Museum.

Life was short and cheap in the Mayan world, especially in the city-states along the Usumacinta River where somebody was always fighting somebody. But wait, let's start at the beginning....

The city of Yaxchilán got its start as a jungle village just around the time that some guy named Jesus Christ was shaking up the religious world on the other side of the globe. Yaxchilan grew in size and power and by the year 359 AD had amassed enough local political clout (or chutzpah) to crown a king: Yopaat B'alam I was the first of a line of Yaxchilan kings whose dynasty would last for centuries.

A lot is made of Yaxchilán and its constant rivalry with the city-state of Piedras Negras, which lies about 32 km (20 miles) upriver but on the opposite side of the river (in what is now Guatemala). The two cities did frequently clash, but the warriors of Yaxchilán also liked to bully their smaller city-state neighbor, Bonampak. Yaxchilán also had an on-again/off-again alliance or war with the large city-state of Tikal. Maybe if the Mayan had been better team players their cities would have lasted longer, but once they ramped up to a steady state of war by about 700 AD, they were pretty much committed, and by about 1000 AD they'd pretty much killed off everyone who could raise a spear and all of the city-states of the Usumacinta region became ghost towns.

The Maya people are still here, of course - in the modern villages such as Frontera Corozal, where you'll catch your boat. Pay attention and you'll see that the local people mostly still talk to each other in Ch'ol, a Mayan language, rather than Spanish.

Landscape

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Flora and fauna

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Yaxchilan is a pretty good place to see wildlife. Sharp-eyed visitors can often spot both howler monkeys and spider monkeys, and most will at least hear the howlers! There are at least two kinds of bats in the Labyrinth, and several species of lizards around the ruins. Crocodiles are sometimes seen on the boat ride.

It's also a very good spot for birdwatching - though the normal 2-hour visits are a bit short for that, boatmen and guides also run 7-hour birding trips to the ruins for about $2000-$3000 per boat. Inquire at the palapa (covered rest area between the parking lot and the riverbank).

Climate

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This is the tropical rainforest - expect it to be very hot and very humid, with chance of downpours.

Get in

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Boats to Yaxchilán

You can't drive or take a bus directly to Yaxchilán, you need to go to Frontera Corozal, and from there, take a half-hour boat ride on the Usumacinta River to get to Yaxchilan. The river is fairly shallow and rocky in places, but the boats draw little draft and the Lacondon river guides know the waters.

From Palenque, it is a 2-1/2 hour drive to Frontera Corozal. A taxi will likely cost about M$1500 (may be out of date). Combi service from Palenque to Frontera Corozal is available from Transporte Caramelo. They operate clean, modern Toyota vans and 1-way fare costs M$140 as of June 2024. Combis run frequently starting at 6am from the Selva Lacandona combi station, located in a jungly parking lot three doors down the hill from the Palenque ADO station. They may go as late as 5pm, normally leaving each hour on the hour whether they're full or not.

When entering the town of Frontera Corozal, you may be asked to get out of your vehicle (including colectivos) at the community checkpoint. Don't be alarmed - you'll just be asked to give your name and state your itinerary. This is the townspeople's compromise solution to keep the ruins open to visitors after they previously closed the whole area to outsiders in 2023-2024 to keep out drug traffickers. You may be similarly asked to check in/out at the Yaxchilan ticket office when crossing the border between Mexico and Guatemala (though in some cases this may not be possible anyway - see below).

By boat from Guatemala

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Caution Note: As of June 2024, the Mexican immigration office in Frontera Corozal is closed until further notice. This means you can't get a Mexican entry or exit stamp here. Travel from Mexico to Guatemala may still be possible - Guatemalan immigration in Bethel is reportedly letting people enter without Mexican exit stamps. If you're coming from Guatemala, crossing into Mexico here just to visit Yaxchilan is probably no problem, but if you're hoping to travel onwards into Mexico, you may not be able to get the papers necessary to do it legally without visiting the separate border crossing in El Ceibo.
(Information last updated 14 Jun 2024)

Boats can take you across the river from Guatemala to Frontera Corozal. This is an normally an official border crossing, but see the above notice about current issues. Boats crossing from Frontera Corozal to Guatemala cost M$50. Chicken buses can take you to Flores or other destinations. The immigration station for Guatemala is in the nearby town of Bethel. Combis from the boat landing to Bethel cost 10 quetzal.

  • 1 Oficina Migración. INM (Immigration Office), Caseta Pasaporte, Barrio Alfredo Junto al Escudo del Jaguar, Frontera Corozal (near riverfront). Closed until further notice. This is where you would normally show passports and visas etc. when arriving from Guatemala (possibly also when leaving Mexico to enter Guatemala). There are generally no fees to enter/depart here. See country articles for Mexico and Guatemala for immigration details.

Fees and permits

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The Yaxchilan archaeological has historically been open 08:00 - 17:00 daily, though as of June 2024 the ticket office seems to close between 2pm and 3pm. Admission is now paid to the local "civil association" instead of INAH, and the price is M$150 (June 2024). This does not include the price of boat transportation to the ruins.

Get around

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To the ruins from Frontera Corozal

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Site map of Yaxchilán

The only way to reach the site entrance is by boat from the riverfront in Frontera Corazol. As of 2024, a boat can typically be hired for $1500-$2500 total, with prices depending on the operator and the number of people in your group (larger groups incur a modestly higher price). If you have more than two people in your group, you'll probably pay about $400-500 per person.

If you're traveling alone and haven't yet met anyone else who's going, wait at the ticket office (taquilla) at the entrance to the parking lot for the boat launch (embarcadero). Other groups will have to stop here to pay their admission fees, and you can ask if they're willing to share a boat. Tour groups come in from Palenque around 9 or 10am most days, and many days there are also 7am groups coming from the Nueva Alianza Hotel in Frontera Corozal (you could also try contacting them the night before to inquire about joining only for the boat trip, though their prices seem to be higher than average). Note that many of these groups will be paying extra for a guide - if you want to minimize your costs, make sure to negotiate to only share the boat fare, not to join their tour.

The ride to the archaeological site takes about 30 minutes. Boat captains almost always wait 2 hours for you to return, unless special arrangements have been made (but discuss and confirm with the captain before you go walking around the site). The ride back takes a little bit longer because the boats have to fight the current to get back to town.

At the ruins

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Once you arrive, there's no way around but walking, and it's not wheelchair accessible. There are lots of stairs. Your two hours in the hot jungle will probably be enough to see most of the site if you're just there to enjoy the scenery, but if you stop a lot to take pictures, are birdwatching, etc. it may seem pretty short.

Within Frontera Corozal

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In the town of Frontera Corozal, you can get around by foot pretty well, though mototaxis (tuk-tuk) are common, cheap, and the preferred way to buzz around.

See

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The archaeological site represents a large, complex city. Most visitors to the site spend about 2 hours exploring the ruins, though there is a lot to explore and the curious archaeological traveler could easily spend the better part of a day (the tricky part is finding a boat that will wait around for more than two hours). The site includes 3 acropolises (or is that acropoli?) and more than 120 monuments, including stelae and lintels. Yaxchilan is known for having more intact lintels (relief sculptures) than any other Mayan site.

  • Great Acropolis - The largest of the site's 3 acropolis is the Great Acropolis, which was built in parallel to the west bank of the Usumacinta River. Anthropologists believe it was either a royal palace or a residential structure for the city's elite. Two other acropolises are atop the south and the west hill.
  • Structure 44 - Built by King Shield Jaguar I, a series of lintels portrays the king's various military adventures and victories.
  • Structure 42 - Built by King Bird Jaguar IV, a central lintel portrays the king while adjacent lintels portray his captains and priests.
  • Stone piling - A stone piling in the Usumacinta River is thought to have been either the base for a dock, or for a bridge that crossed the river.
  • Labyrinths - Structure 19 has a series of underground corridors beneath it, most leading to various small basement rooms, but one of the corridors remains sealed and unexplored. There are bats and some pretty cool bugs living inside.

Do

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Buy

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There are no ATMs in Frontera Corozal (according to locals June 2024). At least one of the better hotels (Nueva Alianza) and some restaurants will take credit cards, including for booking boats through their tour desk, but for everything else, bring cash!

Eat

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No food is available within the archaeological zone but there are several places to get food in the town of Frontera Corazal. Several informal street food vendors in Frontera Corazal, hotels will either have a restaurant on-site or can advise you where to find nearby food, and there are a couple of pleasant open-air restaurants.

  • 2 Maya Ch'ol, Segunda Nte. Pte., Alfredo, Frontera Corazal. Traditional Mexican cuisine. M$100.

Drink

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Sleep

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Lodging

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There are at least three or four places to spend the night in Frontera Corozal. Travelers with their own transportation may also opt to stay at jungle camps in Lacanjá Chansayab village, about 40 minutes' drive away near Bonampak.

  • 1 Posada Liz Beth, Frontera Corazal. Check-out: 12:00. The low budget option, located in town within easy walking distance of the boat launch. Very basic, but better than average value for money as low-end inns in Mexico go. M$200 fan room with shared bathroom, M$250 fan room with private bathroom, M$450 AC room.
  • 2 Hotel Nueva Alianza, Alfredo, Frontera Corazol (near the riverfront), +502 33003736. Check-in: 15:00, check-out: 12:00. Convenient location near the beach where boatmen keep their boats. Rustic, but comfortable lodging in a cabana. Mosquito netting provided. Restaurant on site. M$1000.
  • 3 Escudo Jaguar, Frontera Corazal, +52 9671019387. Check-in: 15:00, check-out: 12:00. Basic, riverfront cabana. Bunks with mosquito netting, fan but no air conditioning. Next to beach where you meet the boatmen to take you to Yaxchilán. M$1000.

Camping

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Camping is not permitted in the archaeological site.

Stay safe

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Connect

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As of June 2024, Telcel has 4G coverage in Frontera Corozal (though not very fast), and several shops, including the stationery shop at Posada Liz Beth, sell wifi vouchers by the hour (fichas de internet). There is no Telcel signal at the ruins, or on most of the boat trip or the drive from Palenque for that matter, though some stretches of the river have signal for Guatemalan plans.

A couple of shops in Frontera Corozal, including Abarrotes Guzman a block northwest of Posada Liz Beth, sell Guatemalan SIM cards, but you may pay more for them here than in Guatemala.

Go next

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This park travel guide to Yaxchilan is a usable article. It has information about the park, for getting in, about a few attractions, and about accommodations in the park. An adventurous person could use this article, but please feel free to improve it by editing the page.