The Mayan empire has significantly shaped the way future empires ruled. It is considered to be among the most dominant indigenous societies in Mexico and Central America before the Spanish conquest in the 16th century.
The civilisation particularly excelled in the fields of agriculture, hieroglyphic writing, mathematics, art, and science. At its height, long distance trade was established, large-scale construction took place, and the globally famous Mayan temples were built.
While much of the empire’s history remains shrouded in mystery, the astounding amount of impressive architecture it left behind offers a chance to revisit the past. There is no doubt that it has influenced the world, as we know it today.
There is something about revisiting ancient structures—enthralling, captivating, and intriguing. It gives one a unique opportunity to glimpse at a distant past. And such is the offer of Yaxchilan, situated on the bank of the Usumacinta River of Chiapas in Mexico.
A classic Mayan urban complex, Yaxchilan flourished between A.D. 500 and 700. The structures in the complex display extensive relief structure and hieroglyphs that the Mayans are well known for. The carvings tell a story. As you set foot in the well-trodden archaeological centre, it is nearly impossible not to feel as if you have taken a step back in time.
The name directly translates as the ‘Place of Green Stones’ in ancient Mayan language. The historical site boasts phenomenal temples, plazas, mesmerising carvings and structures that tell a story of a once flourishing civilisation.
Many buildings in the site stood the tests of time remain well maintained and accessible to travellers. However, many areas in the site cannot be explored by the public were unprotected, barely documented and at risk of completely collapsing. The political unrest in Chiapas further contributed to the poor condition and neglect of many structures at the site.
In 2001, a project to revitalise Yaxchilan was launched to address the key problems brought about by pressures of tourism, environment, and development weigh the historical structure down.
The plan included nature conservation, cleaning of the complex, and removal of vegetation, stabilising of the structure, redesigning and replacement of protective covers. Moreover, it involved training local authorities and the locals to ensure the proper management and conservation of the site.
By 2011, the project was completed. The excavation of Yaxchilan not only increased site’s potential to survive but also led to a greater understanding of Mayan civilisation. At present, it serves as a valuable example of promoting eco-tourism.
Overlooking the main plaza is the Central Acropolis, which is considered the heart of Yaxchilan. The structure features several temples, ball courts and hieroglyphic stairways that are a delight to discover.
Structure 33, located at the central acropolis, greatly represents the height of architecture in the site. The temple overlooks the main plaza and offers an outstanding view of the river. The temple is essentially a large room with three doorways that are adorned with stucco motifs, high crest, and impressively, a nearly intact roof.
Temple 44, the main building of the West Acropolis, was built around 730 A.D. The structure is decorated with stone panels that represent the war captives of Itzamnaaj B’alam II.
Meanwhile, Temple 33 at the southern side of the main plaza was built around A.D. 726. The single-room structure is constructed in honour of Itzamnaaj B’alam III as well as his principal wife. The three doorways bear carved lintels known as Lintels 24, 25, and 26. A lintel is a load-bearing stone that can be found at the top of a doorway. The design of lintels, carved in high relief, perfectly exemplifies the skilled carving of Mayan artists. The ruling dynasty of Yaxchilan rose in the fourth century and collapsed during the 9th century.
Yaxchilan can be reached from the small town of Frontera Corozal by taking an exciting boat tour on the Rio Usumacinta. It is the only archaeological site in the country that cannot be accessed by land. Additionally, the site is within a comfortable distance from other distinguished archaeological sites located in Chiapas. Taking a side trip to Yaxchilan is in order if Bonampak is in your itinerary as the two sites are only 31 miles apart. Complete your journey by including Palenque, another important archaeological site, in your itinerary.
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Charles is a world traveler having lived in 44 states and 11 countries and traveled to dozens more. He and his wife spend time between London, Ireland, Canada, and the Philippines.