East of the Ixlú junction on the road to Belize, a paved road runs 65km to the Belize border. The main attraction in these parts is Yaxhá, a huge Maya city on the fringes of two beautiful lakes: lagunas Yaxhá and Sacnab. The lakes are encircled by the dense jungle, swamps, savannah and wetlands of the Monumento Natural Yaxhá–Nakúm–Naranjo, whose 370 square kilometres harbour big cats, two species of crocodile and dozens of other reptiles, as well as prolific birdlife: spoonbills, the giant jabiru stork, eagles and vultures. It’s one of the very few places in Guatemala where tapir are known to be breeding. The Postclassic ruins of Topoxté are also accessible from Yaxhá, and a third large site, Nakúm, is about 18km to the north. Further east, close to the Belize border, a side track leads to the intriguing site of La Blanca and its imposing palace.
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Covering several square kilometres of a limestone ridge overlooking Laguna Yaxhá, Yaxhá is a compelling and rewarding Maya site to visit. Its name means “green-blue water”, a reference to the wonderful turquoise hue of the lake just below. Of all Guatemala’s ruins, only Tikal and El Mirador (and possibly Tintal) can trump the sheer scale and impact of this site, which has forty stelae, numerous altars, nine soaring temple pyramids and two ball courts. The dense jungle and lack of crowds only add to the special atmosphere of the place, and the wildlife is prolific (particularly howler monkeys and toucans).
Relatively little is known about the history of Yaxhá, partly due to a relative lack of inscriptions and also because substantial archeological excavations have only recently begun. North of Plaza D the ruins are mostly Preclassic, while the bulk of the large structures in the south of the city date from the Classic era. The sheer size of the city indicates that Yaxhá was undoubtedly an important force in the central Maya region during this era, its influence perhaps only contained by the proximity of the “superstate” Tikal, with which it shares several archeological similarities and close ties. For much of the Classic period, Yaxhá seemed locked in rivalry with the city of Naranjo, about 20km to the northeast, dominating its smaller neighbour for much of this time but suffering a heavy defeat in 799 AD.