A larger and more dramatic site than Bonampak, Yaxchilán was an important Classic-period centre. From around 680 to 760 AD, the city’s most famous kings, Escudo Jaguar (Shield Jaguar) and his son Pájaro Jaguar IV (Bird Jaguar), led a campaign of conquest that extended Yaxchilán’s sphere of influence over the other Usumacinta centres and made possible alliances with Tikal and Palenque. The buildings occupy a natural terrace above the river, with others climbing steep hills behind – a superb natural setting. Not so many people make the trip to this evocative site, and you’ll often be alone in the forest with nothing but moaning howler monkeys around you. Giant trees keep the site shady, but nonetheless the jungle heat can be palpable – bring plenty of water, as there are no services at the ruins.
From the entrance, the main path leads straight ahead to the Gran Plaza, but if you have the energy for climbing, it’s more rewarding to explore the wilder parts of the site first. Follow the branching path to the right that leads up the hillside to the Pequeña Acrópolis, a set of thirteen buildings. A lintel on the most prominent ruin, known as Edificio 42, depicts Escudo Jaguar with one of his warriors. Walk behind here to find another narrow trail down through the jungle, over several unrestored mounds, until you reach a fork: to the right, the path climbs steeply once again until it reaches, in about 10 minutes, Edificios 39–41, also called the Templos del Sur, 90m above the river level – buildings that probably had some kind of astronomical significance. High above the main forest, this is also a good spot to look for canopy-dwelling birds like parrots, though the trees also obscure any view.
Retrace your steps back to the main path, and continue on until it emerges at the back of Edificio 33, the most famous building at the site, also know as El Palacio. It overlooks the main plaza from a high terrace. The lintels here are superbly preserved, and inside one of the portals is a headless statue of Pájaro Jaguar IV. In ancient times the building was a political court; more recently, it served as a religious site for the Lacandón Maya.
Descending 40m down the stairs in front brings you to the long Gran Plaza. Turn back to look up at the Palacio: with the sun shining through the building’s roofcomb and tree roots cascading down the stairs, this is what you imagine a pyramid lost in the jungle should look like, especially if you’ve been brought up on Tintin. To your left, just above the level of the plaza, Edificio 23 has a few patches of coloured stucco around its doorframes – just one patch of many well-preserved paintings and relief carvings on the lintels of buildings surrounding the long green lawn. Some of the very best works were removed in the nineteenth century and are now in the British Museum in London, but the number and quality of the remaining panels are unequalled at any other Maya site in Mexico. Many of these depict rulers performing rituals. This can also be seen on Stele 1, right in the middle of the plaza, near the base of the staircase. It depicts Pájaro Jaguar IV in a particularly eye-watering blood-letting ceremony, ritually perforating his penis. Stele 3, originally sited at Edificio 41, has survived several attempts to remove it from the site and now lies at the west side of the plaza, where it shows the transfer of power from Escudo Jaguar to Pájaro Jaguar IV.
Heading back to the entrance, be sure to pass through El Laberinto (The Labyrinth) at the plaza’s northeast corner, the most complex building on the site, where you can walk down through dim passages out onto the main path.