Jungle-shrouded Yaxchilán has a wonderfully atmospheric setting above a horseshoe loop in the Río Usumacinta. The control this location gave it over river commerce, and a series of successful alliances and conquests, made Yaxchilán one of the most important Classic Maya cities in the Usumacinta region. Archaeologically, Yaxchilán is famed for its ornamented facades and roofcombs, and its impressive stone lintels carved with conquest and ceremonial scenes. A flashlight is helpful for exploring some parts of the site.
Yaxchilán peaked in power and splendor between AD 681 and 800 under the rulers Itzamnaaj B’alam II (Shield Jaguar II, 681–742), Pájaro Jaguar IV (Bird Jaguar IV, 752–68) and Itzamnaaj B’alam III (Shield Jaguar III, 769–800). The city was abandoned around AD 810. Inscriptions here tell more about its ‘Jaguar’ dynasty than is known of almost any other Maya ruling clan. The shield-and-jaguar symbol appears on many Yaxchilán buildings and steles; Pájaro Jaguar IV’s hieroglyph is a small jungle cat with feathers on its back and a bird superimposed on its head.
As you walk toward the ruins, a signed path to the right leads up to the Pequeña Acrópolis, a group of ruins on a small hilltop – you can visit this later. Staying on the main path, you soon reach the mazelike passages of El Laberinto (Edificio 19), built between AD 742 and 752, during the interregnum between Itzamnaaj B’alam II and Pájaro Jaguar IV. Dozens of bats shelter under the structure’s roof today. From this complicated two-level building you emerge at the northwest end of the extensive Gran Plaza.
Though it’s difficult to imagine anyone here ever wanting to be any hotter than they already were, Edificio 17 was apparently a sweat house. About halfway along the plaza, Stele 1, flanked by weathered sculptures of a crocodile and a jaguar, shows Pájaro Jaguar IV in a ceremony that took place in AD 761. Edificio 20, from the time of Itzamnaaj B’alam III, was the last significant structure built at Yaxchilán; its lintels are now in Mexico City. Stele 11, at the northeast corner of the Gran Plaza, was originally found in front of Edificio 40. The bigger of the two figures visible on it is Pájaro Jaguar IV.
An imposing stairway climbs from Stele 1 to Edificio 33, the best-preserved temple at Yaxchilán, with about half of its roofcomb intact. The final step in front of the building is carved with ball-game scenes, and splendid relief carvings embellish the undersides of the lintels. Inside is a statue of Pájaro Jaguar IV, minus his head, which he lost to treasure-seeking 19th-century timber cutters.
From the clearing behind Edificio 33, a path leads into the trees. About 20m along this, fork left uphill; go left at another fork after about 80m, and in some 10 minutes, mostly going uphill, you’ll reach three buildings on a hilltop: Edificio 39, Edificio 40 and Edificio 41.