Yaxhá: Mayan History in the Jungles of Guatemala

Yaxha, Guatemala

Note: This article shares our experience as part of a Lindblad Expeditions trip, and Adam is a Lindblad employee. The content that follows reflects our views and experiences and is not representative or influenced by Adam’s affiliation with the company.

As I glanced at our trip itinerary, it occurred to me I wasn’t entirely sure how to even pronounce our first stop in Guatemala, let alone how we might spend our time when we got there. I wasn’t bothered; as grateful as I was for the opportunity to visit, every activity paled in comparison to our second stop, Tikal. For as long as Adam and I had planned to visit Central America, Tikal had always been our travel goal. During our nine days traveling with Lindblad Expeditions to Belize and Guatemala, we loved it all—snorkeling, hiking, hearing howler monkeys call to each other from the treetops—and all of it happened in Tikal’s towering shadow. On our last full day on the National Geographic Sea Lion, sitting across from our naturalist, Fabio, I was surprised when he declared Yaxhá might impress us just as much as Tikal. It was a bold statement. And it was a bold statement that proved to be true.

If you have never heard of Yaxhá—or if its pronunciation escapes you as it did us—the Maya settlement housed more than 40,000 people at its peak. As our day unfolded, we were treated some remarkable pyramids that stretched into bright blue skies above and uncrowded pathways as we walked between them. Here are a few things to expect if you include Yaxhá on your Guatemala itinerary!

First Impressions of Yaxhá

Yaxhá, GuatemalaThe heat was already building to its crescendo as we stood in Yaxhá’s parking lot, sipping ice water and fanning our faces with our hats. My skin felt greasy and heavy with sweat and sunscreen, but that sensation was fleeting when two howler monkeys stole my attention as they swung effortlessly through the branches above me. One of them paused long enough to look down at our group looking back at him before he disappeared into the leaves.

Yaxhá was the third largest Maya city, smaller than only Tikal and Mexico’s El Mirador. Its earliest inhabitants established it between 1000 and 350 BC, and at the height of its prominence there were more than 500 structures onsite. From those structures, archaeologists have pieced together quite a bit of a story that started more than a millennium ago. Leaving the parking lot, we didn’t have to walk far before its sounds were replaced by birds calling to one another high above and beyond our view. Before long, we paused in front of an excavated Mesoamerican ballcourt for the first of several memorable history lessons.

The Maya Ballgame

Mayan artwork depicting the game. Source: Wikipedia
Games are part of just about every culture in our planet’s history, and that was true of the Maya. Their game, which has some similarities to racquetball, featured serious competition with even more serious consequences: although the game was often played recreationally, one version resulted in human sacrifice. Teams of two or four would battle until winners and losers were declared; the winners were then sacrificed. As our guide explained, the winners represented the best of the best; the Maya showed their devotion to their gods by offering the greatest and most successful among them. According to some evidence, the game’s losers may have been sacrificed in certain situations. I murmured to Adam that I couldn’t decide if I would have wanted to throw a game or play as hard as possible; the odds didn’t seem good for anyone involved.

The ballcourt, covered in moss and dark under the shadows of the jungle around it, suddenly looked haunted to me. Often while traveling, I like to imagine what it would be like to live in the places I visit. Shuffling along the path away from the ballcourts, I made an exception to my practice.

The Pyramids of Yaxhá

Looking up at one of Yaxhá’s huge pyramids, my imagination flickered back on. Suddenly, it was much easier think about what life could have been like as a resident of the sprawling Maya city. Yaxhá’s main structures stand in what are now known as five plazas and three acropolises. The East Acropolis is the most notable among them, mostly due to the prominent Structure 216 and Structure 218.

Yaxhá, GuatemalaStructure 218 was a palace, and although visitors can’t walk through its interior, we do know that within the existing rooms are evidence of painted murals and other forms of design that have stood the test of time. I found that fact somewhat hard to believe as I considered the incredible feat required of those who built the massive palace, laboring in the same stifling heat and without the aid of modern-day tools to make their work easier or more efficient.

Structure 216, the tallest of the structures, was destined to be the most memorable because our guide identified it as the pyramid we would climb. At its base, looking up at a wooden staircase that wound its way up the pyramid’s side, I silently shook my head. It was too hot, and the strain of a full week of travel sat as heavy on my sagging shoulders as my daypack. With a heavy sigh, I followed a few other travelers from my group as they began their slow but steady climb to the top. My brain seemed surprised to be disconnected from my body, which was somehow gearing up for the long walk to the top. It took less time than expected, with fewer rest breaks than I promised myself, before I found myself without anything more to climb.

Yaxhá translates to “blue-green water,” and at the top of Structure 216 I understood why. Beyond the treetops, I could see the lake that bears the city’s name shimmering in the sunshine. Revived by a gentle breeze and a moment to catch my breath, I was impressed by the unexpected view. In the middle of the jungle, I expected to see treetops and, perhaps, the tips of nearby pyramids peeking through them. Instead, I was treated to a majesty of the natural world as it wrapped around structures built thousands of years earlier.

Walking down Structure 216’s steps was far easier than the reverse, and before long we were headed back to the parking lot, our visit to Yaxhá complete. Our path out of the city was the same as the path we took when we arrived, and we walked past the ballcourts once more. This time, they looked a little less frightening; the sun had shifted, and the shadows were gone. I wondered how many games had been played by innocent children and how many by people desperate to win—or not win—in an effort to save their lives. Like so many ancient cities, Yaxhá keeps many of its secrets. Glimpses of the Maya world are available through the pyramids, the carved stelae, and the other structures that offer us the chance to interpret history but won’t confirm if we’re correct.

Visit Yaxhá!

Most visits to Yaxhá are paired with a visit to nearby Tikal, although not in a single day—both sites benefit from plenty of time to explore. Still, don’t miss Yaxhá in favor of its more famous neighbor. Tikal is an incredible site that welcomes tourists from all over the globe, and it’s bigger and busier as a result. Yaxhá was every bit as impressive and historic, and for most of the day our group represented its only visitors. We spent a day exploring at a leisurely pace; the pyramids were ours to admire, climb, and photograph, and for most of the day the only sounds we heard were our own voices and those belonging to the wildlife that was close by throughout our time there. Travel opens so much of the world to so many people, and it felt special to have something feel like it belonged just to us for a brief moment.

Over dinner that night, I let a wave of satisfied exhaustion wash over me as I thought about our day. I had fleeting expectations for what our visit would be like before arriving, and all I could think about was Fabio’s prediction that Yaxhá might impress me just as much as Tikal. The next night, when both Yaxhá and Tikal were lines in my personal history book, I knew he was right. I was glad our week included both the expected and unexpected and saved space for us to appreciate both. So often, the best experiences require some expert advice or a nudge in a different direction. We didn’t know anything about the Maya city before arriving in Guatemala, and it became a memorable highlight in a week of moments we will never forget.

More Information: Expeditions.com

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