The Mayan art discovered in the jungle

The Ancient Mayan site of Yaxchilan is an adventure to reach and explore. It’s worth the effort for the incredible artworks like the famous lintels.

Written by Michael Turtle

Michael Turtle is the founder of Time Travel Turtle. A journalist for more than 20 years, he's been travelling the world since 2011.

Michael Turtle is the founder of Time Travel Turtle and has been travelling full time for a decade.


We clamber into the longboat and start heading down the river. To my left is Mexico and to my right is Guatemala.

The Usumacinta River forms a natural border between the two countries. It also provides the most interesting approach to an ancient Mayan city that I’ve seen. (Add in the labyrinth at the entrance and it’s quite a way to arrive!)

Yaxchilan, Mexico

There’s no other way to easily get to the Yaxchilan ruins than by boat – and that adds to the sense of adventure. This is already quite a remote site, visited by just a handful of tourists each day, so it was always going to be quite an expedition!

Already on this trip through Mexico with G Adventures, we’ve been to quite a variety of Mayan ruins.

We’ve visited Chichen Itza, which felt a bit like a Mayan Disneyland with the crowds and market stalls amongst the ancient structures.

We’ve been to Uxmal, where you have more latitude to explore independently but there’s still a fair amount of infrastructure for tourists.

And there’s also been Palenque, where the ancient city seemed more exotic with the encroaching jungle but it was hard to escape the large number of tour groups.

But now here in Yaxchilan, everything feels more raw. It feels authentic – not like the Mayans left it a thousand years ago… but how you expect to find it a thousand years after abandonment.

Yaxchilan, Mexico

There’s enough restoration that’s taken place that can you appreciate the grandeur of the city. But the jungle is still the most important inhabitant these days, and I love the way the nature and the man-made buildings coexist.

Yaxchilan may be the least-visited Mayan city that I’ll go to on this trip, and it may be the only one that is not a World Heritage Site, but that shouldn’t take away from its importance.

Yaxchilan, Mexico

Archaeologists believe people lived here between about 250 AD and 900 AD. But it was in the last 400 years of that period that Yaxchilan turned into a powerful urban centre.

One of the reasons Yaxchilan was so important was because of its position on the river, which was a critical trading route.

The river meant that the city was able to exert influence on other cities that need to use the waterway – but also that it was a target of attacks from those that wanted to control it for themselves.

Yaxchilan, Mexico

Historical records tell us that the rulers of Yaxchilan often kidnapped the heads of other cities and, in turn, its own leaders were captured sometimes. It was clearly a provocative city-state that did deals when it needed and attacked when it could.

These days, you can see the political power and economic influence of Yaxchilan in the scale and range of the public buildings. But what makes the site particularly special are the carvings.

Yaxchilan, Mexico

Before you get to the carvings, you need to go through what is now the main entrance of the site.

I call it a labyrinth because our guide refers to it that way, even though there is a quick and easy passage through it. But, if you don’t know where that is, you’ll go through a maze of tunnels filled with mould and bats.

Yaxchilan, Mexico

But once through it, you emerge at the edge of a large grand plaza, lined with the remains of majestic structures.

It doesn’t have the kind of pyramids that you find at many of the other top Mayan sites. Here, it’s mainly palaces and temples, and they are impressive in their design more than their height.

Yaxchilan, Mexico

I said the carvings are the most important part of the site – but they can be easy to miss.

There are some that are obvious – huge images that have been carved onto single pieces of stone (called stelae) that are now clearly on display in the plaza.

Yaxchilan, Mexico

But the ones that are slightly hidden are the reliefs carved into the lintels above doorways. To see them, you need to go into the doorway and then look up at the stone that forms the ceiling.

Yaxchilan, Mexico

Both the reliefs on the Yaxchilan lintels and the carving on the stelae are incredible.

Artistically, they are beautiful and it’s amazing to see how the detail makes some of them look so realistic. But they are also so important because they mainly tell the historical stories of the people of this ancient city.

Yaxchilan, Mexico

Sometimes it’s just simple biographical information about when the occupants of the building were born and who their parents were.

Sometimes it’s about important events related to the rulers and the elite – ceremonies that were held, who they captured, when there were battles,

But sometimes the carvings show much more graphic stories about sacrifice and how the priests and city leaders would pierce parts of their body to offer blood to the gods.

Yaxchilan, Mexico

As we’re looking at one of these images, a troop of spider monkeys swings through the trees above us. As the guide explain the images, I look up and see one the monkeys stretch out between two branches and hold on as a baby walks across its back to get safely between the trees.

I then turn back to the guide and catch him telling the story about how a ruler of Yaxchilan cut off at least three of his fingers as offerings to the gods to bring rain.

Yaxchilan, Mexico

It’s hard to imagine why such a sacrifice was needed when the jungle around me now is so lush and green. But back then, all of this would have been cut down to clear the terraces and so the wood could be used for fires.

I’m still impressed by the spider monkeys as we start to walk away but it won’t be long until I’ve forgotten about them, my attention taken over by something even better.

Yaxchilan, Mexico

As we climb up the long steep staircase to the highest temple, unimaginatively called Structure 33, I hear a different type of monkey – the howler monkey.

Its call is unmistakeable – the first time you hear it, it’s easy to think a jaguar is nearby. And it is so loud that it echoes through the jungle.

Yaxchilan, Mexico

But at the top of the stairs, we find the source of the sound. A male howler monkey is howling at the top of its voice while a group of females and babies climb amongst the trees.

I really should be looking at the temple here because it is a masterpiece in stone with its well-preserved carved lintels and roof comb, but I’m more fascinated by the animals.

Yaxchilan, Mexico

However, in hindsight, it doesn’t matter which I concentrate on. It’s the fact that both of these things exist at Yaxchilan that makes it such a special place to visit.

Nature with history, animals and art, jungle and architecture.

Yes, it may be quite an adventure to get to Yaxchilan – but it’s just the beginning of a journey through a fascinating part of the Ancient Mayan world.

I travelled on this tour with the support of G Adventures in my position as a G Wanderer. All the opinions expressed are my own – I truly believe G Adventures is one of the best tour companies that you can use for a trip to Mexico and Central America.

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