For visitors looking at the attractions of Guatemala the traditional points of interest from our area are Tikal and to a lesser extent, El Mirador. These are the two better known Maya Ruins in the region. But the Peten is more than this with many unexplored Maya Ruins and tropical rainforest that will give you days of exploration and travel. Yaxche is a spectacularly beautiful Maya Ruin between Tikal and El Mirador that is attracting more attention from visitors. Its unique location near fresh water is what sets off this very scenic setting where the ancient Maya held forth in their heyday.
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.
Occupied from 600BC to 900AD, the site offers a variety of construction styles. It is famed for its organized street structure, unique to the Mayan world, and Stelae which are influenced by Mexico’s Teotituacan.
There are several complexes excavated, the most famed of which is the North Acropolis. This Plaza contains three tall temples with unparalleled views of the surrounding rain forest and lakes. The Plaza of the Shadows and the Astronomical Plaza are both examples of the Mayan ability to chart the skies.
Yaxhá – A Brief History
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 neighbor for much of this time but suffering a heavy defeat in 799 AD.