Maya ruins to visit, #2: Yaxchilán & Bonampak, Chiapas, Mexico
Since I was a young guy I cherished the wish to visit the Maya ruins of Yaxchilán & Bonampak. If possible on one single day.
For all those years they only represented two mysterious spots on the map of Southern Mexico. A mindful adventure … nada más!
First visit to Yaxchilán, 2002
That changed when in 2002 – while living in Guatemala – I saw a chance to get to Yaxchilán during the Christmas holidays. Together with my wife Wendy & our 4-year old daughter we stayed the night there.
To get there wasn’t easy. After visiting the Island of Flores and the Maya site of Tikal we traveled to the small border town of Bethel (on the Guatemalan site) were we planned to stay the night.
An adventure in itself, because at the time Bethel only knew one basic hotel. Just outside of town we rented a little cabin. We were the only guests there. Even our guide who brought us to the cabin didn’t stay. No problem really, until with the sun electricity went down. Never to return.
So with candle light we had to find our way around. Surrounded by beautiful but wild jungle & noises we seldom heard before (At the time we lived near Antigua, in the Guatemalan highlands, see About me). Above all, the impressive howl of a Howler monkey that kept us awake all night.
Wonderful, adventurous story, … Telling it now.
The next day, after breakfast, we had to wait for our transport on the shores of the Usumacinta river, the borderline between Guatemala & Mexico. After a while our “lancha” or boat arrived, full of surprised Western tourists. Surprised by the beautiful surroundings, but flabbergasted by us appearing out of “green” nowhere, with a little girl in our arms.
I can still see the open mouth expressions on their faces, that didn’t even change when a tropical rainstorm came over us in the canoe. Nor when we apparently were the only ones that didn’t bring waterproof rain gear with us. Crazy…
On to Yaxchilán
At the border crossing all our fellow adventurers got out. Probably all heading for Palenque, with is a famous Maya site. We were the only ones to continue on. Scheduled for a visit to the Maya ruins of Yaxchilán.
An unforgettable journey over the impressive Río Usumacinta. Soon after leaving the border, the sun returned to dry our clothes and shed a wonderful light over our magical surroundings.
After a boat ride of 45 minutes we arrived at Yaxchilan. A mysteriously beautiful city. Not only because of its Classic past, but also because of its location. An area were wildlife was and is still presentd. Tropical birds, monkeys, crocodiles.
Copán – for me – is at #1 (See above) for its Beauty, as well as its Recovered past. In the case of Yaxchilán it’s the combination of Beauty & How to get there that gave it the number #2 spot in My Personal Top 12.
Second visit to Yaxchilán, … and Bonampak, 2018
I repeated a visit to Yaxchilán only recently. This time from the Mexican site. A lot easier. And, … together with Bonampak.
Again it were the three of us. That’s me, my wife Wendy & our daughter Lisa. Lisa was 19 years old, almost 20, and only had vague memories of the earlier visit to Yaxchilán.
This time we got to both Maya ruins in a rented car (Note: you can do this jusst as easily with a rented tour from Palenque in mini-buses or “combis”). We started early from Palenque. A good road over a long, straight line drawn along the Mexican-Guatemalan border (La Carretera Fronteriza).
We first brought a visit to the Maya ruins of Yaxchilán. From the same border crossing we passed in 2002 (Frontera Corozal). A second impressive boat tour brought us back to the Mayan city.
- Note: When we arrived at the main dock to buy a ticket for the boat ride to Yaxchilán they tried to charge us way too much. Being considered a “gringo” living in Latin America, no surprise.
- After refusing to pay the amount asked they lowered it once, twice before we walked away … And soon – as expected – we were approached by one of the guys who captained a boat, saw the whole “show” and made us an acceptable price.
- So, be conscious of the fact that when you’re not on a paid tour they will try to rip you financially. Inform yourself beforehand of prices, and be prepared of playing the negotiating game.
- But also be aware that you can get a better price when there are more people waiting for transport to the ruins.
Frustrating – sometimes – the fact that you have to negotiate prices as a tourist. But be proud if you win the game and most importantly … avoid missing Yaxchilán.
One of the most beautiful Maya ruins in the region, and for sure one of the most mysterious ones to visit. A Maya city you only behold in its full past glory after going ashore, buy a ticket and follow to path which will lead to the ceremonial centre in 5 minutes. Unforgettable in itself.
From the moment you enter the city a mystic feeling gets hold of you and stays with you until you leave. Or maybe even for the rest of the day, until you fall asleep.
On to Bonampak
After another impressive visit to Yaxchilán (I let the pictures speak for themselves), we went on to the Mayan ruins of Bonampak. They aren’t as impressive as the ones in Yaxchilán, but still very unique.
Mainly because of the colorful murals you’ll find in some of the smaller temples. But also because of the adventure to get there.
Because of the fact that the Maya site is owned by the Lacandon-Maya’s, they are the only ones who can bring you there & welcome you.
The Lacandones are a unique indigenous group that live in the area, maintaining their own traditional lifestyle (at least as much as possible in these times). They not only manage Bonampak, but also other chunks of the jungle part of Chiapas.
After you’ve exited the Carretera Fronteriza at San Javier, you soon arrive at the community of Lancanjá were you have to leave your car, or your tour bus or van. Here you buy a ticket for the temple ruins which includes transport.
At the site you first pass a small airfield, as well as a small market where they sell local art work, before you arrive at a big open field with an impressive sky high temple at its back.
On the right hand side of this enormous temple complex you’ll observe the famous three smaller temples with the murals. Impressive and unique!
All in all, a memorable day. A dream come true.
Packed in mystery
We don’t yet know that much about Yaxchilan, nor Bonampak. That is, not as much as we know about other Mayan ruins you can visit – like Copán, Palenque or Tikal.
- Note: Originally Yaxchilán & Bonampak were (probably) named Pa’ Chan (“The Split Sky”) & Ak’e. Both cities reached their highest peak during the Late Classic, between 600-800 AD.
The famous discoverers of Mayan cities John L. Stephens & Frederick Catherwood never visited these beautiful cities. Nor ever heard of them (see Introduction to the Mundo Maya).
It’s generally the Englishman Alfred P. Maudslay who’s honored with the title “first Westerner to visit Yaxchilán” (on 18 March 1882). He arrived at the ruins just a few days before the Frenchmen Désiré Charnay. A real “Stanley & Livingston” encounter in the jungles of Chiapas.
However, a few years before Maudslay a young German had visited Yaxchilán. It was the engineer Edwin Rockstroh who, while working in the border area for the Guatemalan government, discovered the place first.
Reading about Yaxchilán & Bonampak
There are not as many popular works on Yaxchilán & Bonampak as other Mayan cities. The main reason I enjoyed the following work very much. Only available in Spanish so far.
- Obregón Rodríguez, María Concepción & Liendo Stuardo, Rodrigo, Los antiguos reinos mayas del Usumacinta. Yaxchilán, Bonampak y Piedras Negras, 2016, FCE (México). ISBN 978 607 16 4084 0
Besides this specific title, one of the best general reads on the Maya Civilisation is:
- Sharer, Robert & Traxler, Loa P. The Ancient Maya, 2006 (first published in 1946), Stanford University. ISBN 0 8047 4817 9.
I also like to recommend – highly recommend – a beautiful biography about Alfred Maudslay. Although not the first Westerner to arrive at Yaxchilán, he was the first man who valued the site for its past glory.
- Graham, Ian, Alfred Maudslay and the Maya, 2002, University of Oklahoma Press/The British Museum Press (Londen). ISBN 0 8061 3450 X
Finally, to read something about his unfortunate French counterpart Charnay (who arrived a few days after Maudslay, but falsely claimed to be the first Westerner to have visited Yaxchilán):
- Davis, Keith F., Désiré Charnay – Expeditionary photographer, 1981, The University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque. ISBN 0 8263 0592 X
For an overview of my personal favourites, go to: Top #12 Maya-sites
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