The ruins of Yaxhá are 69 kilometers east of Flores above the shores of the Lagunas Yaxhá and Sacnab. Meaning ‘blue-green water,’ impressive Yaxhá is the third largest archaeological site in the country after Tikal and El Mirador. For two months in 2005, international attention was drawn to the ruins as Survivor Guatemala was filmed here. Although Yaxhá is relatively easy to access from Flores, you’ll likely have the site all to yourself, which is surprising given its size, beautiful setting, and number of well-restored structures. Within the same protected area are three smaller sites, Topoxté, Naranjo, and Nakum. Perhaps the only downside to Yaxhá is that you may be eaten by large crocodiles if you take a dip in the lake.
The history of this massive city is unclear, as the intricate carvings of civilizations like Tikal are notably absent here. What is known is that Yaxhá was occupied as early as 600 BC but didn’t reach its zenith until the 8th century AD, when over 20,000 people lived here. Yaxhá was locked in a perpetual battle with a neighbor kingdom called Naranjo and was defeated in 799 AD. Yaxhá is unique in that its network of streets and plazas suggests a well-designed urban area, though its nine plazas also include ceremonial ball courts and palaces. The largest of over 500 structures, 30-meter Structure 216 offers splendid views over the lagoons and plaza below. Visitors can climb the structure, also known as the Temple of the Red Hands, for the red handprints on its facade, via a rickety wooden staircase.
Be sure to check out the North Acropolis and its three large temples, as well as the Maler Group, a miniature version of Tikal’s great plaza with a similar architectural style, plenty of faded stelae. and circular stone altars. At the center of Yaxhá, an unmarked astronomical observatory in Plaza F provides great views of the North Acropolis above the jungle canopy. Restoration efforts led by a German-Guatemalan team have found that many of Yaxhá’s structures were built with materials extracted from the limestone ridge upon which it sits. As a result, the site has a very different feel than its darker contemporaries. The most important structures of the site can be visited at a leisurely pace in about two hours.
Yaxhá’s entrance and parking lot are the east of the ruins near a small museum and two docks. Free campsites with latrines and showers are available along the lake. For an actual lodge, try Campamento Ecológico El Sombrero located just off the main road two kilometers south of the ruins. This well-run spot offers comfortable bungalows, a restaurant, hiking trails, and tours of Yaxhá, Nakum, El Naranjo, and Topoxté (below). To get here, head 31 kilometers east from Ixlú along the Belize highway to La Máquina, where a road heads 11 kilometers north to the Yaxhá ranger station. Here, you’ll pay the park guards Q80 and continue along a paved road a short distance to the ruins. Occasional pickups ply this path, so it’s not difficult to take a public bus to the turn-off and hitch a ride from there. Tour operators in Flores and El Remate run frequent treks to Yaxhá and it surrounding ruins.
Just off the southwest shore of the crocodile-infested Yaxhá lagoon is a small island containing the remnants of one of the last major Itzá fortresses. Occupied until as late as the 15th century, possibly until the arrival of the Spanish, Topoxté is in the slow process of being restored. The structures here are clearly dwarfed by those at Yaxhá, though the tri-level Temple Pyramid C is the most impressive find. To get here you’ll have to catch a lancha ride at El Sombrero – the ruins are best combined with a tour to Yaxhá.
North of Yaxhá, a poorly maintained dirt road leads 18 kilometers to the ruins of Nakum, a late-Classic port city that transported goods from Tikal along the Río Holmul to the Caribbean coast. Nakum reached its peak later than most of its contemporary cities but likewise reached its demise before the close of the 10th century. Excavation efforts at the site are ongoing and have successfully restored more structures than any other site in Guatemala except for Tikal. Similar to the ruins of Aguateca, the two sections of Nakum are linked by a causeway. The three plazas of the southern portion are particularly impressive. The Plaza Central is dotted with restored temples, stelae, and the site’s highlight, the South Acropolis.
Here, a gargantuan palace called Structure D contains over 40 rooms and displays an intricately carved mask on its roof. It is believed that the palace served as an astrological observatory of some sort, and the alternating slope and vertically pitched style of its stepped walls has led some to theorize connections with Teotihuacán in México. Free camping is possible on a number of tent platforms, but you’ll need your own tent and food. The road to Nakum is impassable during the rainy season, but even from December to May you’ll need a serious vehicle. Tour operators in Flores and El Sombrero in Yaxhá run treks here.
Photo Credit: From A to B