Location: Chiapas, Mexico
2.5 hours from Palenque, 6 hours from Villahermosa,
9 hours from Merida, 14 hours from Cancun.
Travel time is by land but includes 1 hour boat ride.
The Yaxchilán archaeological site can be reached by an hour long incredible boat ride down the mighty Usumacinta river through one of the last great North American rainforests. It is an experience to be remembered. Riding in a long boat with its large outboard motor you can see Guatemala on one shore and Mexico on the other. If you keep on the lookout you will see many of the rainforest inhabitants, from wild monkeys to toucans and eagles. The water itself contains crocodiles and many kinds of fresh water fish. You´ll see large buildings of cut stone peeking through the jungle as you pull to shore. Stepping off the boat and under the rainforest canopy has a cooling effect as you begin your tour of Yaxchilán.
The ancient Mayan city of Yaxchilán was a city of ¨seers" and powerful queens. Here one can almost feel the high magic and ceremony in the air. Built during the Maya golden Classic age, 200-900 A.D., the site has 86 known buildings. To enter the site you go through a building known as the labyrinth. The exact use of this building in ancient times is unknown, yet its connection to the underworld for the Maya is undoubtedly important.
The ceremonial center starts with its huge main plaza and well preserved stele and door lintel carvings. Looking up the hill you´ll see incredibly intact roofcombs of the second tier of buildings. You can climb to level after level of buildings, each an architectural wonder, each with some remarkable detail worth noting. Occasionally one can find evidence of recent worship by the Lacandons, a dwindling group of Maya that still practice the ancient ways of worship.
The Mayan ruins at Yaxchilán are known for the extensive history detailed in its well preserved carvings. The majority of lintel and stele carvings commemorate the important historical events occurring during the reign of King Jaguar Shield, his famous wives Lady Xoc and Lady Eveningstar, and his son Bird Jaguar who ruled here in the 8th century.
Yaxchilán is unique in its multitude of depictions of important female personages. Lady Xoc, in particular, is depicted engaged in numerous rituals. To quote Linda Schele and David Friedel in A Forest of Kings, ¨The depiction of a woman as the principal actor in ritual is unprecedented at Yaxchilán and almost unknown in Maya monumental art at any site.¨ Many images depict women engaged in the ritual of bloodletting. If this was a city of seers, as many believe it was, then the bloodletting ceremony was undoubtedly the ritual magic used to start the seer on their journey. Again to quote Schele and Friedel, ¨The aim of these great cathartic rituals was the vision quest, the opening of a portal into the Otherworld through which gods and the ancestors could be enticed so that the beings of this world could commune with them.¨ Here a Maya queen holds a bowl filled with strips of paper used to collect blood. The strips will later be burned as an offering to the gods.
Yaxchilán also possesses some interesting images that shed light on another important Mayan ritual, the sacred ballgame. The shocking discovery of this group of friezes show in clear detail that the ¨ball¨ in this game was a bound captive human. It appears that Bird-Jaguar (in his ball game outfit) must not let the ball hit the ground. Behind the king are two dwarves, causing one to ask, who were these enigmatic little people referred to so much in Maya mythology? Perhaps they are related to the ancient Olmec belief that four dwarves held up the cardinal points of the sky.
Almost every building has a doorway that tells a story. When visiting here, be sure to look up at the carved lintels that top the doorways to see some of the best preserved carvings from the ancient Maya world.
Once you reach the top of the Yaxchilán site you will find yourself overlooking the lush highland rain forest. This is a favorite spot for many people. Stop here to rest and ponder the mysterious ways of the ancient Maya.
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