Mexico, Yaxchilan – the city of green stones

Yaxchilan: a legend of lost time

July 22, 2018, around 6:00 a.m… Through the still darkness, we rush down a narrow highway through the Mexican jungle in a small, old minivan… 2 Argentinians, several Mexicans, 2 Spaniards and me. We came from different parts of the world to see with our own eyes a place not every traveler, much less a tourist, knows about, a place I learned about in a book back in 2011… Since then she has been traveling around the world with me. The city, lost deep in the jungle, on the border with Guatemala, is almost an hour away, not counting the land, along the rushing Usumacinta River. Mexico owns the left bank, while Guatemala is on the right. The river is teeming with crocodiles and is more than 1,000 km long.

This place is also unique because of the people who have lived here for centuries. The Lacandon tribe, the last purebred Mayans on the planet, keep their customs and live deep in the forests, which are so called – Lacandon Jungle.

This city was found in the jungle only half a century ago and has not yet been excavated in its entirety, or rather, it is the only Mayan city in Mexico (and we can say about the whole of Latin America), almost untouched by archaeologists. They cleared it of thickets and… left it as is, due to the inaccessibility of the site. Excavations are still going on there. This place is even more powerful than Machu Picchu! This is not a touristy place, but the energy beats from every stone… The city that is still reliably hidden from human eyes, untouched by anyone except nature, which covered most of its structures with a layer of moss and vegetation, the city that was called the City of Dawn… Its name is Yaxchilan! The main goal of not just this journey, but of the whole adventure life, it was so lustful that one could not believe in the reality of what was happening.

Waking up in the morning after a critical and most difficult day in Palenque (more about him – Palenque: a dream come true with the prefix “Not”), I looked around the room first thing, remembering yesterday morning’s guest from the spiders. Thank goodness! No aliens today, unless you count ants and geckos, to which I have already become accustomed during the day. It’s 4:00 in the morning, but I didn’t sleep a wink: the realization of the significance of the coming day makes me feel a little uneasy… But something else is surprising: from yesterday’s terrible condition there was no trace left! After all, traveling is therapeutic… I was even a little hungry, which is already a good sign. Without breakfast (still scared), at 5:30 I left the hostel. It’s still dark, and the silence is ringing in my ears: the city is still enveloped in sleep.

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Yesterday at the transport agency, which I was told the fourth time by the locals, I found out about the cars here. They run every 2-3 days, and just for tomorrow (the one day for which I had wished to fulfill a long-held dream) there was transportation and room in an 8-seater minivan. It picked me up on an early July morning and drove me to my destination.

There were only 7 of us along the way – 2 Argentinians, a Spaniard, a Mexican, and me. Since I was the first to be picked up, I chose a seat next to the driver, which gave me an extra head start to see the surroundings and impressions. Gradually it began to dawn, and the view was opened to a real jungle (my Amazonia, hello!), through which lay the highway, as it turned out later, of federal importance. A narrow one-lane road, which is now and then blocked by a dense tropical forest, hiding a lot of secrets and mysteries…

Not having had time for three hours to get bored for a minute because of the beautiful views on the way and the difficult route with many “speed bumps” in the area of small villages and hamlets, we arrived at a small hut with a palm roof – a cafe where we could have breakfast. There were quite a lot of people, despite the morning, there was a buffet: rice, beans with mole sauce, scrambled eggs, bacon and an abundance of fruit – mango, papaya, watermelon and bananas sliced into slices. All of this ended up on my plate and was eaten with gusto. The coffee here is also very tasty: not strong, rather on the contrary, at first glance, it seems diluted, but very fragrant and invigorating. Well, and a peculiar smoothie-fresh: just the juice of fruits, the very ones that are laid out nearby. But tasty and homemade pleasant! At first I was scared to eat, remembering my recent state of health – the trip was going to be long and the most important in this voyage. But somehow it felt good – both mentally and physically. About yesterday’s terrible indisposition was already forgotten, as if nothing had happened. As the saying goes, if I see the goal, I see no obstacles.

It’s always the way in Mexico – the simpler the place, the more delicious it is. At least this is how it worked for me: remember the story with the tacos – I didn’t like them in any cafe or even restaurant, but in a mobile food stall they were the most delicious!

And then the road was obstacle course again: no sooner the driver accelerates than he has to brake sharply. These “barriers” on the asphalt are made for the locals to sell something while the car or bus brakes: they run after it (especially children) and try to advertise their simple products – berries, fruits, nuts – whatever they have. The prices are penny, but such earnings sometimes feed the whole family, if we are talking about a remote village, overlooking this highway. And yes, near the cafe I bought some bracelets and necklaces made from seeds of local plants for myself and for gifts for friends. They are homemade, cost 10 pesos ($0.5!) apiece, and look very beautiful and unusual. And a souvenir from the Lacandon Jungle… a memory to last a lifetime!

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Because of the difficult road it took us about four hours to get there. The way to the village Frontera Corozal (where the boat actually departed) for the last 20 minutes looked more civilized: the jungle was replaced by frequent small settlements. This village is also known for its proximity to the border with Guatemala – you can cross it even by swimming, or by boat. The width of the river in this place is no more than 200 meters. Boatmen even offer to drop tourists off on the other side of the river and wait for an hour for an extra fee. Customs and other formalities begin in a nearby village, which you can walk to on the shore, not putting anything in your passport. Initially I wanted to do so, including Guatemala, so coveted lately. But alas… Money and vacation is not rubber, stopped in Mexico and did not regret it: 14 cities on their own and on their own worth a lot! And the impressions… Guatemala, wait for me soon, but on a separate trip! In the meantime, I salute its shores and sit down in an Indian pirogue. Oh, how it reminds me of the Amazon! Nostalgia…

The book I wrote about at the beginning is still traveling the world with me. Spanish travel author Fernando Gamboa describes a two-part novel of thrilling adventures. The books are called “The Last Secrets” and “The Black City.” The characters are the same, but the stories are different. One is about the Amazon jungle and the lost city of Z, about which there are still rumors and matures controversy, and the other is about several countries, one of which is Guatemala. The Usumasinta River, to the shore of which I approached with bated breath, was also recognized by me from this very book (“The Last Cache”). It is the natural border between two countries: its left bank is still Mexico, and its right bank is already Guatemala. The river is teeming with crocodiles, some parts of it are very difficult to pass because of the large number of rapids and rough current. I never thought I would see it with my own eyes…

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And, as if I had stepped over a page of a book, I sit down in an Indian boat, which slowly departs from the Mexican coast and takes a course into the unknown. My consciousness keeps saying, “It’s not me, it’s not with me…”, and the noise of the turbulent broad Usumasinta, just as from the book, revealing more and more beauty and power of the jungle, echoes, “You are here… This is reality…”

Lost in the Mexican jungle, the ancient Mayan city of Yaxchilan is one of the most remote and unique cities, almost untouched by archaeologists and excavated only half.

You can reach it only by the Usumasinta River, which holds many dangers… Floating on it in an Indian cake, you feel the unreality of what is happening, your heart aches with delight, you try to make a frantic photo, but then you put all the equipment away, realizing that it is useless: no camera in the world will not convey those feelings…

I never told anyone about it, it seemed so unreal to get here. And yesterday in Palenque, barely able to stand on my feet because I felt terrible and nauseous every minute, I prayed to God only to be able to get here on foot, no matter how… And now, sitting in the boat and looking at what I had read about in the book, I was afraid not to move, lest I spook this reality, which seemed so far a mirage and a wonder…

And yet this is reality! Here is the pier and the city…

Shortly before the pier appears on the horizon, I am pulled out of the stream of tangled thoughts by a sight that still stirs my blood: among the thick wall of jungle, to which I had already become used after almost an hour of driving, suddenly flashes… a pyramid of dark gray stone! Perfectly regular shape, stepped and small in appearance… It seems so unreal that it makes me speechless. I was not the only one who was traveling with me, my traveling companions were also quiet and looked into the distance in silence… What was about to happen? A miracle, no less!

And to crown it all, justifying the description of Usumasinta, it shows us one of its inhabitants: right on the steep bank in the sun we see a huge 2-3 meter crocodile! The boat slows down, we kill the engine, sail closer, and our cameras rustle quietly. The reptile indulgently gives us a couple of indistinct shots (my hands were shaking) and graciously dives into the water, showing everyone a huge spiky tail. So, let’s not stick our hands in the river, let’s go further…

The entrance to Yashchilan is a narrow tunnel where one man can pass with difficulty. It is through this hole in the wall that we enter…

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You can see nothing through the total darkness, but in the light of the lantern it appears to be inhabited: huge spiders, bats and centipedes… Now and then you shrug through the layers of cobwebs and step over big caterpillars, wrinkling your nose and speeding up your step. It is not so easy to do: the tunnel is not only that narrow, it is also multilevel – it goes down by the giant steps in 40-50 centimeters in height, then it goes up…

The ancient city of Yashchilan

Temple of the Jaguar on the highest hill in the deep jungle of Yaxchilan, on the border of Mexico and Guatemala

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The ancient city of Yashchilan

On the western bank of the mighty Usumasinta River, which divides Mexico and Guatemala, lie the centuries-old ruins of the Mayan settlement, Yaxchilan. This ancient city is actually lost in the jungle and is considered one of the most difficult places to reach, as its pyramids and palaces can only be reached by water.

Etymology of the name Yashchilan

Yaxchilan is the modern name for the archaeological complex, coined by archaeologist Alfred Maudsley, and it is interpreted as “green stones.” Indeed, during the walk among age-old structures, it is easy to see that each “brick” of this ancient city is covered with a thin layer of velvety green moss. Dewdrops that cover it play and shimmer in the sun with all shades of green – it is like an “Emerald City”. But many centuries ago Yashchilan bore another, no less poetic name – Tanhapachan, which means “the sky was born in the middle of water.

City Lost in the Lacandon Jungle

Tanhapachan’s biography included many wars and battles that the city fought for power over lands in the Usumasinta River valley. Although the Maya were skilled builders and paved many fine roads, their economy lacked draft animals, and rafting on the river was a convenient way to travel and transport goods. ( excursion tour “4 cultures” with a visit to the city of Yashchilan)

The first settlements in Yashchilan

The first traces of man found on the territory of the city date back to the III – I centuries B.C. At the beginning of the IV century Yaxchilan was a small settlement, but in the Classic Maya period, between the VII and VIII centuries it became one of the key centers of Maya civilization and the capital of the ancient Pachan kingdom. It rivaled such major cities as Palenque and Piedras-Negras, and exerted great influence on neighboring kingdoms such as Schucalnach or Lacamtuun. The stones with hieroglyphic inscriptions found at Yaxchilan suggest to scholars that the beginning of the city’s maximum prosperity was in the year 681. During this period, the Great Ruler Itzamna-Balam III (Jaguar Shield) ascended the throne, and later passed the reins to his son Paharo-Balam IV (Jaguar Bird).

Machu Picchu - the lost city of the Incas in Peru

The most lost in the jungle ancient Mayan city Yaxchilan, Mexico

The Wars of Yaxchilan

In the early ninth century, the city’s territory was invaded by unknown adversaries. The inhabitants of Yaxchilan put up a long and stubborn resistance to the enemies, as evidenced by the large number of arrowheads found in the excavations on the palace stairs. But in the end the city was destroyed and the last survivors abandoned it.

The world became aware of the existence of Yaxchilan in the mid-19th century, but because of inaccessibility, excavations in the archaeological area began only in the 1930s. Currently, only a very small part of the Maya settlement has been recaptured from the jungle. (“Mexico-Guatemala” tour with a visit to the pyramids of Yaxchilan).

Architecture of the Mayan city of Yaxchilan, Emerald City, Mexico

In Yaxchilan there are no ornate palaces and high pyramids, its buildings are quite modest and laconic. The emerald city’s architecture is characterized by massive walls, arches with false vaults, stone ridges on the roofs, labyrinths and lintels with carved bas-reliefs.

The city’s surviving structures are practically untouched by the hands of restorers and are seen by tourists in their original state.

Nature's take on the emerald Mayan city of Yaxchilan, Mexico-Guatemala

Yaşcılan sights

On the central town square rises the most beautiful and unusual structure of the city – the Palace of the Governor or Temple 33, according to scientists it once belonged to the Bird Jaguar IV. It is located on a natural hill with steps laid out on its slope, the last of which are carved scenes of the ritual game of ball. The palace, divided into 7 rooms, and each of its doorways is provided with a lintel with carved bas-reliefs of excellent quality. Above the central door, in a niche, you can see the figure of the ruler, the master of the palace. The roof of the building has a very peculiar addition, in the form of a ridge with many small openings. Archaeologists believe that once they were decorated with the severed heads of slain enemies, or maybe the construction had another secret meaning and was intended to reduce the load on the foundation.

Temple of the Jaguar on the highest hill in the deep jungle of Yaxchilan, on the border of Mexico and Guatemala

In addition to several temples and palaces, there are many beautifully preserved sculptures, plates and stones with inscriptions. But the magnificent carved steles with images of rulers and descriptions of important events in the life of the city, from the time of its foundation to the moment of its fall, deserve special attention. Such peculiar stone chronicles, which, despite the humid tropical climate in the region, are quite well preserved and are of genuine interest to archaeologists and historians around the world.

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