The third-largest archaeological site in Guatemala is not well known, overshadowed by the fame of neighboring Tikal. Archaeologists are only now sorting out the secrets of this city on the northern shore of Laguna Yaxhá, named “Blue-Green Water” for the lake’s unusual color. Founded around 800 BC atop a long, limestone ridge, the city was home to more than 40,000 people at its peak, around 250 AD.
Yaxhá’s sophisticated builders left behind more than 500 structures, including nine temple pyramids, two ball courts, forty unusually carved stelae, and numerous causeways. Climb to the top of Temple 216 for remarkable views over the lakes and rivers. While the city must have become quite isolated during the Mayan civilization’s (and Tikal’s) collapse between 800 and 900 AD, it continued to function well into the 1500s.
Today, Yaxhá is rarely visited, and therefore offers a peaceful and introspective experience of the Mayan world. Birders and wildlife watchers will especially appreciate the solitude, as well as the numerous crocodiles in the lake.
You’ll need a 4WD to visit Yaxhá on your own. The main site is located about 12km (7mi) from the pavement, and it can be treacherous going in rainy season. Because the site is still relatively undeveloped, you’ll want to bring your own water and food.
Your entry fee covers all sites within Yaxhá-Nakum-Naranjo National Park, an enormous 37,160-hectare (144-square-mile) expanse that includes three other major sites: Topoxte, on the south shore of the Lake Yaxhá; Nakum, an ancient port on the Holmul River; and Naranjo, about 20km (12mi) north, Yaxhá’s long-time rival. While you can visit all of them, poor roads and worse maps make that an adventure best undertaken with a guide.