Visiting the Jungle Ruins of Yaxchilan and Bonampak

Last Updated on: 15th September 2023, 04:41 pm

Situated deep in the jungle near the border with Guatemala, Yaxchilan and Bonampak are two of Mexico’s most geographically remote Mayan ruins. But with the number of tour groups now visiting each, they’re far from well-kept secrets. Nevertheless, exploring the once-mighty city of Yaxchilan and its ally Bonampak, known for its stunning ancient murals, is a must for those touring Chiapas.

Visiting Yaxchilan and Bonampak

While visiting Yaxchilan and Bonampak independently via public transport is technically possible, it would be a massive headache to arrange. Furthermore, you’d be stuck waiting for other passengers to show up for the boat to Yaxchilan.

Even if you prefer independent travel like me, this is one day trip for which you definitely want to take a tour. And fortunately, booking one is easy, as there are several tour companies in central Palenque that offer it.

I went with a company called Transportadora Turistica Tulum which has an office right near the bus station. They were offering the tour for $900 MXN – slightly cheaper than their competitors. But most importantly, they have lots of good reviews.

(While more expensive, if you’d prefer to lock everything in in advance, consider booking a tour online.)

Tour prices include all transportation for the day along with entry fees to the sites. As this is a very long day trip, breakfast and lunch are included as well.

No guide service is included in the price, but you’ll be able to arrange a guide at Yaxchilan for an extra fee if you want one.

The itinerary for visiting Yaxchilan and Bonampak is pretty intense, beginning with a 5:30 or 6:00 AM pick up at your hotel. You’ll then have two hours at Yaxchilan and one hour at Bonampak.

But taking into consideration the distance of the sites from Palenque, the stops for meals, and the roundtrip boat ride to Yaxchilan, you won’t be making it back to Palenque until around 19:30! In the end, Mayan ruins enthusiasts will surely find the hassle and expense worth it.

Yaxchilan

Located on an oxbow of the Usumacinta River, Yaxchilan is so remote that it’s impossible to reach it by car. Getting to the ruins requires a boat ride of around 40 minutes each way which is a big part of the fun.

As the river functions as the border between Mexico and Guatemala, you’ll be simultaneously looking at two countries throughout the entire journey.

Visiting Yaxchilan and Bonampak
Visiting Yaxchilan and Bonampak

Yaxchilan: A Brief History

Yaxchilan developed into a major commercial center for trading goods with nearby Bonampak as well as Guatemalan cities like Tikal. And impressively, Yaxchilan had a ruling dynasty which maintained power for five centuries. 

According to dynastic records, the first ruler assumed the throne in 320 AD, and went by the unique name of Yat Balam, or ‘Jaguar Penis.’ 

Yaxchilan would peak between 600 and 800 AD, and some 7th-century structures are still standing today. In the year 681, one of Yaxchilan’s most important rulers, Shield Jaguar I, would take the throne, ruling for an incredible six decades before dying at the age of 95.

Shield Jaguar had two notable wives – Lady Xoc, who’s glorified at Building 23, and a foreign wife from Calakmul. And it was his son with his second wife, Bird Jaguar IV, whom the king designated as his heir.

While Bird Jaguar IV, would indeed become king, there’s a mysterious ten-year gap before he actually assumed the throne – likely the result of disputes over his right to rule. In any case, he’s most known for Building 33, Yaxchilan’s most impressive structure, along with many additions to the Main Plaza. 

The next major ruler was Shield Jaguar II, who gained power in 771. But after centuries of prosperity, the city would eventually be abandoned by the year 900.

Interestingly, Yaxchilan, while Mayan in origin, was not the city’s original name. Originally called Pa’ Chan in Mayan times, its current moniker was given to it in the 19th century after a nearby stream.

Visiting Yaxchilan

Yaxchilan is a medium-sized site as far as Mayan ruins go. While its layout is fairly straightforward, all of the tour groups from Palenque seem to arrive around the same time. As such, you’ll likely find yourself zigzagging through the plaza to admire whatever structure happens to be the least crowded.

After exploring the Main Plaza and ascending the staircase to see Building 33, you also have the option of hiking to two additional acropolises. If you’re on a tour, you’ll be given around two hours to explore Yaxchilan, which is just enough to see all of the landmarks mentioned below.

Visiting Yaxchilan and Bonampak

Approaching the main plaza, you’ll first encounter the backside and lower level of a mysterious structure known as ‘the Labyrinth,’ or just Building 19. 

One of Yaxchilan’s largest buildings, its lower floor consists of a series of meandering passageways. You’ll then find its upper floor at the western edge of the Main Plaza.

Archaeologists believe that the building was in a constant state of construction for centuries.

Visiting Yaxchilan and Bonampak
Visiting Yaxchilan and Bonampak
Structure 19

The Main Plaza

The Main Plaza is lined with a myriad of buildings on either side – some of them temples and others royal palaces. And just south of the entrance, you’ll also find foundations of houses built during Yaxchilan’s final years. 

Interestingly, similar foundations have been discovered on the other side of the river. But as the river now functions as an international border, one can’t exactly just hop over to see them.

Visiting Yaxchilan and Bonampak

On the north side of the plaza, you’ll find the multi-tiered Building 17. Archaeologists believe the structure at the top functioned as a traditional steam bath, or temazcal. As you’ll discover throughout your travels in Mexico, temazcals remain very popular today.

Structure 17
Visiting Yaxchilan and Bonampak
Visiting Yaxchilan and Bonampak

On the other side of Structure 17, you can also enjoy a clear view of the river and Guatemala in the distance (if the views from the boat weren’t already enough!). Continuing east, you’ll see the remains of what appears to be a former palace. 

And on the other side of the plaza, up a set of stairs, don’t miss an interesting structure with three doors. Strangely, little information seems to exist about what exactly it was used for, but it appears to have been a temple.

Visiting Yaxchilan and Bonampak
Visiting Yaxchilan and Bonampak

Crossing back over to the Main Plaza’s north side, you’ll find the elaborate palatial complex known as Building 16. It features carved lintels over its three doorways which depict King Bird Jaguar IV (r. 752-772 AD) performing a blood-letting ritual in the presence of two women.

Visiting Yaxchilan and Bonampak
Building 16
Visiting Yaxchilan and Bonampak

Past that, meanwhile, is Yaxchilan’s Ball Court. These courts are a common feature at virtually all Mesoamerican ruins – not just Mayan. Interestingly, like Palenque, Yaxchilan’s Ball Court is rather small given the city’s former splendor.

Visiting Yaxchilan and Bonampak
Visiting Yaxchilan and Bonampak

Past the Ball Court is an elaborate building complex that appears to have served as a residence for the Yaxchilan elite. As mentioned, the city’s ruling dynasty maintained an unbroken lineage for centuries, and they would’ve had plenty of time to expand and renovate their family home.

Visiting Yaxchilan and Bonampak
Visiting Yaxchilan and Bonampak

Toward the eastern side of the Main Plaza, you’ll find an assortment of carved stelae on display that were discovered in various parts of the site. Amazingly, more than 100 inscribed monuments have been discovered at Yaxchilan in total.

The most remarkable stele on display here is the gargantuan Stele 11, which you’ll find laying horizontally beneath its own little shelter.

Visiting Yaxchilan and Bonampak
Visiting Yaxchilan and Bonampak
Visiting Yaxchilan and Bonampak
Stele 11

Discovered in the South Acropolis, the scene here depicts the transfer of power from Shield Jaguar I (r. 681-742 AD) to Bird Jaguar IV (r. 752-772 AD). As mentioned above, however, no such smooth transfer took place, with Bird Jaguar assuming the throne a full decade later.

Intended for Mexico City in the 20th century, the stele was too cumbersome to transport, and it actually ended up stranded in Guatemala for quite some time before it was ultimately returned to Yaxchilan.

Stele 18
Yaxchilan Stele
Yaxchilan Stele

With that being said, many of Yaxchilan’s most important stelae were indeed transported to Mexico City’s National Museum of Anthropology in the 1960s. And even today, Yaxchilan’s stelae (pictured above) make up a major portion of the Mayan section of that museum.

But many more can be found in the British Museum, where they’ve been since the 19th century. Sadly, one important stele from Yaxchilan that was later taken to Germany went missing after a World War II air raid.

Visiting Yaxchilan and Bonampak

From the Main Plaza’s stelae area, you’ll see a temple with three doors on an upper terrace, inside of which is a dilapidated sculpture.

Also on the southern end of the plaza is the massive staircase leading up to Yaxchilan’s most famous landmark, Building 33. But first, there are still a number of buildings to explore on the terrace to the staircase’s west.

Visiting Yaxchilan and Bonampak

Not only can you spot refined carvings beneath some of the doorway lintels, but you’ll also find a well-preserved stele in another one of the rooms.

Visiting Yaxchilan and Bonampak
Visiting Yaxchilan and Bonampak

At the edge of this complex is Building 23, the structure that Shield Jaguar I dedicated to his wife Lady Xoc. This is believed to have been the only structure dedicated to a woman in all of Mayan history. But why?

As mentioned, the king designated his son from his second wife, a noblewoman from Calakmul, as heir. But as Lady Xoc came from an elite Yaxchilan lineage, Shield Jaguar’s decision likely caused some tension in the local community. 

Stele 26
Stele 26

Some scholars believe, therefore, that the king built the special temple to appease Lady Xoc’s influential family.

On display at the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City is Stele 26. Discovered in Building 23, it depicts Lady Xoc presenting Shield Jaguar with a jaguar mask.

Building 33

Finally making your ascent to Building 33, you’ll pass by Buildings 25 and 26 on the way up. Constructed between 650 and 700, the identical structures once functioned as temples.

Visiting Yaxchilan and Bonampak

Building 33, constructed by King Bird Jaguar IV (the son of Shield Jaguar and his wife from Calakmul), sits atop what’s known as the ‘Great Acropolis.’ Dedicated to the king himself, the wide temple’s defining feature is its intact roof comb.

In front is what appears to be a deformed stele, but it’s actually a stalactite said to have been found in a Guatemalan cave. Looking closely you can see a carved scene of a bloodletting ritual. 

Visiting Yaxchilan and Bonampak

At the top of the steps is a long series of carved reliefs depicting the king playing the Mesoamerican ballgame. The scenes, in fact, were carved to commemorate a ritual ballgame the king played right after his father’s death.

There were likely once seated stucco figures above each doorway. And in the center of the roof comb was probably a sculpture of Bird Jaguar IV himself.

Ascending the staircase to check inside the rooms, you’ll also find a headless sculpture in the center that also probably originally depicted the king. 

Visiting Yaxchilan and Bonampak

The South Acropolis

After admiring Building 33, it’s time to head to the South Acropolis. But the path to get there is surprisingly long and steep, so those already feeling tired may want to leave Yacxhilan the way they came.

Thankfully, signs help point one in the right direction, as you’ll be walking through thick forest for quite some time.

Visiting Yaxchilan and Bonampak
Visiting Yaxchilan and Bonampak
Stele 15
Stele 18

Finally reaching the South Acropolis, you’ll encounter Buildings 39, 40 and 41. Buildings 39 and 41 were constructed in the second half of the 7th century, while Building 40 was built about a hundred years later. 

Yet more stelae on display in Mexico City include Stelae 10 and 18, which were both found at this acropolis. They both depict the king grasping a prisoner by his top knot, a very similar scene to that used by the ancient Egyptians.

Frankly, the buildings up here aren’t particularly special compared to what you’ve seen below, but it makes for a fun little side trek for those who want to see everything. 

When finished, there’s yet another acropolis you can hike to on your way to the exit. Nearby, you should find signs pointing you in the direction of the Little Acropolis.

The Little Acropolis

Once at the Little Acropolis, you’ll encounter Building 42, constructed during Bird Jaguar IV’s reign. 

Another major building here, Building 44, was erected by Shield Jaguar I to celebrate his military victories. You’ll find carvings under the lintels depicting the king holding the top-knots of bound captives, similar to the stelae mentioned above.

Visiting Yaxchilan and Bonampak
Visiting Yaxchilan and Bonampak
Visiting Yaxchilan and Bonampak

Making your way back to the exit, it’s time for the return boat ride, followed by lunch and the onward journey to Bonampak.

Bonampak

Located deep in the Lacandon Jungle, about 20 km south of Yaxchilan, Bonampak is best known for its murals, arguably the best preserved of the Mayan world. While no boat is necessary this time, your main tour bus won’t be able to take you there directly.

This area is controlled by the Lacandon tribe who only allow visitors to enter the site via their own vehicles. As such, you’ll need to transfer near the entrance to the jungle to be taken to the site by a local driver.

(While in San Cristóbal de las Casas, you can learn more about the Lacandon at the Na Bolom museum, dedicated to archaeologist Frans Blom who did extensive research on them.)

Visiting Yaxchilan and Bonampak

We don’t know much of Bonampak’s history prior to the 5th century AD, but the area has been settled since at least the year 100. Throughout the 6th century, the site was likely controlled by that mighty pyramid city of Toniná.

Bonampak’s final ruler, Chan Muan II, ascended the throne in 776, and he married the sister of Shield Jaguar II of Yaxchilan. And it’s he who’s responsible for Bonampak’s famous murals.

Mysteriously, however, the city was abandoned not long after Chan Muan’s reign, with the last local inscription dating to 791.

Visiting Bonampak and Yaxchilan
Visiting Bonampak and Yaxchilan

While most visitors come to Bonampak with the murals in mind, upon entering the site, many are surprised by how massive the plaza is.

And in its center stands Stele 1, among the tallest the Maya ever carved, which depicts Chan Muan II standing above an earth monster.

Visiting Bonampak and Yaxchilan
Local bird nests

Bonampak’s main structures were built at various levels of its massive Acropolis. While not as big as Toniná’s, the influence from that city is clear.

Over to the left, you’ll find a temple with three doors, nearby which is a stele, yet again depicting Chan Muan II. Also nearby is a pit with a stucco decoration seemingly representing Chaak, the rain god.

Visiting Bonampak and Yaxchilan

The Murals

Bonampak’s murals are arguably the finest pre-Hispanic murals discovered in Mexico – the only potential rival being Cacaxtla in Tlaxcala state. But how were they discovered?

In 1946, Karl Hermann Frey and John Bourne became the first foreigners to encounter Bonampak. But they didn’t actually see the murals, which were unknown to even the local Maya at the time.

The following year, documentary filmmaker Giles Healey visited the ruins and was the first one to discover the paintings. But after news spread of the discovery, Frey grew jealous and tried to claim the discovery of Bonampak for himself.

Visiting Bonampak and Yaxchilan

But while leading a party of Mexico City-based intellectuals to the ruins a few years later, Frey drowned in the river while transporting a generator. Frey, however, was highly disliked by numerous peers, and some believe he was actually shot!

The murals are located in a structure simply known as Temple 1. It consists of three rooms, and only one person is allowed in at a time (or perhaps this was just a pandemic-era protocol).

Notably, Room 2 was painted first while the others were painted a year or two later.

Room 2

The main theme of Room 2 is war, and the paintings here commemorate one of Yaxchilan and Bonampak’s cooperative victories over a third city-state.

Visiting Bonampak and Yaxchilan
Visiting Bonampak and Yaxchilan

While the paintings in this room are the hardest to make out, the main characters include warriors wearing jaguar costumes, who are believed to be Chan Muan II and Shield Jaguar II of Yaxchilan. The king of Palenque at the time is also believed to be depicted somewhere as well.

On the north wall, you can see the rulers sacrificing their captives in front of a temple.

Visiting Bonampak and Yaxchilan
Visiting Bonampak and Yaxchilan

Room 1

Along with Room 3, the scenes in Room 1 depict the aftermath of Bonampak’s military victory. Here we see the nobles of Bonampak’s new vassal states arriving in the city to bring tribute. Many of the figures are wearing white – a rarity in Mayan art.

 Furthermore, the accompanying glyphs explain precisely what gifts the nobles are bringing.

The lower band, meanwhile, depicts an elaborate procession involving musicians and dancers. Many others are dressed in costumes for the festive occasion.

Another important scene in this room is the presentation of Chan Muan II’s heir, though history doesn’t tell us what ultimately happened to him.

Visiting Bonampak and Yaxchilan
Visiting Bonampak and Yaxchilan

Room 3

This room features scenes of a similar nature to those of Room 1. But the murals here are probably the clearest of the three rooms.

Again, we see more noblemen dressed in white paying tribute, and here you’ll see figures wearing plumed headdresses as people celebrate around a temple.

Visiting Bonampak and Yaxchilan
Visiting Bonampak and Yaxchilan

We also see the local elite carrying out bloodletting rituals. And to top things off, a captive is being prepared for sacrifice!

As mentioned, despite the prosperity these scenes depict, Bonampak experienced a sudden decline just a couple years after this temple was dedicated in 791.

Visiting Yaxchilan and Bonampak
Visiting Bonampak and Yaxchilan

Bonampak’s incredible murals help reveal what a colorful world the ancient Mayans really lived in. But for those who can’t make it to the remote Lacandon Jungle, you can see a full-scale recreation of all three rooms at Mexico City’s National Museum of Anthropology. 

Visiting Bonampak and Yaxchilan
Visiting Bonampak and Yaxchilan

The entire Acropolis is climbable. And when finished with the murals, it’s time to do some more exploring. 

Numerous small temples line the top, and looking in some of them, you can see that their interiors were once painted as well. While they’re badly eroded and impossible to make out, some of the carved lintels remain in good condition.

Interestingly, most of these buildings originally functioned as tombs.

Visiting Bonampak and Yaxchilan

Most tours will give you an hour in total at Bonampak, which is plenty of time to see everything it has to offer. Supposedly, however, there are many more structures waiting to be excavated in the jungle.

Back in the van, it’s time to start your long journey back to Palenque.

Visiting Bonampak and Yaxchilan

Additional Info

The city of Palenque is best thought of as a base from which to see ruins and waterfalls and not as a destination in its own right. As such, it would be wise to stay somewhere in the western part of the city near the main bus station instead of nearby the central park.

When visiting Palenque (the archaeological site), the colectivos taking you there can be found in this general area on Allende street, in between Miguel Hidalgo and Benito Juárez streets. You can also hail one from the main road near the bus station.

Also in this area, one can find the small colectivo stations with buses for Ocosingo, the nearest town to the pyramid city of Toniná.

And right near the main ADO Bus Station are tour offices through which you can arrange tours to Yaxchilan/Bonampak and the Cascadas de Agua Azul.

I stayed at a hotel called Posada Nacha`n – Ka`an which was located near all the locations just mentioned. I stayed three nights and paid around $315 MXN per night for a private room with a private bathroom.

The main downside was that the internet barely worked, but as I was out on day trips for most of my stay, it wasn’t a big deal.

The hotel has a luggage storage room and you can find staff on hand from early in the morning. This allowed me to leave my things as soon as I arrived on the morning bus from Bacalar, making it possible to immediately head to the Palenque ruins.

Even if you don’t stay at Posada Nacha`n – Ka`an, I recommend the general area, especially if you plan on visiting Toniná independently. Other highly-rated options include Hotel Chablis Palenque and Casa Céntrica en Palenque.

Staying right by the ruins would be another good choice.


Booking.com

If renting a car is not an option, the city of Palenque is well connected by bus. If you’re coming from the east or north, you’ll find direct buses from places like VillahermosaBacalarCampeche and even Mérida. I came on a night bus from Bacalar and everything went smoothly.

Unfortunately, things get complicated when coming from other parts of Chiapas further west. While the nearest major tourist hub in Chiapas is San Cristóbal de las Casas, coach buses now take a much longer, indirect route which lasts around 11 hours.

The reason is that there are frequent blockades set up by villagers demanding money from passing vehicles on the road between San Cristóbal de las Casas and Ocosingo, the town in between San Cristóbal and Palenque.

But it’s not just mild extortion, as there have also been occasional highway robberies on this road (mostly at night), prompting the major bus companies to avoid it entirely. Coach buses between San Cristóbal and Palenque now travel via Villahermosa instead.

It is possible, however, to take local colectivos between the two cities, which will likely involve a transfer at Ocosingo. I’ve met travelers who’ve done this without any problems.

In any case, Villahermosa, Tabasco, is well worth a couple-day stop in between Palenque and San Cristóbal. Its Parque Museo La Venta hosts some of the finest artifacts of the Olmec civilization, while nearby the city is the overlooked site of Comalcalco, the western-most Mayan ruin.

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