Visiting the ancient archaeological Mayan ruins of Yaxha (Yaxhá) in the North of Guatemala is probably one of the best excursion decisions we ever made during our time in the beautiful Central American country.
While other travelers were lining up for busy Tikal, we enjoyed the splendor of being all by our self at these majestic and beautiful archaeological site in the heart of the Guatemalan jungle.
We didn’t look forward to huge masses and tourist buses, knowing that the entire North of Guatemala is sprinkled with Mayan settlements and extraordinary Mayan cities.
Why would we all travel to the exact same place, while the other sites match or transcend the famous ruins with ease?
That’s why we decided to find the coolest and quietest Mayan city to be found in the region. Well Yaxha Guatemala aren’t even the less visited after all, but still, we were there all by our self: the best way to explore ancient archaeological cities!
In this article, we will explain why the Yaxha site (Spanish name: Yaxhá) is so cool, how you can reach it and a lot more information on how to plan your excursion.
Yaxha Mayan Ruins - General information
Yaxha is located 70 kms East of the town of Flores, while Tikal can be found at 65 kms North East of Flores. The distance is similar, but the Mayan sites are still 30 kms apart.
The difference is that from the touristy town of Flores, many travelers are visiting Tikal and just a few venture out to Yaxha.
This impressive archaeological site is the third largest ruin complex in Guatemala, only shadowed by Tikal and El Mirador.
In Spanish, the archaeological Mayan structures are called Yaxhá.
Getting to the National Park
From Flores to Yaxha
You can either get a taxi to take you to the Mayan city. Or you can walk into any tourist office to take care of your transport. Most tourist offices or tourism desks in hotels and hostels have arrangements to get tourists to the temples.
This trip takes around 2 hours in ideal conditions and usually costs between 100 and 150 Quetzales. But the price can be higher if you want a guided tour, a sunset tour.
From El Remate
We did the trip from El Remate to the ruins and we actually had our hostel owner take us to there. His hostel doubled as a tourist office and he was very happy to earn a few extra bucks.
This trip takes a bit longer than 1 hour in ideal conditions. It should also cost between 100 and 150 Quetzales.
Antigua is quite far from Tikal and Yaxha. The trip from Antigua to Flores takes at least 10 hours, but it might take a lot longer if traffic or weather is bad.
This trip is not recommended to do as a day-trip.
From San Ignacio in Belize
The trip from San Ignacio to Flores took us an entire day due to extremely bad road conditions. Meanwhile, this road has become a nicely paved road and you can travel this journey in a few hours: 2 to 3 hours in good conditions.
We traveled from San Ignacio to El Remate during the day and did a sunset trip to the ruins the same night. This is possible.
It’s also an option to go to Yaxha in a day trip from San Ignacio. Keep in mind that you will be crossing the Belize and Guatemala border twice in one day if you do it this way!
Entrance fee for Yaxha National Park is 80 Quetzales for foreigners.
This fee applies for all four cities in the National Park. So you can also explore Nakum, Naranjo, and Topoxte ruins with the bracelet you receive upon entering.
Every day from 8h until 17h or 18h
All 4 sites in the National Park have restrooms and areas for seating. Read more about the facilities per place below.
Yaxha offers the largest visitor center. This is also where you arrive first.
For visiting the main archaeological site of Yaxha, you need 3 to 4 hours. I definitely recommend taking your time because there is loads to see and you want to go slow.
If you want to see one or more of the other temples, you need a lot more time!. The other cities are scattered in the jungle and it takes a while to reach them.
Read more information about the other ruins below.
Location and surroundings
These Mayan ruins are located in the Petén region in the North of Guatemala, approximately 30kms from the famous city of Tikal.
Near the ruins of Yaxha, you can also find a lagoon that is smaller than Petén. It’s called Lake Yaxha and the actual temples are located on the North shore of the lagoon, extending for almost 3 km.
The Yaxha Guatemala ruins, as well as a few of the surrounding ruins are located in a large National Park, which covers an area of almost 38 thousand hectares.
When traveling from Flores, Yaxha is the first city you encounter and they are the easiest to access.
Three other decent-sized ruins: Nakum, Naranjo, and Topoxte are hidden even further away in the jungle. And these are just the large ones, because there are around 10 smaller sites and hundreds of tiny settlements.
In the surrounding jungle, you can spot a lot of wildlife.
For me, the most impressing species were the howler monkeys! They make so much noise and they sound extremely scary. Then when you finally lay eyes on them, they’re a lot less intimidating!
When I heard the howler monkeys the first time, I thought Godzilla was coming! It wasn’t him! I’m not saying that you shouldn’t be scared when one of the monkey is out to get you, which they obviously aren’t. But they’re smaller than they sound!
The one we encountered, was very eager to show us his manlyhood!
What to expect
Being almost on our own in this vast jungle, scattered with ancient Mayan temples brought up this powerful and majestic feeling I had never sensed before. By the time the sun was setting into Lake Yaxha, we had climbed one of the superior Mayan temples of Yaxha in Guatemala.
It was an experience and a view I will not easily forget. I even recommend all travelers to visit these less visited Mayan ruins in Guatemala and do a Yaxha sunset tour for the best experience possible.
Visiting these ruins will give you the very real experience of wandering around ancient structures without hordes of tourists to drop a shade over your unique experience.
Pro Tip - Yaxha Sunset Tour
Sunset might be just the perfect time to end your visit of the Maya city.
If you arrive in time to see all the temples before the sun starts dropping, you can make it in time to see the sun set into Lake Yaxha.
Viewing the sunset can be done from the Temple of the Red Hands: Building 216.
When we visited, it was just us and a park guard who were on top of the temple to watch the sunset. And it was just an amazing tour!
Pro Tip - Don’t swim in the lake
It is prohibited to swim in the water at the ruins.
At Lake Yaxha, you can also do crocodile observation. Does this fact need more explanation? Just don’t take a dip!
The population of crocodiles in the lagoon is actually quite large and very alive, unlike you might be when swimming there!
More tips for visiting the Yaxha Maya city
- Take enough water with you
- Wear comfortable walking shoes
- Long sleeves and trousers can protect you from mosquitos, but it can also be hot!
- Bring mosquito repellent
- Take snacks or a lunch box
- Don’t leave your trash at the ruins
- Bring a flashlight if you’re staying for the sunset tour
Spending a night near the ruins
It’s possible to spend the night in Yaxha National Park. These are your options:
Camping areas are available at 3 of the 4 sites in the National Park. Read more about this in the specifics of each archaeological site below!
Camping at the archaeological sites is a great way to come closer to nature. Chances are good that you will be the only one there. But that shouldn’t stop you from doing it.
Ecolodge El Sombrero
Most travelers opt for this lodge, as it is beautifully located and luxorious compared to the camping options.
Other Mayan structures in Yaxha - Nakum - Naranjo
Yaxha Maya City
The most extraordinary fact about these ruins is that they are located near the lagoon, which offers amazing views, especially at sunset. The lake is exactly where the ruins got their name, because Yaxha literally means ‘Green Water’.
Yaxha Ruins are among the oldest cities in the Petén area. It was an important place and it has 14 building that have been restored and are easy to access.
These ruins are the most accessible and the most visited in this National Park. Most visitors never go to the other ruins.
How to get there
The Mayan ruins of Yaxha are easily accessible from the main road. The trip there is quite bumpy, as it is a dirt road that takes you there. The location is accessible all year round.
You need at least 4 hours to visit these ruins. I recommend taking even more time, especially when you want to do the sunset tour.
At this site, you can find everything you need: bathrooms, showers, marked trails, and information panels to explain things to know about the temples.
There’s also a parking, resting places, a museum and an infirmary.
At this site, some of the buildings have wooden stairs to help you climb them.
There’s a camping area at the Yaxha site, which offers space for 100 people.
The archaeological cities in this area date back from the early Mayan civilization period.
The main site of Yaxha was inhabited for 1500 years between 800 BC and 900 AD. This used to be a very large city, which was under the influence of Tikal. There was, however some rivalry between the different cities in the same National park and Yaxha was conquered by Naranjo multiple times.
Nakum, or the House of Pots, was a rather small city nestled on the banks of the river Holmul. What’s special about this site, is the fact that it houses the largest Mayan Temazcan, which is basically a sauna.
It’s possible to enter the sauna building, which houses pools and where sacred rituals were performed in its high days. Currently, the pools are occupied by wildlife.
A large amount of the buildings at this site have been restored. Many days, you can watch archeologists at work here!
Where are Nakum located
This place is located on the same dirt road, only 18 km deeper into the jungle.
How to get there
The complexes can be reached with a jeep during the dry season from March to May. With a jeep, you can reach the ruins in 1 hour.
During the wet season, you need horses or great waterproof shoes!
The only way to pay a visit to these ruins, is by hiring a guide to take you there. You can also do a private tour.
Exploring this entire place takes at least 2 hours.
The trip lasts a lot longer during rainy season and you need to spend the night in order to visit.
Nakum ruins have bathrooms.
There’s also a camping area, whic is mostly used during rainy season, since you can’t travel trip entire trip in one day during this time.
There are solar panels and limited electricity at these ruins.
Nakum was inhabited for more than 1900 years, starting 100 years before Yaxha and ending around the same period. This site actually hosts the longest building in the entire Petén area, which used to be a sauna!
This city was thought to be an independent community that stayed away from political influences and arguments.
This ruin complex is the largest of the 4. It also has a very rich history, which you can discover onder the chapter: history below. If you have to choose between Nakum and Naranjo, choose this one!
Currently, archaeological research is being done it this site, so you’re welcome to observe these activities.
Where are Naranjo located
Naranjo ruins are located 22 km from Yaxha. The road there is not great.
How to get there
You can reach the ruins during the dry season by jeep from March to May. During the rainy season, you need a horse or walk there.
In order to visit the Naranjo ruins, you need to go there with a guide. It’s also possible to take a guided tour of the site.
Exploring the ruins takes at least 2 hours.
When visiting in the rainy season, you can’t visit the ruins in one day and you need to spend a night.
Naranjo ruins have bathrooms.
There is also a camping area for overnight stays, but there’s no electricity.
Naranjo was occuppied for a period of 1600 years. This city used to be the largest of the four with almost 3000 buildings. It has the most violent history of all four cities. Naranjo was in war with some of the surrounding cities and they even burned Yaxha down at some point in history.
For a very long period of time, Naranjo was ruled by a female leader. Until today, Mayan women in the area take pride in this and the site is considered a sacred center. If the history sparkles your interest, Naranjo appears to be the most interesting site to visit!
These ruins are quite interesting, since they’re located on a smaller area, almost completely surrounded by water. The buildings are slightly smaller.
At Topoxte, you can do some crocodile observation!
Where are Topoxte located
Topoxte is located on an island in Lake Yaxha.
How to get there
The ruins can be reached in 30 minutes by boat and this can be done all year round from the Eco Lodge El Sombrero on the bank of the lake.
Time needed for Topoxte
You can take a guided tour to the island and you can visit the ruins in 1 hour.
Facilities at Topoxte
There are bathroom facilities, a covered resting area, and clear trails you can follow.
Topoxte was the last living site in the area and it has been occupied until 1450 AD. All the other cities in the area had been long abandoned by then.
Why we went to Yaxha instead of Tikal
Probably for the same reason that you’re researching Yaxha instead of Tikal!
We know that the ruins of Tikal had a huge boost in popularity after they were used as a setting in the Star Wars movies. Understandable! That’s just very cool.
But ever since, Tikal has skyrocketed and the amount of visitors that the Mayan ruins of Tikal receive each year is just mind-blowing.
For me, the most amazing part of visiting ancient cities, is trying to imagine how these places must have looked when they were thriving. Chances are good that they were just as loud back then as they are today once the buses roll in, but still. I’d rather explore these monuments of history in peace and quiet.
I lost my heart in Yaxha the first time I went there, so I went back a few years later and it was still as mesmerizing as I remembered it!
For more travel inspiration check out these itineraries for discovering Guatemala on your own.