Undiscovered Guatemala: visit Mayan city Yaxha

Deep in the jungle lies one of the hidden gems of Guatemala near a crocodile lake: the Yaxha temple complex. While all travelers go to the famous Tikal, neighboring Yaxha is still wonderfully undiscovered. Prepare for crocodiles and howler monkeys, jungle and temples, off the grid cottages and sunsets!

Why is Yaxha a must?

The size of the complex is huge, the view from the highest temple phenomenal and the location on a deep blue lake is unique. It is estimated that Yaxha once had more than 20,000 inhabitants and around 500 buildings were found in the complex. That makes Yaxha, after Tikal and the less accessible El Mirador, the third largest temple complex in Guatemala. In comparison with its famous neighbor: Tikal may have even had 100,000 inhabitants and consists of the 6,000 to 10,000 buildings. Yaxha is a somewhat smaller version of the famous Tikal, but without all those tourist crowds, expensive entrance tickets and a complex ticket system for a sunrise or sunset.

One of the highlights of a visit to Yaxha is the sunset from the largest temple (Structure 216 or Temple of the Hands). With a height of 30 meters, this temple towers above all other temples and the treetops. From there you have the perfect view of the two lakes where Yaxha is located. At the end of the day you can watch the sun go down behind one of the lakes, just before the park closes.

The temples in the Yaxha national park

The temple complex of Yaxha consists of quite a few buildings, many of which have been dug up and beautifully restored. We found the northern and eastern acropolis especially interesting. Temple 216 is also located on the eastern acropolis, also called Temple of the Hands after red handprints apparently found on the temple. Here a group gathers at the end of the afternoon and just before closing time to see a phenomenally beautiful sunset. A guard asked us all to be quiet, which makes the moment even more beautiful. After the sun had set, he sent us to the exit, so that we could leave the park exactly at closing time.

The northern acropolis consists of several buildings, reminiscent of the central plazas in many Mayan cities. You can climb the highest of these and the top rises above the trees. You have a good view over the rest of the acropolis and you can see temple 216 in the east.

Also interesting is the wide road from the temples to the lake, where now and then there is a motorboat (a lancha). Yaxha is unique in Mayan archeology because of its location on the water. The lakes were then part of an important trade route across the river between major Mayan cities.

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With a bit of luck you can find a motorboat at the dock that will take you to the island in the lake and back. 200Q is usually charged for this. On the island there is a temple complex: Topoxte. On the morning we were here, the roar of the howler monkeys was overwhelming. The temples themselves do not represent that much, especially if you are not very familiar with the details of the Mayan architecture, just like we are. Is that you? Then you will see two different building styles here. Topoxte was one of the oldest Mayan cities in Guatemala, but was abandoned. Centuries later the islet was put back into use and new buildings were built.

But not all temples in this park have been discussed yet. There are two other temple complexes: Nakum and El Naranja. Yaxha may already be off the beaten track, but these two places get very few visitors. You can only come here in the dry season and then only with a 4×4. It is of course much more fun to undertake a multi-day hike or horse ride. It is even possible to undertake a multi-day trip from Yaxha via Nakum to Tikal.

You pay an entrance ticket for the entire park. That costs Q 80, so about EUR 10 converted.

Spend the night at El Sombrero Ecolodge

Even before the national park became a national park, El Sombrero was situated on the lake. It wasn’t an ecolodge then. El Sombrero once started with hikes and horse riding trips to Nakum and El Naranja and you can still come here for that. But in addition there are completely off the grid and self-sufficient cottages in jungle style. Off the grid and self-sufficient does not mean primitive or without comfort. Solar panels provide electricity (only in the evening), the lake provides water and a system on the roof of the cottages heats the shower water.

From El Sombrero you can be at the entrance to the park of Yaxha in a few minutes. If one of the owners is present and has time, you will probably be dropped off in the middle of the temple complex free of charge. Or how about a trip by lancha? From El Sombrero you can take the boat to both Topoxte and Yaxha (200Q per boat).

A stay at El Sombrero is definitely recommended if you visit Yaxha. We wanted to see the sunset from temple 216, but that means that you leave the park at dusk. It is then only possible to get out of here, if you have a rental car (and dare to drive in the dark) or have come to Yaxha with an organized tour. It is of course much nicer to spend the night right next to the entrance at El Sombrero.

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And make two nights of it right away, because the sunset from El Sombrero is really beautiful. By the way, don’t be surprised if you see something in the water. That is indeed a crocodile. Swimming in the lake is definitely not safe, because it is full of crocodiles. At El Sombrero there is almost always one waiting by the jetty for prey.

You also have the chance to go on a (half) day trip on horseback or go on a bird watching tour. We do, however, advise you to actively and regularly inform whether there are already activities that you can join. All other guests, for example, turned out to be taking a bird watching tour, in which we would really liked to have participated.

Practical: how do you get to Yaxha?

Yaxha is located east of Tikal, between Tikal and the border with Belize. From the main road that runs from Flores via El Remate to the border with Belize, there is an unpaved road of approximately 10 kilometers to the national park at restaurant El Portal de Yaxha.

The easiest way to get there is by private transport, but most travelers in Guatemala do not travel by rental car. From Flores and El Remate, organized tours including transportation to Yaxha are also arranged. Then ask for the sunset tour so that you can end your visit at temple 216. Do you prefer to travel independently? There is regular bus transport between Flores / El Remata and the border with Belize. You can drop off almost any bus at the intersection. Then ask at restaurant El Portal de Yaxha about transportation to the temples; they can usually arrange that. Sleeping at El Sombrero? Then one of the owners will come to pick you up at this crossing. Expect a bumpy ride!

The ancient Mayan city of Yaxha is not even that far from Tikal as the crow flies. Yaxha is located directly west of the Tikal National Park. But nowadays there are no more roads through that dense jungle, so you have to take a 1.5-hour (round trip) from Tikal to Yaxha. Do you want to go through that jungle? Then you can undertake a multi-day hike from Yaxha via the temples from Nakum to Tikal via El Sombrero.

El Sombrero Ecolodge