Survivor Mayan Style – Yaxha Archaeological Site, Guatemala

Little known fact: Eric sent in a video application to be on the very first season of Survivor. That obviously didn’t pan out and, in hindsight, that was for the best. What does that little confession have to do with Yaxha, the remains of a pre-Columbian Mayan city in Guatemala? Quite a lot, actually.

The Northern Acropolis at Yaxha archaeological site in Guatemala where a season of Survivor was shot in 2005.

Surviving Survivor

In 2005 Survivor Guatemala (ridiculously called “The Mayan Empire” season) descended on Yaxha where cast and crew spent weeks shooting and stirring up controversy over things like whether it was culturally sensitive (or even accurate) to ask participants to dress up like Mayans by smearing on face paint and sticking feathers in their hair. Hmmm.

One of dozens of stele (carved stone pillars) that have been found at Yaxha.

Yaxha is one of the largest Mayan sites in Guatemala and has nine plazas and more than 500 buildings, most of them relatively un-reconstructed. Most of the big structures (and there are plenty) have their original stairs. To facilitate climbing, wooden staircases have been built up the sides of the buildings allowing us to get to the top but leaving the original architecture intact and looking pretty authentic. The staircases also happened to be gorgeous and ingeniously constructed with wooden pegs instead of nails which would just rust way in the jungle humidity.

Yaxha also has a twin-pyramid complex in Plaza C. The only other known Mayan site with a twin-pyramid complex is Tikal.

The Northern Acropolis at Yaxha archaeological site in Guatemala.

One of the ball courts found at Yaxha, one of the largest Mayan archaeological sites in Guatemala.

We loved the rounded corners on this pyramid at Yaxha.

Temple 216, the big daddy of Yaxha.

Templo 216, aka the Eastern Acropolis, is the highest structure at Yaxha. The temple itself is only 100 feet (30 meters) high, but its constructed on top of a massive platform. The top of Temple 216 is a great place to get an overview of the site and peer down into the surrounding croc-filled lakes and dense jungle, home to howler monkeys, spider monkeys, coaties, and birds including raucous Montezuma Oropendolas dashing in and out of their strange pendulous nests in the huge trees that dot the plazas.

Howler monkeys (named for the sound they make) must be heard to be believed. Check them out in our video, below.

Survivor may have brought some degree of fame to Yaxha, but you wouldn’t know by looking at it.  During our two days at the site we saw fewer than 25 other travelers. At times it felt like there were more groundskeepers than tourists at Yaxha, each of them armed with a green palm frond broom which they used to meticulously sweep every possible surface.

Guatemala’s Yaxha archaeological site is book-ended by two croc-filled lakes as you can see in this shot taken from the top of Temple 216.

The best campground in Guatemala

Survivor did, however, prompt an upgrade of the facilities at Yaxha so, in a roundabout way, we have producer Mark Burnett to thank for the awesome camping area at Yaxha.

Yaxha is part of a trio of pre-Columbian Mayan cities, along with nearby Nakum and Naranjo which make up the Yaxha-Nakum-Naranjo National Park. Your admission fee of 80Q per person (about US$10) includes access to all three parks (though Naranjo is remote and best reached on horseback) and two nights of camping at Yaxha in one of five raised platform camping shelters with weather tight thatch roofs (we know because it poured) and lake views. It was like camping on the awesome porch of a friend’s lake house.

Two nights in one of these awesome camping platforms is included with your entrance fee to Yaxha-Nakum-Naranjo National Park in Guatemala.

The camping area also has outdoor showers, indoor flush toilets and a communal outdoor grilling area. Howler monkeys woke us up each morning and adorable pacas (basically very large jungle hamsters) scampered around on the ground at dusk. It would have been one of the best campgrounds in Guatemala even without the Mayan ruins. We still can’t figure out why we were the only ones using it.

Templo-de-los-Tableros at Yaxha archaeological site in Guatemala.

Glad we had

Our SteriPEN allows us to quickly and easily purify water anywhere using UV light, not chemicals. This allows us to say yes when a lovely camping opportunity (like Yaxha) unexpectedly comes our way, even if we’re not prepared with extra drinking water.

Here’s more about travel in Guatemala


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9 comments on “Survivor Mayan Style – Yaxha Archaeological Site, Guatemala

  1. I had a similarly great experience (minus the camping – wish I had know about that!). We got to chat with the head archaeologist and the guys working at the top of each structure but we didn’t see another visitor until we went to the main temple to see the sunset and even then I think we were in total less than a dozen (including 4 in my group). Highly recommend this place to any ruins lover. Tikal is a can’t miss, but do yourself a favor and add a day (or more with camping) to your itinerary and include Yaxha!

  2. My husband and I camped here when we cycled through Central America last year. Yaxha is by far our favourite Mayan site in Guatemala. It’s sad that guidebooks and mass tourism chooses only specific sites to feature (Tikal being the obvious one I’m talking about here). Every traveler we came across in Flores and beyond pestered us with “Have you been to TIkal? No? Well when are you going?”. I understand that Tikal is impressive, but the magic of being alone and unhassled/unhustled in a site like Yaxha is incomparable. We also went to Naranjo with the folks from El Sombrero (who know so much about the area) and it’s an epic journey of mud and struggle, but well worth it. Thanks for a great article!

  3. I visited Flores last week and I stayed in a very nice room in the Café Archeológico Yaxha. There I found out that they also offer tours to the Mayan side Yaxha. So I was excited to go to Yaxha and I was absolutely impressed.
    I found it really pleasant, because Yaxha is a very quiet place with fewer tourists than Tikal. So you can enjoy the vividness of the rainforest with its howler monkeys, the birds and all the crickets. All the ruins, temples and Miradors are awesome.
    The highlight of the trip was the sunset that we watched from temple 216.You have an amazing view over the whole rainforest and the two lakes Yaxha and Sacnab.
    As the sun went down it was amazing to see the different colors of the sun combined with a suddenly appeared relaxing still of the rainforest.

    Highly recommend this place !

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