Yaxchilan and Bonampak: Hidden Mayan Ruins in the Chiapas Jungle

Bonampak Mural Room 3

Exploring the Yaxchilan and Bonampak ruins in Chiapas, Mexico is a once in a lifetime adventure! These Mayan ruins are still relatively unknown and you can sense the robust history around every corner.

Even just getting to them is a great experience. You’ll take a boat ride along the Usumacinta River to get to Yaxchilan, then take Lacandon transport through the heart of the jungle to reach Bonampak. Although both sites are deep in the Lacandon rainforest, they are easily reached as a day trip from Palenque.

We link to products and services we think are useful for our readers. We may earn a commission for purchases made through some of these links. There’s no extra cost for you and it helps support our work. We really appreciate your support!

Looking for a guided tour from Palenque? Check out this highly-rated Yaxchilan and Bonampak tour.

Off Path Travels at Yaxchilan Ruins in Chiapas Mexico

How to Get to Yaxchilan and Bonampak

By Tour: There are quite a few tour companies that will take you out on a full-day tour (6 am – 7 pm) to Yaxchilan and Bonampak. Most tours include all transportation (van ride from Palenque to both ruins, boat ride to Yaxchilan, the Lacandon shuttle van to Bonampak, and return van), archeological zone entrance fees, breakfast, and lunch.

We recommend booking well in advance because this is one of the most popular things to do in Palenque.

This highly-rated tour to Yaxchilan and Bonampak departs from Palenque. It includes a 1-hour cruise along the Usumacinta River, visits to both the Yaxchilan and Bonampak ruins, and 2 meals.

Another option is to check out this Yaxchilan and Bonampak tour.

By Public Transportation: To get to Yaxchilan, take a colectivo or bus from Palenque to Frontera Corozal. You’ll pay a town entry fee of about $30 pesos, then take a taxi to the riverside to then take a boat to the ruins. You’ll have to wait for at least 6 people to share the cost of the boat ride (around $1,300 pesos) or pay the entire sum yourself. Then, you’ll pay the entrance to the archeological zone itself, which closes at 3:30 pm.

To get to Bonampak, you’ll take a colectivo or bus to Crucero San Javier and from there pay to take a Lacandon van to the Bonampak ruins for $150-$200 pesos per person. Once there, you’ll pay the $55 peso entrance fee to Bonampak.

By Car: You can rent a car in Tuxtla Gutierrez or San Cristobal de las Casas and drive to both of these archeological sites. Keep in mind that you’ll still have to pay all of the fees mentioned above.

Make sure to check out the status of the roads around Ocosingo. There have been some road blocks, so it might be safer to take a longer route up north from San Cristobal through Tabasco to Palenque.

➡️ Check out the Ultimate Chiapas Travel Guide for everything you need to know before visiting Chiapas, Mexico.

Where to Stay Near Yaxchilan and Bonampak

The Yaxchilan and Bonampak ruins are located in the middle of the Lacandon jungle and far from any sort of modern tourist infrastructure.

The town of Palenque is the best place to stay near the Yaxchilan and Bonampak ruins. It’s has plenty of hotels and restaurants and Palenque is much closer than San Cristobal de las Casas.

Check out this guide to Palenque for a list of places to stay.

While in Palenque, make sure to heck out the impressive Palenque ruins and Agua Azul and Misol-Ha waterfalls.

Yaxchilan and Bonampak Tour Review

Although we usually like to travel independently, we decided to take a tour to Yaxchilan and Bonampak ruins (here’s a similar tour to the one we took since ours isn’t available to book online).

Taking a tour to these hidden ruins is well worth the splurge!

Why? Because these ruins are in a remote area of Chiapas, Mexico that can be a hassle to get to on public transportation.

There are multiple spots that if you go without a group, you’ll have to pay a lot of individual fees, as well as two spots where you’ll have to wait around for hours for enough people to arrive for the transportation to depart, specifically the boat ride and Lacandon jungle transportation.

Here’s what to expect on your tour to Yaxchilan and Bonampak, including descriptions and historical background on what you’ll see.

Frontera Corozal

Howler Monkey in Frontera Corozal

The tour van picked us up at our vacation rental in Palenque at 6 am on the dot. We drove around Palenque and quickly collected about 10 other tourists. The first stop was a tourist-filled breakfast buffet, about an hour and a half outside of Palenque. It was surprisingly good and had plenty of vegetarian options. Basically every tour operator stops here for breakfast.

After that, we drove another hour to Frontera Corozal. Our driver paid our town entry fees at a toll booth and we were taken straight to the riverbank of the great Usumacinta. As we were walking towards the boats, we looked up to see a family of black howler monkeys jumping in the tree right above our heads!

Boat Ride to Yaxchilan

How to Get to Yaxchilan Ruins in Chiapas

Our group hopped onto a narrow lancha (boat) with a palapa roof. We somehow managed to pick up a local guide on the short walk from the car to the boat who also hopped on. We agreed to pay the $800 pesos for 1 hour of his guide services at the ruins and split the cost amongst us. He sat next to us on the way there and talked to us in English about his jaguar sightings and explained that his first language was Chol (a Maya dialect).

The boat ride to Yaxchilan is about 45 minutes on the Usumacinta River. It’s a unique experience, not only because you’re on a boat in the middle of the Lacandon jungle, but also because you’re right on the border between Mexico and Guatemala.

The river creates a natural border between the two and on the way to the ruins you’ll see Mexico to your left and Guatemala to your right. The scenery is beautiful. You can spot massive trees of all sorts here, and if you’re very lucky, maybe a crocodile or two basking in the sunlight.

The boat ride is a challenge if you arrive without a tour. You’ll have to wait hours for other independent travelers to arrive in order to fill up a boat to share the cost.

Looking for a guided tour from Palenque? Check out this highly-rated Yaxchilan and Bonampak tour.

Boat Ride to Yaxchilan Ruins on Usumacinta River

A bit before reaching the dock at Yaxchilan, the guide pointed towards a mound of rocks in the river. They are the remains of an ancient bridge connecting what is now Mexico and Guatemala. What?! The Maya built suspension bridges too? Who knew? I added that to my mental list of things to google once I had cell phone service. Here’s a sketch of the impressive bridge at Yaxchilan.

Right after the bridge, we caught a glimpse through the jungle of the crumbling ruins above the river. We had arrived.

Labyrinth at Yaxchilan Ruins

A Dark Labyrinth

We got off the boat and headed up a staircase into the jungle. There was nothing else around for what seemed like miles. As we walked along a pathway, the guide explained that we were about to enter an ancient Maya labyrinth. The Maya used the labyrinth as a test of worthiness. They would be sent in after taking some hallucinogenic substance (usually mushrooms) and whoever made it out alive, about 2-3 days later, was worthy of being a player in the next Maya ball game.

The path through the jungle stopped at a small building with about 8 doorways and a tree with mangled roots growing right out of it. Which to door to choose? This is when hiring a guide really paid off. He took out a flashlight (you’ll need one!) and led us into one of the dark tunnels.

We walked through the darkness listening to the sounds of bats and the guide’s commands. “Right, left, 3 steps up, 2 steps down.” Make sure to duck because we also saw a spider the size of my hand in there and nobody wants that thing in their hair!

Tree in jungle at Yaxchilan Ruins

Finally, light! We stepped out onto a large plaza shaded by enormous trees and surrounded by crumbling stone structures: the ancient Maya city of Yaxchilan.

Yaxchilan Maya Ruins in the Lacandon Jungle in Mexico

Look Under the Doorways

Yaxchilan was inhabited from around 250 to 900 AD. This site has had many rulers, but amongst the most well known were a series of kings named Bird Jaguar. You’ll see the name Yaxun B’alam (Bird Jaguar in Maya) on many of the boats on the river and the many stelae at the site are carved with their images.

Lintel at Bonampak Ruins

There are an estimated 120 buildings in Yaxchilan, but only about 20% have been unearthed. Most of these are the structures you’ll see surrounding the Gran Plaza as you exit the labyrinth. Some are half-excavated, giving you an excellent glimpse into what they used to look like and what they looked like more recently before the renovations occurred.

The biggest tip I can give you for visiting this site is to stand under all of the doorways and look up! You’ll see some of the most amazing carvings and inscriptions in large blocks of stone called lintels. Some of them still have the original paint on them.

Off Path Travels at Yaxchilan Ruins

The Central Acropolis

We walked through the main plaza, by the ball courts, and came to a set of stairs winding its way through the jungle and up to a towering temple known as the Central Acropolis. We climbed up to see the amazing view from up top. There is an ancient sundial on top that still has the ability to tell time! And the view looking back down to the base was great.

Inside the temple, there was a sculpture of a Maya king. During past excavations, his head was accidentally broken off and laid in the room next to him. The guide explained that a recent myth has been formed, which says that if his head is placed back on his body, the world will end. Clearly, nobody has wanted to test if the myth is true.

We went down the backside of the temple to return to the main plaza and followed the guide out of the labyrinth and back to the boats. On our way out, some tourists had to ask our guide for help in the labyrinth because they were afraid of getting stuck in there. So glad we had a guide!

After about an hour of exploring Yaxchilan, we took the boat back to “civilization.” We stopped to have lunch in Frontera Corozal and then drove off towards Bonampak.

Lacandon Tranportation to Bonampak Ruins

Lacandon Tranportation to Bonampak

Here’s where things get a bit complicated. Whether you’re traveling independently or with a guided Bonampak tour, you’ll be required to take what is referred to as “Lacandon transportation” to get to the Bonampak ruins. Even if you’ve rented a car, you won’t be allowed to enter the Lacandon jungle on your own.

The Lacandones are a group of indigenous people that call themselves the Hach Winik or “true people.” (The Na Bolom museum in San Cristobal is a great resource to learn about this culture.) Their ancestors left the Yucatan peninsula and hid in the rainforest to escape the Spanish conquest. They were quite successful and it wasn’t until about 50 years ago that major contact with them was made. 

The Lacandon are known as the guardians of the rainforest. As such, they don’t allow anyone to enter or drive in the area without a Lacandon escort. Pretty good guardians if you ask me!

As we exited the highway towards Bonampak, our group was asked to switch to a different van (not owned by the tour company). A Lacandon man then drove us and our tour driver to the entrance to the Bonampak ruins. This may seem a bit strange, but when I asked them about it they explained that this was necessary to protect the area. This technique prevents people from littering, trampling (or driving) through areas without paths and poaching.

After 30-40 minutes of riding in the Lacandon van, we arrived at the entrance to Bonampak. We were only allowed one hour to explore this site, so we ditched the group and ran towards the site to see its famous murals.

We walked by a group of three Lacandon girls in their traditional long white tunics and long hair. They were creating little paths around the massive trees with sticks and stones. Guardians of the rainforest in training!

Bonampak Ruins Pyramid

The Murals at Bonampak

The pathway through the jungle ended at a grassy clearing where a single massive structure stood before us. This large pyramid houses some of the best-preserved Maya murals discovered to date. If there is one reason to come out here, the murals are it.

We walked diagonally up the small stairs to the palapa covered building with three doorways: the Temple of the Murals.

Each room has a separate theme: the first room has images of festivities, musicians, and dancing; the second room contains warriors, battle scenes, and sacrifice; and the third room has paintings showing ritual bloodletting.

Bonampak Mural Room 3


Yep, the ancient Maya practiced different forms of piercing their body and collecting the blood for rituals. The one clearly depicted here is a series of women using stingray needles to pierce their tongues.

As a person that has been stung by stingrays twice now, I would not wish this pain upon my worst enemy and would never ever want to voluntarily experience it.

Bonampak Ruins Mural Room 1

The murals at Bonampak are some of my favorite Maya ruins because they really give you a glimpse into what their society was like, what they valued, and some aspects of their religion.

After our time admiring these amazing murals was up, we hopped back onto the van and slept all the way back to Palenque.

The Yaxchilan and Bonampak ruins are an adventure to get to. While you can take a very long tour from San Cristobal, we recommend heading out from Palenque instead. If you want to see both in one day, go with a tour group and let them handle the hassle of the fees and complex transportation issues.

The ruins themselves are incredible. Yaxchilan is in the middle of a dense jungle that is sparsely inhabited now. Seeing the massive temples and hearing the stories from the people of the past is a memorable experience.

And Bonampak’s murals are some of the best-preserved Maya murals around. The colors and imagery will blow your mind, especially knowing they’re hundreds and hundreds of years old.

All in all, it was a very successful day exploring ancient and unique Maya ruins deep in the Lacandon jungle of Chiapas, Mexico! And we highly recommend making the trek out if you can!

Looking for a guided tour from Palenque? Check out this highly-rated Yaxchilan and Bonampak tour.

Headed to Chiapas? Check out our other posts on Chiapas, Mexico!

Have you visited hidden ruin sites that are far away from civilization? Where at?! Leave some tips below for your fellow travelers.

Like This Post? Pin It!

Yaxchilan & Bonampak Ruins in Mexico.

5 thoughts on “Yaxchilan and Bonampak: Hidden Mayan Ruins in the Chiapas Jungle”

  1. Thanks for sharing your experience in Mexican jungle. I suggest considering to stay overnight close to Yaxchilan, at Frontera Corosal. Next day morning you can visit Yaxchilan without 2.5 hrs drive.

  2. Hey! i love the jungle but wokr online remotly!
    Do you a place in palenque thats good to work 4 days a week so i can explore the jungle on weekends?

  3. Thank you for your very detailed description of this adventure. It is especially helpful for us because we are taking the tour tomorrow. So your article tell us exact what we will expect tomorrow! Thanks again.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.