Exploring the Maya ruins at Yaxchilan and Bonampak in Chiapas, Mexico is a once in a lifetime adventure! The 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.
Looking for more things to do in Chiapas, Mexico? Check out these posts:
Ultimate Guide to Palenque, Chiapas
The 7 Best Things to Do in Comitan, Chiapas
Lagunas de Montebello: Mexico’s Pine Forest Paradise
Ultimate Guide to San Cristobal de las Casas
Exploring the Palenque Ruins in Chiapas
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!
Although it’s possible to get to Yaxchilan and Bonampak from San Cristobal de las Casas, we decided to make the trip from Palenque. And we suggest doing the same if you can.
Palenque is much closer to the sites and the Palenque ruins are an impressive site that’s worth the extra time in the area (not to mention waterfalls like Misol-Ha and Agua Azul). Even with being this close, it was still a very long day.
We originally planned on taking public transportation. However, after much thought (and great advice from fellow travelers who had just visited), we decided that it was best to “splurge” and take a full-day group tour to these sites. We love traveling independently but in this case, the group tour was worth it.
Why? Because these ruins are in a complicated area of Chiapas, Mexico. 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 points where you’ll have to wait around for a group to form (boat ride and Lacandon jungle transportation).
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), all entrance fees, breakfast buffet, and lunch.
So which one should you take? For the most part, the many different tour companies are quite similar. They even stop at the same restaurants! The biggest difference is whether or not the guide takes you through the ruin sites themselves or if it’s an add-on cost.
Viator, a Trip Advisor company, is perhaps the best way to book your tour in advance. The tour called Bonampak and Yaxchilán from Palenque is the one with the highest ratings and should be an excellent way to get around in the jungle with ease.
Why should you book in advance? Because these tours are POPULAR! While you are visiting remote areas, there are usually plenty of tourists around. Don’t spend your time hassling with reserving a tour spot. Enjoy your time in Palenque and be ready to go on a real adventure!
Unless you have a lot of time on your hands, we absolutely recommend booking this tour in advance. So go ahead and get this one reserved to avoid a headache!
If the Viator options don’t suit your needs, you can check out another well-known tour company GetYourGuide. Check out their Bonampak and Chiapas tours below.
Finally, you can find quite a few tour companies in Palenque. After shopping around a decent amount, we used Tulum Transportadora Turística. We had an enjoyable time, but their tour did NOT include guides for the ruins themselves. Some passengers chose to pay them an additional fee at each ruin site while others explored on their own.
It’s hard to say what their price is now. We paid in cash by walking into their office in person, the evening before the tour just before the closed. It was the cheapest we could find at $800 pesos per person in December 2018; it is certain to be significantly higher now.
By Public Transportation: To get to Yaxchilan, take a colectivo or bus 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 easily rent a car in San Cristobal de las Casas or Tuxtla Gutierrez and drive to both of these sites in one day. 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 area around Ocosingo; there have been some robberies in the area, so it might be safer to take a longer route up north from San Cristobal through Tabasco to Palenque.)
The tour van picked us up at our Airbnb (get $40 off your first stay) 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
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 for other independent travelers to arrive in order to fill up a boat to share the cost. This is another good reason to reserve your spot to Yaxchilan and Bonampak on Viator in advance.
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.
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 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!
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.
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.
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.
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
Here’s where things get a bit complicated. Whether you’re traveling independently or with a 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.
This, once again, is good reason to book a spot with a tour company. Click here to reserve your spot to Yaxchilan and Bonampak on Viator.
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!
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.
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.
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!
Check out our other posts on Chiapas, Mexico!
- Ultimate Guide to Palenque Town
- 7 Best Things to Do in Comitan, Chiapas
- Lagunas de Montebello: Mexico’s Pine Forest Paradise
- Ultimate Guide to San Cristobal de las Casas
- Explore the Palenque Ruins in Chiapas
Have you visited hidden ruin sites that are far away from civilization? Where at?! Leave some tips below for your fellow travelers.