Yaxchilán controlled trade routes along the Río Usumacinta and formed alliances with other Mayan sites, including Palenque and Tikal. It dominated smaller sites in the area and had a bitter rivalry with Piedras Negras.
The site is located along a horseshoe-shaped bend on the Río Usumacinta. In addition to being used for trade and transportation, the river also helped defend Yaxchilán on three of its four sides. The current site includes several plazas, temples, palaces, and ball courts.
Yaxchilán is best known for the its impressive artwork, including door lintels and stucco roof carvings. Some of these have been sent off to museums throughout the world, but at Temple 33 you can still see well-preserved stone lintels on the doorway. Around 120 inscriptions have been found on monuments throughout the site—most of these hieroglyphic inscriptions describe the history of Yaxchilán.