Calakmul is an enormous Mayan archeological site in the state of Campeche. It is tucked down only 20 miles from the border with Guatamala and surrounded by the huge Calakmul Biosphere Reserve. If you are interested in the ancient Mayans this is a must see! Calakmul was once one of the most powerful cities of all, controlling territories more than 100km away and with a huge sphere of influence. It was the capital of the mighty ‘Kingdom of the Snake’ and almost 7000 structures have been identified.
One of the best things about visiting it nowadays is the chance to be somewhere miles and miles away from civilisation. Take a look, its literally in the middle of nowhere!!
I hadn’t heard hardly anything about Calakmul before visiting it. One friend had been and had raved about how incredible it was, but apart from her, it was difficult to find anybody at all in Merida who had made the trip to this remote site. I guess when you live in a state with hundreds of its own beautiful places its not all that tempting to get in the car and travel 6 hours to find another one!
So, in a nutshell, it isn’t easy visiting Calakmul. For one thing, the distances are just so big. When you get to the ‘entrance’ to the biosphere on the main road (Escarcega – Chetumal), the site itself is still a 60km drive down a single lane, pot-holed road, which took us 2 quite stressful hours! To visit, you really need 3 days. A day to arrive to one of the towns near the entrance, such as Xpujil or Conhuas, and stay the night, a whole day for your visit to the site, and the next day to move on. Ideally, we would have stayed a day more to see some of the other Maya sites scattered along the highway, including Balakmul and Xpujil.
We stayed in a hotel just outside the town of Xpujil, called Rio Bec Dreams, which I would highly recommend. It has a few cabanas in the jungle, a good restaurant, bar, dipping pool and owners who are super helpful and knowledgeable about the archeology and how best to visit the different sites. The cabins were beautifully made, with palapa roofs. In the morning we would wake up with a morning chorus of tropical birds and a delicious breakfast. We spotted foxes, wild turkeys and more just sitting on our porch.
So, the day of our visit to Calakmul.
After our long drive down the road that connects the highway to the site, we arrived and parked, happy to see that there were only about 4 other cars there. (Quite a contrast from arriving at a site like Chichen Itza and seeing about 40 tour buses). In fact during the whole day we saw maximum 10 other people in the huge site. Most of time we were completely alone. (I found this both amazing and/or terrifying – the possibility of getting lost in the jungle seemed all too real at times…)
There is absolutely nothing there; no snacks, water, maps or information, so go prepared. We had a packed lunch and lots of water and our guide book. Its about a 2km walk from the car park to the main site along beautiful shady paths. During this little walk we saw lots of amazing wildlife including a group of wild boar (!!!), flocks of colourful turkey, and a whole gang of coati.
After being brave and choosing the ‘long’ route, we started stumbling upon the smaller excavations first, and started to get that feeling of ‘wow, we’re in a forgotten city that’s been eaten up by the jungle’. Its really quite surreal.
After seeing some of the residential buildings and everyday structures, we finally came across the Gran Acropolis and the Gran Plaza, where the most impressive and magnificent structures are found. Unfortunately, the names for the buildings don’t really help to bring the site to life; ‘Structure VI’, ‘Structure III’ etc. Not exactly romantic! There isn’t really any information at the site to explain what you are seeing, so I would recommend brining a guide book or downloading some reading to your phone. But still, it isn’t hard to stand amongst the trees and ruins and picture this place, once home to 50,000 people and one of the most powerful kingdoms in the Mayan world, as it might have been back then in the 6th/7th century.
We climbed three structures, selecting the ones we had been told would give us the best views, and left a few others out because its really tiring climbing enormous steps on a hot, humid day!
The grandest of all, Structure II is the highest existing Mayan temple, standing at 45 meters high and covering a base of 120 metres square. Climbing up it seemed impossible when standing at its feet and feeling like a tiny ant. Just imagine how intimidating and majestic this temple must have been at the peak of the city’s power.
From the top you get incredible views of an endless sea of jungle. Green on green on green. You get great views of Stucture 1 and Structure 7, the only man made things in sight, poking out the top of the canopy. And to the South, you see all the way into Guatamala.
Structure I from ground level was equally impressive:
In the foreground in this last photo, you can see the numerous stelae positioned in front of the temple. These would all have been lavishly engraved, but haven’t aged well. Some of these, such as nearest one here, are called the ‘ghost stelae’ because they are stones that archeologists have positioned where a stela once stood before it was looted/robbed/plundered from the site. (I can’t believe how much has been stolen from Calakmul, its really beyond belief.)
We also climbed up Structure XII, which was more forgiving, to get a great view of Structure I:
We spent in total about 5 hours at Calakmul; climbing, wandering, photographing and watching out for wildlife. It was so peaceful, so mysterious and so amazingly untouched.
I experienced a sort of sad moment, realising that being somewhere so remote and not seeing other people around made me feel unnerved. We are so used to crowds, signs telling us what to do and where to go, noise and the conveniences of 21st Century life, that the wilderness, the cut-off, becomes scary. I made a silent resolution to myself to put myself in remote places more often.
As we drove back to our hotel with aching legs for a cold shower and a well deserved beer, I thought about how images of the ‘forgotten city, taken back by the jungle‘ have become a bit of a cliche in pop culture, not to mention the recent Facebook trend of photographs of abandoned buildings, theme parks and towns. But this is only because it stirs the imagination like nothing else. Seeing how animals and trees have found their home amongst the ruins of a once powerful, complex civilisation, just makes you wonder what our cities and towns might look like in a thousand years. What will be left and how will it be interpreted? Being at Calakmul sharpened that thought, as the sudden decline and abandonment of many Mayan cities like this remains largely a mystery to this day…
If you are in the Yucatan Peninsula, Calakmul isn’t easy to visit but it is 100% worth the effort! It is quite the antidote to the crowds and over-development of more frequently visited parts of the peninsula.