Calakmul is truly like something from an Indiana Jones film: colossal temple pyramids rise out of the vast jungle like stone islands surrounded by an endless green ocean. Eagles and vultures soar around the pyramids while monkeys scamper through the trees. Inside some of the temples lost in the forest lie dark chambers and passageways that are home to dozens of dozing fruit bats, just waiting for dusk to fly out to feed. The only sounds are the sounds of nature and the occasional visitor, the site is largely empty of tourists. Calakmul is exactly what you image a lost city in the jungle to be. No adventurous traveller in the Yucatan should miss the opportunity to explore this wonderful site.
History Of Calakmul
Calakmul was founded in the pre-classic period (possibly by settlers who fled the collapse of El Mirador) and reached it’s height in the 7th century AD. The city was also known as the kingdom of the snake, as it was ruled by the snake head royal dynasty – you can still make out snake head glyphs on some of the stele in the city. It’s estimated that during the 7th century it’s population reached a peak of over 65,000, and the city covered an area of 27 square miles. After the defeat of it’s long standing rival Tikal, Calakmul controlled a kingdom estimated to be over 5000 square miles with a population of 1.7 million. This shows just how important Calakmul was, and makes it even more astonishing to see how the entire region has been reclaimed by nature since the cities collapse in the late 9th century.
Calakmul was rediscovered in the 1931 by Cyrus Lundell, it was he who gave the city it’s name, which mean ‘two adjacent mounds’. It wasn’t until 1989-1995 that the site was studied in depth by archaeologists. The first proper road to Calakumal was completed in 1992, opening up the site for the fist time to people other than archaeologists and hardcore travellers. The city was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site soon after this in 1993. Despite the recognition thankfully most of the site hasn’t been cleared, trees and shrubs still cover lots of the buildings including the two main pyramids.
The reason Calakmul wasn’t rediscovered for so long is due to it’s extremely remote location. The city lies 22 miles from the Guatemala border in the south of the 1,000,000 acre Calakmul biosphere reserve. This is an internationally important tract of primary rain-forest which is itself part of the wider Mayan reserve, which is the largest extant rain-forest in Central America. It’s location makes Calakmul not just a great area for exploring temples, but a fantastic place to spot wildlife. You can see wild turkeys, eagles, monkeys, vultures and even tapirs if you are lucky. Jaguars are known to hunt in the region at night too; if you decide to try and spend the night make sure you take precautions!
The city is nearly two hours away from the nearest town Xpujil. If you don’t have your own transport the only way to get here is to hire a taxi from the town. A round-trip including having the driver wait for you will cost 900-1200 pesos, so it’s best if you can share the ride.
Highlights Of Calakmul
The main attractions at Calakamul are the two temple mountains, so called due to their colossal size. The biggest pyramid is Structure 2 (The Great Pyramid) which stands 56 metres tall and over 300 metres long. It’s base covers 5 acres, making it the largest Mayan structure ever discovered. It’s size truly is staggering to behold, especially as it seems to just suddenly appear through the trees as you are walking along the path.
Much of Structure 2 is still covered in trees, which makes it feel like you are an explorer discovering a lost pyramid rather than just another monument. Once you have climbed the 200 hundred steps to the top you will be rewarded with views stretching for dozens of miles across the rainforest. As far as the eye can see in all directions the land is covered by jungle here, making it look like you are perched above a verdant green carpet. Indeed, from Calakmul to that other great Mayan city in the region Tikal lies an unbroken tract of rainforest.
Structure 1 is smaller than Structure 2, but the views are equally as impressive. When I climbed up to the top I had the summit of the pyramid to myself, so was able to have uninterrupted 360 degree views. It’s easy to appreciate the scale of the city from up there, and realize what an achievement it was that the Maya carved out an advanced civilisation in such an inhospitable environment.
The main plaza has many interesting buildings, including several smaller pyramids. These pyramids are dwarfed by temples 1 and 2, but are as big as the tallest structures in some of the other Mayan cities. Some of the buildings here have been extremely eroded, and in many places trees are growing through the rocks. While I was walking around one of these buildings I came across a troop of spider monkeys. Their tails are so long they look like extra legs!
There are also a lot of stelae in the plaza, which look a bit like small megalithic standing stones with inscriptions on. The stelae were used to commentate important events and figures in Mayan society. Some of the stelae are blank or the inscriptions have been eroded off. There are some stelae which are still in good condition though. It’s amazing to think that these monuments are still telling there story over 1100 years since they were erected. It makes me wonder what relics of our civilisation would be left in a 1000 years, if it collapses this century.
There is an area in the north of the site aptly called the north group. This is a small area with less impressive architecture, but it’s a very beautiful, peaceful area. It was like a garden when I was here, and I saw a troop of spider monkeys along with a toucan and a type of parrot. You won’t see anywhere near this amount of wildlife at sites like Chitchen Itza and Tulum.
Another area of Calakmul that you shouldn’t miss is the Gran Acroplis at the western edge of the city. This area is the quietest, so quiet in fact that I had the whole complex to myself for two hours and even briefly caught a glimpse of a deer before it ran into the trees. This area was a ceremonial centre and residential complex for the Maya elite, giving you an idea of what everyday life was like for families in the city. It’s a very peaceful area, and as you wonder through the buildings you’ll be able to imagine what the city was like before it was swallowed by the jungle.
I find the labyrinthine residential at the far west of the Acropolis the most interesting. Here there were many interconnected buildings that I could climb up and through. By climbing over a few walls I was able to reach a part of Calakmul that looks like it rarely gets visited. The jungle encroaches on all sides here and it truly felt like I had stumbled upon a lost city. It would be possible to explore the jungle further here and come across more ruins. This is still a very active archaeological area, as they’ve only uncovered a small part of the ancient city.
Calakmul was my favourite Mayan site in Mexico, and second only to Tikal out of all the sites I visited in Central America. The size of the ruin, the fact most of the vegetation hasn’t been cleared, and especially it’s superb location all make it a fantastic place to visit. Some people are disappointed by how weathered many of the buildings are compared to sites like Chitchen Itza, but to me this makes it more authentic and interesting to explore.
The amazing biodiversity of the national park is reason enough to visit too, I’ve never seen so much wildlife in an archaeological site as I did in Calakmul. Not long after we started driving back to Xpulij through the pitch black jungle, we had to stop due to a large Tapir standing in the middle of the road. It sniffed the air and watched us curiously for a couple of minutes. It only walked off the road when the driver beeped his horn. We also saw other animals on the drive back, including occilated turkeys, coatis and a possibly an ocelot.
Do yourself a favour and unleash your inner Indiana Jones by exploring Calkamul as soon as you can. It’s a truly unmissable sight.
Admission: 50 pesos for the archaeological sites and 50 for the national park (we weren’t asked to pay the national park entrance due to being with a driver).
Opening times: 6am-5pm: There is no sealed entrance and the few park workers all leave at 5pm, so you can easily stay longer if you want to watch the sunset and stars come out. Sunset is the best time for wildlife spotting too, we saw a Tapir as we drove back after dark. It would be possible to stay overnight if you have your own transport, or can arrange a pick up – and aren’t afraid of jaguars..
Equipment: Make sure you take at least 3 litres of water and food for the whole day, as there is nowhere to buy food or water within 30 miles of the site. Take a torch and strong insect repellent: the mosquitoes here are voracious at sunset.
Accommodation: The nearest main areas of accommodation are almost two hours away in Xpujil or close to Becan.