Ever glad that somewhere special is at the end of a long road?
- Transit: Flights land in various cities in the area. From there it is a 5+ hour bus or car ride to Xpujil. You can then drive yourself to Calakmul, or hire a guide ahead of time.
- Cost: The entry to Calakmul is quite low. The guide was pricier, but still reasonable.
- Crowds: Very small during the height of the winter tourism season.
- Attractions: The remains of an ancient Maya Kingdom, a place of great historical, cultural, and architectural significance, photography, wildlife, peace and quiet.
- Accessibility: Most of the paths were fairly flat, with some steeper sections. I imagine they would get quite muddy after a rain. You need to be able to climb many steep stairs to get up the pyramids.
- Conservation Note: Both the city of Calakmul and the forest ecosystem around it are precious. This is not a tourist location, but an open-air museum and conservation area. Please treat it as such when you visit.
- Click here for map.
We have travelled a long way to get here.
As our transport trundles along a private road in the jungle, my other half and me bobbing and bouncing against each other whenever the driver swerves to avoid an animal, that strikes me. More accurately, it washes over me. The flight, the overnight stay in Cancun, the first bus, the second. Stops by the federales to inspect for drugs or other contraband being brought over the nearby borders with Belize and Guatemala. Checking in to our cabina near Xpujil well after dark – and in the morning the sun rises, and it looks nothing like it did by moonlight. I would come here alone, but I am glad to have someone near me – for companionship, for comfort, for warmth in the surprisingly cool night.
Xpujil (shpoo-HEEL) is real-life Mexico. Not at all like the tourism contraptions that are Cancun or the Riviera Maya, this small town is made for the people who live here. When we’re in town, we’re the only northerners about.
I’m left grateful that it’s so hard to get to Calakmul, so far from the tourist path. It’s easy to see how people would be worse for this place than the elements, and how the city’s seclusion is also preserving it.
We hire a guide from our lodgings at Rio Bec Dreams. I was hesitant at first about whether we wanted to spend the money, but after the first site he takes us to, I’m glad to have him around. He tells us about contemporary life in Campeche as we drive along the highway, and illuminates the sites he takes us to with his knowledge of each. He drives us deeper into the state, off the highways, and to the little museum that is the gateway to Calakmul.
It is nearly deserted.
We’ve arrive just in time for the next ride into the ancient city. The government used to allow people to drive themselves, but Calakmul is at the heart of a vast forest, a protected ecological zone. We’re told that the tourists were flying down the road well past the posted speed limit. Endangered species were being turned into roadkill. We are reminded to avoid all wildlife and to respect the city, that this is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and part of the bedrock of Mexican history.
Its history is fascinating. The capitol of the Snake Kingdom, Calakmul was home to over 50 000 people, and was locked in battle for much of its history with nearby Tikal for supremacy in the region. It is also home to the tallest pyramid in the ancient Mayan world; at about 55 metres it soars above the forest canopy. Reading about this beforehand is to simmer in the romance and adventure of the place.
It’s a lot of build up.
We’ve been to other ancient Maya cities. Each has its own personality, a mix of ornateness and artistry. They’re both regal and intimate, buildings and courtyards exposed and sun-drenched, with many yet uncovered off to the sides, hidden under blankets of forest.
Calakmul, on the other hand, is all about scale. It impresses not with beautiful plasterwork or human touches, but with enormity. It was a metropolis, and this is not at all lost on the visitor. There are thousands of structures here, both excavated and not.
Our guide winds us past and through dozens of ruins. He shows us the foundations of homes where families lived, surrounding courtyards where they did their work through the day.
The trail winds up and up, and we’re told that the higher a family lived, the greater its wealth and prestige must have been. It strikes me that I’m really here, in a place that I’ve read about since I was little.
And I see my husband taking pictures, fascinated by our guide. Not only am I here, but I get to share this with someone I love. And he loves it too.
Buildings spill out of hills, and we’re told that they’re not hills at all: This place is too vast to uncover and protect. Every mound, every rise is another home, another temple, another building covered by a thin layer of soil, forest springing from it like hair. It would be too expensive, we’re informed, to reveal all these structures and guard them against the elements. Instead, many are left underground, preserved for future generations.
On many buildings, some trees are left so their canopies may protect the history beneath. The structures here are made of local limestone, and exposure to the elements has eroded much of the finer features that were likely part of this great city.
We see multiple stelae, each worn down by weather and age. They build an ephemeral notion of how this place may once have looked.
Here, despite it’s enormity, there are few visitors. Chichen Itza and Tulum probably see more people in ten minutes than Calakmul does in a day. If memory serves, we count a dozen besides us during our hours here. It’s so quiet that the government still permits climbing up some excavated stairs, and entering some courtyards. We remain vigilant regardless, walk lightly, disturb nothing. I’m left grateful that it’s so hard to get to Calakmul, so far from the tourist path. It’s easy to see how people would be worse for this place than the elements, and how the city’s seclusion is also preserving it.
We are giddy to be able to step foot on some of the structures here, to have an intimate, first-hand experience of them. At the top of one we see what will be the last of our tour: Structures one and two, the great pyramids of Calakmul.
We move on, winding among ruins and under trees laden with mosses and bromeliads. It’s midday, quieter than it would be at dusk or dawn, but we still hear plenty of birds and monkeys. It’s cool in the dappled shade under the forest canopy, so though it’s geometrically larger than other Maya archeological sites we’ve been to, the tree cover makes it feel much less gruelling.
This means that structure two, a pyramid 120 metres square at the base, emerges gradually into view rather than at the end of a long, excavated causeway.
It is an enormous step pyramid, the base so big that you can’t see the top from the bottom. What looks like the summit is really just a plaza where the foundations of the buildings that once stood there gaze out over the forest. The rest of structure two is set back from them, many, many metres in the air.
Up close the steps are much taller and steeper than they appeared from afar, and getting up to that plaza leaves our quads burning and our lungs working. The view is magnificent.
Standing at the very top of structure two – atop the pyramid that sits on the plaza in the sky – we look north across the state of Campeche and the Yucatan Peninsula. It is stunning, hard to believe from up here that there’s a whole city beneath the forest canopy.
A few trees grow even up here, twisting out of the stones. We sit under their branches; looking west, it appears as though we are floating above an ocean of green.
We stop here, have our lunch, and memories of imagining this world come back to me: Daydreaming about exploring these places while watching the snow fall from a classroom window, or climbing rocky hills in the summer sun. And here, atop one of the greatest pyramids in the Americas, I sit next to my husband, a warm wind blowing across my skin.
We linger, taking pictures and video, finishing our lunch of tortillas, guacamole, and beans. I would love this place by myself; I would come back again and again if I could. And yet, as I fall in love with Calakmul – the real Calakmul, not the one that lived so long in my imagination – my heart is drawn also ever closer to this man who will come with me on any adventure.
Long after our visit, as I review the pictures I took, I find myself yearning even more for him than I do to sit atop the great pyramid and behold that ocean of green once more.