Once there, on the top of Calakmul, – ultimately the greatest Mayan ruin of Yucatan – comprising the view that Maya priests were admiring thousands years ago, one can’t help wondering… Who was standing in this exact spot ages before me? What were they feeling? Could they even imagine that in very distant future their lives will intrigue and inspire travellers from all over the world?
WHY CALAKMUL IS THE GREATEST MAYAN RUIN
Exploring remains of Maya cities is definitely on the bucket list of many travel adventurers. Visiting Chichen Itza or Coba is a no-brainer, once you are already soaking up the sun on Yucatan beaches. Any tourist company will take you there along with thousands of other vagabonds. But for more intimate encounter of Mayan civilisation one has to head deeper to the jungle -where unique, still untouched sites are hidden.
One of such secluded gems is Calakmul. And here is why we consider Calakmul one of the greatest Mayan ruins and one of the hottest destinations in Yucatan:
- It is actually a biosphere reserve that occupies 7000 square kilometres. Impressive, isn’t it? A huge area of virgin lush vegetation and fauna. Mayan ruins that are literally drowned in tropical forests an safeguarded by monkeys, crocos, rare birds and even jaguars.
- It is away from tourist crowds. Sites here are wild, so much different from the famous touristic ones. You won’t find any vendors around. Hardly any assistance or rangers. Not a single bottle of water is sold, let alone the souvenirs
- There are numerous archaeological zones within the Calakmul reserve: Becan, Xpuhil, Balamku, Chicanna, Rio Bec – just to name a few. If you are in love with Mayan civilisation you can easily spend weeks here exploring a brand new Mayan settlement each day
- Most of those ruins are climbable. Unlike pyramids of Chichen Itza or Tulum. And it is especially delightful because…
- Main pyramid of Calakmul is the tallest Mayan structure in the whole Mexico. Oh yes, it is. Despite of some bullshit spread by different travel websites about Coba being at the top of the list, Nohoch Mul in Coba is 137.8 ft tall while the Great Pyramid of Calakmul stands at 180.45 ft.
- Calakmul is also one of the largest Mayan archeological sites by size, not only in Mexico but in whole Latin America
Have we convinced you already? Then let’s see how does it feel – visiting one the greatest Mayan ruins of Calakmul
CALAKMUL RESERVE AND RUINS
Naturally, out of all the variety of archaeological sites in the area, Calakmul is the most famous and visited one. While also most distant one- you’d need to drive 2 hours one way on a ruined rural road to get there from the nearest settlement. Even if the distance from the Federal Highway 186 to the Ruin gates is only 60 km, there are huge potholes (bigger than your wheel sometimes) and bumps here and there on the road. Add moving shadow from the foliage all along the way and you get an average speed of 30 km per hour. Giovanni developed quite a few grey hair in his beard trying to get us there and back safely, and he’s been driving in South of Italy for many years with no stress (if you know what I mean :))
With your Reserve Pass, besides the ruin itself you can explore several other areas on your way there or back. Plan your time neatly if you want to attend:
Another ancient city called El Ramonal
Calakmul Eco Tourist Park with local archaeological museum and
Being off the beaten track comes with some comfort sacrifice of course. That won’t surprise any backpacker or hiker but should be acknowledged by the sympathisers of Cancun all-inclusive lifestyle (I am not giving a merit to anyone here – we go all inclusive ourselves several times per year to unwind from the busy millennial life, I am just making sure you guys are prepared, so that some unlikable surprise does not impact this amazing experience for you).
So yes, local mosquitoes – they are totally unaware that repellent is supposed to put them off, quite the opposite it looks like they enjoy it as a cherry on the cake. Having resigned yourself to the bloodsucking army, you can’t help dreaming of an ice cold drink, but you have to strategically calculate every remaining sip in your lukewarm bottle instead – there are two hours to the nearest sign of civilization and you never know what may happen till then. Ah, maybe it is not a bad idea to drink less water after all. There is neither light nor windows in the toilet hut anyway. It costs a pretty penny to go to a ‘blind’ restaurant and eat in the dark anywhere around the world. It is included into the ticket price to open up your senses in a ‘blind’ toilet at Calakmul ruins, unlimited attendance. Just kidding here, of course you would expect something like that going to a remote indigenous place
Jokes aside, spending a day here is more than worth it for all the experiences and emotions that you will get during the trip. You’ll find yourself on your own in the middle of nowhere, reconnecting to the nature, eternity of time and history of human civilization. You may climb one of those imposing structures in solitude and stay there half an hour on your own before other human shows up – just blue skies, green tropical forest under your feet stretching all the way to the horizon, vigorous sounds of the jungle and any kind of thoughts that come out in this special moment…
Having enjoyed the ruins to one’s heart content, it is also very interesting to explore the forest and its inhabitants. Even though there is a dedicated ‘monkey turn’ on the map of the reserve, you will see plenty of monkeys, couple of different species, around the ruins – blissfully sleeping on the branches, eagerly fighting with each other, weightlessly navigating between the trees or just curiously observing those funny two-footed creatures on the ground
Biosphere is also home to jaguars, pumas, several types of deer, lots of different birds – 1500 wildlife species, as per Mexican authorities. Animals are not abundant here like in some well developed safari destinations. To spot most of them would take time, effort and luck and will also depend on the time of the year. We were welcomed by the rainbow coloured turkeys multiple times, discovered off the map lake with mini crocodiles (the lake marked on the reserve map was completely dry in October) and accidentally disturbed a little modest wild boar in the bushes. There are several hiking trails starting from the main road, some of them are rather difficult to spot if you don’t know the area. We accidentally noticed that a car started to slow down and parked on a side some 200 meters in front of us just in the middle of the jungle. It appeared to be a local guide who took his tourists to a hidden path into the forest. We checked that trail on our way back and it brought us to a little lake with lovely little crocos that literally enjoyed posing for the camera
On the top of that, there is a bat cave just a couple of kilometres further down the highway in the Xpujil direction. It is even indicated with the very special road sign which is difficult to miss. Millions of bats leave their shelter at sunset in a loud, fulminant but somehow organized mess, covering purple skies with black flickering shadow. So if you are around at the time of the sunset – do not miss this spectacular experience. (A nominal fare is charged to join the forest)
Smaller, but equally fascinating ancient cities are abundant along Route 186 back to back with modern local villages. If you are keen on ancient civilizations and ever dreamed of exploring archaeological remains in solitude and tranquillity – visiting one of those will make a highlight of your trip for sure. We explored Becan ruins and it was awesome – we were totally on our own there, the whole site belonged to us. Well, to us and to our little bat friends that live in the chambers of the pyramids
How to get there: renting a car for a few days is the best option. If you are not driving, you still can get to the nearest town of Xpujil by bus from different parts of Yucatan (it will take you longer and require basic knowledge of Spanish of course) and then buy a shared or private transfer to the ruins from there. There are also organized tours here from Palenque
Accommodation: hotels and hostels with very different price tags are available in the nearby towns, most tourist choosing Xpujil as their base. You can also camp in quite a few places, one is just next to the entrance to the national park
Tickets: funnily enough paying Calakmul bioreserve entrance fee is an iterative process. You will need to buy 3 separate tickets – when you join the reserve from the motorway, half way through when you enter the national park, and finally at the ruin entrance – some around 150 pesos in total
What to bring: lots of water (in a mini-fridge if you have one), enough food, first aid kit, mosquito repellent (maybe yours will work?), wet wipes. Sunblock and a hat can be a good idea as well. It is difficult to get lost on the way, but there won’t be any signal there, so if you are not that confident in your navigating capabilities, you can get an offline map of the area too.
If you are travelling by car make sure that you have a spare wheel and the full repair kit, like I mentioned before the road is full of surprises
What to wear: most of the times it is hot and very humid. It is better to be fully covered from insects and parasites when in the forest, but when climbing the pyramids and staying on the top you might want to remove a few layers
Climbing the pyramids: It will require physical effort and some agility to do that, but on average it is not difficult. Be careful though because some stones can be very slippery. Going down is more dangerous than going up, and there are some known techniques – for example a diagonal descending. Within the most steep sections, we found it more convenient to go down on either side of the stairs holding on to the wall.
Alternatives for your Maya adventure: Chichen Itza – easier accessible, one of the new 7 Wonders of the World. Interesting for the equinox visual effect and several acoustic effects. Cons: you cannot climb the pyramid, it is overcrowded by tourists at all times. Coba – easier accessible, you can climb some of the structures there, there can be lots of tourists. Palenque archaeological zone – requires additional travelling, less populated – also a great experience. Smaller sites across Yucatan – most likely won’t leave you breathless, but will still be a nice adventure and great introduction into the story of Maya people.
Do not get confused: Maya settled mostly within Yucatan peninsula, therefore ancient archaeological remains here are those of Mayan civilization. If you travel further North, you are entering the Aztec territory. Aztecs developed their settlements almost a thousand years later and historic sites you will be visiting in central Mexico are much better preserved. And yes, it makes me smile when someone says ‘Ah, Ive been to Chichen Itza already, so I can skip Teotihuacan.’ Of course you can, even if it is same as skipping Japan because you’ve already been to China 😉
Photo assets copyright: UpYourValley