Yucatan Peninsula Stories and Tips

Calakmul, or Why You Should Rent a Car

Trees growing through the ruins Photo, Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico

Calakmul is hard to get to. You don't end up there by accident; you have to want it. And it's worth wanting.

Calakmul lies south of the main road between Escarcega and Chetumal, smack in the middle of a lot of empty or lightly farmed land. There is very little on either side of the Calakmul Biosphere reserve, and nearby accommodations are sparse. Do not let this prevent you from going.

The day we went to Calakmul, we woke up in Escarcega and set off with a quick jog to visit the ruins at Balamke, which are remarkable for having a well-preserved stucco frieze of giant toads and anthropomorphized jaguars, and above them all, the very smug face of a sun king complacently rising. The frieze has survived because the pyramid it is on was built over, so that when you go to look at it, you have to actually go in between two layers of the pyramid—the outer one is now held up by steel struts. (You have to ask to be let in the gated door that seals off the frieze area. This costs a few pesos.)

But—and this tells you something about Calakmul in itself—the trip to Balamke was just a side excursion. The drive in itself was an adventure once we left the highway: kilometers and kilometers over roads full of topes (the pyramidal local speed bumps), two different check-points at which soldiers seriously took down our license plate numbers (the second one while a tame Yucatecan turkey sat motionless in front of our right front tire), and then into the forest. Bright yellow flowers closed in on both sides of the road, and then the trees took over. We stopped 27km in to walk a little trail past a lake. There were many shrieking birds around, few of them visible: one white egret, a brown heron, two or three irritable greenish ducks, and a dovelike bird with long iridescent blue wings. But all that was eclipsed by the pair of spider monkeys up in the trees, with long hairy arms and enviable prehensile tails, they are black with ruddy brown bellies and faces a little like those of dogs.

The trail dead-ended in water, though the trail markers, which were little posts driven into the ground, kept going, but it would have been a long and nasty wade to follow them. So we turned around and got back in the car and drove for almost 1 hour before arriving at the ruins.

The ruins of Calakmul were the most spectacular of any ruins we saw in the Yucatan. After these ruins, Calakmul, Tulum, and Chichen-Itza were anti-climactic. There were giant, bleached-white buildings towering above what seems to be an infinity of trees. Huge beautifully preserved pyramids surround a succession of shady, carefully swept squares, gradually giving way to the mounds of buildings that have yet to be excavated, great tantalizing heaps of stone with trees growing slimly up through the rubble.

And because merely archeological wonders aren't enough, the pyramids are surrounded by troops of wild turkeys (the Yucatecan kind, with pink bumps all over their heads and tails almost like peacocks); parrots squawking in the distance; strange, loud, and argumentative burbling birds the size of crows but with bright red beaks, white eye stripes, and splendid yellow tails; a little bird bright that was red all over; and best of all, another troop of monkeys, howlers this time, which are black all over and with squarer shoulders than the spider monkeys. They hung from the branches by only their tails, using their four limbs to wrestle with each other 150 feet above the ground.

We climbed two of the enormous pyramids in the complex and looked over the miles and miles of trees from Mexico south into Guatemala, with the other pyramids poking out brilliant white against the green in the declining sun. And in all this spectacular mixture of ruins and nature, we were almost alone: there were a few men working the gate and a pair of elderly Canadians who had driven all the way there in their camper, but as for the rest, all the company we had was the monkeys.

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