The Mayan city of Calakmul, one of the largest, most powerful, and most important Mayan cities ever discovered, had sophisticated infrastructure, including the largest Mayan reservoir ever found, and a massive amount of land and buildings. The so-called Snake Kingdom even had a logo–an emblematic snake head has been found all over the place. And the place is still imposing today.
The troubled past of Calakmul
Calakmul reached the height of power during the Classic Period (250 to 900 AD) and the city/kingdom once had 50,000 inhabitants and ruled the land up to 90 miles (150 km) away. Calakmul’s cross-town rival, however, was Tikal to the south in what is now northern Guatemala. Among other differences, Tikal was all about male rulers while Calakmul emphasized joint male/female rule. There are even some carved stone stele at Calakmul depicting queens. Tikal finally dominated, but not before Calakmul put its stamp on the Mayan world.
Getting to Calakmul
The journey through the jungle to reach Calakmul, a UNESCO World Heritage site since 2002, is definitely part of the adventure. Located within the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve, which covers 14% of the state of Campeche, the roughly 30 mile (48 km) drive off the highway takes you through a slice of one of the largest protected areas in Mexico until you finally reach the archaeological site itself.
During our early morning drive to the site, over a mostly well-paved road, we saw two deer, a toucan and a grey fox. The preserve is also home to pumas and more than 250 species of bird.
Exploring the Calakmul Mayan archaeological site
That jungly feeling continues even after you’ve entered this archaeological site. The core areas of Calakmul include roughly 1,000 structures covering nearly a square mile, however, that’s a mere fraction of the nearly 40 square miles of civilization and 6,500 structures believed to still be hidden in the ever-encroaching jungle.
Calakmul is a vast site (allow at least two hours) but there’s a prescribed walking route that pretty much ensures you won’t miss anything. In addition to the remarkable stele, Calakmul offers a number of awesome temples, some of the biggest and highest in the region, that can (and should) be climbed.
Only by climbing the temples can you really appreciate the layout of the city below you, the impenetrability of the jungle and the shape, size and placement of the other temples. Also, the tops of the temples provide relief from the heat and the mosquitoes because a breeze reaches their pinnacles which poke through the dense jungle.
At just shy of 150 feet (50 meters) high and nearly 400 feet (120 meters) across its base, Structure II is one of the largest buildings in the Mayan world. It’s also a great climb which is rewarded with a cooling breeze and views across the city. On a clear day you might even be able to see the remains of El Mirador archaeological site in Northern Guatemala.
One of the reasons UNESCO made Calakmul a World Heritage site is the city’s collection of stele. Almost every important structure in the excavated area has at least one remaining carved stone slab, often depicting intricate historical and political facts about the city and the kingdom.
Don’t feel like doing the Mayan stairmaster? Check out our three part video, below, and get your own overview of the amazing Calakmul archaeological site. Part one shows the enormous Structure II as seen from Structure VII. Part two is a panorama shot over the site shot from the top of Structure II. Part three is another panorama, this time taken from the top of Structure I, including a look across to the even-taller Structure II.
Calakmul travel tips
Because the Calakmul archaeological site is within the vast Calakmul Biosphere Reserve there is no nearby town, unless you count Xpujil which is quite a ways away and something of a hole. Therefore, the most comfortable and convenient place to stay before and after your visit to Calakmul is Hotel Puerta Calakmul.
Located just off the highway and right at the entrance to the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve, Puerto Calakmul has 15 stand-alone bungalows with hand-made log and branch furniture, polished concrete floors, modern bathrooms, and (most importantly) very good screens. The hotel put us up in bungalow #11 and one morning we had flamboyant ocellated turkeys in the backyard and a small family of howler monkeys in the front yard.
Also, we’re pretty sure the concept of the air being “thick” with mosquitoes was inspired by the swarms in and around the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve. We actually broke out our electronic mosquito swatting tennis racquet and went to town in an attempt to kill enough of the little biters to be able to relax on the little porch in front of our bungalow. It didn’t work, but the hundreds of zaps were satisfying nonetheless.
Check out our Archaeological Index post which has quick links to information and photos from the 100+ archaeological sites we’ve visited.