Calakmul emerged during the Mayan Classic period in the 6th century AD as a powerful urban centre, wielding dominance over a remarkable 150km2 area. Situated within the Petén Basin in modern-day Mexico, at the height of its ruling power it was known as the ‘Snake Kingdom’, with ritual practices as ferocious as the kingdom’s namesake. However, perhaps the most striking aspect of this temple complex today is that, despite being the largest and arguably the most exciting Mayan site, it attracts only about 20 or 30 visitors per day.
Stretching from the Yucatán Peninsula in Mexico to the Caribbean Sea in Belize and the exploding volcanoes in Guatemala, the remains of the Mayan Empire are fascinating. The architecture of the indigenous peoples of Mesoamerica – Central America and parts of South America – is characterised by myriad stone temples that tend to become obscured by the encroaching jungle.
The variety of sites across the area and differing terrain offer serious adventure for seasoned travellers and holiday tourists alike. The ritualistic character of the Mayan’s connection to nature was manifest in these huge, towering stepped temples, teetering above the jungle canopy.
The Mayans are shrouded in mystery – why did they congregate and create these vast kingdoms, only to abandon them during the Classic period, and disappear into the jungle? The complicated nature of the sudden population shift from large communities dwelling among pyramids to leaving these sites without a trace of their departure often leads to the sensationalist – and almost certainly false – assumption that they just ‘disappeared’. However, there are also a few theories proposed by experts, ranging from a catastrophic epidemic to internecine warfare, or the dissolution of much-needed trade routes with other urban centres. My Calakmul guide tells me he firmly believes that the Mayans left due to a lack of resources, retreating into the jungle and settling as smaller groups during the post-Classic period.
Since its discovery from the air in 1931, Calakmul has been consistently overshadowed by the more accessible Classic Maya sites of Chichén Itzá, in the northern Yucatán, and Tikal, in Guatemala. Yet the popularity of Chichén Itzá and its status as a ‘wonder of the world’ has done it no favours: swelteringly hot and easily reached from the hugely popular tourist hubs of Cancún and Playa del Carmen, it has been totally reconstructed, and has lost its original terrain. The overall result tends to be a rather disappointing trip, especially in comparison to Calakmul.
The main drawback to visiting Calakmul, and, I suspect, the reason it is overlooked, is the hardship encountered in reaching it. Do not be put off: though tough, the journey through the sprawling jungle with its rich variety of wildlife is a reward in itself.
Much of Calakmul’s charm derives from the emptiness of the site. The whole area has been well preserved without spoiling the original or degrading the remains. The lack of visitors has allowed flora and fauna to flourish, yet careful archaeological work has revealed remnants untouched since the end of the Mayan Classic period in the early 10th century AD. The original urban centre of Calakmul was much larger and ever expanding, and it acted as a regional capital. As such, it would have enforced a tribute system from surrounding settlements.
There is an incredible sense of almost magical energy emanating from the temple structures. Allow at least two hours to visit the whole site, more if you enjoy lingering. There is plenty to see: the temples, the residential areas, and the infamous ball court. Anyone capable of climbing up the original temple steps of ‘Structure 1 and 2’ will be rewarded with a stunning vista of the Biosphere de Calakmul, an unparalleled jungle landscape – legend has it that you can just glimpse Calakmul’s contemporary rival El Mirador in the far distance.
The modern site name ‘Calakmul’ derives from the Maya language, and means ‘City of Two Adjacent Pyramids’. The thrill of hiking up these structures goes way beyond the experience in places such as Tikal, where modern wooden staircases have been installed.
Archaeological excavation has revealed that Mayan temples were often built again and again in succession, growing bigger and taller, one on top of the other, like Russian dolls. I asked the guide why they built such tall temples. He replied simply, ‘So they could see the stars.’ We know from the remaining glyph dates that can be observed on stone structures throughout the site that the Maya did develop an advanced understanding of time. Their incredible ability to calculate dates long into the future rather famously misinformed the general public into thinking the world was going to end when the calendar stopped in 2012. Clearly it did not.
A head for games?
While the idea of the Mesoamerican ball game conjures particularly sinister thoughts of human heads, this is generally deemed a piece of Spanish Conquistador propaganda. The Calakmul ball court is difficult to spot, unless you have an enthusiastic guide who can not only point it out but also happily share his opinions. Archaeologists conclude that the Maya ball game centred on throwing a rubber ball through stone hoops, similar to the modern-day game of basketball. (The photograph below from Coba gives a sense of a typical ball court.) But, my guide assures me, this was less of a ‘game’ than a ritual practice, serving to resolve political and social disputes. In keeping with the Mayan tradition, the victor would be lavished with riches and the loser sacrificed. It has even been suggested, shockingly, that the game ended only when one player died.
Calakmul also has a spectacularly well-preserved fresco, but sadly it is not on display to the public. Such frescoes are usually found associated with an aristocratic tomb, and most depict anthropomorphic figures and exotic animals.
While the main draw to this site is evidently its archaeology, lucky visitors may witness a flock of toucans flying among the stelae; or a couple of sleepy spider monkeys staring down from their tree branch nest. Other wildlife treats might include sightings of tapirs, the bizarre-looking ocellated turkey, and perhaps even an elusive jaguar. And do not let the mosquitoes put you off – just remember to bring a good bug repellent, and wear light trousers and socks to protect your ankles.
My experience at Calakmul proves that this, surely, is the most underrated ancient Mayan site of them all.
Four more Maya sites to see
Coba is often included in expensive tours in combination with the coastal site of Tulum, where you are invited to tour the ruins by bike (the oddly named Mayan Taxis). But I strongly advise visiting Coba as a solo trip by the very efficient Mexican ADO bus service; the whole site can be seen on foot in about three hours – including climbing the 50m of original steps to the top of the temple. The ball court has been cleverly restored, recreating how it may have looked 500 years ago. Open 8am-5pm.
El Mirador, Guatemala
If even Calakmul is not adventurous enough for you, do as the Mayans did and embark on a five-day trek from Flores to the site of El Mirador. This is certainly not for the faint-hearted, and don’t be fooled into thinking it might be quicker by bike: in fact, it takes longer, with the wheels proving more of a hindrance than a help.
Throngs of tourist buses descend on Tikal, so take a sunrise or sunset tour, meaning you can explore the site without the crowds. But be warned, the morning mist inhibits the spectacular view from the top of Temple 4 at daybreak, so hang on until it clears – usually within the hour, giving plenty of time to see the rest of the site. Open 6am- 6pm.
In terms of ease and accessibility, Xunantunich is definitely worth a visit. Striking a similar chord to Tulum and Chichén Itzá, it has been preened to unrealistic degree, but the original stucco decorated with glyphs on the side of ‘El Castillo’ is unique. The frieze has been interpreted as a homage to the Mayan sun god Kinich Ahau. The site also has what is claimed to be the biggest ball court in Mesoamerica. Open 7.30am- 4pm.
Calakmul is accessible by road, but the nearest town of Xpujil is a two-hour drive, so if renting a car is not an option, a guided tour is recommended. Reputable companies, such as Ka’an Expeditions, can be found online.
Images: Alice Stevens.