The Ancient Mayan City of Calakmul – the place where serenity lives
From one of my books about Mexico, Calakmul, an ancient Mayan city lost in a biosphere reserve on the very border with Guatemala, looks at me every day. It is impossible not to think of it, because it is the most striking, calming, and at the same time adventurous ancient Mayan city I have visited on our journey through Mexico. I invite you to take a walk through this amazing place!
The kingdom of the serpent, Calakmul, flourished between 200 and 700 AD, it was a powerful rival of Tikal. Now this city that suffered from gigantomania has become a place of tranquility. A couple or three pyramids still tower above the trees, but they are gradually being devoured by the jungle. These days, the vast area is home to howler monkeys and shy turkeys, scampering off laughingly into the thicket. And there are also jaguars, cougars, and ocelots, but of course they don’t show themselves, just watch from the bushes.
The city is almost hidden in the jungle – only a few pyramids still peek out of it. Monkey.
Calakmul is far from where tourists live, so it does not face the sad fate of Chichen Itza and other Mayan cities, which have become attractions and have long lost their beauty and authenticity. From Cancun to Calakmul is almost 600 km along the highway, and then another 60 km through the reserve.
Being in Calakmul is very pleasant. The city is completely hidden in the jungle away from civilization, so there is no noise of cars, no guides and tour groups, and generally very few tourists.
From the road to the lost Mayan city through the dense bushes leads a narrow road, a multi-kilometer one-way tunnel through the protected jungle. Once you’re in, you have to go all the way. There is not a single branch, and in some places the jungle is almost closing in on it, and in some places it spreads its tentacle-lianas, trying to reclaim its territory. The confined space and the realization that there is only a sea of forest around, even a little suffocatingly claustrophobic.
Calakmul is so big that the chances of encountering other tourists tend to zero. If you are impressed by the Mayan pyramids, take as much time as you can to Calakmul. The complex is large, climbing and exploring like Indiana Jones and Lara Croft is not forbidden almost anywhere. Personally, we were woefully short of three hours to see the city.
You can go through the city in two ways: or rush to all the most beautiful and grandiose, or start small and leave the sweet stuff for dessert. We chose the second way.
We started at Kalakmul.
Almost all the way, we were accompanied by the attentive gazes of the monkeys, who followed us curiously and even posed.
And then we heard the terrible roars and roars of lions resounding through the jungle. It gave me the creeps! It was like we were suddenly transported to a BBC documentary. The howler monkeys make these awful noises. There are many of them in the trees, sometimes very close!
The monkeys are curious, but afraid of humans. However, curiosity prevails. Some do not pay attention: they play, fight, go about their monkey business.
We wandered around Calakmul for a long time, looking at the stelae and drawings, peering into the rooms and courtyards. Everywhere there were scatterings of mossy stones and dilapidated steps, the ruined former splendor of palaces and temples.
The city is mysterious. When I was alone, I got goosebumps, like when I was a child in an abandoned haunted house or an abandoned construction site. The jungle was humid but cool. There are almost no mosquitoes. Watch where you step – there are plenty of snakes in the Yucatan. Stelae. There are many stone stelae preserved in Calakmul, some with Mayan writing on them. Selva is gradually taking over the town. It was once a magnificent city, but now much of it is in ruins. Trees are destroying what is still left.
After much wandering closer to sunset, we finally reached the most epic – the pyramids, which archaeologists have uncomplicatedly named “The Structure.” There had been pyramids in Calakmul before, too, but not so grandiose!
When you climb the structure, it seems that you ascend to heaven. It is a pity that the photo does not convey the height. Part of the staircase is so steep that it is not even visible in the photo.
To get to the top of Structures I and II, the highest pyramids, you have to overcome the stairs into the sky. And then, when you wipe away the salty sweat, catch your breath and calm the shiver in your legs, you can look around. Around you stretches 360 degrees the boundless smoothness of the dusty green jungle, flat as a plate. So flat, like a neatly trimmed lawn. Here you feel like a ruler of the world, here I learned zen.
Up there, all the problems and worries seem insignificant. Our editor-in-chief Alexey Sinitsyn also felt the solemnity of the moment.
The complex is open from 8:00 to 17:00, but no one makes sure that all the tourists leave before closing time. We were the last to leave at about 18:00, and nobody said a word.
By the time we left, it was dusk, and every now and then there were scattered turkeys on the road, which are more like peacocks with their wonderful multi-colored plumage. So don’t ignore the road signs that warn of animals coming onto the road and drive more carefully.
Glaucous turkeys at sunset stroll imposingly along the road. As with flamingos, turkeys are not afraid of cars. But if you poke your camera out of the window, they hurriedly escape into the bushes.
We left the park at dusk, which in a few minutes turned into a completely black night. It was very unusual to drive through a virgin forest where jaguars, monkeys and other wild animals and birds lived.
The road from Calakmul.
I will tell you how to get to Calakmul, where you can spend the night nearby, and how much it costs to enter this ancient Mayan city.
The nearest villages where we spent the night were Escarcega (156 km) and Xpujil (116 km). From Escarcega we drove early in the morning to the Balamka pyramids, then to Calakmul, then arrived in Xpujil late at night and spent the night in this guesthouse. Eat in advance and take food and water with you. We saw a cafe on the way, but it was closed.
It’s 60 km from the highway to the Kalakmul parking lot, so fill up beforehand. You’ll be checked in at the checkpoint, asked to pay and put on wristbands. Halfway there’s another tollbooth, and at the end you have to pay for the third time! The Mexicans love to pull out the money. We paid a total of 400 pesos for two people, but Calakmul is worth it.
At the beginning of the road is perfect asphalt and a fairly straight road with a speed limit of 60 km / h, but you can go almost a hundred. Gradually it begins to loop, narrow and deteriorate, and the allowed speed is reduced to 40 km/h. This is no coincidence: you are in a nature reserve, and there are many animals here, especially at dusk.
The ancient city of Calakmul
About 30 kilometers from the border with Guatemala, in the state of Campeche, among the impenetrable jungle inhabited by innumerable tropical animals and birds, lie the ruins of the ancient and beautiful city of Calakmul. The ancient town of Calakmul first came to light in December 1931 by American biologist Cyrus Landell, but it was not until 1982 that active exploration of the town began.
History of the origin of the city of Calakmul
Calakmul was once the capital of the mighty Kingdom of Canula, one of the major Mayan settlements in southern Mexico, and played an important key role in the history of the region for 12 centuries. The ancient chronicles refer to Calakmul as the “kingdom of snakes” and fragments of its buildings bear the appropriate snake-head emblem.
Not much is known about the history of Calakmul’s origins, although the list of rulers carved on one of the found ceramic vessels gives an idea of the period of the city’s existence from the 1st to the 5th century AD. For several centuries Calakmul waged an irreconcilable political struggle with another Mayan settlement, Tikal, subduing it in 562 along with a number of other southern cities.
Calakmul Archaeological Zone
Much of the Calakmul Archaeological Zone has retained its original appearance and impresses travelers with its tranquility and seclusion. And the general arrangement of its imposing structures gives a vivid idea of the life, architecture and culture of the ancient Mayan settlement. (visiting the pyramids of Calakmul on the five-day “Yucatán Clockwise” itinerary )
The archaeological area covers an area of 30,000 square kilometers, is surrounded by a white-stone road, the sacbe, and has over 6,000 different structures, including temples, palaces, altars, steles, ball fields, 90% of which are still unexplored. Archaeologists estimate that during the period of prosperity, the city was home to about 60,000 people.
Classic period of Mayan culture.
The architectural features of the city are consistent with the Classic Maya period, with two pyramids numbered I and II standing out, which gave Calakmul its name, meaning “two adjacent pyramids”. In the second pyramid, in the 90s of the last century was found the tomb of the last Calakmul ruler, and the structure itself rises above the jungle at a height of 45 meters and is considered one of the highest ever built by the Maya. The pyramid is accessible to the public and the views from its summit are breathtaking. Both structures were repeatedly rebuilt and expanded, and in the late Classic period one of them was topped by the palace of a ruler or cleric.
The central part of Calakmul
It is a city surrounded on all sides by swampy terrain and is conventionally divided into several zones, separated by sakbe roads running from the central part to the periphery. The center of the city occupies a vast square once surrounded by a fortress wall, fragments of which can still be seen from the northern side. The excavations in the central part have provided researchers with about 1,000 different finds, platforms and remains of structures. Many of them resemble palace buildings, laid out along the perimeter of courtyards. Unfortunately, the material used by the Calakmul inhabitants for construction was quite fragile. This was the reason why the centuries-old structures were severely damaged by tropical downpours, winds, and time. (Calakmul on a tour of Mexico-Guatemala)
The common people built their dwellings on the outskirts of the settlement, in close proximity to the swamps, and used the free space between them for farming and gardening.
The 117 memorial stelae found at Calakmul, dating from A.D. 514 to 990, are outstanding examples of Mayan art. They shed light on the political and spiritual development of the city. Because the material they were made from was of poor quality, the bas-reliefs have survived on only a small part of the monuments. On them it is possible to discern the image of the rulers of the city accompanied by their wives, or figures of prisoners with tied hands. The stelae erected after the 10th century are no longer decorated, and researchers suggest that they were built during the decline of the city, simply to maintain tradition.
Calakmul is one of the most significant and little-studied Mayan settlements, and its research is actively continuing today. In 2002, the archaeological site was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List and has been protected by the organization ever since.