I had put off going to Calakmul for many years as I couldn’t work out with any certainty how to get there easily, and where I should stay to visit the Mayan site deep in the Mexican jungle. I thought it would take days to get there and days to get back and that you’d need to be really organised to do it, maybe needing several donkeys, a backpack, supplies, very thick explorer-like moustache, and a machete to hack away at the virgin jungle until you discovered the lost pyramids of the Mayans with large beaked toucans and jaguars flocking around the base of their steps.
In the end after much reading of the internet and guidebooks, I just went for it. And it just happens, there is no requirement for moustaches or mules (or donkeys), One can just book oneself a first class air-conditioned bus ticket on ADO from Merida via Campeche to the small town of Xpujil (pronounced something like shoo-pull-heel), from whence one can book a tour (best at least a few days before as they occasionally don’t have tours during the low season and they may also be booked up during the high season), or drive oneself down to, the Mayan archeological site, which is still not un-disappointingly deep in the jungle, but since they’ve built a fairly decent road down there many years ago it no longer takes 8 hours to get there, though it’s still about an hour each way from Xpujil. Not the sort of distance good conversation won’t help to go quickly. You can also get there via Chetumal, where I headed after my visit to get a plane to Guadalajara.
There’s some accomodation a little closer to the site, but since it’s like world heritage or UNESCO protected biosphere, there’s no fancy hotels or anything that close. I stayed at a nice little place called Chicanna, close to the turn off to the road to Calakmul, with no wifi and plenty of chickens, and a nice little restaurant where you can get decent fajitas made out of the chickens nearby.
For a video guide on how to get to Calakmul, plus a whole bunch of footage from Calakmul itself, go to my YouTube Channel: Juanito’s Travels Goes to Calakmul
In terms of seeing millions of toucans and jaguars. Well, I don’t know about the jaguars, I think you have to camp out for days and get up before dawn, which the chickens of Chicanna certainly encourage you to do from around 4.40 a.m., to see them (and you may need an explorer like moustache), but I was lucky enough to see toucans. Not the huge ones on the Froot Loop packets but a group of a cute little orange variety all siting in a tree at the base of one of the pyramids which just happened to be fruiting at the time (the tree not the pyramid for those botanically and historically challenged out there). This was lucky as the birds tend to be around more in the wet season and I’d gone there in early April which was a very dry time. Not moist at all, and thankfully not mosquito to be heard a buzzing around. I didn’t have a zoom lens zoomy enough to get closer to the toucans than shot below. But there were around 8 of them birdies in the tree, and I was all like running around screaming (quietly so I wouldn’t disturb them toucans) HOLY SHIT I’M SEEING ACTUAL FREAKING TOUCANS WHICH AREN’T A ZOO IN THE FREAKING WHILE OH THANK YOU GOD AND NATURE N SHIT!!!!! Actual freaking toucans! Suffice to say, I was feeling jubilant at the sight of seeing (is that proper English? who cares I GOT TO SEE FREAKING TOUCANS…) them in the wild.
Another reason I’d gone to Calakmul was I’d heard you could climb the pyramids (which at some locations in Mexico they are stopping so get in while you can) which pop out over the jungle canopy allowing you a 360 degree view of the jungle as far as Guatemala, which is only about 40 kms away but which looks exactly the same as Mexico – apparently no one told the trees in Guatemala they should look and act differently so people on top of Mayan pyramids could tell where Mexico ends and Guatemala begins. The jungle is still mostly secondary forest because the Mayans cut all the trees down centuries ago to grow maize and when this became unproductive, they just left the impressive pyramids behind to the mercy of the forest and went off to live in little villages, one presumes.
And there I am, standing at the top of one of the Mayan pyramids proving you can climb to the top of the pyramids and see jungle all round you, except for a few other pyramids popping out of the canopy. There’s about three (maybe four) pyramids at the site which are tall enough to go over the trees. I would imagine if it was the wet season you would look like you just entered into a wet t-shirt competition by the time you get to the top of a few. So lady’s beware, no light coloured cotton t-shirts during the summer months.
You can see from these shots (the second one being taken from my iphone hence why it don’t look as greenI suspect) how the pyramids just poke out from the forest. There’s plenty of trees still growing actually on the pyramids and the site was largely forgotten about for centuries, until some dude looking for rubber (or a rubber, depending on the version of the story you hear) stumbled across them. It’s amazingly well preserved, as all the archaeological sites I’ve visited in Mexico have been. About 90% of the site is still covered by trees. Our guide pointed out large swathes of trees and then pointed to a map and explained how heaps and heaps of structures lie unseen just metres away.
I’m always left wondering, where the hell they find all the rocks to build these places, I suspect there’s books and things which explain why. My guide probably did, but I may have been videoing things at the time so I wasn’t paying attention.
It’s worth getting slightly off the beaten track to visited Calakmul as unlike many locations in Mexico, the crowd numbers are really down. I’ve visited Teotihuacan near Mexico City, and Palenque in the state of Chiapas and both are swarming with tourists and touts. While the presence of many other of our fellow man is in no way particularly annoying at these locations it doesn’t leave you with the same feeling of Calakmul that somehow you are just one of the relatively privileged few to see it, at least for now.
And don’t be disappointed if you don’t see any jaguars around, apart from the possibility of seeing toucans, you can also spot woodpeckers and these things that look like what we call bush turkeys in Australia. I believe you might find some howler monkeys at other times of the year as well.
So don’t leave it a moment longer, get on a plane, jump on a bus then organise a tour, or drive yourself down, to the amazing site of Calakmul, in Mexico. As long as you stay somewhere in, or near Xpujil, such as Chicanna, you’ll easily make a day trip there, I think staying at least two nights is important, especially if you are planning to get out into the jungle at dawn as it is a good few hours to travel into the jungle and back, so you’ll probably want to relax with a beer and fajita when you return.
I leave you with some pictures of some chickens and the cabin I stayed in in the small town (well not even a town) of Chicanna, during my visit to the area. As you can see it is a very rural area, but it has this fabulous restaurant up by the main road, with some seriously authentic Mexican cuisine. Just make sure you give your leftovers to the poor doggos. My heart went out to the skinny one poking his head through the restaurant door in the picture below and despite being famished I gave him half of my fajitas and meat.