Posted on October 22, 2007 - by MG
If you’ve never heard of the ancient Mayan city of Calakmul, don’t worry. Neither have most Mexicans. That includes people in the tourist industry and work just a few hours away. It also includes the people who set up the otherwise excellent Mayan museum at Chetumal, the state capital of Quintana Roo and at 3.5 hours away, the nearest large town to Calakmul.
But back in the day, Calakmul was the local city-state; ‘the day’ being roughly in the middle of the seventh century. Calakmul was the Snake Kingdom, vying for power with the huge city-state of Tikal (now in Guatemala).
The ruins of Calakmul are not what you’d call particularly accessible – even now when there’s a paved road which takes you all through the 50km of surrounding bioreserve . Until quite recently though it really was lost in the jungle. Archaeologists are only starting to uncover the history of the region. A major breakthrough came with the decipherment by Mayanist David Stuart of an inscription on a staircase at Dos Pilas. (See Maya Hieroglyphs Recount “Giant War” in National Geographic).
(There’s a recent issue of National Geographic with several great articles about recent findings in Mayan archaeology.)
Visiting the ruins at Calakmul, as well as those at nearby Chicanna and Becan, gave me the biggest ‘discovery’ buzz I’ve ever had at an archaeological site. Unlike other sites such as Chichen Itza, Palenque, Uxmal, El Tajin, Teotihuacan and Tula, the ruins at these three Campeche sites have been left relatively uncleared. The trees have been left growing between the main excavated structures, and in many cases, left growing out of the actual temples, as in the photo above.
There are howler monkeys and spider monkeys in the woods. They swing through the trees watching you progress along the trail.
That, plus the fact that in all these places we were practically the only people visiting the sites, gave us the feeling of what it must have been to discover these places…kind of like John Lloyd Stephens and Frederick Catherwood, the latter was the artist who produced such evocative pictures as the one shown below.
The downside is the mosquitoes, and the heat. The ruins of Calakmul and Chicanna are accessed by walking down a jungle trail, during which a cloud of vicious mosquitoes surround you and munch on every scrap of exposed flesh. Insect repellent may cut your bites down to twenty or so. Stop moving and they’ll settle for a good, steady drink of your blood.
But heck. It’s worth it.