Pyramids Off the Beaten Track in the Jungles of the Yucatan Peninsula

I have been climbing Mayan pyramids, visiting ancient sites in the Yucatan peninsula with my family for over two decades.  We have seen a lot of changes during this time in most of the sites.  When we first visited, the Mayan Riviera didn’t exist, as it is now.  A narrow road let from Cancun down the coast, where most of the traffic we encountered was Mayan workers on their bicycles.
While twenty years ago we could climb every structure even in the most popular sites like Tulum, and in Chichen Itza, now it is impossible to do so in both sites.
<img src="pyramidkukulcan.jpg" alt="one of the Mayan Pyramids, pyramid of Kukulcan, Chichen Itza, Mexico">
“Look, don’t touch”, the rope around the pyramid keeps visitors off the structure. Pyramid of Kukulcan. Chichen Itza. 2017
Over time, we have learned to venture deeper into the jungles of Quintana Roo, Yucatan and Campeche, in search of lesser-known pyramids to explore.
 
Ancient Mayan sites are scattered all over the peninsula. Some are still covered by the surrounding jungle. They are off the beaten track, where you won’t find tourists. You just need to know where to look.

Climbing Pyramids in Lesser-Known Sites

Our last trip took us to Chacchoben, Kinichna, and Dzibilchaltun. We only shared the jungle and the ruins with spider monkeys, iguanas and birds of all colors and shapes. 
<img src="pyramidKinichna.jpg" alt="one of Mayan Pyramids, Kinichna. Yucatan"/>
We were alone with the ancient ruins. My girls climbing the pyramid at Kinichna

Calakmul

Calakmul is one of the most impressive and well-known sites on the Yucatan peninsula. But it is so remote that most tourists don’t bother driving to it. Located in a nature preserve with the same name, at the end of a 60 km long narrow, dirt road, it is still a challenge to reach.  Big tour buses from Cancun can’t make it through. And most tourists don’t bother to drive so far from the resorts. Most of the people we met on the trails were birdwatchers, and hardy travelers.
<img src="calakmulpyramid.jpg" alt="one of the pyramids in Clalakmul. Mexico. Wanderer writes.com"/>
On the way to the top of one of the pyramids in Calakmul.
The two major pyramids at Calakmul are tall enough to see the surrounding jungle canopy and other structures from.  We could climb them and feel on top of the world, eye level with the birds. 
Howler and spider monkeys, tropical birds, iguanas and ocellated turkeys kept us company.  

Balamku

<img src="Balamku.jpg" alt="Balamku inside temple. wanderer writes.com"/>
Inside the Temple of Balamku.
Not far from Calakmul, in the ruins of Balam-ku, we saw the most beautiful and well preserved Mayan murals. We were the only visitors there. The caretaker was kind enough to unlock the door that lead inside the pyramid where the murals are.  She also told us that underneath they have found an ancient tomb.  As we were walking around the other structures, only iguanas kept us company. 

Staying off the Beaten Track

 
As we prepare to return to Yucatan after the Holidays, we are looking for more treasures that are not overrun by tourists.  it is getting more and more difficult, but not impossible. One of our favorite spots is so remote, we can only get to it on a dirt road, and we only encountered locals there.  Mayans, who speak Spanish as a second language. In some ways it is easier to communicate with them. Since they speak slower, I can understand better. It also helps to pick up a few words in Maya. Not that I could communicate with them in their own language, though I wish I could. But it makes us all feel better when we try.
 
There are no pyramids very close to this place, that I know of, but we might find something new, unexpected. Yucatan tends to offer something new every time we visit.  
 
The best-known Mayan pyramids are so popular that they are hard to enjoy due to the crowds they attract. But the jungle still has plenty of hidden treasures. If you know where to look, you can still find solitude and adventure, even on the Riviera Maya. 

Exploring a Nature Preserve in Mexico – Calakmul

Sleeping In A Nature Preserve

The loud chatter of thousands of birds wakes me up in the morning.  As I slowly return to reality I realize that I slept in a Mayan hut, with no windows, only screens to keep the bugs out.  We are in Calakmul Nature Preserve, in Campeche, Mexico.

When we first arrived, we noticed a family of howler monkeys up in the trees above the huts.  One of the Mayan guys working there smiled and told us in broken English that ten individuals make up this family.  They have lived in the trees within the hotel boundaries for years.

Howler Monkeys in Calakmul
Howler Monkeys in Calakmul

The hotel Puerta Calakmul seems more of a village with individual huts, each with a short path leading to it.  We’ve stayed there in the past and always had a great experience. It is one of the best places where we have seen a lot of wildlife, and experienced life in the jungle.

Exploring the Preserve in the Ruins of Calakmul

In the early morning we take off on the sixty-mile dirt road that leads to the ancient site and the trails. The road is so narrow, two cars can barely fit through and the canopy encompasses it.  We are driving in a tunnel of green.  We keep it slow in the hopes to see wild animals close to the road.  Iguanas are sitting in the middle of the road every so often, basking in the sun.  It is hard to make them move, at times we stop altogether until they take their time to walk off.  We spot a few ocellated turkeys, their colorful plumage bright against the surrounding green.  Later on, we even spot a peccary wandering close to the road.

Ocellated Turkeys in Calakmul
Ocellated Turkeys in Calakmul

On the trail, we try to walk without making too much noise or talking.  Birds chatter, insects buzz, and lizards run around in the dried leaves under our feet.  The jungle is full of life even when it seems quiet.

We catch up with a group of local birdwatchers. One of them offers her binoculars to our daughter and points out a bird for her to look at.  Soon we all take turns with her binoculars. We follow her directions and notice a tiny bird that looks like a toucan, only much smaller. She is colorful and her yellow beak is huge compared to her body. Soon I spot a few more close by in the canopy.  We learn that they are called toucanitos, or little toucans.  There are a few of them together, we find out as we watch them for a few minutes.

Toucanito in Calakmul
Toucanito in Calakmul

As we make our way through the ancient structures, we see a family of spider monkeys on the top of the trees.  They seem to be resting, some of them sleeping with their long limbs dropping on the sides of a branch.

We spend all day on walking on the trail, and climbing structures.  We hear the distinctive call of the howler monkeys from the top of a pyramid, though they are hard to spot from that height.

On Top of a Pyramid in Calakmul
On Top of a Pyramid in Calakmul Ruins

Back to Our Mayan Hut

When we return to our hut, the howler family greets us.  They throw sticks and half-eaten fruit at us, trying to either get our attention or chase us off.  We decide they want our attention and stand under their tree for a long time, watching them.  I notice a tiny baby on his mother’s back.  Other young howlers also walk around the mother, while the older ones hang in trees close by.

Howler Monkey. Mother and Baby in Calakmul
Howler Monkey. Mother and Baby in Calakmul
Night in the Jungle

At night, we sleep surrounded by the music of the jungle, the sounds of crickets and insects, bats, and owls, tree frogs and lizards.  Then suddenly, as soon as we fall asleep, we are awakened by the loudest growls we could imagine.  For a moment I think it might be a jaguar, but I realize that it is the howler monkey family.

Howler Monkey in Calakmul
Howler Monkey in Calakmul

Someone or something woke them up and they are all howling and hooting, growling and roaring.  We record their sound, it is amazing! As we listen, we start to discern the sounds of the big males, the young monkeys, the mother and even the baby. Soon they settle back to sleep, and the night is quiet once again.

Quiet is relative in the jungle. In this case it means the sound of crickets, insects, tree frogs, bats, owls, rodents, lizards moving.  It is the most relaxing music to fall asleep to.

As soon as the sun’s first rays peek over the horizon, the loud chatter of thousands of birds wakes us up.  As we walk out, we notice all of them, in the trees that surround us.  They are big and small, colorful and plain. We even recognize the mot-mot bird, with its distinctive long tail feathers.

We set off for our next destination, one that will involve more nature preserves, both in the jungle and on the coast of the Yucatan peninsula.

What Is Calakmul?

Calakmul was an ancient Maya city, one of the greatest in its day.  At the moment it is one of the few an archaeological site where you can still climb the pyramids.  Sitting in the middle of the jungle, in a nature preserve, it is off the beaten track. Spending time there is an adventure in itself, especially for children, if you are traveling with them.

Since it is out of the way, at the end of a sixty-mile dirt road, the best option is to stay at the only hotel close by, La Puerta Calakmul. If you really want to rough it, there is a camping site within the preserve, but I haven’t tried it.

La Puerta Calakmul has different size rooms, all in stand-alone huts, or bungalows.  No TVs in the rooms to distract you, but you do have signal if you carry a cell phone. The rooms have comfortable beds and hammocks, with modern bathrooms.  Although instead of windows, you are surrounded by netting, they are very well insulated, so no mosquitoes or bugs of any kind get through.  The beds have mosquito netting, just in case.

The hotel also has a restaurant, that has some of the best meals I have ever tasted.  If you go to the ruins for the day, you can also buy packed lunches to bring with you, since you will most likely spend the whole day there. The pool is small, but clean and refreshing, especially after a long trek in the jungle.

How to Get There and Other Helpful Information

Cancun is the easiest airport to get to on the peninsula, and chances are, you might want to visit other sites, or spend time on the beach as well if you’re there.

Rent a car and drive towards Tulum. You might want to stop there and enjoy a day on the beach or visit the site of Tulum.  Then keep going south, towards Bacalar.  This is another place you might want to stop, for a beautiful lagoon, called Laguna des Siete Colores or the lagoon of seven colors.  It is beautiful and worth a swim.  You can find a hotel in Bacalar for any budget, right on the water if you wish. From Bacalar, you need to take the road towards Xpujil.  Shortly after you pass the town of Xpujil, you’ll see the road to Calakmul.

The hotel Puerta Calakmul is on the left, off a short dirt road, right after the turn-off.  You are in a nature preserve here.

When you walk in the preserve, make sure you carry enough water, and snacks.  Wear good hiking or walking shoes. Wear a hat and sunscreen, and keep bug spray at hand.  Remember that is hot and humid, especially during midday, so dress accordingly. Being in a nature preserve, there is no real dress code, even in the more traditional Mexico. I would just stay away from very short shorts or crop tops.