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. 

Revisiting Chichen Itzá and Its Pyramid of Kukulcan

Chichen Itzá is probably the best-known and the most spectacular ancient Mayan site. It is not only a World Heritage site but also one of the “new seven wonders of the world”. Architectural wonders, of course.

Over the years we visited the site often.  While we always noticed changes, our latest trip, seven years after our last, took us by surprise.

We Notice the Changes As Soon As We Return

Once upon a time, it was possible to visit the site without the crowds that it attracts today.  I remember climbing the Pyramid of Kukulcan, walking through its temple, and taking a tour inside of it.  We climbed the Temple of the Warriors and even sat on its jaguar throne. No one stopped us, all the visitors did it. Only a handful of us drove to the site anyway. We climbed the Observatory or Caracol and walked through its rooms. I remember with nostalgia watching our kids play in the enormous ball court, and being virtually alone in it.

Pyramid of Kukulcan. Chichen Itzá. 2017
Pyramid of Kukulcan. Chichen Itzá. 2017

While we knew that we couldn’t do any of those things now, we still decided to revisit the site.  Our youngest daughter was a tiny baby last time we walked through the site and she didn’t remember it. She wanted her to see this famous place.

At first I was disappointed. We stood on a long line for at least an hour to enter, even though we stayed in a hotel basically on the premises. As soon as it opened, the crowds were unbelievable.  Vendors lined up the trails, calling to us as we passed by, offering tourist junk made in China. Yes, it was annoying.

“Call something Paradise, kiss it goodbye” – in this case, call it a “wonder of the world”. So true.  However, we are trying to preserve these wonders for future generations.  So I understand and even agree that no one is allowed to climb or even touch the monuments.  When they get thousands of visitors a day, it is the only way to keep them from getting destroyed.

Chichen Itzá. Temple
Chichen Itzá. Temple
A Walk through the Ancient City

Once passed the shock of the changes,  we managed to have a wonderful time.

How could we not? The structures are all spectacular, even more so than we remember them. More of the facades are restored and the paint in some of the rooms looks more vivid from outside.

Chichen Itzá. Chac Mul
Chichen Itzá. Chac Mul

We didn’t have a lot to walk, most of the trails we used to walk on are closed, and to look to the structures takes less time than to climb them.  While I missed the old trails, it was nice to take it easy and be able to leave by noon.

Our first stop was the Sacred Cenote, where legend has it that virgins were sacrificed. I’m not so sure the legend is true though. Some of the early archaeologists searched the cenote and found lots of offerings.  Not necessarily human ones though.

The Sacred Cenote. Chichen Itzá
The Sacred Cenote. Chichen Itzá

Thousands of beautiful artifacts found their tomb in the bottom of the cenote.  Of course they found human remains as well, but not enough to prove the idea that they were sacrificed. It is quite possible that people fell into it by accident, either in the ancient times or much later. The edge is very steep, I remember worrying about my own kids a lifetime ago when we used to visit. It is not possible now to get close to the edge, so no danger of that kind lurks around it. The remains of the ancient temple sit on the edge of the cenote.

 

Walking through a Line of Vendors

Walking back towards the main plaza, we watched the vendors set up their fare.  We walked fast past them, avoiding eye contact. We didn’t want to hear their offering of things that we were not interested in buying.  I have trouble saying no to anything, and they seem to know it.

Though we entered the ruins as soon as they opened, by the time we were in front of the Pyramid of Kukulcan, the crowds have already descended on the plaza.  Fortunately, it is a large enough area that we could enjoy the monuments if we lingered a few minutes in front of each.

The Ball Court, Temple of the Warriors and Caracol

The Ball Court is the largest in Mesoamerica.  As I walked through it, I heard the familiar yells and hoots of the tour guides, demonstrating the acoustics of the place.  It still makes me smile.  The Maya figured out how to build an outdoor monument with perfect acoustics. If a person talks on one end, his voice is audible and sounds clear on the other side.  It rivals the best opera houses of the modern world.  And it is outdoors.

The Great Ballcourt. Chichen Itzá
The Great Ballcourt. Chichen Itzá

The Temple of the Warriors sits as magnificent as ever, though we couldn’t get too close to it.  The Mercado with its hundreds of columns is off limits, as well.  It is still beautiful to look at from the trail that goes around it.

Temple of the Warriors. Chichen Itzá
Temple of the Warriors. Chichen Itzá

We walked to the Observatory or Caracol and to the structures around it.  As we shared the plaza with hundreds of tourists, people watching became part of the game. The Observatory is spectacular from the outside as well.

Caracol. The Observatory. Chichen Itzá
Caracol. The Observatory. Chichen Itzá

Looking at it makes me think of the ancient Maya watching the sky, night after night.  Based solely on their observations alone, without the aid of modern telescopes, they understood the movements of the planets, the moon, and the stars.  They were even able to predict eclipses, both lunar and solar.  They based their calendars on the movements of these celestial bodies they watched from structures like this one.

The Pyramid of Kukulcan

Still, the greatest structure in Chichen Itzá remains the famous pyramid.  I am lucky to have climbed it once upon a time and even walked inside it.  But even looking at it from outside it is spectacular.

The Temple of Kukulcan. Chichen Itzá

It sits in the middle of an open plaza, dominating the center of the site.  Stairways lead to the top on all four of its sides, but the most spectacular one is the one facing north. It is the only one where two huge serpent heads adorn the bottom of the stairs.  These are the representations of the mythical great serpent-god, Kukulcan.  Hence the name.

The Shadow of Kukulcan descending. Chichen Itzá
The Shadow of Kukulcan descending. Chichen Itzá

During both spring and autumn equinoxes, at sunset, the whole serpent is visible, descending the stairs of the pyramid.  How did they know to face the building in this way?

A few years ago we ended up in Chichen Itzá soon after the spring equinox.  Though it was about a week later, we were still able to see the shadow of the mythical serpent descending the stairs of the pyramid.

In addition, the number of stairs on the four sides of the pyramid equals the number of days in a year. Each side has 91 steps (91×4=364), and one extra step on the top leads into the temple.

Leaving Chichen Itzá

We knew that it was probably the last time we would visit this amazing site.  We’ve seen it many times, we have explored it, we have even seen the great serpent Kukulcan, descending the stairs a few years ago.  We happened to be there about a week after the equinox.  At the right time, it was still visible.  We have seen the night show, where they reenact the great serpent descending, with artificial lights, as they tell stories from the ancient city. The show is spectacular, especially if you understand Spanish.  You can listen to it in English as well, with headphones, but this version is never quite as vivid.

If it is your first time, it is worth the time and effort.  Try to get there early though and remember that you need to deal with crowds.  Sort of like Disneyland.  If you don’t let the crowds and the heat (during the day) get to you, you’ll have an amazing experience.

Uxmal and the Pyramid of the Magician

Uxmal is one of my favorite ancient Maya cities in the state of Yucatan.  Over the past twenty-five years, my family and I visited it often.  No matter how many times we see it, we don’t mind coming back to it over and over.

Revisiting the Ancient City of Uxmal
We were some of the first visitors of the day to the ancient Maya site of Uxmal. We enjoyed the cool breeze when we started walking, since we knew that later it would be hot and sticky.  In the hills of Yucatan a breeze is a rare commodity and the humidity is high enough to make the heat unbearable.
Like every time we find ourselves in the region, we got up early to arrive to the site when it opened. Once again, we managed to beat the crowds that show up late morning in the tour buses from Cancun.
The Pyramid of the Magician
Pyramid of the Magician. Uxmal
Pyramid of the Magician. Uxmal
The first structure we noticed upon entering the site was the Pyramid of the Magician. Its massive frame dominates the plaza, and the whole site.  One of the largest reconstructed pyramid on the peninsula, it is also my favorite.  Its rounded sides have more of an appeal to me than the sharp corners of the pyramid of Kukulcan in Chichen Itza.
But part of the reason I love this particular pyramid has to do with the legend of its creation.
 
According to this legend, a dwarf, hatched from an egg, built it in one night. While doing it, he proved himself worthy to be the king of the ancient city.  Read the whole legend, as well as a different point of view of my trip to Uxmal here.
Revisiting the Nunnery Quadrangle
The Nunnery. Uxmal
The Nunnery Quadrangle
Early in the morning we were sharing the site with only a handful of visitors. We made our way to the main compound of the Nunnery Quadrangle. The name doesn’t fit, it has nothing to do with nuns or any kind of nunnery. The Spaniards mislabeled it when they first saw it.  The plaza surrounded by four major structures resembled their idea of a nunnery.
Archaeologists think that the plaza was a palace for high officials. In the center, it has a stage for ceremonial dances.  Walking though it, we marvel at the elaborately decorated facades of the buildings. We can no longer enter any of the rooms, though we remember being inside them during previous visits. They are each very similar, in shape and size, with small variations.
Archway Entrance to the Nunnery. Uxmal
Archway Entrance to the Nunnery
Ball Court in Uxmal

We left the Nunnery Quadrangle, and walked through the ball court.  Not quite as large as the one in Chichen Itza, it is still spectacular. This time it looked better than I remembered. We could tell that work was done to reconstruct it in the past few years.

Ballcourt. Uxmal
Ballcourt.
Walking through the Palace of the Governors

We walked over to the Palace of the Governors, a long building on top of a high platform.  My favorite feature of it is the facade. In fact, it is the longest facade in the Yucatan featuring the Rain God, Chak.

Palace of the Governors. Uxmal
Palace of the Governors. Uxmal

These rooms were not closed, so we were able to enter them once again. We revisited the rooms that Stevens and Catherwood, the first Western explorers of the region, lived in while here.  We talk about them as we walk through the rooms, and recognize the signs of fire in one of them.  I remembered reading an interesting entry in their book about how a native built the fire for them. They wrote the Incidents of Travels in Yucatan over a century ago, but the book is still a good read.

Facade on the Palace of the Governors. Uxmal
Facade on the Palace of the Governors

Facade on the Palace of the Governors

Casa de la Tortugas

We walked over to the Casa de Las Tortugas, the small structure decorated with turtles. It was starting to get warm as the day progressed. We were prepared for the usual hot and sticky feeling we always get while exploring Mayan ruins. This time, Chak must have been in an unusually good mood. Clouds rolled in and a welcomed breeze cooled us down.

Casa de las Tortugas. Uxmal
Casa de las Tortugas
On the Grand Pyramid
We moved on to one of the structures we can still climb, the Grand Pyramid.  We sat on top of it for a long time, enjoying the breeze, and the view of the site.  
The pleasant breeze was soon accompanied by a few drops of rain. We visited this site often during the years, but I don’t ever remember rain here.  Chak, the rain god, was happy indeed.  We stood on top for a long time, enjoying the water hitting our hot bodies.
On top of the Main Pyramid. Uxmal
On top of the Grand Pyramid
While we were enjoying the light rain, we didn’t notice the crowds coming into the site. We looked down and realized that the major parts of the site were overrun by huge tour groups. When one of the large groups started climbing the stairs of the pyramid, we decided that it was time to leave.
The Cemetery
We took the opportunity to revisit the cemetery. Most tours and visitors don’t bother walking so far, so we found ourselves alone once again. Later, we encountered one lone visitor here, among the stones decorated with skulls. Like us, he was enjoying the quiet that this out-of-the-way part of the site offered.
The Pyramid of the Old Woman
Later on we took the less traveled path towards the Pyramid of the Old Woman, the mother of the legendary dwarf. Overgrown by vegetation, the trail doesn’t seem to be used, though is not closed down. Few visitors wonder out this far off the beaten path.
The pyramid of the Old Woman is still in rubble, though for the first time since our many visits, it is roped off. ‘Will they work on reconstructing it?’, we wonder. It is a good size pyramid, though far from the center of the city.
According to legend, this Old Woman was a witch and lived in a small hut.  After her son, the dwarf, became king, he built this pyramid for her.  It must have been beautiful in its time.
 
On the way out, we had trouble navigating the crowds in the main plaza and the entrance area. We were glad that once again we managed to enjoy the site while sharing it with only a handful of fellow visitors.

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.