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.
Visiting the South Rim
Standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon for the first time was an experience I will never forget. I was in awe, with a total loss of words. No pictures, no video recordings can ever prepare you for the first glimpse of it.
The rock layers, each a different color, as you look deeper into it takes your breath away. It stretches on for miles and you can see all the way to the other side, the sheer size of it leaving you speechless. It seems impossible to fathom that a river carved it all. Here, in the desert of Northern Arizona, the rocks leave a valuable geologic record of what was going on over 500 million years ago on Earth.
Although it seems to stretch as far as you can see, looking at it from the top you don’t realize that it consists of thousands of miles of smaller canyons, mesas, volcanoes and a web of drainage that connects the Grand Canyon to the rest of the world. It all seems totally inaccessible.
Then you see the trails that lead into the depths of it, and you feel like you need to walk on them it, at least for a short distance, to feel like you are part of this wonder of the world. You hike a few steps on the closest trail you see, most likely the Bright Angel Trail. Quickly realize that it is descending so fast, it will be hard to get back out of it. So, you turn around and promise yourself that you will make it to the bottom one day. Just not today.
If you want to hike down to the bottom, you can find a few trails, as well as mules to carry your packs. You might want to stay overnight, in the camp ground on the bottom. But for now, just enjoy the scenery from the top, eye level with the birds.
The Grand Canyon Is Home to Indigenous People
The human history in and around the Grand Canyon stretches back at least 13000 years.
The Hopi, one of the tribes who still lives in the proximity, consider it sacred ground. For them, one of the points in the bottom of the canyon, is their ancestral home, their place of origin.
The Hualapai and Havasupai have inhabited the South side of the Canyon. The Havasupai still live on the bottom of the Canyon, far from civilization, since there is no road to their village, only an eight-mile long trail. You do have to hike there, if you want to visit them. They consider themselves the guardians of the sacred ground of the Grand Canyon system.
The Southern Paiute inhabited the North side of the Canyon and for them it is also holy land.
The Zuni have their place of origin in the depths of the Canyon a well.
The Navajos and the Western Apaches also inhabit the area, though they have arrived a bit more recently, but still hundreds of years before the Spaniards.
For all of these tribes, who have lived here for centuries, the canyon is sacred land, in one way or another. If you catch a glimpse of it, you will understand why.
You Are In a National Park
Given its beauty, geological and historical significance, you would have thought that the Grand Canyon was the first National Park in the US. It wasn’t so easy though. The first bill to establish the Grand Canyon as a National Park was indeed introduced in 1882. However, it took until 1919 (February 26th) to actually designate it as such. Miners opposed the bill, since they wanted to get to the copper, zinc and silver at the bottom. Developers wanted to build a railroad on the bottom of the Canyon, so they fought against the bill as well.
All is well if it ends well. After much debate, we have one of the natural wonders of the world designated as a National Park and as such, protected from developers. For now at least. Or so it seems.
My Visits Over the Years
The first time I’ve seen the Grand Canyon, I was visiting it as an out-of-state tourist, over twenty years ago. While it seemed a bit crowded, we were able to enjoy it. Now we live so close to it, we can see it multiple times a year if we want to. And we have seen too much development around it.
Now, there are moments when I get to the South Rim, to the Visitor Center and I want to run. There are so many people, I cannot get to the Canyon for a glimpse. But if you take some time, you can still get away from the crowds and have a moment to enjoy your surroundings. The view itself never loses its magic.
But you do have to walk to enjoy it. If nothing more, just walk the rim trail. Even on the busiest day, you might find yourself alone on some stretches of it. Take a break at each of the educational stops, and learn about the ages and consistency of the rocks that make up the Canyon.
Sure, you can take the shuttle. In fact, if you can’t walk, do take the shuttle instead of driving. Free to ride, it runs on compressed gas, so it doesn’t pollute like your car would.
But I always felt that we would miss something if we just rode the shuttle and stopped at each overlook. We dragged our kids, even when they were young, on the rim walk. They have complained at times, but overall, they had a better time. On our last visit, we would have missed the deer grazing by the trail, if we didn’t walk.
The park has seen too much development in the past two decades. A brand-new town was built just outside of the park’s boundaries, by the South Rim. Other than hotels and other amenities, it offers helicopter tours, and an I-Max movie theater so see the Canyon if you can’t make it a few more miles into the park. The problem is, the helicopter tours, and all sorts of other tourist traps are hurting the environment in the Canyon. If we want to keep it for the next generations, we need to take better care of it.
This natural wonder is fragile, and its National Park status protects it. But just outside the boundaries things are getting too built up. If everything that is proposed at this time happens, it will turn into an amusement park, instead of the National Park. I hope it won’t happen.
If You Go
Expect big crowds if you go, no matter the season. It is the worst during the summer, but it might still be crowded in November, even on weekdays. Try to walk in the morning, if possible.
No matter how crowded it gets, if you walk the rim trail, you might find yourself alone on some stretches of the it. Better yet, you can walk down a few meters either on the Bright Angel Trail or the Kaibab trail. You don’t need to go to the bottom to enjoy the feel of being in the Canyon.
You can take the shuttle at a few different points through the trail, if you get too tired or the desert sun gets to you. Please remember to carry water and wear a hat if you walk any distance.
As spectacular as the South Rim is, our favorite side is the North Rim, mainly because it is more remote. That’s where the historic Grand Canyon Lodge is, and you can stay in small cabins in the forest surrounding the rim. To visit that side, you need to make reservation well ahead.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
As I walk through the ancient structures in Chaco Canyon, I think of the people who once called them home. It is hard to imagine them surviving in the harsh desert, let alone thriving. Yet, they built a civilization here, lived and died here for a few centuries, before moving on to a slightly more hospitable land. They left behind their ceremonial center and homes, for our present-day archaeologists to study and the ret of us to wonder about them.
Chaco Culture National Park is one of the most famous archaeological sites in the Southwestern US, and it is also a World Heritage site. It preserve structures built centuries ago, witness to human history.
Chetro Ketl and Pueblo Bonito
A Hike to the Mesa Top
Casa Rinconada, the Great Kiva
The People of Chaco
Who Were the Chacoans?
Where Did They Go?
Back to the Present
Standing in the middle of this deserted city, the canyon is so still, I can hear the leaves rustling in the breeze. The walls of Pueblo Bonito glow red in the setting sun.
The deserted structures stand witness to an ancient burst of human activity. Chaco tells part of the story of human history, with its good and bad parts.
We have a long way to go to get back to civilization, so we need to leave. I know we will be back. Every time we come, we find something new, or we see the same in a different light.
Chaco. A Cultural Legacy, text by Michael Strutin; Photography by George H. H. Huey. Published by the Western National Parks Association, Tucson, AZ