Calakmul. Howler monkeys. Mom and baby

Exploring the Calakmul Nature Preserve in Campeche, Mexico

The ancient Maya ruins of Calakmul in Campeche, Mexico, sit in the center of the Calakmul Nature Preserve. Relatively far from towns, when we visit, we like to stay overnight in the preserve, in the hotel at the entrance, fittingly named La Puerta Calakmul.

In the Calakmul 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 Maya 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 Maya guys working at the hotel stopped by us, 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 the Calakmul nature preserve.
Howler monkeys playing in the trees.

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 lots of wildlife, and experienced life in the jungle, yet felt comfortable.

Exploring the Preserve and the Ruins of Calakmul

In the early morning, we take off on the thirty-mile narrow road that leads to the ancient site and the trails. Two cars 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 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 Maya 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.

Our night in the jungle inspired me to write a poem…

The loud chatter of
Thousands of birds
Gradually quiets down
As they roost for the night.

It feels like silence,
Though it’s not.
So many sounds
In the night.
As I listen
I start to discern
The night sounds of nature,
The music of the jungle.

The wind in the trees,
And leaves rustling,
Rodents scuffling,
Mosquitoes buzzing,
Crickets whistling,
And beetles hissing,
Tree frogs croaking,
And owls hooting,
The bats whining,
All night creatures stirring.
A symphony unlike another.
Sounds of nature in the jungle.

This music of nature
Lulls me to sleep.
Safe from mosquitoes
And hissing beetles,
In the cocoon of a net.

I dream a colorful dream
Of all shades of green,
Patches of bright reds,
Yellows, blues and violets.

Suddenly without warning
A new sound pierces the night.
I dream of a jaguar’s
Bright green eyes
Staring at me
Through the night.

Startled, I sit up
And listen to the rumbling roar.
It is no jaguar, I know.
The howler monkey family
Is all in an uproar.

They are bellowing and growling
The alpha-male loudly barking
Some get-away-from-us orders
To the unwelcomed intruders.

Flashlights in the night.
People in the camp
Took a midnight stroll
Under the howlers’ home.

Hooting and roaring,
The monkeys are howling,
“How dare you wake us up?”
They seem to be yelling.
But soon the mother’s
Soothing hoot,
Answers her baby’s wail.
The family now quiets down.
False alarm, no danger.
Just a few silly humans
Walking through the jungle.

Slowly they settle back to sleep,
All seems quiet once again.
While I listen and discern
The night sounds of nature,
The music of the jungle.

The wind in the trees,
And leaves rustling,
Rodents scuffling,
Mosquitoes buzzing,
Crickets whistling,
And beetles hissing,
Tree frogs croaking,
And owls hooting,
The bats whining,
All night creatures stirring.
A symphony like no other.
Sounds of nature in the jungle.

The music changes,
The symphony more lively,
As the cheerful chatter of
Thousands of birds
Signal the dawn
Of a new day. 

This new bouncy symphony
Gradually wakes me up
When the morning sun’s
First rays caress
The little Maya hut.

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 a 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. However, the beds have mosquito netting, just in case.

The hotel also has a restaurant, that offers 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 start on a road trip through the peninsula, driving towards Tulum. Even if you don’t take a very long trip, you still have some driving to do to get there.

You might want to stop there and enjoy a day on the beach or visit the site of Tulum. Or not, if you are like me, and don’t like crowded places. Then keep going south, towards Bacalar. This is another place you might want to stop, for a beautiful lagoon, called Laguna de 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.

Calakmul Nature preserve
Calakmul - Nature Preserve
Scroll to Top