Calakmul. View of the two pyramids that gave the site its name

Calakmul: Exploring A Stunning Ancient Maya City in the Jungle

Calakmul is one of the Maya sites we keep returning to over and over, even though we have to drive a long way to reach it. We usually make visiting the site part of a long road trip through the Yucatan Peninsula.

Hidden by the surrounding jungle, exploring these ruins give us the impression that we are trailblazers.

A center of great importance in ancient times, the vestiges of the metropolis remain isolated enough to stay off the beaten track. Far from most modern towns in the state of Campeche, the pyramids that gave the site its name lay in the middle of the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve.

  • Update January 2024: Calakmul is no longer isolated, as the Maya Train is set to go close enough to it; the plan is to put Calakmul on the tourist map for the most visited Maya sites on the peninsula. When we were in the area, we had to deal with so much traffic due to the construction of the Maya Train tracks, and we found no place to stay for the night in the area, we gave up going to the site. The train is far from operating in the area (they were still only working on setting the tracks), but the construction makes it extremely hard to get to the sites in this area. I would think in a few months the site will be more accessible – but also much more visited.

I wrote the article below after our trip to Calakmul in 2018. Though road conditions may no longer be relevant, the site with its structures are still the same.

Calakmul. Pyramid
One of the highest pyramid in the Mayan world, in the middle of the jungle.

Howler Monkeys Around Us

Unless we camped, which we can’t because we don’t bring camping gear to Mexico, the only good choice for lodging in the vicinity of the ruins is La Puerta Calakmul. More of an eco-village than a traditional hotel, it comprises individual Maya huts.

Close to the hut to be our home for two nights, a family of howler monkeys looked down on us.

Calakmul. Howler monkeys. Mom and baby
Howler monkeys. Mom and baby

You don’t want to stand too long under a tree filled with howlers unless you want sticks and half-eaten fruit thrown at you.

We found out the hard way when they tried chasing us off with this behavior. Either that or they wanted our attention. Deciding to believe the latter theory we stood watching them for a while.

They settled as they got used to our presence and went back to their activities, ignoring us. A newborn baby was clinging to his mother’s back. I guessed that the ones throwing things at us were her older kids since they kept close to her. The alpha male watched us from a close-by tree.

Soon after we fell asleep, the loudest growl we could imagine woke us. At first, I thought it was a jaguar, but then I realized that it was the howler monkey family. Something woke them up, and they were not happy. Gradually, we discerned the different voices of the big males, the young monkeys, the mother, and even the baby. Soon they settled back to sleep, and the night became quiet once again.

Getting to the Site

We set out on to the ruins early, so we could hike before the hottest part of the day. The morning rays of the sun shone through the tunnel of the canopy we drove under. We kept a slow pace, watching for wild creatures in the surrounding woods.

Green wooden boxes hung in a few trees. Rigged by ropes to be pulled from the ground, they contained first-aid kits and auto repair materials. With no cell service, it was the sole help for stranded cars. We needed none of it, but I felt better knowing they were there.

Iguanas were lying in the middle of the street, basking in the sun. The approaching car had no effect on their behavior. We tried honking at them to no avail. Finally, we had to stop altogether until they stepped aside. A few ocellated turkeys wandered out from the forest, their vivid plumage bright against the surrounding jungle. Later on, we recognized a peccary wandering out from the undergrowth.

We arrived at the site early enough to be among the first visitors. With no one else around, we walked towards the ruins.

Calakmul. Path through the jungle
Following this path through the jungle

Soon we caught up with a group of local birdwatchers, stopped on the path. As we neared, one signaled quiet and pointed up to a tree. She offered her binoculars to our ten-year-old daughter and showed her where to search for a colorful, tiny bird with a big, bright beak. She called it toucanito, little toucan. It appeared to be a miniature version of the prominent tropical bird.

Toucanito in the Jungle of Calakmul
Toucanito in the Jungle of Calakmul

About the Ancient Metropolis of Calakmul

In the company of wildlife, seen or heard, we reached the ancient metropolis. Cleared from the surrounding vegetation in recent years, a few of its buildings date from as early as 400 BC.

A few centuries later, by 500 AD the city rivaled the renowned Tikal. At its height, Calakmul was home to around 50,000 Maya who built close to 7,000 structures. But by 900 AD they abandoned their homes, and nature reclaimed the land.

A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Calakmul is one of the largest and most important ancient Maya city from the Pre- Classic and Classic era, a city that played an important role in the history of this civilization for over twelve centuries. The metropolis, the ancient Maya capital of the region during the Late Classic period, was the seat of the Kaan dynasty, also known as the Snake dynasty, the most powerful one in the region at the time.

Rival City of Tikal

During the Classic period of the Maya civilization, between 150 and 900 AD, two major dynasties fought for power, known as the Kaanul Dynasty (Snake dynasty from Calakmul) and the lords of Tikal. These two bloodlines were the most important during the Classic period, each gaining near-supremacy over the Maya world at different times. Both sites marked their power by carving limestone stelae with drawings and hieroglyphic writing, celebrating the kings and their bloodlines.

Calakmul has over a hundred stelae, with recorded texts featuring the Kaanul dynasty. Many of them carved on all four sides, they are all eroded, but still standing.

Similar to Tikal, Calakmul is an enormous site, covering about 27 square miles, with about 6500 known structures. However, while Tikal was well-known and researched since much earlier times, Calakmul stayed hidden in the jungle for much longer, first visited by archaeologists in 1931.

It is the central part of Calakmul, the “downtowns” area with the most monumental structure is the one we see when we visit the site. Covering an area of almost a square mile, even this part takes some serious walking.

The site preserves some of the most intact structures dating from the height of the Maya civilization, in the tropical jungle.

Visiting the Structures

Calakmul. Path in the Jungle
Walking through the jungle in search of pyramids to climb.

We started on a side trail where tape encircling a few buildings stopped us from getting closer. Archaeologists were still excavating there. In one room, they discovered a well-preserved mural. Though they are not permitting entrance to look at it, we examined it on the large picture in front of the construction.

Photo of the murals they recently found in Calakmul
Photo of the murals they recently found in Calakmul

We wandered through the Gran Acropolis, which appeared to be a giant maze, with many connecting chambers. A few times we thought we walked through it, but it kept going. It was getting close to midday and the sun shone stronger. We couldn’t wait to get into the shade of the surrounding jungle again.

Wandering through the Gran Acropolis in Calakmul
Wandering through the Gran Acropolis

A clan of spider monkeys was sleeping in the neighboring trees, their long limbs dropping on the sides of the branches.

Climbing the Pyramids

Calakmul’s name means “city of the two adjacent pyramids.”

Calakmul. View of the two pyramids that gave the site its name
View of the two pyramids that gave the site its name

As we drew closer to the center of the site, we reached one of the highest pyramids in the Maya world. Imposing to look at, no ropes stopped us from climbing it.

We waited for a cloud in the bright sunlit sky and set off towards the top. As I struggled with the stairs, out of breath, I admired my kids climbing up without slowing. I’m getting old for this, I thought, but continued. I stopped often to admire the surroundings and take lots of photos.

My view from halfway up the pyramid of Calakmul
My view from halfway up the pyramid… already above the canopy

When I joined the rest of my family, we sat on a limestone rock in the shade of a tree on top of the 50 meter (160 feet) high pyramid.

Above the canopy, I recognized the immenseness of this center. Far in the distance, in every direction, I noticed signs of further hidden structures, mounds topped with vegetation. Since the Yucatan peninsula is flat, I know that each mound signals a man-made building.

Close enough to notice people on top, I glanced over the second pyramid that gave the site its name. I was looking forward to climbing it, too.

Calakmul. View of the second pyramid from the top of the first
View of the second pyramid from the top of the first

Although the same height as the first, it is more extensive, with a broader base. I didn’t expect that I could climb any more stairs. Still, I had to try.

The sun was arching now and a gentle breeze helped. On top, besides the view, I heard the distinctive call of howler monkeys in the surrounding canopy. Looking closely into the winter canopy, I spotted them in the jungle under us.

Calakmul. The top of one pyramid viewed from the other one
Looking back to the first pyramid we climbed from the top of the second.

Stelae – History Written in Stone

On our walks through the center of the site, we counted a huge number of stelae, limestone slabs filled with images and hieroglyphs. Besides writing it in books, the ancient Maya preserved their history in stone.

Calakmul. Stelae
Stelae in the jungle, by the path.

They drew images besides written texts on these stelae. Calakmul had many erected, 117 known so far, proving its importance. They are standing and cleared, except a few, lying on the ground. The limestone here is too soft though, so the weather and time eroded the pictures and writings on them.

A few stelae looked brand new. I remembered none being so well preserved. On closer inspection, I learned that we were looking at replicas. They look out-of-place, while the originals sit somewhere in a museum, protected, but not enjoyed. But it won’t take long for them to age in the jungle and fit in with the rest of the site.

Calakmul. The pyramid taller than it looks.
It’s taller than it looks. You only see the first level. Replica of a stela in the front and another one halfway through.

Closing Time

We didn’t want to leave yet, but the caretakers reminded us it was closing time. I knew we will see more changes next time we come.

We always find more structures cleared and ready to explore. Years ago, we could only climb one pyramid, vegetation covered the other. Next time we might glimpse on the mural they found.

Quick Facts about Calakmul

  1. What is Calakmul?

    Calakmul (also used as Kalakmul) is both an ancient Maya city – archaeological site, and a nature preserve in Campeche, Mexico. It was one of the most powerful and largest Maya cities.

  2. When was Calakmul built?

    The largest structures in Calakmul were built during the Middle Pre-Classic time period of the ancient Maya civilization, around 550 -300 B.C. Some of the earliest structures date from 400 B.C.

  3. Where is Calakmul?

    Calakmul is in the state of Campeche in southeastern Mexico, in a tropical jungle setting.

  4. How to get to Calakmul?

    From Cancun International Airport drive South to Tulum area. Keep driving south on Hwy 307 towards Chetumal, then West on Hwy 186. Turn left at the Puerta Calakmul, past the town of Xpujil. From there, the road into the ruins is 35 miles/60 km. Though paved, it is narrow, and slow going. Give yourself at least an hour to get there from the turn-off.

  5. Where to stay when visiting Calakmul?

    The closest hotel to the ruins is the Puerta Calakmul. You can also find a campsite close to the ruins. Or, you can stay in Xpujil, the closest town, where you can find a few hotels to choose from.

About the Author

Emese-Réka Fromm has been visiting Maya ruins and archaeological sites for over thirty years, since the first time she set foot on the Yucatan Peninsula on her honeymoon. Besides exploring well-known and off-the-beaten track ruins all this time, she reads about the ancient Maya, and recently attended a lecture of respected Mayanist and epigrapher David Stuart at the Maya meetings at the UT of Austin. A published travel writer with bylines in publications like Lonely Planet and several others, she is also a language instructor in Phoenix.

Travel Notes & Beyond

31 thoughts on “Calakmul: Exploring A Stunning Ancient Maya City in the Jungle”

  1. I had not heard of Calakmul but it looks interesting. Smart thinking to go early and avoid the heat. Cute that you had some playful monkeys where you were staying. Thanks for sharing #TheWeeklyPostcard

  2. What an incredible adventure. That looks right up our alley. It’s so cool that they’re placing replicas so that visitors can have the full impact of the site. It looks like a bit of a climb, but rewarding! Thanks for sharing on #TheWeeklyPostcard!

    1. Yes, the replicas are pretty cool, they are doing it on many sites now. I can picture you guys taking your camping gear and exploring the Yucatan peninsula for a while. I know you’d love it – as soon as you leave the tourist trap of the Riviera ;). Thanks for reading.

  3. I’ve been to Mexico a few times and yet never heard if this place, so many awesome Mayan sites in Mexico, so much to explore. I had to laugh at you being chased by the monkeys! My children would actually enjoy that! Thanks for sharing this beautiful place and your experiences there. #weeklypostcard

    1. Yes, there are so many Mayan sites in Mexico, you’ll still find some that you can explore on your own. We try to find the ones off the beaten track since we visited all the popular ones. I’m sure your children would enjoy the monkeys, mine sure did. Thanks for reading.

  4. I am a big fan of the Mayan civilization. I have been to major sites in different countries but have not spend a lot of time exploring sites on the Yucatan Peninsula. I would love to do an extended road trip around the area and visit different sites (and other attractions). Thanks for reminding me of my love for this civilization! #TheWeeklyPostcard

    1. It’s an amazing civilization, isn’t it? I’ve only spent time exploring sites on the Yucatan peninsula, it’s easy and convenient for us to get there. We have a trip planned to Palenque soon and I still want to go see Tikal, but it’s so hard to get to those sites from where I am, we end up in Yucatan over and over again. Thanks for reading.

  5. I remember climbing the big pyramid in Chichen Itza (a long time ago). Going up was ok, but coming back down was a nightmare. I am very scared of heights and those steps were so narrow that I had to put my food sideways. Calakmul looks like a great archeological site to explore. I wonder how did we miss this when we visited the Yucatan Penninsula. How far is this from Cancun? #TheWeeklyPostcard

    1. Hi, Anda. I’m not surprised you missed it. It’s far from Cancun, not sure in miles, maybe a 7-8 hour drive if you wanted to do it all at once, which we never did. It’s in Campeche, not QR or Yucatan. We didn’t go in the old days, either. The first time we did was after they closed the Chichen Itza pyramid, and we only go if we have at least ten days on the peninsula. I remember climbing the Kukulcan pyramid, it had to be at least twelve years ago. The steps in Calakmul are not as narrow, but coming down is still harder than going up.

  6. Seems like there are so many pyramids down in Central America! Would love to explore them and learn more about them! Such a fascinating part of history I don’t know much about! That’s a shame though that the sandstone is too soft and the pictures have worn away! Thanks for linking up with #TheWeeklyPostcard!

    1. Yes, there are so many, it would take a long time to explore them all. I love that history so I try to get to a lot of these places. Some of them are very accessible, unfortunately, those tend to get crowded, but still worth a visit. Thanks for reading.

    1. Yes, Coba is one of my favorite sites! It is similar to Calakmul, being in the jungle, but more of its structures are excavated and of course, it gets more visitors. I love the village around the site, the lakes in addition to the jungle and ancient structures. Hope you had a great time! Thanks for reading and commenting.

  7. Wow – what amazing ruins! We have really enjoyed visiting ruins in Mexico and Belize, but there is so much more to see! We hadn’t heard of Calakmul. Since we were planning a trip to Tulum, we may be able to divert ourselves and go exploring! Thanks for putting this on our radar. #TheWeeklyPostcard

    1. If you have time, it’s definitely worth the drive down. It is far from Tulum though, plan to stop a few more places. If you plan to stay in La Puerta, it helps to book ahead, just because then you can pay with a card. And who knows, they may be booked (not likely, but you never know these days). Let me know if you have any questions not only about this site but Yucatan in general. Thanks for reading.

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  10. Beautifully descriptive article, I felt like I was walking along side you. It sounds as though the howler monkeys really add to the atmosphere of the ruins. I imagine the sound of them piercing through the darkness when trying to sleep is really quite terrifying too. What an adventure.

    1. I haven’t been in Tikal yet – and it’s been on my list forever. It is just so much harder to get to; we are going to try this winter; otherwise it’ll wait another year. Yes, the howler monkeys are some of the loudest creatures I’ve ever heard. 🙂

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