Mayan city of Calakmul

DFN: Calakmul was one of the many cities my wife and I visited in 2005. We traveled over 2,000 kilometres around the Yucatan Peninsula, and did not spend 1 day in Cancun. We drove 65 kilometers south of highway 186, a few miles from the Guatemala border. When we got there, its was a Sunday, we were charged a couple of pesos to get into the ruins (we’d expected to get in for free). Much bigger ball court than Chicen Itza, impressive temple which you could climb to the top, seven levels, with wide, expansive terraces. Wonderful views from the top. We had the ruins to ourselves that day, NOBODY, expect the ticket takers.

Calakmul: Into the Kingdom of the Serpent’s Head

CALAKMUL, MEXICO — The dawn had crept slowly through the jungle, seeking out the places the night had been and shining its light onto the ruins of this ancient Mayan metropolis.

It was barely 7 a.m., but we were already on top of the world, with the jungle canopy spread wide beneath us — thick green rising 80 feet and stretching unbroken to every horizon. Howler monkeys had the volume dialed up to 11, and squawking swarms of parrots and parakeets raced among the treetops.

My wife, Kate, and I and our guide, Diane Lalonde, had slowly worked our way 175 feet into the sky among the long-abandoned bits and pieces of this city and past giant stone masks set into this pyramid’s face. We stood atop the massive building known as Structure II and had this lost world in the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve to ourselves.

We were temporary lords of a city that covers 10 square miles, where 7,000 structures have been mapped so far, virtually all, save for those within a few hundred yards of this pyramid, dozing untouched and overgrown.

Royal tombs, troves of jade, carved stone masks, human sacrifice, tales of kings and conquest — Calakmul has produced enough of each to fuel a million Indiana Jones fantasies. It may be Mexico’s best-kept archaeological secret, blessedly off the beaten path in a 1.8 million-acre wilderness the jaguar still haunts along the Guatemala border. You have to want to be here. We wanted to be here badly enough to pile into Diane’s aging SUV well before dawn for the two-hour ride to the ruins.

The Maya never achieved an empire, as did the Aztecs or Inca; they existed in frequently warring city states, with shifting allegiances often sealed by marriage or other blood ties. In its 14 centuries, Calakmul became one of the largest and most powerful of them all, with armies, vassal states and trade routes to the corners of its world. For more than a century, it dominated even mighty Tikal 60 miles south in what is now Guatemala.

Calakmul was a city built to impress, ruled by men whose names — even today and in English — sound heroic: Jaguar Claw, Ax Wielder, Sky Witness, Split Earth. Its enormous structures, huge plazas and sheer size reflect pure power.

Today, it leaves much to the imagination. The buildings on which archaeologists have worked are generally only partly restored or just stabilized. Most, even in the city’s central acropolis, sprout at least a few trees. They’re left where they are because the roots do more to staple a building together than pry it apart.

Structure II is huge almost beyond belief. At more than 160 yards on a side, this centerpiece pyramid covers more than five acres. And just when you think you’ve climbed near the top, the pyramid’s crowning temple rears even higher and farther back. It’s so big and so steep that the only way to see the entire thing is from a narrow rock wall atop another building clear across the site.

Throughout Calakmul, beautiful stone masks stared at us from shapeless cascades of rock the jungle had set loose. Layers of staircases from buildings’ architectural pasts stepped right on top of each other. Some dilapidated structures — little more than tree-studded hills, really — show trenches where archaeologists have dug away the first layer to reveal an earlier building beneath. It was the Maya habit to build the next era’s pyramids over those of the last. That makes excavation of each building like unwrapping a succession of ever-more-astounding presents.

Gigantic stone altars lie all over. The Maya used them for rituals magnificent and mundane. We used one about 10 feet across for our picnic table.

AERIAL DISCOVERYCalakmul was rediscovered in 1931 because of the world’s taste for chewing gum. The ruins were spotted from the air during a search for sources of chicle, the raw material for gum. The site has been a treasure trove since serious archaeological work began about 25 years ago. Burials have yielded exquisite jade funeral masks, ceramics and other grave goods.

We stood outside a series of small, plain temples to the north of the main plaza. They contain what are said to be some of the most beautiful murals found so far in the Maya world — paintings that cover every square inch of interior wall space. The murals have been restored, but the buildings have been sealed with concrete. I looked at photos in a magazine Diane carried and tried to imagine the jaw-dropping jolt as the first person in 10 centuries laid eyes on something so magnificent.

“I got to peek into the temples for a look when the restorers from Mexico City were working on the murals,” she said. “They were pretty good about letting me in for a quick look. The archaeologists never would have.”

Later, we ran our hands over a 12-foot-tall intricately carved limestone slab planted vertically. On it was the well-weathered likeness of a king of Calakmul in the guise of the god he personified. In his hand was what looked like a knife or a scepter and at his feet appeared to be a captive. In a ritual designed to satisfy both political expedience and the gods’ blood lust, rulers of other cities captured in battle usually were executed.

More than 200 of these slabs — called stelae — have been found so far at Calakmul. They were the political billboards of the day. Glyphs carved into the stone tell the king’s lineage and tales of conquest and glory.

We found them singly and in bunches among the plazas and sometimes lying where they’d fallen along tiny trails littered with pea-sized pottery shards. Some bore the scars of saws, where looters had tried to steal the valuable carvings — and sometimes had succeeded.

t took decades for scientists to decipher those glyphs. But once they did, the ancient Mayas’ tale began to be told. Now, we know the city’s real name. It translates as Kingdom of the Serpent’s Head, far more formidable sounding than City of Adjacent Pyramids, the English translation of Calakmul, a name bestowed by early researchers.

Whoever carved that stela reached through time, telling me he had stood where I stood, seen what I saw, touched what I touched. That connection has always been the magic that draws me to ancient places, and it never gets old.

No tour buses jam Calakmul’s parking lot, large enough for maybe 15 cars. A relative handful of small hotels — most a couple of hours from the ruins proper — house the few people who venture to Calakmul. This site is the crown jewel of a collection of Mayan archaeological sites. The area is known as the Rio Bec region, after the architectural style of the buildings. It stretches along about 70 miles of Mexico Hwy. 186 where the Yucatan bolts onto the Americas, about midway between the cities of Chetumal on the Caribbean coast and Campeche on the Gulf of Mexico.

For the 15,000 people a year who take this unbeaten track to explore the ruins and experience the biosphere’s intense wealth of life, the rewards are close to incomparable, the lessons sobering.

A millennium ago, much of the jungle around Calakmul and mortal foe Tikal would have been farm fields and smaller settlements. Each of the super-cities was packed with perhaps 50,000 people or more. Feeding everyone required much of the surrounding countryside and demanded much from the poor soil. And creating the lime used to plaster the buildings and pave the roads required enormous amounts of firewood, leading many archaeologists to think the ancient Maya over-farmed, over-populated and clear-cut their way to ecological trouble.

It’s a story that echoes down the centuries: The Maya wreaked havoc on an environment far more fragile than it looks.

The jaguar, worshipped by the ancient Maya, is threatened by modern man. The chance to see one of these cats was why we wanted to enter the reserve as close to dawn as possible — and as early as we could persuade Diane that it was sensible to go. She and her husband, Rick Bertram, run Rio Bec Dreams, a collection of cozy cabañas and a terrific restaurant about an hour from the biosphere’s entrance. They also guide visitors to Calakmul and other Rio Bec ruins.

We didn’t see any cats, but as Diane drove the 35 miles of one-lane paved road from Hwy. 186 into the biosphere, we surprised dozens of flocks of ocellated turkeys, who found the road easier going than a walk through the solid green wall of the jungle. The iridescent birds ran along the pavement ahead of us and launched themselves with all the grace of bowling balls on the wing. We also saw currasow, chachalacas, a few hawks and enough other kinds of birds to fill an Audubon scrapbook.

The biosphere is a Noah’s Ark, home to almost 300 species of birds, 100 species of mammals, hundreds of types of butterflies and moths and dozens of reptile and amphibian species. Bats snoozed away the day in some of the ruins, oblivious to our wanderings just a few feet below. Shortly after we left the car, I had stepped carefully across 6-inch wide tracks worn into the hard ground by countless generations of leafcutter ants, each carrying over its head a postage stamp-size piece of leaf to the nest to be used in the cultivation of the fungus they eat.

Delicate orchids — dozens of varieties decorate the biosphere — cascade colorfully from trees, and spiky bromeliads line trunks from bottom to top. Spanish moss and vines drape branches. Strangler vines wrap some trunks to create breathtaking natural sculpture.

In more than eight hours exploring the city, we crossed paths with three small groups of visitors — fewer than a dozen people.

When we returned to the parking lot, one other car was there, and the sun had already started to settle.

Soon, the mid-winter night would recapture the jungle it had lost just hours ago, and once-mighty Calakmul would sleep in darkness again


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