Mexico

Must-visit: Mayan empire Calakmul in Mexico

One of the highlights your Mexico trip is a visit to the ancient Mayan imperium Calakmul. This lost Mayan city was one of the great empires back in the ancient Mayan times, making it one of the biggest Mayan sights to visit nowadays. Unlike the famous Chichén Itzá ruins, you can climb the pyramids at Calakmul for a phenomenal view. There’s only one reason this hidden gem isn’t mentioned in all travel guides and blogs: it’s remote jungle location.

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Calakmul in Yucatan, Mexico | Mayan temples | The Orange Backpack

How to get to Calakmul?

Calakmul is very much off the beaten track and it’s definitely not easy to get here. Tourist crowds flock to the easily accessible Chichén Itzá, but visiting Calakmul requires a lot more effort. But you will be rewarded with an unique jungle city with only few visitors.

To get to Calakmul, you drive for two hours straight into the jungle. The road leading there, is one straight road leading to nothing else but Calakmul. The start of the road is on the 186, a main road in the south of Yucatán and near the border with Guatemala. This is the exact spot on the map.

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It starts as a paved two-lane road. But it keeps getting narrower along the way, until only a bumpy road with deep potholes remains. Along the way you pass a kind of camping area, almost at the start, and a museum, halfway. But there is nothing else here.

As it is such a long drive to get to Calakmul, it is best to find a hotel near the start of the road. A day trip from for example Laguna Bacalar is possible, but you have to be willing to spend a serious amount of time on the road. The nearest town is Xpujil, a 120 km drive from Calakmul. There are small supermarkets and a few restaurants and hotels in this small town. We booked a cabin at the very cheap and nice Ecohabitat. You wouldn’t expect looking at Ecohabitat from the main road, but down the dirt road are small cottages for guests.

Read more: we wrote an extensive blog with tips for a rental car and driving in Mexico.

The largest Mayan empire in Mexico

Calakmul was once the largest Mayan empire in todays Mexico. The only city that Calakmul could match its size and power is famous Tikal, located in todays Guatemala. The ancient cities actually aren’t very far apart, but there’s only a remote jungle in between them and no road to cross it.

There wasn’t a very friendly bond between Calakmul and Tikal. There was a huge rivalry. Almost all other Mayan cities took sides with either Calakmul or Tikal. So if Tikal attacked an ally, Calakmul was dragged into the conflict and another war started. Mayan history is full of wars and battles between the two rivals. There was never a real winner, as they both defeated each other in bloody battles.

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Historians say Calakmul ruled this area for more than 1,000 years. And by this area I don’t just refer to the ruins you can visit nowadays. The city consisted of hundreds of monuments and it covered tens of square kilometers. It was one of the largest cities in the world. Calakmul is often referred to as the ‘Kingdom of the Snakes’ as Calakmul’s emblem was a snake’s head (Ka’an). You’ll notice this sign throughout the Yucatán Peninsula in the Mayan cities of Calakmul’s allies.

Calakmul in Yucatan, Mexico | Mayan temples | The Orange Backpack

The largest pyramids in Calakmul

It’s no surprise such a big city left us with one of the biggest pyramids in the world. And not just one. Calakmul has many, many pyramids. The biggest one is Estructura II. The base is about 140 meters long and the pyramid measures more than 50 meters. This makes it one of the largest Mayan pyramids and an amazing must-see in Mexico. Like many pyramids, Extructura II has grown this big by expansions over time.

Tip: If you think you have reached the top of Estructura II, walk around the top. On the other side, the pyramid has second top and this one is the highest.

Estructura I is the second largest pyramid of Calakmul. And even this one is extremely high with a size of 40 meters. From the top you can see Estructura II above the jungle treetops. This pyramid is just as gigantic, but it was a lot quieter here during our visit. Every visitor wants to see the biggest of all of course, and many don’t have the energy to climb up another one again. But make sure you do that, as the views from the top are beautiful.

The city complex of Calakmul is gigantic and you can enjoy yourself here for hours and hours. You will see impressive pyramids, old palaces, city walls and many stelas. Stelas are stone pillars with images and inscriptions. They are gold to archaeologists who use them to learn about Mayan history. Some of those stelas are well preserved and still clearly show the images of Calakmul monarchs.

Don’t be scared of the dinosaur sound during your visit. Those are howler monkeys! These little monkeys make a huge noise. We have read that this sound is said to have been recorded for the Jurassic Park movies and hearing these crazy noises that could very well be true.

Calakmul in Yucatan, Mexico | Mayan temples | The Orange Backpack

Practical tips

# 1 There are no real bathroom. Only some sawdust toilets at the entrance, but they are not very clean and a bit smelly.

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# 2 You can’t find a hotel close to Clakamul. After all, it is a 2-hour drive into the jungle. Only one camping spot can be found along that road. In and around Xpujil, a 120 km drive, you will find most hotels. We chose the very cheap and highly recommended cabins of Ecohabitat.

# 3 Along the 186 main road are more Mayan ruins. So combine your visit to Calakmul with more sights in the area.

# 4 Go early. It can get super hot in the jungle in the afternoon. And it’s much quieter early in the morning, although it will never get as busy in Calakmul as in Chichén Itzá.

# 5 Then go to the great pyramid first. To have the great pyramid ‘Estructura II’ to yourself, you have to go there immediately at opening time. Even then you have the chance that there are other travelers with the same idea. We were there with only one other couple.

# 6 And then head to the second pyramid. Continue straight to Estructura I. We had this one all to ourselves.

# 7 Educate yourself about Calakmul in advance. Calakmul only really comes to life if you have some background information. Learn about the battles with Guatemala’s great rival Tikal and about the size of Calakmul to really get a sense of the ancient Mayan city.

# 8 Bring food and especially drinks, lots of it. It can get very hot, so bring plenty of water. It is also recommended to bring your own food and snacks. There is nothing to buy in Calakmul itself; at the museum they sell expensive drinks and some food, but it isn’t close to the ruins at all.

# 9 Wear long clothes and use insect repellent. There are so many mosquitoes in the Calakmul jungle. Make sure to wear long but airy clothes to protect yourself. Insect repellent probably won’t help much.

# 10 You pay multiple entrance tickets. For the park, for the nature reserve and for the ruins. The prices change often and we coulnd’t found a single travel guide or blog that mentoined the correct prices during our visit. We paid a total of 188 pesos per person: 50 pesos right at the gate at the start of the road, 68 pesos halfway at a second gate, and 70 pesos at the ruins.

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