Possibly the largest city during Maya times, Calakmul was ‘discovered’ in 1931 by American botanist Cyrus Lundell. The site bears comparison in size and historical significance to Tikal in Guatemala, its chief rival for hegemony over the southern lowlands during the Classic Maya era. It boasts the largest and tallest known pyramid in Yucatán, and was once home to over 50,000 people.
A central chunk of the 72-sq-km expanse has been restored, but most of the city’s approximately 7000 structures lie covered in jungle. Exploration and restoration are ongoing, however, and occasionally something very special comes along. In 2004, amazingly well-preserved painted murals were discovered at the Chiik Naab acropolis of Estructura 1. They depicted something never before seen in Maya murals – the typical daily activities of ordinary Mayans (as opposed to the usual political, ceremonial or religious themes). And a few years before that, a significant 20m-long, 4m-high stucco frieze was uncovered at Estructura II, whose features seemed to mark a transition between Olmec and Maya architecture.
The murals and frieze were still not open for public viewing during our research, but hopefully will be in the years to come. For now, their reproductions can be seen at Calakmul's modern Museo de Naturaleza y Arqueología, at Km 20 on the 60km side road to Calakmul. This worthwhile museum also has geological, archeological and natural-history exhibits.
Visiting Calakmul is also an ecological experience. Lying at the heart of the vast, untrammeled Reserva de la Biosfera Calakmul (which covers close to 15% of the state’s total territory), the ruins are surrounded by rainforest, with cedar, mahogany and rubber trees dotting a seemingly endless canopy of vegetation. While wandering amid the ruins, you may glimpse ocellated turkeys, parrots and toucans among the over 350 bird species that reside or fly through here. It's also possible to see or hear spider and howler monkeys, but much less likely to spot a jaguar – one of five kinds of wildcat in the area. There are also many other mammal, reptile and amphibian species that call this biosphere home. Animals are most active during mornings and evenings.
Calakmul is 60km south of highway 186 at the end of a good paved road (the turnoff is 56km west of Xpujil). Give yourself at least a full day (or two) not only to get to Calakmul, but to see the extensive ruins – both driving and walking distances are great. Just the 60km side road in from Hwy 186 to the ruins takes an hour. For an online map of the ruins, see http://mayaruins.com/calakmul/calakmul_map.html.