Report: Calakmul, Dzibanche, Hwy 186.
Replies: 15 - Last Post: Dec 14, 2012 1:43 PM Last Post By: alterigor
Dec 11, 2012 3:33 PM
Report: Calakmul, Dzibanche, Hwy 186.We have just returned from a trip to Yucatan. I will break the report in to few parts to make it more usable and manageable. Though not in correct chronological order, I will start with our travel alongside Hwy 186 in southern Q.R. and Campeche states because few folks indicated recently that they are planning to visit this area in a near future so hopefully my report will come handy and in time. Before I start - many thanks to regulars here whose help and advice we used to plan our trip.
Setup: three middle-age guys in Fiat Panda that is marked as but in reality is not 4x4.
Language skills: one of us speaks near-perfect Spanish. No, it's not me :)
Budget: we used to back-pack; we do mid-range now. We don't like to spend on comfort (when travel w/o kids, at least) but will pay extra to buy time, which we always lack.
Some of our experiences were excellent, some - not so good, some - ugly. Here are details. As always, I will try to provide details that I think will be helpful to others and that are not immediately found as is in recent copies of LP or Rough Guide.
Practicalities We traveled Hwy 186 from the point where it meets Hwy 307 on the east (20 km away from either Chetumal or Bacalar) to the point where it meets Hwy 261 at Escarsega in the west. The distance between those two points is almost 300 km.
The pavement quality of Hwy 186 is mediocre. Not as bad as secondary roads in the area but are not particularly good. And yes, I am comparing to Hwys in Central Mexico, not the US.
Small town/village of Xpujil is seemingly the largest settlement along Hwy 186. It is 190 km from Escarsega and 120 km away from Chetumal.
Xpujil is reportedly the only place to get gas between Chetumal and Escarsega. I can confirm that there are no PEMEX stations between Xpujil and Escarsega. We were not paying close attention during the eastern part of our journey between Bacalar and Xpujil so I can't confirm whether there are PEMEX stations there -- but I suggest to assume there are none.
We took plenty of cash from ATM in Bacalar before starting our trip. We did not check whether there was a ATM in Xpujil as we did not need more cash but LP reported there was none few years back so assume there is none. Hotels and restaurants will take credit card but sites admissions and most stores/vendors are cash only.
1. Corredor Arquelogico: Awesome. All three sites we visited, Dzibanche, Kinichna, and Kohunlich are everything the guidebooks promise and perhaps more. Isolated, tranquil, beautiful. Almost no access restriction (so please use your conscience and curb a desire to climb everything to avoid damage to wonderful architectural heritage!) Beautiful places.
Notes: Rough advises against climbing Kinichna as not as interesting; we found it beautiful and do suggest to climb it if you are already at the site.
Getting there: We took of from Bacalar in the morning (9:30 am), visited all three sites, and had plenty of time to get to Xpujil. We decided to go to Calakmul and got there, after a dinner at Xpujil, by 8 pm.
Public Transport. Both LP and Rough confirms it is a difficult affair. However, they appears partially incorrect when they write that there is no public transport to either site from both Xpujil or Chetumal. We saw a large bus going Chetumal-Limonar which passes a turn to Dizbanche which is only 5 km walk. Kinichna is 2 extra kilometers both ways. This is a better option compared to anything guide books suggest.
Bad The archaeological "work" conducted at the sites is a bit awful. Especially, "restorations" they apply to famed masks at Kuhunlich right about now. The sooner your get there, the more of original art you'll see!
Bad The roads to all sites are paved. However, potholes are terrible and can kill your tires with ease. Don't speed! - and by that I mean 40 to 50 km/hr should be your speed if you are a confident driver, imo.
2. Rio Bec Area Oh well, we missed those. It was a hard decision but after a day at Dzibnanche and Co, we decided to go straight to Calakmul area to visit Calakmul site next day. The thinking was that we came from seeing Tulum and Coba while Uxmal was still on our schedule. We decided that to make sure we don't start hating all the Mayan ruins at some point because we overdo them, we need to make a break - e.g., we decided to spend two days in a row at the ruins (Dizbanche and Co; and Calakmul) and then move to Campeche for a change of scenery. Oh well, we'll visit Rio Bec sites next time.
Practicality We ate at the restaurant at the Hotel Calakmul at Xpujil and the food was good (I had a tripa soup, though I forgot its name, it was great :-) and the place got very busy by the time we were leaving (6:30 pm). I also checked the rooms in the hotel which were totally fine, as LP and Rough promised. LP and Rough suggest a village of Zoh-Laguna 10 km north from 186 instead of Xpujil for staying a night as the village is tranquil and quiet compared to Xpujil that sees trucks going through all day/night long. We drove to the village and it looked OK and basic. We opted out but now I will actually be looking forward to read future reports from other travelers to see if anyone tries to stay there and shares experience.
This very recent thread that provides plenty of lodging information for Rio Bec area and Calakmul area. I can hardly add much to it.
3. Calakmul: Awesome. The site is everything you expect and more. Very different from that in Dizbanche and even Kohunlich. The grounds open to public are huge, even though only a part of the original city is excavated. There are three routes you can walk, through the jungles: short, medium, and long -- we took the long one but perhaps medium would suffice as well (some of the ancient residential areas that are covered by long route only are of limited interest to general tourists, imo).
Transport You get to the site by riding an access road from the Hwy 186 for about 60 kms that takes about 1 hr and 15 minutes.
Public Transport No extra comments here.
Admission/Not so good You have to pay three times. You need to pay at ejido's checkpoint for the 20 km of the road you are going to drive through their land. Next, you pay Park Preservation Commission (or whatever their title is, the same as with any other National Parks such as Itza and Popo near D.F.) - for the 40 something km of the road you drive through the park. Finally you pay for the entrance to the site itself.
I am actually OK to pay them all, sure, even if I was told ejido does nothing to the public benefit and the road is fully maintained by Parks commission using federal money. Instead, it bugs me that everyone takes money w/o as much as explaining, unless a tourist asks, why they keep charging travelers every so often for the access to the same site. Just pay and move on. I am sure most tourists who pay at the park admission check-point think this is actually a fee for the site itself. My friends sure thing did - I only knew it was for the park's admission because they give you wristbands instead of tickets and I was familiar with those wristbands because I hiked Izta volcano in the national park before. Most people don't realize that and arrive at the site entrance where they are asked to pay again.
Lodging/Restaurant Again, see the post linked above. There is an option in reply #5 that looks mighty attractive to me, cheap and nice cabanas just few kms towards Escarsega - I wish I knew about this option before we get there :))
Bad - see comments about secondary roads quality above.
4: Ugly. Sorry if I am going to spoil an afternoon to anyone with warnings. I was not actually going to but few recent posts about issues travelling some parts of Mexico chaged my mind. So -- Escarsega.
OK, I read it was going to be dusty and unattractive town. I did not know it was going to be so, well, dishonest. 1) We were stopped by cops right at the entrance to the town and charged with a violation that was very dubious at best. At any rate, they immediately proceed to ask for a bribe. Not even a shade of formal process - bold extortion of pay bribe here and now and leave. I don't want to go into details - after 10 to 15 minutes of talks, we ended up not paying and driving away not harmed in any way but nevertheless feeling rather down and beaten up, though, naturally, very happy we escaped. The thing is we were picked again at the entrance of Cancun few days later and that time we all were 100% sure they made up a violation completely. I was positive that the reason they picked us was our slightly irregular Cancun rental car with three tourists who slow down too much entering the check-point. Obviously, tourist gringos, easy prey.
2) Back to Escarsega. After an encounter with cops, we drove west and went to fill up gas at PEMEX at the intersection with Hwy 261. The amount was not zeroed. I pointed out to the attendant from inside the car but he ignored me. My friend who was outside stopped his hand before he started pumping and repeated a request to zero amount out. He made a dramatic move with opera style "Permissssso miiiii" to zero it out as if it was an accident. Of course it was, suuure - the amount just happened to be exactly 100 pesos.
Anyhow, I got out and went to the store to buy snacks and break 500 and walked back. The amount was 335 which was in line with previous fill-ups. I gave him 400, he went to the "manager" to get change, returned and dropped handful of change from his palm to mine. The whole 15 pesos in small coins - and started walking away. I caught his shoulder and asked for the rest. He open his other palm and gave me the 50. I always tip. I always tip people at PEMEX. But of course we left nothing to the guy who tried to cheat us twice.
The issue I have with all this is not this particular guy or these particular cops. You cannot work on this gas station and be an honest man - you have to share with the rest. You cannot be a partner of this cop and be an honest man. It is appealing how bad things are with the service/tourism industry in Yucatan compared to the Central Mexico (and yes, we had few more negative experiences renting a car in Cancun airport, staying in hotel in Cancun a night before departure, etc). I don't want to discuss potential reasons, of course they are complex and multidimensional -- and we can easily arrive at blaming anyone from Uncle Sam to P.R.I. for the issues and conditions people live in Yucatan that force them to cheat. But the bottom line, imo, is that there are issues with scams and corruption in Yucatan that are more severe than in some other parts of the country popular with independent travelers -- and those issues can mess up one's positive experience, if not, probably, overshadow it. So one should be prepared to face and experience them.
Thank you and hope this helps,
Edited by: alterigor
Dec 11, 2012 4:13 PM
1Great report and thanks for taking the time to post it.
Yeah, my friend that travelled through Xpujil to Calakmul three years ago had the same scam run on him at the same PEMEX station. I try to have exact cash to pay with and watch that they zero out the pump before pumping.
I figured a lot of the area was on a cash economy, but good to hear it confirmed.
Dec 11, 2012 4:47 PM
Dec 11, 2012 5:36 PM
3The Pemex scam is VERY common. When I stop the car, I jump out right away to monitor the situation....leaving the pump at 100 pesos is a common ploy as you you do not notice it as quick. Always identify the denomination as you hand it over,(so you don't get the quick switch) and count your change. I also always tip the honest.
Unfortunatly, the mordida is alive and well in the Yucatan area. They have such a large volumne of tourists to prey on that don't know Mexico and are such easy prey it becomes fairly common. Outside of the usual high intensity tourist areas in other parts of Mexico it was rare. When I was stopped in central Mexico for a violation, (usually a burned out traffic light bulb) I would ask to go to the police station where I would pay a modest fine.
Mexico is a great country to travel in....especially when you learn the "in and outs" we love it. We have travelled Mexico for the past 40 years and are planning our two month Jan/Feb trip right now!!
Dec 11, 2012 5:47 PM
4The name of the tripe soup is Menudo......Pemex stations ALL over Mexico will try and cheat you every time they can.
I carry two drivers licenses and tapes to the back is the phone numbers of the Mexican Internal Affairs, they have always let me go on my way.......
Dec 11, 2012 9:35 PM
5Yes Menudo! - thank you, Bajadude!
cdffiorefly -- I have only been travelling in Mexico for 14 years :)) but I totally agree - it's great country to travel, experience, spend time, etc... And we liked ruins and Bacalar and small towns along Ruta de los Conventos this time around.
But by far most of my time in Mexico over the years has been spent in Central Highlands and twice that I hit Yucatan over last three years, my experience was quite different from that travels in Central Mexico. As an example, I guess I'll have to respectfully disagree with Bajadude re Pemex scams. There are I am sure dishonest employees everywhere but Yucatan is the only area I've been to where at all gas station attendants are either trying to cheat with the the preset amount or shows you explicitly he is zeroing it out. Why do they show it so explicitly? Because the scam is so common, customers watch for it. I do not remember employees doing so at PEMEX in Queretaro or Sierra Gorda or Puebla.
Anyhow, I should have perhaps save this negativism for a separate post; hopefully the rest of (positive) info will still be helpful for folks planning the trip.
Dec 12, 2012 7:23 AM
Dec 12, 2012 7:35 AM
Dec 12, 2012 10:27 AM
8LW...I disagree that "dishonesty is part of the DNA of Mexico and probably most Mexicans".
I believe that poverty and desperation is more of the drive to get a little extra.....not part of their DNA. I find most of the Mexican people I meet to be honest people that care for their families.
Dec 12, 2012 1:48 PM
Dec 12, 2012 8:28 PM
10Thanks for the report, it really helps.
I was wondering if you had rain in the trip. We have been having heavy rain and thunderstorms here in Playa and in Cozumel. I checked Weatherunderground and the rain seems to be continuing till about December 20th, including heavy rain in the Calakmul area on the 18th when we were planning on being there. Anyone know how the road is in the rain?
Also how would a Dodge Aptos with small tires survive the potholes on the Calakmul road. I was going to rent the cheapest small car but am thinking a larger car with bigger tires might be better. We don't want to rent a 4X4...we are on a small budget.
We are thinking of reversing our trip, going to Merida now (where it doesn't seem to be raining) and doing the southern ruin route in early January when the weather seems better.
Dec 12, 2012 11:17 PM
Dec 13, 2012 11:07 AM
We encounter rain just once, in Bacalar, it was a very quick thunderstorm. It was over in 10 minutes. It was not sunny some other days but we did not hit rain weather other than that.
The roads to all sites I mentioned are paved but I do not know if heavy rain may flood them. I think your decision to go Merida first and go south from there once rains are over is wise :)) While in Merida, visit at least some little towns along Ruta de los Conventos (close to Uxmal and other Pooc sites), those are wonderful and easy places to visit.
Fiat Panda is a small car with small wheels. We did not hit any potholes and I do not recommend hitting them. Just drive at the speed where you are comfortable maneuvering around them.
Also, you don't need 4x4 unless you plan to visit any places that require driving some bad dirt roads. Our car was not 4x4 - Fiat Panda comes in both versions and American Rental agency had large 4x4 stickers placed on both sides of the car but of course this particular car was not: it did not have rear axles nor drive shaft!
Hope this helps. Have an amazing trip!! :))
Dec 13, 2012 11:28 AM
13Thanks for that report. I read the part about Escarcega with interest. I stayed there overnight a year ago, and you can imagine my alarm when I had difficulty getting a bus ticket out of town the next day, I thought I would be stuck there! No place to eat unless you like tacos for breakfast, morning and dinner. I wasn´t treated badly there, but one day was more than enough for this traveler. Still. these experiences make for good stories, if nothing else.
Dec 13, 2012 3:11 PM
14You didn't hear anything about Ichkabal while you were in the neighborhood, did you? I know INAH has been developing it for tourism at the same time the Dzibanche project is working on an extensive excavation/survey program, but details are not forthcoming about either process. Last I heard the folks in the Bacalar ejido were feeling left out of the development plan and were considering shutting off INAH's ability to work on-site.
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