Calakmul

Top choice in Calakmul

Quite unlike any other Maya city you'll visit in Yucatán, Calakmul was ‘discovered’ in 1931 by American botanist Cyrus Lundell, and is located deep in the jungle miles from modern civilization. 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 Mexico's 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 6000 structures lie covered in jungle. 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 Maya (as opposed to the usual political, ceremonial or religious themes). 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.

Unfortunately, the murals and frieze are not open to the public, but 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, archaeological and natural-history exhibits.

At the time of research, you pay three different fees: the community entrance (M$50), biosphere entrance (M$72) and the site entrance (M$75). This combination seems subject to change. Note that the outer gates close for entry at 2:30pm, as you'll need over an hour's driving time to reach the site itself. Also note that there is no water or food on sale within the reserve, so be sure to bring plenty of water and snacks with you.