Calakmul is a remote and incredible Maya site in Campeche, Mexico, containing the remains of a vast and once-powerful ancient city. Extremely remote, the site has few if any tourists and offers an incredible experience to those willing to make the journey to explore its ancient remains.
History of Calakmul
A major rival to the city of Tikal, Calakmul is believed to have primarily been built between 600BC and 250AD, although the two cities became rivals primarily in the sixth and seventh centuries AD. At its height it was thought to have had estimated to have a population of 50,000, spanning over 27 square miles.. However, as with many cities in the region, Calakmul was slowly abandoned with the collapse of Maya power, around 900AD.
Once comprising of thousands of buildings and other structures, even today Calakmul is only partially excavated: the jungle is extremely dense and excavation is hard work. However, these ruins contain huge pyramids, temples and other structures which are truly awe-inspiring to behold, including the ‘Great Pyramid’ which is the tallest pyramid in the Yucatan and the largest Mayan structure discovered so far. Calakmul was far from sources of natural water so the Mayans built a system of reservoirs which are still used by archaeologists today.
Calakmul was ‘rediscovered’ in 1931 by an American botanist named Cyrus Lundell, who gave the site its name, Calakmul. Initial surveys were completed shortly afterwards, but the site remained untouched between 1938 and 1982, when archaeologists returned to the site. Ongoing excavation work continues today, and only a relatively small portion of the entire site has been uncovered or explored.
The site is located deep in the jungle: it’s hot and sticky, so bring plenty of water and snacks as you won’t find any to buy this far into the jungle. Mosquito repellent is also useful!
The site will take several hours to explore, and to be honest it’s easy to spend an entire day here without trying. Wear sturdy footwear for the pyramids and climbing over ruins. The sweaty climb to the top of the Great Pyramid is particularly spectacular: you’ll be able to see across the top of the jungle canopy, and on a clear day, you might even spot El Mirador, over the border in Guatemala.
There’s a small archaeological museum on the road to Calakmul through the jungle which is worth stopping at, if only to aid your imagination in picturing what this site would have looked like.
Bringing a guide, or hiring one there is a good idea if you want a fuller picture of the site and how it operated in its Maya heyday. Jungle walks are also highly recommended, but it tends to be best to go with a guide.
Getting to Calakmul
Calakmul is in the southern reaches of Mexico, about 20km north of the Guatemalan border and buried deep in the jungle of the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve. It’s a trek to get here, which is why many think it feels quite so magical. The nearest town is Xpujil, about two hours drive away, which has basic amenities including accommodation for travellers, although this isn’t desperately easy to get to – you’ll need to find the right bus combination from either Bacalar or Chetumal.
Some firms run day trips from Campeche, which are something of a whirlwind but good if you’re short on time.
Discover the best Historic Sites in Mexico, from Chichen Itza to Palenque and more, includes an interactive map of Mexican cultural locations, landmarks and monuments.
Discover a comprehensive list of the most stunning ancient cities in the world, from Pompeii to Calixtlahuaca and more, includes an interactive ancient city map.
Discover the best pyramids of the world, from Giza to the Sun Temple of Konark and more, includes an interactive map of ancient pyramids around the world.
Discover the astonishing ancient cities of Mexico, from Chichen Itza to Palenque and more, includes an interactive map of lost cities and ancient ruins in Mexico.