It's been established previously on my blog that my husband and I are adventurous travelers, and we love going off the beaten path, and we avoid resorts and seek out the alternative vacation. Our last trip to the Yucatan was no exception.
One of our favorite things to do is explore Mayan cities. My husband started college as an anthro major because of his love of the culture. We both devour information, read books, watch specials, and are students of the Maya and their history and impact. In short: we are history nerds.
We have been working our way around the various sites on the peninsula (with plans to someday make it to Guatemala to visit Palenque), and the city of Calakmul was calling to us. But it was not easy to get there - there's a comedian based in Maine whose biggest joke is, "You cahn't get theyah from heeyah," and Calakmul is sort of like that. There's just no good way to get there. (The whole reason we discovered Bacalar actually was we were looking for a place to stay on the way down the peninsula to break up the trip.)
Our plan was to visit Puerto Morelos (just south of Cancun), drive to Bacalar for a few days, then drive deep into the jungle and spend a night at the only hotel near Calakmul, get up early, visit the site, then drive back to Bacalar for another night before trekking north to Puerto Morelos for another day before flying home.
Calakmul is surrounded by a Biosphere Reserve - it. is. the. jungle. Monkeys, exotic birds, foxes, agoutis, tapirs, kincajous, bats, and several big cats including of course the jaguar. (And let's not forget the giant spiders!) Once you get to the Reserve, it is a drive down a 60 kilometer bumpy, poorly-maintained road. Just outside of the reserve is the last place you can stay: Hotel Puerta Calakmul. (Okay, there's a place nearby where you can literally camp - as in bring your own tent - but that was pushing it even for us.)
We booked a room with three beds for the night. We arrived during a torrential downpour - and were amused and delighted that the "reception" area of the hotel is literally a palapa in the jungle. We were led to our own jungle hut, with a thatched roof, screened walls, three beds with mosquito netting, a ceiling fan, and a nice bathroom. There were pathways to a cave full of bats (it was too rainy for us to bother), a small but nice in-ground pool, and all throughout the jungle to view wildlife, which were all hiding out of the rain.
Before we went to dinner at the restaurant, we quickly visited another nearby Mayan site, Balamku. We arrived just before closing, and had to run with a guide to see the main attraction. Looters had started to uncover the site, and had partially excavated incredible stucco work with original paint still intact, and once the archaeologists spotted the work they took over the site and worked to professionally uncover and preserve it. A smallish temple, they have enclosed a portion under a secure structure with a locked door. We needed the guide to let us in with his keys, and the jogging through the jungle was worth the effort. We also spotted a tarantula the size of a dinner plate in the tombs below, which was truly a harbinger of things to come.
After our adventures at Balamku, we went back to the hotel to clean up and eat. The restaurant was spectacular. It was a four or five star meal - in the jungle! We couldn't believe our luck that the only food within a two hour drive was some of the best we'd ever get to eat. A large building, three sides all screens so you can view the animals, and wifi, and great service. We had the finest mole sauce over chicken we've ever sampled, we had chicken covered in onions sauteed in local honey, quesadillas full of manchego cheese and pickled hibiscus flowers. We had wonderful drinks, steaks, and unexpectedly, some of the best french fries in North America. (I believe Anthony Bourdain is right to judge a restaurant on its quality of french fries. We loved these so much we got a second order.)
The beds were surprisingly comfortable, with high-quality linens and pillows. We had two full size beds and a twin; my husband is 6'5" and we gave him one of the full size beds, I happily chose the twin bed, and our friends we were traveling with took the other full size. Being in the jungle, during a thunderstorm, with no tv or cell reception, and full of delicious food we all settled in early for bed. I was heartbroken to not hear monkeys or jaguars, but sincerely had one of the best nights of sleep I've ever had traveling, with the sound of rain all night. The same could not be said for my husband.
His mosquito netting had a hole, and before even settling in for the night he found a Jurassic-sized insect, something between a stick and a grasshopper in appearance, and the size of a Swingline stapler. He had to extract the giant creature, and then finagle a way to get the hole closed, using paper clips, while we all giggled at his efforts from under the safety of our own netting. Our friend Aldo visited the bathroom around 2am, and found something resembling a cricket, only the size of a banana, in the toilet. When he tried flushing the insect, it merely swam in the water as if on vacation itself.
Aldo, tired and concerned about the reaction of anyone else who might find the unwanted guest, did the best he could to warn the next user of the bathroom. He closed the toilet lid, and draped a towel over the bowl. His thought was that the bug would stay in the toilet, so it wouldn't escape and surprise one of us in the shower the next morning. And he thought the towel would warn the next person that there may be something...waiting.
As the sun rose the next morning and the jungle birds started singing, my husband Jason got up to use the rest room. I was sound asleep, until I was startled awake to a simultaneous slamming of a toilet seat, and screaming of obscenities and fear, followed by raucous laughter from Aldo. Jason had not understood the towel-warning, and had opened the toilet to see a giant bug waving good-morning, and had woken up everyone within a four mile radius with his shrieks. At least it was funny for the rest of us.
We packed up, donned our "hiking in the jungle" clothes, and made our way into the reserve. Our long, bumpy drive was interrupted by sightings of agoutis, who ran away so quickly we couldn't get photos (imagine a very large guinea pig), foxes, the great currasow bird (a more prehistoric creature I have not seen), many terceros (wild ocellated turkeys), but sadly no monkeys. We did see a large cat running into the jungle, but we only caught a glimpse of it and couldn't tell you which one it was.
The hike to Calakmul is easy as in there's no real elevation gain, but the site is massive and sun protection and water are highly recommended. It is easily the largest site we have visited, and the two pyramids compete in size as some of the largest the Maya built. The main structures dwarf Chichen Itza (which is only 100 feet tall). Most of the site, including the large pyramids, are accessible to visitors and you can climb them and look out over the jungle. A good portion of the city has been uncovered, and we could identify housing and other features.
From Wikipedia: The site core of Calakmul covers an area of approximately 2 square kilometres (0.77 sq mi), an area that contains the remains of roughly 1000 structures. The periphery occupied by smaller residential structures beyond the site core covers an area of more than 20 square kilometres (7.7 sq mi) within which archaeologists have mapped approximately 6250 structures. Calakmul matches the great city of Tikal in size... Structure 1 s a 50-metre-high (160 ft) pyramid... Structure 2 is a massive north-facing pyramid temple, one of the largest in the Maya world. Its base measures 120 metres (390 ft) square and it stands over 45 metres (148 ft) high.
We also found a very large snake skin (and were relieved it was empty of its host), and saw several Brazilian walking spiders (only somewhat poisonous...), and even the cutest little turtle ever - only the size of a quarter. On our way to the car after exploring we also spotted a very large woodpecker, who we all decided in fact looked quite a bit like Woody!
I may not have gotten to see the monkeys or identify any large cats, but on our way back down the jungle road we did spot a red-rumped tarantula sunning itself. I stopped and took photos of it, but the minute it started walking I screamed and ran back to the car. It wasn't that it was a threat to me so much as how creepy their movements are.
We survived the giant bugs, the flora and fauna, and visited one of the most beautiful and least-visited Mayan sites on the peninsula. The food was so good we still speak of our dinner there, and we get to say we slept in a jungle hut on a biosphere reserve and lived to tell the story!