Mysterious Ruin of a Once-Great Mayan Capitol


[history] [description] [location & directions] [where to stay]

Calakmul is a lost world still in the grip of the jungle.

Irresistible to the traveler because of its sheer size and its remote site, it is the largest of the 60 known Mayan ruins. Its great pyramid is the tallest and largest of the Mayan pyramids. It towers over the rainforest canopy and on a clear day you can see all the way to the pyramid at Guatemala’s El Mirador site.

Calakmul is one of three Mayan ruins on the UNESCO World Heritage list and is considered part of the “Forest of Kings”, the name given to a string of ruined Mayan cities along the border of Mexico, Guatemala and Belize. It covers an area of 44 sq miles.

It was founded in 1931 by the explorer and biologist Cyrus Longworth Lundell who named it the City of Adjacent Towers after the two large pyramids discovered here. It is in the heart of the Calakmul Biosphere.

Excavations only began in earnest in the 1980’s; many of its 7,000 buildings are still under the cover of the jungle as earthen mounds. Only a fraction of the city’s vast expense has been cleared with surprises still being unearthed. As recently as 1998, a stunning jade mask was found in a tomb.


The site is believed to have been inhabited for nearly 12 centuries between 100 BC to 900 AD and was one of two superpowers in the Peten region of the Yucatan. It was the regional capital of an area known as the Kingdom of the Serpent Head with a sacbe (road) leading to El Mirador and another to Tikal. At its peak between, it supported as many as 60,000 people but by the time the conquistadors came, only around 1,000 inhabitants were found.

In size and historic importance, it resembles its southern rival Tikal against which it continually jockeyed for power. In 695 AD, it was defeated by Tikal. Internal conflicts, power struggles and denudation of natural resources led to its decline until 900 AD when it was abandoned. At that time, power shifted to the cities in the low-lying areas like Chichen Itza. Just like in Tikal, archaeologists believe that building in Calakmul occurred over more than 1000 years.



There are 120 carved stelae in Calakmul, many of which are severely weathered or plundered. They mostly show the Mayans at work or in a marketplace. A number of them depict a lady, whom some believed to have been a ruler of the ancient city. There is an interior stucco frieze much more elaborate and larger than the one in Balam ku.

Its central core is protected by a substantial wall which was probably set up to defend the major political and residential buildings. Water management was an important feature. A network of canals and arroyos surrounds a central area of around 8.4 sq miles.

Structure 2 is its tallest pyramid at a height of 180 ft. A palace was constructed at its top in which were discovered four burial tombs. Its base measures 450 ft on each side. Like many temples in Mesoamerica, the Mayans built on top of an existing temple to get it to its current size.

Structure 6 is an example of the sophistication of Mayan astronomy as its architecture registers the annual solstices and equinox.

Structure 3 was the burial site of an early king on whom were found exquisite jade masks, jewelry, ear plugs, rings, plaques beads and thousands of shell beads. Many of the jade jewelry and two of the masks found here are displayed at the Archaeological Museum in Campeche.

The biosphere is the Yucatan’s last virgin forest and its largest. The 1.8m acre Calakmul Biosphere was created in 1989 and is the home for a vast diversity of plants and animals. Fauna found here include monkeys, armadillos, fox, puma ocelots, white-lipped peccaries and deer. It has the largest jaguar population outside of the Amazon.

There are at least 250 bird species here and you might spot the toucan, the occellated turkey and parrots. In winter, the forests are filled with the flapping of wings as 3 million migratory birds find their way here.

The biosphere receives as much as 16 ft of rain a year. It is best to avoid visiting during the wettest months between June-October.



About 200 miles from Campeche and 20 miles from the border of Guatemala.



From Campeche, take Hwy 261 south towards Champoton and Escarcega. In Escarcega, head east on Hwy 186. After 59 miles just past a village called Congas, there are signs for the road to Calakmul on the right.


Where to stay

Rio Bec Dreams Here's a place that's offeres best of both worlds: Stay in a "junglow," (a comfortable cabin in the woods) just minutes from the site, dine of fresh fruits and local and international cuisine. Then when you're ready to go exploring, the proprietors will organize your own private tour of the ruins at Calakmul.

Villas Puerta Calakmul is a collection of 15 nicely decorated fan-cooled cabins on a dirt road just inside the entrance to the park.


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