Calakmul is a large, ancient Mayan city and surrounding bioreserve on the Rutas de la Arqueología of southeastern Mexico. About 30 km (19 mi) from the border with Guatemala, the Maya built a large city here, where at least 60,000 people lived about 1,500 years ago. According to some estimates, even millions of people. Very impressive!
What makes Calakmul so special is its remote location in the middle of the jungle. From the highest temples you have a magnificent view above the treetops. Beautiful!
In dit artikel
- Calakmul: experience the jungle
- Looking for animals
- From gateway to archaeological zone
- Crocodile lake
- Calakmul Sitio Arqueología
- Impressive temples
- Maya city of Calakmul
- Looking out over the jungle
- Just don’t do that
- Return trip to the gate
- With or without a guide
- How much does a visit to Calakmul cost?
- What to wear to Calakmul
- How to get to Calakmul
- Day tour trips to Calakmul from Bacalar and others
- Map Calakmul
- How much time do you need in Calakmul
- When is the best time to visit Calakmul
- Where to stay in Calakmul
- Alternative: Xpujil
- Tips for visiting Calakmul
- Archaeological Route: other sites
- More Mexico
Calakmul: experience the jungle
Calakmul is a city that the Maya built in the so-called Classic Period (250 to 900 AD). It is located in a tropical rainforest (bioreserve) with the same name, which is called Reserva de la Biosfera Calakmul in full.
Calakmul was included in the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2002 (city) and 2014 (bioreserve). It is therefore centuries old history what you will find here. Everything made by hand, without modern techniques, and that in the middle of the dense jungle! Really super cool.
Calakmul lies somewhere between Bacalar and Chetumal on one side (186), and Escarcega and Campeche on the other. Campeche is also the name of one of the 32 Mexican states, which Calakmul belongs to. For us Calakmul was a perfect stop (with overnight stay) en route between Bacalar and Palenque. Countless people drive past it, without realizing how fantastically beautiful this more than 723,000 hectares of bioreserve is.
Calakmul was one of the largest Maya cities in the 2nd half of the Classic Period. At that time, the city was known as Kaan. A city of artists and painters.
The entrance to Calakmul bioreserve is at the 98 km post on the Carr. Chetumal Escarcega. On Google Maps you will find this gateway under the name Entronque A Calakmul. See also the mobile map later in this article.
Looking for animals
In the Calakmul bioreserve (and the Yucatan Peninsula) there are about 1600 different plant species and many different and special wild animals. For example:
- two kinds of jaguars, the puma, two kinds of leopards
- tapirs, opossums, skunks, anteaters, armadillos
- black howler monkeys, spider monkeys
- martens, otters, foxes, peccary piggies, deer
- bats, crocodiles
Some of these animal species are in danger of extinction. Calakmul represents the most important conservation area for felines in Mexico. Besides about 50 species of reptiles and about 400 different butterflies, this is also home to 282 bird species. For example: toucans, parakeets, parrots, trogons, peacock turkeys, king vultures, owls and eagles.
During our visit we saw a number of species of birds (including an owl), golden hares (aguiti), salamanders, a mole, a mega beetle, bush turkeys and crocodiles. With a lot of luck you will see a jaguar or a boar, but it is rare. If you are particularly interested in felines, I would recommend that you do a specific tour for that.
We have not seen or heard black Mexican howler monkeys at the archaeological zone. We did see these monkeys at the parking lot of our accommodation, just outside the entrance gate of the bioreserve. You can also enjoy breakfast, lunch and dinner there. Not cheap, but tasty. More on that later in this article.
From gateway to archaeological zone
When you turn from the main road between Escarcega and Bacalar, you immediately see the entrance of the bioreserve. After paying the entrance fee you can drive through the gate into the nature reserve towards the archaeological zone. We meet our guide Louis at Hotel Puerta Calakmul.
We park the car at the building of the entrance gate and go inside to pay the entrance ticket and a brown wristband in cash. With us this was (90 + 60 =) MEX 150 per person. The wristbands are an old-fashioned system to clearly show that you have paid during your visit. Don’t forget your mouth cap… they are formally required now (but are only maintained at the entrance gate).
Bring at least a liter of water per person with you, or buy it at the entrance gate. nothing will be sold after that. Hotel Puerta Calakmul has delicious lunch boxes (MEX 150 each).
From the entrance gate it is about 60 km (37 mi) drive to the archaeological zone of Calakmul. It will easily take you about 1.5 hours. Luckily we chat a long way away with our guide Louis, which makes the time fly by. Louis is from the area of the bioreserve, also works at the entrance and has deliberately chosen a simpler life on his small farm.
The road is asphalted, two cars can just pass each other. There are also quite a few potholes in the road, so be careful. Broken branches can block the way. It’s a matter of getting out, removing a branch and driving on again. Welcome to the jungle!
We stop somewhere half way. Our guide takes us up a narrow hiking trail. After a few hundred meters we come to a very small lake. One of the residents, a crocodile about 2 meters long, looks at us curiously with his eyes just above the water. Yikes!
His bigger brother is completely submerged in the middle of the lake. So don’t take a cooling dip here… Our guide shows another tarantula burrow, but it didn’t give a home. Maybe as well. We walk back to the car. The ground is bone dry, unfortunately it hasn’t rained here for a long time.
Calakmul Sitio Arqueología
We had left our hotel around 08:00h, but when we arrived at the real entrance of the archaeological zone, we had to make an effort to find a free parking space. We are clearly not the only visitors today. Although the ‘busyness’ here cannot be compared with, for example, Chichen Itza. After all it is right in the middle of the Christmas holidays, busiest time of the year.
We pay cash MEX 80 per person entrance and retire to the toilets. Then Louis starts to tell everything about Calakmul and the Maya on the basis of a model, information boards and images. Very interesting! The information boards immediately after the toilets at the entrance are in Spanish only. Further on, most signs are in English and Spanish.
We walk from one building to another. It is warm, but all very beautiful and impressive. After every twist in the trail, another picture of a temple emerges, hidden behind the beautiful surrounding trees. Unfortunately, the temples cannot be visited from the inside – as with the pyramids of Abu Simbel in southern Egypt. Wall paintings would also have been found there.
We are amazed and every now and then we climb a temple. Be careful, because they are quite steep and if you are not careful you can slip. Louis explains in detail how the Maya lived here at the time. And every now and then we spot an animal. In retrospect, Calakmul was the most special place for us during our 18-day round trip through Southeast Mexico.
Some idiots seem to have had the nerve recently to scratch their names in the stones at one of the temples. I was reminded for a moment of Auschwitz, where young people had scratched their names on the bed boards. How on earth do you manage to behave like that, moreover at such a historically important place? Really shameless. Please don’t do that!
The archaeological site of Calakmul is located tens of kilometers from the border with Guatemala. From 537 AD there have been several wars between Calakmul and Tikal, which is located in Guatemalan jungle on the other side.
Maya city of Calakmul
In the heyday, about 60,000 people lived in Calakmul. The stone houses were inhabited by the Maya elite, the richer people. The rest lived outside the village in simple wooden houses. Overpopulation is partly the cause of the ultimate demise of the Maya dynasty. Although about 6-7 million people still speak the Mayan language today.
Maya drawings are often combinations of human and animal body parts. The Maya have at least 21 different gods. Basically they believed that all forces of nature were divine. Corn is also sacred to the Maya.
In an image we see a female figure wearing a translucent robe. The Maya did not walk around naked. Another figure is grinding cocoa beans in a ceramic bowl. The Mexicans still love chocolate in their dishes, for example chicken.
The Maya were not a wanderlust people, but they had no shortage of fighting spirit. Maya lived over a large area that spans the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico, parts of Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. The most important similarity is in any case the spoken language. Only the elite of the Maya population could write and read (well). The Maya script consists of about 1,200 different hieroglyphs.
Only a few books have survived from the centuries that this population lived. There are about 1,200 archaeological zones in the state of Campeche alone. You can visit 16 of them, including Calakmul. Unfortunately, government investment to discover more archaeological zones and open them up to the public is lagging behind.
Looking out over the jungle
The most spectacular temples of Calakmul are the high pyramid-shaped Estructura I and Esctructura II. The nearly 50 meter high Esctructura II is located on the south side of the main square of Calakmul. It’s a bit of a climb up, but then you also get something special…
It is around 1:00 PM when we start to climb the stone steps of Esctructura III. The temperature has now risen to above 30°C (86°F). Fortunately, the right staircase is in the shade at this time of day. The view will be worth the muscle aches tomorrow.
360° view over the treetops. wow! Truly beautiful up here.
Estructura II proved that the highest platform does not necessarily offer the best view. A stone platform one level below slightly obscures the view over the treetops as seen from the highest point of this temple. See the middle of the three photos below. The platform at the top of the middle stairs offers the best view of the surrounding jungle in my opinion. So cool!
Just don’t do that
Some bare-chested muppet climbs a wall of Esctructura II for a photo – no doubt for his social media account. sigh. That is not allowed, climbing on the walls. I personally also find it very disrespectful, so bare-chested on a temple, no matter how hot it is! A guard calls him downstairs. Drone flying is also not allowed here.
Our guide Louis told us that an earthquake in 2017 damaged a number of buildings in Calakmul to such an extent that they can no longer be visited by visitors. This includes the Royal Buildings. Certain places are also sometimes closed due to archaeological work. We were not bothered by that at all; there is still more than enough to see.
Return trip to the gate
When we get back to the car around 2:30 PM, my feet hurt from walking. Hungry I work the lunch box inside. We drive the same way back to the entrance gate. Around 4:10 PM we are back at the hotel near the gate. We have a drink in the restaurant and then load our luggage, which has just been set up at the reception.
Unfortunately our accommodation from last night, Hotel Puerta Calakmul, is full for next night, so we cannot stay there for a second night. In just over an hour we drive at sunset to a cheap but neat hotel in Escarcega. Wine, splash in the pool… Well it was my day! Thanks Calakmul and Louis, it was great!
We were really broken. A quick bite to eat among the locals across the street from the hotel, and off to bed. Glad we didn’t have to drive all the way to Bacalar or Palenque after sunset. Tomorrow is another day.
With or without a guide
Calakmul can be visited with or without a guide. We chose to arrange a licensed guide through our hotel and were very happy with that. You hear and see so much more with a good guide than when you visit the area independently.
Our guide Louis tells passionately about the Maya and Calakmul. He speaks very good English and tells many interesting things. And that is not just limited to the bioreserve. We really clicked with him. Louis made our day in Calakmul a memorable one. He is good at spotting animals!
Arrange your guide to Calakmul in advance. There are no guides waiting for potential customers at the entrance – as with some other major archaeological sites.
You can arrange a professional guide for Calakmul in several ways. You can inquire by email at Hotel Puerta Calakmul, although I do not know whether they also do this mediation without an overnight stay. We paid for the guide MEX 1300 for two people, excluding entrance.
We gave our guide a small tip afterwards. Louis can be reached directly via (the phone number on) his Facebook page Ecotours Calakmul. He also provides other tours, such as flora and fauna, community, etc. As a guide, he drives along with the customer’s car. If desired, he wears a face mask in the car.
If you are staying in Xpujil, and Louis is not available, you can contact the Tourist Information Center of Xpujil. Through them you can also hire a guide who rides with you, such as guide Ezequiel. He can also be reached directly via tel +52 983 836 6467. Count on about MEX 1800 for a whole day including tip.
Or contact guide Abel. I understand from several other Dutch travelers that he is highly recommended, if you make a clear agreement. Guide Abel can be reached under number +52 983 156 9248 or via his Facebook page. Count on MEX 1,500 p.p. including transport. For day tour tips with a driver from other places, see later in this article.
How much does a visit to Calakmul cost?
A summary of our costs of our unforgettable experience at Calakmul (30 December 2021):
- Certified guide MEX 1300 (+ MEX 200 tip)
- Entrance Calakmul MEX bioreserve 150 p.p.
- Entrance Calakmul archaeological site MEX 80 p.p.
- Lunch box Hotel Puerta Calakmul MEX 150 p.p.
So in total, the two of us lost MEX 1,760 on the guide and the entrance fees, which is converted about EUR 75. This does not include tip, the overnight stay at Hotel Puerta Calakmul at USD 195 p/n (room price incl. breakfast), lunch box, petrol, car rental and water. Entrance fees cash! If you want to bring professional film equipment inside, they may ask for an additional MEX 45 (it is on an official sign at the entrance). I had a pretty big camera with me, but nothing was said about it.
What to wear to Calakmul
My friend was wearing shorts, T-shirt and walking shoes. I wore a dress with sturdy sandals. A woman I met on the stairs said to me “Wow, you look so elegant”. Compliment of the day! Shoes with a not too thin sole and a bit of grip are nice here. I personally wouldn’t recommend simple flip flops, with all those stones on the paths and climbing the temples.
Climbing on the temples is (still) allowed in Calakmul. At many other temples on the Yucatan Peninsula, this is no longer allowed (such as Coba, Chichen Itza, etc.). On this day I walked over 13,000 steps, which is about 9 km (5,6 mi). You can easily walk about six kilometers (3,7 mi) in the archaeological site of Calakmul. To conclude: wear comfortable walking shoes.
Incidentally, I also had leggings with me, which I put on for the path to the crocodile lake. There could still be quite a few mosquitoes, our guide warned. We had rubbed ourselves well in advance with 100% deet (yep, it exists). Once I arrived at the archaeological zone, I quickly took off those tights. There were almost no mosquitoes to be seen now, and the weather was really too hot for long pants. Although our guide wore one.
How to get to Calakmul
If you want to visit Calakmul, it is very useful if you have a rental car. On the way from Bacalar to the entrance gate of Calakmul bioreserve you drive on an excellent asphalt highway (186) through green nature, fields and rural villages. This is authentic Mexico!
Distances to Calakmul bioreserve entrance (unless stated otherwise):
- Bacalar – Calakmul bioreserve entrance 176 km (110 mi) approx. 2.5 hours
- Bacalar – Calakmul Archaeological Site 235 km (146 mi) 3.5-4 hours
- Chetumal – Calakmul 175 km (108 mi) 2.5 hours
- Escarcega – Calakmul 97 km (60 mi) 75 min
- Palenque – Calakmul 310 km (193 mi) 4.5 – 5.5 hours
- Campeche – Calakmul 245 km (152 mi) 3.5 hours
Part of the drive between Bacalar and Calakmul we drove through a toll gate (‘Caseta Felipe’, MEX 30 per car one way, cash). Keep in mind that about after Ucum, between the toll gate (estacion de cobro, which cannot be found on Google Maps) and Xpujil, there is no gas station on the toll road. So leave with a full tank.
Note: you pass a time zone border between Bacalar and Calakmul. It is 1 hour later in Bacalar than in Calakmul.
Day tour trips to Calakmul from Bacalar and others
Personally, I would advise against visiting Calakmul itself as a day trip from Bacalar, Chetumal, Palenque or Campeche, for example. Unless you go with an organized day tour with a driver. These day tours will be small-scale, as coaches cannot drive into the nature reserve. But a day tour from Cancun to Calakmul, I personally find that crazy (8 hours one way).
- Day tour to Calakmul and Balamkú from Campeche
- Day tour with guide/driver to Calakmul from Bacalar or Chetumal
As you can see from the above distances and driving times, it is not a short drive from Bacalar, Palenque, Campeche, etc. to Calakmul. For a visit to the archaeological site alone you quickly need a ‘working day’ (5-9 hours). Add to that 2x the driving distance between that city and Calakmul if you do a day trip. So a long day.
After a day at Calakmul we were exhausted and glad we didn’t have to drive very far. I wouldn’t do much more than an hour. Moreover, you should not want to drive back through the dark on an unlit road. There are quite a few motorbikes and cars without lights here. Unless a professional driver is going to drive, but it will be a very long day that way.
If you don’t sleep in Calakmul, a day tour from Xpujil is the best alternative.
When I think back to our visit to Calakmul and later our visit to Chichen Itza, what a difference! If you ever have to choose between the two, go for Calakmul! Much less touristy, much nicer location, the view… wow!
This map includes places and spots mentioned in this article (and more). This one is ‘smartphone friendly’; you can easily use it via the Google Maps app. Click the icon at the top left to open the menu and see the categories. To adapt the map to your own preferences and interests, (de)select a category. Via Google Drive you can copy the map to your own My Google Maps account.
How much time do you need in Calakmul
For a visit to Calakmul I would advise you to allow about 8 hours. That includes 2x 1.5 hours driving to and from the entrance gate of the bioreserve. Don’t start too early or too late so you can drive in daylight. So check the times of sunrise and sunset that day.
A sign states that it is not recommended to drive into the bioreserve after 3:00 PM to visit the Archaeological Zone. That would also be insane, given the time it takes just to drive back and forth to the entrance.
Stay in Calakmul or the surrounding area for at least one, preferably two to four nights. With more than two nights you will have time to see more archaeological sites nearby. And to spot more wild animals in the bioreserve, accompanied by a guide.
When is the best time to visit Calakmul
On a normal day of the year, at most a few dozen visitors visit Calakmul. Not infrequently you will walk around here (almost) alone. After all, Calakmul is located outside the real tourist areas of the Riviera Maya. And on a remote location that not everybody knows about or wants to make the effort for.
In May, the temperature in Calakmul can rise to above 40°C (104°F), our guide told us. Most rain falls between May and November. When we visit Calakmul at the end of December, it is well above 30°C (86°F). Hot, but doable. Especially since you spend most of your time in the shade of the many trees. And we started early.
During the Christmas holidays (from about December 20 to and including the first week of January), the number of visitors to Calakmul increases to about 400 to 500 per day. Those are mostly Mexicans. The parking lot has space for about 60 cars and vans. Coaches don’t come here because of the low hanging branches and narrow road. Although two arriving vans filled with noisy Mexicans can already feel like a horde in this normally quiet area.
Calakmul sitio arqueología is open daily from 8:00 AM to 5:00 PM. When we walked out at 2:30 PM, people were still arriving. Then you will be very late and you will have very little time to take a good look at everything… Anyway, to each his own of course.
Where to stay in Calakmul
We stayed at Hotel Puerta Calakmul, a few minutes drive from the entrance gate of the Biological Reserve. Unfortunately they only had one night available when we booked a week in advance. Thus we slept the night after the day of our visit to Calakmul in a hotel in Escarcega. That was still more than an hour’s drive from Calakmul, but it also saved a lot of money. Every advantage has its disadvantage and vice versa.
In the high season, this hotel easily charges USD 175 to USD 195 for a two-person cottage. This is really expensive by Mexican standards, which is made up for by the location and the restaurant. They want to have paid in advance via PayPal, or else cash on arrival. This property is not listed on any international booking site. They respond quickly by email, preferably in Spanish. You can also immediately arrange the guide for Calakmul.
The hotel has a swimming pool and a restaurant. We had lunch, dinner and breakfast in the restaurant and it was good (not cheap). Everything paid with cash. The cottages have a king-size bed or two double beds with mosquito nets, a bathroom with a good shower and toilet, and a veranda with a bench and hammock. There is a ceiling fan and there are several sockets. Fine for a few nights.
Hotel Puerta Calakmul is the closest accommodation for visiting the Maya City and Calakmul bioreserve. When this hotel is full, or you find it too expensive, you can look in the village near the entrance (see Google Maps).
Otherwise, the most logical option is to book accommodation in Xpujil. A lot of people do that, often because of the price I think. Xpujil is about a 57 km (45 min) drive from the gateway to the Calakmul Biological Reserve. Like Casa Kaan Calakmul (photo below), which has a very good rating and excellent facilities.
We stayed the second night, after our visit to Calakmul, at Global Express Hotel Escarcega. This is because we were going to Palenque the next day, and Xpujil is the other way (more towards Bacalar). The hotel in Escarcega was a simple but reasonably neat and cheap hotel near the main road. A BP gas station and a few local restaurants (plus Burger King for the enthusiast…) are opposite the hotel. Not a dream place but fine for a night ‘in between’.
Tips for visiting Calakmul
Finally, a few short tips for your visit to the Maya city of Calakmul:
- Book accommodation as close to the entrance as possible, plus an English-speaking guide.
- Check the times for sunrise and sunset in advance and plan your trip well.
- Please wear comfortable clothes and shoes appropriate to the conditions mentioned.
- Lubricate yourself well in advance with mosquito repellent with the highest possible deet content.
- Make sure you have enough cash, water and food with you for the whole day, there is no ATM or possibility to pay with credit card for instance.
- Don’t leave anything in your car in the parking lot, in short: don’t take too much stuff with you.
- Make sure you have your hands free when climbing the stairs of the temples, a painful slip is made in no time.
Archaeological Route: other sites
In addition to Calakmul, there are at least eight other archaeological sites along the 186 main road that you can visit. After all, it is not called Rutas de la Arqueologia for nothing. Because we were going to visit more archaeological sites elsewhere in the country (Palenque, Uxmal, Chichen Itza) we only visited one other nearby (#2 below) and that was worth it.
But if you are crazy about archaeology, or just want to see more, then you can enjoy a few days with this list. These are all closer to the main road than Calakmul, and closer to Bacalar. See the map in this article. Incidentally, it is better not to leave any luggage in the trunk of your rental car in the parking spaces.
Are you planning to visit the Maya city of Calakmul? I hope you found this article interesting, informative and inspiring. Feel free to leave a comment with questions or additional tips below this article.
You may also find this previously published article about Mexico interesting to read:
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Last Updated on 08/01/2022 by Elisa Flitter Fever