History Untouched

In the heart of the jungle, Campeche’s lost ruins await

By: Renée Huang

Listen!” whispered our guide, as a bird call echoed through the dense jungle where we were on our way to see some of Campeche’s lost ruins. “When the Maya heard this call they would say it was the brown jay spotting them for the first time. They said if you heard it a second time, danger was approaching and you were in big trouble.”

Luckily for us, ambient jungle sounds of snapping twigs, wind through the high palms and silence were all that greeted us as we continued to the main plaza of Calakmul.

In a land where ancient civilizations built massive cities that mysteriously fell into ruin, the Mexican state of Campeche offers what many more traveled areas of the country cannot: the chance to view historically relevant, partially excavated Mayan ruins, and explore them in the wilds of the moss-covered jungle with nary another tourist in sight.

Our first introduction to Campeche’s ruins was Edzna, which means “the house of Maya” and was once the regional capital of the Mayan kingdom. The excavated buildings here display overlapping periods in history, including the smooth Puuc style (600-900 B.C.) and Peten, which was typified by big coats of rough stucco during the early years (300-600 B.C.). But we were eager to head south, where the ruins lay draped in primordial jungle.

We left Campeche city at the crack of dawn and headed south for a four-hour journey toward the border of Guatemala. Unlike other Mayan archeological ruins in high-traffic tourist areas, Calakmul is an isolated, peaceful and relatively untouched site.

A light rain greeted us as we entered Calakmul’s main plaza and a mist coated the ground, which was carpeted with brilliant, fuzzy moss that added another surreal element to the surroundings. Many excavated ruins in the Yucatan have eliminated trees in main plaza areas to allow visitors unobstructed views from all angles. Yet here, trees stand tall, covered with hanging vines, orchids and other bromeliads.
The name Calakmul means “two adjacent hillocks.” When the city was discovered in 1932 by an English botanist, “all the archeologists could see were two nearby mounds that were nearly 200 feet high,” said our tourism office guide, Erik Mendicuti, whose wealth of knowledge and passion injected meaning into each site we visited.

Erik also took us to see the ruins of Becan and Chicanna, which are not too far from Calakmul. Becan construction began in the Classic Period (100-250 A.D.), but peaked between 600 and 1,000 A.D., and featured several tall, ornamented structures that mainly reflect the Rio Bec building style. Chicanna is known as the “House of the Serpents Mouth” due to a huge mask in the central facade of Structure II that represented the god of creation. The elegance and opulence of these buildings has led archeologists to assume Chicanna was an elitist site in the region that was integral in trade routes from 300-800 A.D. But these sites were just appetizers compared to the beauty and mystique of Calakmul.

During the years 250 to 750 A.D., Calakmul was considered the epicenter of the Serpent Head Kingdom that ruled the political climate of the Peten period. Nearly 7,000 structures have been identified here, as well as 120 steles, rectangular 10-foot-high carved stone obelisk tablets dating from 500 to 850 A.D. These steles feature hieroglyphics depicting historical figures and calendar pictographs of military victories accompanied by changes in nobility. It comes as no surprise that Calakmul was declared a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site in 2002, joining the capital city of Campeche (and becoming Mexico’s sixth state to feature two UNESCO designations).

We tackled the vertical ascent of one structure, emerging to a stormy sky crackling with lightning, and a bird’s-eye view above the verdant treetops. Several birds wheeled in the distance and directly in front of us rose the highest peak in the city, the 150-foot-high Structure II.

Erik explained to us that one of the most important Mayan archeological discoveries is in the process of being excavated here. For years, scholars and historians had imagined the ancient Mayan civilizations as defeating and rebuilding cities that came before.

Archeologists sent to restore Calakmul’s Structure II in 1999 were astounded to find within the massive pyramid an intact interior plaza complete with untouched stucco friezes that still held impressive, vibrant colors. Seven buildings lay inside the main pyramid connected with tunnels, as well as living quarters with murals depicting a royal lady being given ceremonial gifts. It was apparent from the moss-covered steles marking the entrance that this was a highly significant religious temple, Erik explained, and the fact that the Maya had devoted so many concentrated changes to the same structure over hundreds of years only underscored its importance. (Curious visitors will have to wait: the interior plazas are not open to the public as scientists do not want to disturb the delicate balance that has kept friezes well preserved for more than 1,500 years.)

“[This discovery] is changing the history of the Maya because archeologists originally thought they started building structures around 200 A.D.,” Erik told us. “But they found these buildings from 400 B.C. so it changes the entire study of the Mayan culture.”

The view from atop was a sea of green trees dotted with the gray stone tops of pyramids. Dragonflies buzzed around the sparse vegetation, and moody silver clouds threatened rain.
“See that pyramid way in the distance past that tree with a fork in it?” Erik indicated to a tiny speck on the horizon. “That’s another ancient city across the border in Guatemala.”

I recalled that for every excavated city it is said there are dozens more that still lie cloaked under mounds of primordial jungle. With tangled greenery as far as the eye can see, it’s not hard to appreciate the magnificence of this once powerful kingdom and people.


Hacienda Puerto Campeche
(a Starwood Luxury Collection property)
Campeche, Mexico

Hotel Ecovillage Chicanna
Campeche, Mexico

Hotel Puerta Calakmul
Calakmul, Mexico