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Archeologists are still uncovering Maya temples buried in the southern jungles of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula in the state of Campeche, known more for its walled city and oil reserves. The state shares the Rio Bec region — home to some 60 archeological sites — with the state of Quintana Roo. Within Campeche’s boundaries, howler monkeys bark and spider monkeys swing at Calakmul, the largest archaeological site on the peninsula.
In the Rio Bec region, archeologists have uncovered a distinctive architectural style with precise stone carvings and fanciful stone towers. The few travelers who have explored the area have discovered a vast unspoiled jungle filled with strange flowers and piercing bird calls. Modest hotels are clustered near Calakmul and a half-dozen other important sites are located on the highway connecting the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico. Rural communities are the only signs of civilization along the road, offering basic markets and gas stations. It’s hard to believe Cancun is just a day’s drive northeast.
Calakmul is the Rio Bec’s main attraction and one of the most difficult to reach. A few sites along the road are more accessible and are filled with samples of Rio Bec architecture and Maya beliefs, dating from 100 B.C. and 900 A.D. Chicanna offers an introduction to the Maya fixation with monsters and the underworld, with its fang-toothed entrance resembling the mouth of a snake. The stone carving here is especially impressive, with masks and ornamental pillars. At Xpujil, Maya artists and architects set their imaginations free. Steep towers atop small pyramids are purely ornamental, resembling Guatemala’s famed Tikal. Impossibly skinny stairways lead to dollhouse-size temples and moss covers stone walls. Becan is surrounded by dirt walls and served as the ceremonial center for several smaller cities during the post-Classic period.
These three sites prepare travelers for the majesty of Calakmul, an extensive site filled with superlatives. Its temples and pyramids are part of the million-acre Calakmul Biosphere Reserve, which includes part of Guatemala and was officially designated for protection in 1989. Jaguars and other far-roaming animals who have lost much of their territory find protection within the reserve, and migratory birds mix their calls with parrots and macaws. Access to the reserve is extremely limited. A narrow dirt road leads from the highway to the archaeological site. Travelers who undertake the 1½-hour drive at dawn are rewarded with monkey and bird sightings.
Structure II, the tallest pyramid on the Yucatan Peninsula, pokes out above the reserve’s dense forest. Scientists have been deciphering its mysteries since 1982 and are still discovering structures and tombs. They have uncovered more than 100 stelae (stone pillars with carvings) and several impressive jade masks. Three groups of structures have been cleared and open to the public, while more than 7,000 have been mapped. Calakmul had more than 60,000 residents at its peak and was as important as Tikal and Chichen Itza. It’s hard to imagine tour buses and crowds descending upon the site — remoteness is part of the draw for travelers who enjoy delving into history and nature.
New & Noteworthy:
Concierto Magno Malecon Ultimo Sol del Mundo MayaThis event, full of musical energy and magnetism, will feature readings from the Popol Vuh, the great book of the Maya community. The story tells the origin of the world and it is understood that the Maya saw the passage of time in cycles rather than linearly. These now sacred texts will be set to a symphony and performed by orchestras on the Campeche Malecon on Friday, Dec. 21. www.campeche.travel
EdznaEdzna is a Maya archeological site north of Campeche. It was discovered in 1907 and was possibly inhabited as early as 600 B.C. The most remarkable structure of the city is the main temple, which is built on a 131-foot-high platform and provides an overview of the surroundings. While a visit to the site is fascinating since information about the city and the disappearance of its inhabitants remain a mystery, “The Light of the Itzaes: Multimedia Light & Sound Show” is a worthwhile activity. The show takes place Friday and Saturday nights at 8 p.m. during the summer months and starts at 7 p.m. during the winter. Tickets are available at the site. www.campeche.travel
Isla AguadaLocated between Sabancuy and Ciudad del Carmen, Isla Aguada offers visitors miles of unspoiled beaches to enjoy the sea, sand and sun without being bothered by street vendors in large cities and tourist centers. Isla Aguada is a small fishing port with approximately 5,000 inhabitants and is surrounded by the waters of the Gulf of Mexico and Terminos Lagoon (Laguna de Terminos). Visitors to Isla Aguada should bring plenty of cash as there are no banks or ATMs. www.campeche.travel
La Casa 6La Casa 6 is a renovated 18th-century home with Moorish architectural design and is situated on the main square of Campeche. Inside, visitors will find antique furniture, dating from the end of the 19th century. A tour through the house takes approximately 15 minutes, and there are no entrance fees. The house is open Monday to Sunday, from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. www.campeche.travel
Where to stay:
Hotel Plaza CampecheThe Hotel Plaza Campeche offers a comfortable, elegant atmosphere. The property, located in the historic center of the city and port of Campeche, is close to San Martin park and strategically located in the heart of the business, cultural and tourist city center. The hotel features 67 standard rooms, 15 junior suites and two master suites. Standard rooms offer two full-size beds or one king-size bed. Junior suites feature two full-size beds, a flat-screen television, a bath and a shower and most offer a terrace or a balcony. The master suites are spacious with a lounge and a terrace, one king-size bed and an adjoining single room with a private walkway. Rates start at approximately $95 per night. www.hotelplazacampeche.com
Chicanna Ecovillage ResortChicanna Ecovillage Resort, in Xpujil, Campeche, is an ecological, self-sufficient resort, where nature remains untouched. On the route to the Calakmul archeological site, Chicanna Ecovillage is at a strategic point to reach out for other ancient Maya cities, such as Chicanna, Becan and Xpuhil with their characteristic architectural style known as Rio Bec. Chicanna Ecovillage offers rustic yet very comfortable rooms and bungalows as part of an exciting jungle and cultural experience. Rates are approximately $94 per night. www.chicannaecovillageresort.com