Despite being one of the most powerful Mayan cities in history, Calakmul only attracts a fraction of the attention of sites like Chichén Itzá. Located deep in the jungle about two hours by car from the town of Xpujil, it’s easily one of Mexico’s most isolated Mayan sites. But those visiting Calakmul will be rewarded with the chance to climb one of Mesoamerica’s tallest pyramids while observing abundant wildlife.
The Calakmul Biosphere Reserve (of which the archaeological site is part) can be visited in tandem with the ruins of Balamkú, while an astounding bat exodus can be witnessed later in the evening.
All you need to know about visiting Calakmul will be covered in the following guide, while you can learn more about reaching Xpujil down below.
Calakmul: A Brief History
Evidence suggests that Calakmul was first occupied as early as 450 BC. Located near Campeche’s border with Guatemala, the city’s history is intimately tied with Guatemala’s Petén region.
The city’s royal dynasty was known as Kaan, or ‘snake.’ As such, Calakmul was likely referred to as the ‘Kingdom of the Snake’ in its day. The dynasty possibly originated at the city of El Mirador, present-day Guatemala.
On the other hand, based on an inscription found at Dzibanché, Quintana Roo, some scholars suggest that the Kaans originated there.
Calakmul was already a thriving city during the Preclassic period (1000 BC – 250 AD), largely thanks to its massive reservoirs which provided inhabitants with sustenance during the long dry seasons.
The city was then at its peak during the Classic period (250-900 AD), housing around 50,000 people in the 7th century. Calakmul contained nearly 7,000 structures in total, including one of the highest pyramids of the Mayan world (now known as Structure 2). And Calakmul was the heart of a much larger kingdom which encompassed dozens of other cities.
Calakmul’s biggest rival was Tikal (current Guatemala), whom it would defeat multiple times in battle. But Calakmul would eventually be defeated by Tikal in the year 695, and they’d lose much of their southern territories. They’d then turn north, establishing relationships with the cities of the Río Bec region.
Both Mayan superpowers would eventually collapse by the end of the Classic period. But like many fallen Mayan cities, Calakmul would remain a pilgrimage center up until the 16th century.
The archaeological site is now part of the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve which takes up over 7,300 km2 and is home to a wide variety of wildlife. As you’ll notice when visiting Calakmul, in contrast to other Mayan sites, most of its trees have been left in place so as not to disturb the natural habitat.
Another interesting fact is that Calakmul contains the largest number of stelae in the entire Mayan world, with over 120 of them in total. The oldest dates to the year 435 AD and the last one dates to 909.
Visiting Calakmul: Basic Info & Tips
The Calakmul Biosphere Reserve and ruins are located deep in the jungles of southern Campeche. The nearest town is Xpujil, though some people stay in the reserve itself (learn more about accommodation below).
GETTING THERE:While there’s no public transportation available to Calakmul, getting there is easy. Most guest houses and hotels in Xpujil can arrange a shuttle for you the day before, which simply involves sharing a car with a few other people.
If your itinerary includes the bat exodus, the bats don’t emerge from their cave until around 17:30 in the evening. Therefore, most excursions won’t depart until 9:00 or 10:00 in the morning. But I requested an earlier departure time of 8:00 and I’m glad I did, as this allowed us to take our time at each site.
From Xpujil, the ride out to Calakmul takes around two hours each way! It’s also important to note that large sections of Calakmul were inaccessible during my visit, but the site still took a while to explore.
PRICES: The standard cost for the shuttle is $500 MXN per person, and this usually includes a trip to the bat cave later in the evening. As I wanted to visit the ruins of Balamkú as well, I arranged to visit the three places for $600 MXN per person.
In regards to pricing at Calakmul, you’ll actually have to pay three separate times – two tickets near the entrance to the Biosphere Reserve, and then another ticket at the ruins themselves.
At the time of writing, the three tickets to Calakmul add up to $250 MXN. The ruins of Balamkú cost $85 MXN and the Bat Cave $75 MXN.
Fortunately, there is an ATM in the town of Xpujil if you need one.
SNACKS AND WATER: This is a long day with no stops for lunch, so be sure to come prepared with something to eat. If you forget, they do sell some snacks at the entrance to Calakmul.
WHEN TO VISIT: While I’m generally mindful to avoid archaeological sites on the weekends, the day of the week didn’t cross my mind when arranging my trip to Calakmul.
The town of Xpujil itself is so remote and, as mentioned, Calakmul is no less than two hours away. I was mainly concerned with being able to find other passengers that were willing to pay extra for Balamkú. So once my guest house confirmed they’d found others who were interested, I confirmed for the next day.
While the next day happened to be Sunday, I was surprised to see so many people at Calakmul. The crowds were nowhere near those of Chichén Itzá or even Uxmal, but there were enough people that it was difficult to photograph the ruins with nobody in the shot.
Therefore, if you can, always avoid weekends – even at ultra remote sites like Calakmul!
Balamkú is situated about an hour west of the town of Xpujil, right across from the start of the path leading to Calakmul. As mentioned above, the members of my group and I paid a bit extra so that our driver would take us here before visiting Calakmul.
Balamkú translates to ‘Jaguar’s Temple,’ and most of its major structures were built between 300-600 AD. The city was then ultimately abandoned from around the year 1000.
It’s one of multiple sites in what’s known as the Río Bec region, though it also surely had ties with Calakmul in its prime.
Balamkú’ is relatively small, and frankly speaking, its structures aren’t all that impressive compared to the other Río Bec sites. But with one major exception.
The main reason to visit Balamkú is for its impeccably-preserved stucco artwork – among the finest of its kind in the Mayan world.
But first, feel free to climb the structures that you pass along the way. Unlike at Calakmul, where we’d encounter a surprising amount of people, my travel companions and I had Balamkú all to ourselves.
The highlight of the archaeological site is currently enclosed within a protective structure nearby the main pyramid. When you’re ready, a local guard will come and open it for you.
The jaw-dropping frieze depicts the Mayan underworld and it also contains symbolism related to the cycles of the sun. One scene depicts the king emerging from the earth monster after death, a symbol of spiritual resurrection.
Like the Egyptians, the Mayans saw the sunrise as representative of resurrection and the sunset as a symbol of death. Other imagery here, meanwhile, includes jaguars and amphibians, who represented the transition to the afterlife.
While most of those visiting Calakmul overlook Balamkú entirely, it’s well worth arranging a stop here either in the morning or afternoon.
The Calakmul Biosphere Reserve
Turning off the highway, the journey to the archaeological site takes another hour. But this is no time for sleeping, as you’ll want to keep a keen eye out for wildlife along the way. The massive reserve, established in 1989, takes up 7,231 km2 and is home to a wide variety of flora and fauna.
Some of the animals that call this region their home include tapirs, jaguars, ocelots, toucans, ocellated turkeys, crocodiles and many more.
But as this is the wild, no two groups of people are going to spot the exact same animals. In my case, during the ride, we briefly spotted a pig-like animal known as a peccary and a large bird called a great curassow.
But the most common animal around these parts is the ocellated turkey. Native to the Yucatán Peninsula, these beautiful birds with their multicolored wings almost look more like peacocks than your average turkey.
As we’ll go over below, you’ll also have a high chance of spotting wildlife at the ruins themselves – especially monkeys.
Exploring the Calakmul Ruins
As mentioned above, you’ll first have to purchase two tickets upon entering the Biosphere Reserve and then another at the ruins themselves.
As one of the most powerful cities in Mayan history, Calakmul is absolutely huge, and it would take several hours to explore in full. At the time of my visit, however, entire sections to both the west (the Great Acropolis) and the east (the Little Acropolis) were off-limits to visitors.
Even with large parts inaccessible, it still took us a few hours to see everything at a leisurely pace. As most structures are climbable, getting up and down the massive pyramids will take up a large part of your time at the site.
The Northern Section
One of the first landmarks you’ll encounter is a housing complex called ‘Taman,’ which was a group of residences built around a courtyard.
Moving along, you’ll reach what’s known as the Northeast Group, which is a series of buildings atop a manmade platform. Outside stand two stelae erected in 741 in the midst of Calakmul’s political decline.
Walking up a set of stairs, the upper part of the structure features three buildings facing a small plaza. They likely served some sort of administrative function for the Calakmul elite.
As you’ll quickly notice, Calakmul was such a sprawling city that many of its landmarks are separated by forested trails. As mentioned, you’re bound to see plenty of wildlife as you walk from section to section – especially spider and howler monkeys.
Next comes yet another housing complex known as ‘Chaan Ch’iich’ which was equipped with its own drainage system. New additions to the houses were gradually added as families grew.
Just before reaching the Great Plaza, you’ll pass by Structure 8, which may have served as an astronomical observation post. Nearby stands Stele 1, erected in 721 AD. Like many of Calakmul’s stelae, most of the glyphs aside from the date are no longer legible.
The Great Plaza
The Great Plaza, which measures out to 250 m x 150 m, could be considered the city center and home to Calakmul’s largest structures. It’s also where its most significant religious and administrative ceremonies took place.
The area is one of the oldest sections of Calakmul, having been inhabited since at least 400 BC. Amazingly, the plaza remained inhabited until well after Calakmul’s fall, with religious rituals being carried out here until at least 1500.
Entering the plaza, the first pyramidal building you’ll encounter is known as Structure 7.
Standing at 23 meters high, the top of Structure 7 offers what are arguably the best views of the Great Plaza and Calakmul’s largest pyramid, Structure 2.
Like many of the structures surrounding the plaza, this one contained a tomb of a former ruler. His name was Yuknoom Took K’awiil, and one of his jade masks is on display at the San Miguel Fort Archaeology Museum in Campeche.
It was also found with earplugs containing a square in the middle which represented the four corners of the Mayan universe. The scrolls in the nose, meanwhile, symbolized the ‘breath of life’ being inhaled through the mask.
It may have also been Structure 7 where one of Calakmul’s most famous masks, now on display at the Maya Architecture Museum in central Campeche, was discovered. Confusingly, however, some sources claim that the mask was actually found in Structure 2.
In any case, you can find a replica in the on-site museum area near the ruins entrance.
As mentioned, the views from the top of Structure 7 are spectacular. Straight ahead, you’ll be able to see the massive Structure 2 emerging above the distant treetops. And over to the left is yet another tall pyramid, Structure 1. As we’ll cover shortly, both can be climbed.
On the western side of the plaza is Structure 6, a three-tiered pyramidal structure with a long building on top. Archaeologists believe it would’ve been used to observe solstices and equinoxes. The stelae still standing on top were erected in 702.
On the opposite side of the plaza is the long Structure 4, atop which once stood twin temples and no less than 14 stelae. It once housed the tomb of a ruler, though it was found looted. Some items were salvaged, however, and are now on display at the San Miguel Fort Archaeology Museum in Campeche.
In the southern part of the plaza, just before the massive Structure 2 pyramid, is what’s known as Structure 5.
Notably, its upper building was built in the architectural style of Río Bec, proving that there was indeed a relationship with the region, despite there being no inscriptions about it in Río Bec itself.
Outside, you’ll find Stelae 28 and 29, erected in the 620s AD, which were intended to represent a former ruling couple. Nearby is Stele 33, erected in 675 by the powerful ruler Yukom the Great.
Structure 2 (Calakmul's Tallest Pyramid)
Calakmul’s tallest pyramid, simply titled ‘Structure 2,’ rises above its surroundings at 45 m high. That makes it the second-highest Mayan pyramid in Mexico, topped only by Toniná in Chiapas.
And at the time of writing, the pyramid is completely climbable. The experience ends up being the main highlight for many of those visiting Calakmul.
Some type of structure existed here since at least the 5th century BC, and it was continually expanded and modified until the 8th century AD. As you’ll soon find out, one can’t get the full picture of its shape while standing at the base.
The pyramid is a very complex structure with seven buildings inside of it and no less than four tombs.
The Tombs of Calakmul
As mentioned above, many of the structures around Calakmul contained elaborate tombs of former rulers. Not unlike the Egyptian pharaohs, Mayan rulers would typically be buried with their goods, which were believed to aid them in their journey through the underworld.
One of the rulers buried in Structure 2 was Yuknoom Yichʼaak Kʼahkʼ, who ruled from 686-698. His body was found laid atop a wooden stretcher, adorned with various pieces of shells, beads and jade jewelry.
A recreation of his tomb can be found at Campeche’s San Miguel Fort Archaeology Museum. Also on display there is an elaborate funeral headdress which resembles that of the Maize God.
Interestingly, buried together with him were a young woman and a pre-teen boy.
Mayan funerary masks were believed to aid one’s transition to the afterlife. While some masks closely resembled the ruler’s actual likeness, others were exaggerated to appear more like Mayan deities.
The Mayans used various materials for their funerary masks, but many rulers preferred jade. Not only was it the most precious material to the Mayans (even more so than gold), but it was also believed to protect the deceased’s spirit after death.
While not everyone visiting Calakmul ends up making it to the state capital of Campeche, it’s there that you’ll be able to see many more exquisite artifacts discovered in tombs throughout the site.
As you ascend the central staircase, bear in mind that it would’ve originally been lined on either side by large stucco masks.
Also along the structure are numerous stelae, among them Stele 43, the very oldest monument in Calakmul. But much of its glyphs are indecipherable.
Just when you think you’ve reached the top, you’ll realize that there’s still a whole additional section to climb. Structure 2 represented the sacred mountain of Mayan cosmology, and the ascent does indeed feel a bit like climbing a mountain.
Unfortunately, the weather was rather gloomy during my visit, but the views were spectacular nonetheless. Surrounded by such a flat landscape, it felt as if we were at the top of the world.
One could only imagine what the experience of standing up here would’ve been like in Calakmul’s prime.
Built in the Petén style of Guatemala, Structure 3 was constructed during the Classic period and was hardly modified since. A tomb of a former ruler was discovered inside, while archaeologists also believe that the ruler’s descendants continued living in the palace on top for generations.
The expressive funerary mask discovered here can now be seen in Campeche alongside many of the others.
Some of the rooms of the former palace can be entered. And at the time of my visit, the top of the structure offered clear views of monkeys in the nearby treetops.
Southeast of Structure 2 is yet another impressive pyramid known as Structure 1. By now, you’ll have already seen it from the tops of both Structure 7 and Structure 2.
At 40 meters high, it’s just slightly shorter than Structure 2. And this pyramid can also be climbed. But first, notice the three altars at the base which are associated with the constellation Orion. Also nearby is a rocky outcrop with carvings of the gods.
Making the long climb up, my companions and I intended to sit down and consume our snacks before making the journey back to the entrance. But just as we reached the top, we got caught in a downpour.
Fortunately, this was the last accessible structure to see, and the rain let up by the time we reached our next destination, the Bat Cave.
The Bat Cave
Back on the main road and a bit east in the direction of Xpujil is the Bat Cave, or Cueva de Los Murciélagos. All those visiting Calakmul should be sure to witness this amazing spectacle which occurs nearly every evening.
The bats who live in this cave, which is really a cenote (natural sinkhole), emerge each evening to search for food. But there are millions of them, and what you’ll witness is a constant flow of countless bats emerging from the opening and up into the air.
Previously, I’d witnessed a similar spectacle on the other side of the world at Mulu National Park in Malaysian Borneo. But while that occurrence could only be viewed from a distant viewing platform, here we were standing next to the opening.
The bats began to emerge at exactly 17:45 (though this varies by season). And visitors were allowed to watch for around twenty minutes or so before we were told it was time to head back.
But even as we were walking back to the parking lot, the flow of bats showed no sign of letting up. As amazing as the ruins were, this turned out to be one of the highlights of the long and eventful day.
As small and remote as Xpujil may be, its location on the main highway between the cities of Chetumal and Escárcega means it’s not that difficult to reach.
For those coming from Campeche, at the time of my visit in 2022, direct coach buses were available from the Sur bus terminal. I took a 13:30 bus that arrived several hours later. I believe there was also a bus departing around 8:00. As the timetables seem to change frequently, be sure to confirm at the bus station in advance (no web sites seem to list this route for whatever reason).
If direct buses from Campeche don’t happen to be available at the time of your visit, take a colectivo or coach bus to Escárcega and then transfer there.
For those coming from the opposite direction, buses running west from Chetumal and Bacalar (both in Quintana Roo) also run along this highway.
There’s also a regular bus route running in between Palenque, Chiapas and Chetumal/Bacalar that will pass through Xpujil, but they only seem to run at night.
Xpujil’s bus terminal is conveniently located right in the center of town.
Also note that in between Xpujil and Bacalar lie two excellent ruins called Kohunlich and Dzibanché. As public transport to them would be tricky if not impossible, you may want to hire a private driver on your way to one town or the other.
With a driver from my guest house, I arranged a trip that began in Xpujil, stopped at the two sites, and ended in Bacalar for $1500 MXN.
As Calakmul becomes more well-known, more and more travelers are including the nearest town of Xpujil in their itineraries. Additionally, as the beautiful lagoon of Bacalar becomes increasingly popular, many are realizing that Xpujil is a quick drive away.
As such, there are quite a few accommodation options to choose from. Being a budget traveler who prefers a private room and bathroom, I went with Hotel Chaac Calakmul. I had a nice experience there, as it was well-located and had functioning internet and AC.
I paid roughly $14 USD per nigh including tax. The owners also run a travel agency, so it was easy to arrange private transport with one of them to Kohunlich and Dzibanché. They also arranged shared transport to Calakmul for $500-600 MXN.
Some people prefer to stay within the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve itself which would be a great opportunity to observe wildlife. If you’re considering this, you’d probably need your own car, as the site is nearly an hour from the highway. While I have no experience with them, you might want to contact Visit Calakmul for more information.
Note that while staying in Calakmul would be a great experience for those hoping to see animals and visit the ruins upon opening, they would make for an inconvenient base for visiting the Río Bec sites, which should definitely not be missed.
Regular shuttles can be arranged from Xpujil to Calakmul, but not from Calakmul to Xpujil, as far as I’m aware.