The Yucatan is covered in speed bumps or topes – tall ones, long ones, multi-sets and singles. It’s been only 15 minutes into today’s long drive to the jungle and we all feel upbeat. The Nescafe pumps my heart along with the Greenday we blast and ,at high speed, I spot a speed bump a little too late.
As I slam on the breaks, the car fish tails and screeches. We hit the bump fast enough to toss us around inside the car. Stunned, and a little angry that they would put speed bumps that size on high-speed roads, I roll away slowly, right into a… Police checkpoint. Yep, the cops watched my Evil Knievel speed-bump jump from a few hundred feet away. All three uniformed Mexican police wave the car over simultaneously.
We’ve seen heavy police presence in Mexico so far – at least on the highways. Checkpoints are common, but we’ve been pulled over only once, to inspect the temporary tags on our brand new rental vehicle. But some people we met in Cancun say they were pulled over on a false pretense, and extorted for a few hundred pesos.
I expect the worse as I roll down the windows. Should I say sorry? Pretend nothing happened? He asks in Spanish if we meant to take the turn to Sayil, the closest Mayan ruin after Uxmal. “No, Senior” I say as politely as possible “Xpujil y Calakmul.” “Xpujil!” he chuckles and looks at his fellow Police. We show him the map, and our planed route the long way around using the main roads. He shakes his head no, and shows us the shortcut using backroads. “Gracias, Senior!’ We drive off giggling. Not only did they let us off the hook, they helped us solve our navigation dilemma.
Today’s destination is Calakmul Bipsphere Reserve, specifically Campground Yax’ chee, where we will stay in a tent overnight in the jungle before a Mexican safari and trip to the ruins of Calakmul. But it’s a long way away, almost to the Guatemalan border. Our original plan was to take the larger roads around the perimeter of the Yucatan. It’s the longer route, but reliable. The alternative, we discovered after buying a more detailed map, is a straight shot south from Uxmal, saving, theoretically, a few hours. But is also could be narrow roads in poor condition with lots of slow periods getting through the villages along the route.
The guide books say go the long way. We asked the hotel manager at Uxmal and he said go the long way. We still weren’t convinced, so Senior Policeman was just what we were looking for – someone that says we should take the shortcut. The police wouldn’t send a nice American family on a dangerous road, would they? It crosses my mind for a moment that they might be having a long laugh at our expense over new years cervezas in a few hours, but that seems unlikely. At Habanero, we have to make our choice, and we head left on the shortcut.
It’s a great decision. The road is in perfect shape and we make it in about 3 hours to Xpujil, the closest city to Calakmul. The GPS was, again, not particularly helpful but we didn’t need it. There is only one road going south to Xpujil in Campeche state!
Xpujil is a lively road town. It’s the central base for tourists traveling the Rio Bec region, a dense group of classic period Mayan archeological sites stretching from the coast inland a few hundred miles. We’ve arrived early enough to get some lunch and hunt the guidebook for a spot. Most restaurants are truck-stops and greasy spoons, but the Hotel Calakmul gets a good review, and it’s indeed deserved. Aside from Lily’s questionable selection of Mexican spaghetti, we have good enchiladas and quesadillas. The guacamole is tart with fresh lime the way I like it.
Refreshed, and still ahead of schedule, I suggest we hit one of the Rio Bec ruins. The closest is Becan and we stop in for a short visit. The heat is much more noticeable here, as is the humidity. For the first time since we’ve arrived sweat pours and skin reddens as we climb around. Becan is larger than Ek Balam, and like Ek’ Balam, it’s only partially restored. We explore six or seven large buildings. Tthey aren’t all just steep pyramids either, there are also lots of rooms, ‘secret’ passageways, narrow staircases and windows through which to climb.
Though we push it a little too far in the heat, the girls love it. It helps that we were pretty much the only ones there. Also, the grounds are covered in a carpet of lime-green moss, making it seem other-worldly. Becan is famous for having a moat and seven bridges, one of which we cross on our way out.
90 minutes later, with the air conditioning on ‘deep-freeze’ setting, we pull off the main road into the Calakmul archeological area and biosphere reserve. A gate attendant takes our 60 pesos for the entrance fee and we drive a few miles, including one on a very bumpy dirt road, to campground Yax’chee.
Yax’ chee gets one sentence in each guide book. It’s obvious that neither travel writer ever stayed here, they just heard about it. I researched it on the web and found an email address and one American’s travel blog that said it was a great place, with good food. I emailed and got, in very broken English, a confirmation that they exist and a short list of things to bring: flashlight, bug repellent, toilet paper. It costs about $15 Per night per person. Kids are free.
The campground is, as advertised, a campground. We are shown our large tent and it has two twin air mattresses, each with a sheet and blanket. At the food shack, we order some coffee. It’s good, with some cinnamon in it. There isn’t a lot of English spoken here, but we can figure it out. We talk with an Italian couple and the owner in broken English and Spanish. They don’t get a lot of American’s here, mostly Mexicans and Europeans.
There’s only and hour of daylight left. We head down the trail to a lookout tower that peeks over the canopy. The jungle is busy with noise and swarming with bugs. I make sure everyone is covered in bug spray. There are lots of fantastic bird calls that sound like low whistles and loud honks. A howler monkey ROARS, catching everyone by surprise. They are so freakin’ loud that Lily puts her hand over her ears.
The tower is wooden and moves a little when we climb it. Above the treeline, we see a nice but not spectacular view. It’s fun to be up high though, and the sunset is nice. Back down under the trees it’s pitch black. Luckily Trish remembered to bring the flashlights. The girls are spooked, but not afraid and they love flashlights. It’s 6:00pm, and it’s so dark it seems like midnight.
Back in our tent, we watch Howls Moving Castle on the movie player. It’s New Years Eve and the campground plans on celebrating with dinner starting at 10pm. We plan on getting up early for a long nature walk, so we negotiate for an earlier dinner. It’s a turkey dish made with chiles and peanuts. We pass out early, long before anyone can say ‘Happy New Year!’