Lily bolts upright, wide-eyed and shaking, when the howler monkey roars back at the yelping dog. The animal fight has only just begun. It will continue another 20 minutes, drawing the wrath of an angry rooster, before things settle down. It’s 2am. Happy New Year! Welcome to the Jungle.
It’s surprisingly cool at night, even for December. We are all glad for the coarse wool blankets they provide with the large tent and two air mattresses at Campground Yaxx Che,. Our plan is to get up fairly early and go to the Calakmul ruins, an hours drive from here down the long road through the jungle. But first we need some breakfast, and the promised 7am service is not to be found. It’s a little frustrating because an early start provides the best chance of seeing the animals. But it’s New Years Morning, and the family that runs Yaxxche is surely entitled to an extra hour of sleep.
Calakmul is really, really remote. It’s 30 miles from the closest town to the turn-off, and another 30 miles on a narrow road that cuts through the jungle. The canopy of trees almost closes over the access road and whatever shoulder they once paved has long been overridden with tall brush and vines. There are fallen trees partially covering the road in many spots. We eagerly look out the window for animals, but see just a few birds.
Calakmul and Tikal, are the largest and most important cities in Mayan history. Together they dominated the central Mayan civilization during its peak period of economic and intellectual growth. At it’s peak, Calakmul probably held 60,000 inhabitants. It has the most number of stelae, although many of the faces have been destroyed.
And it’s huge, absolutely huge. Urban buildings have been discovered in an area of almost 8 square miles, about a third the size of Manhattan, but there would be dwelling in a much greater area surrounding the city. You can visit only a tiny fraction of it but it’s still an all-day event to see the partially-restored portion. It features the tallest Mayan pyramid in the Yucatan, structure 2 or the ‘double’ pyramid. It’s a gorgeous building geometrically and from the top you can see northern Guatemala.
Despite the enormous size of the city, the scale of the structures, and the ancient history of the Mayan civilization, most people come to Calakmul for the animals. The Calakmul Biosphere Reserve surrounding the ruins is 2,800 square miles of protected, undeveloped parkland established only recently (1989). It has jaguars, ocelots, parrots, coati, tapirs, ocellated turkey and toucans. And the plant life is exotic and dangerous, like trees with poisonous sap. (Not the beautiful one on the right. That one is safe.)
I hit the brakes hard. Up ahead are two gorgeous wild (Ocelotted) turkeys. It’s our first sighting, and we see many more during the day. At the gate, we pay our fee – less than 5$ US each. We don’t see anyone else, but there are a few cars and one big bus. We are not the first to arrive.
Everything is humid and moist. We walk in silence to improve our chances of an animal sighting. We’re not there yet, it’s a mile-long walk to the structures from the main gate. The girls begin to tire out. Fortunately, up in the trees, I see movement and a rustle. Spider monkeys! It’s a momma and her baby casually swinging through the tree-tops. We watch for a few minutes as they go on their way. Everyone perks up.
By the time you get to the Calakmul’s central plaza with the big pyramid, you have come a very, very, very long way. It’s exhausting, but worth it. The big pyramid is stunning with stairs of different size and depth, platforms and stellae looming tall. It’s rises 200 feet up and you get a cool breeze and good views of the excavated structures from the top. Off to the south we see rain clouds. To the East, is the second great pyramid that gives Calakmul its name – “Two pyramids”
What, another Pyramid? We need to climb it! On the side trail to the other great pyramid, more Spider monkeys cross our path. This climb we take more slowly. It’s got amazing Ceiba trees growing straight out of the stone staircases. Mayans honored Ceibas, believing they represented Heaven, earth and in their roots, the underworld.
At the top, the view of the vast jungle is unsurpassed. You can’t see a road, power line, radio tower or even a pillar of smoke anywhere for hundreds of miles over the jungle forest. We pull out some cookies and water and take in the view. At the top of this 1500-year old temple is the furthest point, the apex of our journey. We are as far as we will get on this trip. Every step from now on is back in the direction of home.
It’s time for a decision. The animal life has not been as great as we hoped. Although one young couple reported frequent animal sightings the day before, a husband and wife from Italy went on an early-morning guided animal tour today and didn’t see much either. It’s obviously hit or miss. Lily says she wants to stay, but we all decide the best thing to do is make the two hour trip back to town for some real food. If we really want to come back we will. We all know we won’t, but after coming so far, it’s hard to leave.
There is still a lot we haven’t explored and I persuade everyone to search ‘just a little more’ of the ruins. We scale a few smaller structures, admiring the great acropolis of the ancient city. Ocelloted Turkeys cross our path frequently and we get to hear another quick burst from a howler monkey.
Just as we begin the walk back to the car, it begins to downpour. It’s just hard rain at first, then becomes full-on a jungle rain storm. It’s so loud we have to yell to hear one another. We are soaked to our underwear in minutes. The mossy paths and stone steps get slippery so we proceed cautiously. It’s fun getting soaked in the jungle of an ancient place.
The rain stops after 20 minutes. We drip, drip, drip back to the car and change into dry clothes. The drive back out the access road is quiet. I’m a little sad we are leaving. We get one final, hilarious display of wildlife. 40 tapir stream across the road right in front of our car. Calakmul is a hard place, but it takes your heart.
Busy Xpujil is dead. Doh! It’s New Years Day. Emma is disappointed that the restaurant with ‘the best quesadillas ever’ is closed. The only place open is the greasy spoon at the bus stop. We generally avoid places like this. The boy at the cash register doesn’t appear to speak Spanish. Mexico has almost 3 million people that speak indigenous languages, including present day Mayan.
The food is bad, but we fill up on cookies from the mini mart next door. Most importantly I get a cup of coffee for the 2.5 hour ride to our next stop, Chetumal. The ride is easy, even in the dark. We get a Jr. Suite at the Chetumal Holiday Inn for the regular price. A Holiday Inn never felt so luxurious. We all take long baths and showers, order room service and watch TV. Tonight, the howler monkeys are only in our dreams.