Beyond the Ruta Maya
Untrammeled archaeological sites in southern Yucatán offer solitude
and wildlife sightings
Maribeth Mellin is a San Diego writer
and author of the Traveler’s Mexico Companion (Globe Pequot) and The
Unofficial Guide to Mexico’s Beach Resorts (Wiley). She is the recipient
of the Pluma de Plata, Mexico’s prestigious travel writing award. She
contributed an article on Loreto for the March 2003 issue and an article
on Cozumel for the May 2002 issue of Mexico File.
CAMPECHE, Mexico—A blue-crowned motmot
flashed its tail beside the House of the Serpent at Chicanná. Bat
falcons glared from niches in a limestone tower at Xpujil. Wild green
parrots squawked as they buzzed the tropical forest canopy below the
pool at our hotel.
I could hardly believe we were only about
250 miles south of Cancún, wandering around moss-covered Maya palaces
and tombs in absolute solitude. I’d grown accustomed to jam-packed
parking lots at Chichén Itzá and Tulum, where hordes of tour groups in
matching T-shirts and ball caps swarm around pyramids and observatories.
Here, our companions were buzzing mosquitoes and a chorus of chortling
Few tourists make their way to the
sparsely populated forests covering the southern Yucatán. Calakmul, on
the Guatemala border, is the most significant archaeological site in
this region and the centerpiece of a 1.7 million-acre biosphere reserve
harboring about 400 wild jaguars in Mexico's largest protected tropical
forest. But the road to Calakmul’s Maya pyramids was muddy and rough,
nearly inaccessible when we traveled there in the rainy season.
Fortunately, short, paved roads lead to
dozens of smaller Maya centers near the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve. The
region is dotted with structures built and inhabited by the Maya from AD
600 to 850. Gary, my husband and dedicated driver, took control of the
wheel as we headed out on a road trip to the ruins.
Our ultimate destination was Xcalak, the
last traditional fishing village (and prime diving grounds) on the coast
between Cancún and Belize. But I’d heard so much about the peninsula’s
southern interior that I had to check it out. San Diego State University
anthropology professor Dr. Joe Ball had told me, “There are quite a few
new places that are accessible, interesting and worth seeing.”
His list was staggering. We didn’t have
time to visit remote ruins where howler monkeys and wild cats roam
around hidden temples. But we could take a few days to explore more
accessible areas. Five hours after leaving Cancún with our stock of
bottled water, mangos, and trail mix, we pulled up at the Explorean
Buried in trees near the south’s most
accessible Maya site, the Explorean represents the future of an emerging
tourism destination. Its peaked palapas tower over the low forest (oft
referred to as jungle) that blends into the Petén region of Guatemala,
home to the hallowed towers of Tikal. Adventure travelers camp near
rivers and crumbling Maya structures in this area. The Explorean
combines creature comforts with hidden ruins and tropical lagoons.
Our thatched-roof casita had
air-conditioning, a large bathroom with a garden outside the shower and
a king-size bed. Hummingbirds and butterflies flitted about the
flowering vines shielding our patio. We left the wood shutters open to
the music of frogs and crickets and awoke at dawn.
The parking lot was empty when we arrived
at Kohunlich, where we climbed palaces and pyramids while searching for
the famed leering mask of the sun.
A flock of large brown chachalacas cried
out a warning as we wandered past thick ferns and ceiba trees topped
with tropical orchids. Paths led through tall palm groves to the Temple
of the Masks, where palm awnings shelter seven-foot-high stucco reliefs
with bulging eyes and protruding tongues. The masks, honoring the sun
god Kinich Ahau, are unlike anything seen at Maya sites in northern
Yucatán. Instead, their ornamentation resembles the architecture of the
Río Bec region, our next destination.
Victor Cavich, a licensed guide who grew
up in the area, led us on a ramble through an amazing, deserted series
of richly decorated temples and pyramids at the sites of Becán, Chicanná,
and Xpujil. As a child, Cavich knew Maya structures were buried around
his sparsely populated rural neighborhood, but locals could hardly slash
paths to the structures with their machetes.
“We were always excited when people came
to work here,” he said of the influx of scientists exploring the sites
in the past few decades.
INAH, Mexico’s Institute of Anthropology
and History, has put considerable money and effort into restoring Maya
structures around Calakmul as part of the ongoing Ruta Maya project
linking sites in Mexico and Central America. The result is a cluster of
immaculately restored archaeological parks virtually ignored by
Wandering along trails carved through
forests of rubber and chicle trees (whose sap is used to make chewing
gum), we discovered a spooky serpent mask with huge fangs framing the
doorway to a temple at Chicanná. It looked like a monster’s mouth
threatening to swallow anyone who dared enter the temple, and is said to
represent the creator god Itzamná.
Tall stone towers reminiscent of ornate
structures at Tikal and Palenque punched through vines and tree limbs at
Xpujil. We climbed over 100 feet toward the sky to the top of a pyramid
and admired an endless forest punctuated with limestone temples. I half
expected to spot a jaguar crossing the waterless moat at Becán, where
bats hung inside a secret tunnel.
When the sun rose too high for comfort,
we retreated to our hotel and floated in the pool overlooking the forest
canopy. Other guests straggled back from a grueling bike ride to the
ruins at Chichanhá and a rappelling trip to Golden Crocodile cenote, a
sinkhole in the peninsula’s porous limestone shelf.
Honeymooners from Texas and a British
film producer joined us for lunch before we collapsed into the hammocks
outside our cabin. The sky was a rose-tinted midnight blue when I
trekked up the hillside to the hotel’s spa for a relaxing,
We left for the coast the next morning,
regretfully. The honeymooners headed back to Cancún to return their
wheels and jet home to Dallas. The producer sat alone in the open-air
dining room reading a mystery and nursing the bruises from her bike
ride. A flock of parrots announced their farewell.
Next time, I’ll camp at Calakmul (in the
dry season) and search for howler monkeys and secret Maya tombs.
If You Go
Getting There: Cancún is the easiest
gateway to the southern Yucatán Peninsula; its international airport is
served by AeroMexico (800/237-6639). It helps to have a car if you want
to tour the region thoroughly; rentals are available at the airports.
Driving: Head south on Highway 307, which
hugs the Caribbean coastline between Cancún and Chetumal, capital of the
state of Quintana Roo on the border with Belize. Just north off Chetumal,
turn inland on Highway 186, which runs west to the gulf coast of
Campeche. Both highways are in excellent condition.
When to Go: Roads and access are best
during the dry season (December through June), which is also the most
crowded time at the ruins. During the rainy season you'll often have the
ruins to yourself, increasing your chances of spotting wildlife.
Staying There: The Explorean Kohunlich
is located off Highway 186 near all of the archeological sites in this
story. Thatch-roofed cabins spread out along steep trails have full
baths and large outdoor living rooms with couches and hammocks. The
restaurant, large lounge area, spa, and pool sit above the treetops.
Tours include rappelling, mountain biking, and kayaking along with
guided walks through the archeological sites. Rates include
accommodations, meals, drinks, tours and activities and start at $250
per person per night. (877) 397-5672, www.explorean.com. Also in the
area is the Chicanná Ecovillage Resort near the turnoff to Calakmul.
Thatch-roofed cabins are set amid trees by the pool and hot tub;
hammocks hang beneath palm trees and the ambience is simple and
comfortable. Rates for a double room start at $90 per night.
Information: Information on the
archaeological sites is available at
www.inah.gob.mx For travel tips check out
Ecocolors leads biking and camping
adventures through the peninsula and offers a tour that combines diving
at coral reefs and cenotes along with tours of Kohunlich and
Ecoturismo Yucatán, one of the oldest
tour companies in Yucatán, has trips that combine bird watching and
archaeology; its guides are excellent and the tours cover off-the-beaten
firstname.lastname@example.org ; www.ecoyuc.com
For other tour options check out
Sites Worth Seeing
· Becán – Capital of the Río Bec region,
with altars and pyramids surrounded by a dry moat.
· Chicanná – Ornate carvings including a
gaping serpent mask.
· Chichanhá – A church built by the Maya
after the Spanish invasion.
· Dzibanché – A large city-state
frequented by more wild cats and tropical birds.