This article is from the November 2003 The Mexico File newsletter.
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Beyond the Ruta Maya
Untrammeled archaeological sites in southern Yucatán offer solitude and wildlife sightings 

by Maribeth Mellin 

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 birds. 

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 Kohunlich Hotel.  

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 tourists.  

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, lavender-scented massage.  

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. 011-52-981-816-2233, www.mayanroutes.com   

Information: Information on the archaeological sites is available at www.inah.gob.mx  For travel tips check out www.visitmexico.com  

Top Tours 

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 birdwatching. 011-52-998-884-3667; www.ecotravelmexico.com  

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 path sites.011-52-999-920-2772; info@ecoyuc.com ; www.ecoyuc.com  

For other tour options check out www.planeta.com  and www.amtave.org  

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.

· Kinichna – A satellite city to Dzibanché with a pyramid that rises at least 150 feet over the treetops and several excavated tombs that were filled with jade ornaments.  

· Xpujil – An unusual series of three tall towers with carved masks.

· Calakmul – A 175-foot-high pyramid towers over a 1.7 million-acre biosphere reserve containing one of the largest Maya cities in Mexico. Over 6,000 structures have been mapped out at the site, some containing tombs with stunning jade masks.