What is it about trekking through the jungle that sends omenously cool vibrations sprinting down my spinal column? It’s wild, unpredictable, mysterious – kind of like walking into a strip club in Vegas on your 21st birthday – it’s just an exhilarating (and intimidating) place to be. So when I heard about this massive ancient Mayan site embedded in the remotest of remote jungles near the southern end of Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to make the trip down to check out the remains of what was once among the most influential sites in the history of the Mayan Empire: Calakmul.
From what I understood, it was a bit of an effort to get there. There’s only 1 hotel within a 60km radius and if you Google “Calakmul” on a map you end up with a location marker that lands in the middle of absolute nowhere within a huge Biosphere Reserve just north of the Guatemalan border, several hours away from anything remotely familiar to the average Mexico traveler. This is the beauty of traveling to places like this. Only the adventurous few will make the effort, so the experience will feel unique and untainted and you’ll never have to worry about crowds, traffic jams or crying toddlers in strollers begging for ice cream while you pass through the turnstile. (No, I’m not a big fan of Disneyland, you guessed correctly.) An exit south off of highway 186, which slices horizontally through the state of Campeche, took me on a long, lonely road flanked by endless miles of a subtropical forest that has seen only the most intrepid of travelers pass through its sequestered corridor.
After a lengthy drive deep into the jungle, with every revolving digit of the odometer reminding you that you are advancing one frame further from civilization, I arrived at the Calakmul visitor’s center/museum. Plenty to see there while killing time, but my eagerness to explore had ignited my appetite so I grabbed some Doritos and an empanada and then hopped in a van with a few other travelers to make our way down another long (dirt) road, which really reassured me of the remoteness of this ancient wonder. Upon arrival to the ruins site, I performed my typical jungle-trekking ritual of mosquito repellent-bathing, calf-stretching and a second round of mosquito repellent-bathing. There was a lovely scenic walking path leading to the actual ruins, passing through an expanding canopy of dense forest with filtered sunbeams penetrating the jungle roof like a laser light show transmitted from heaven. The environment here is raw, stimulating, overwhelming to the senses…it kind of reminds me of walking through the olive & pickle market in Spain back in the day. The deeper I get into it, the more I start salivating. I finally arrive to the actual ruins and am immediately thrown into the set of Apocalypto (“please don’t let me run into a black jaguar on its lunch break”, was my first thought). The ruins were imposingly present throughout the area and seemed in a very natural state. I climbed to the top of the first structure I saw. The view (and the 60+ steps) took my breath away.
Standing above the jungle canopy atop the remains of an ancient structure of a kingdom that once rivaled Tikal as one of the grandest and most powerful cities of the Mayan world will quickly halt your mind into “pause” mode – and then force you to reflect on the former reality and historical scope of your surroundings. This was the land of rulers and kings…the turf of brave and brutal warriors and conquerors (and angry little monkeys, but we’ll get to that). The view of adjacent temples popping up through the blanket of vegetation in the distance is one that your brain will quickly file into the category of “Holy Shit – Awesome!”. Several large structures were scattered throughout the area, and if each one could speak I’m sure it would have countless tales spanning centuries of discovery, war, peace, famine and wonder. (That, or it would tell me to “clean your shoes before walking on my face, jerk!”) The surrounding jungle sprawls out endlessly in all directions, and the louring echo of howler monkeys adds an eerie soundtrack to the surreal scene that quietly envelopes you. When you sit there and think about the history that a place like this has written in its fraction of existence on Earth, and the countless lives that lived and were lost here, you are humbled…and you are also reminded of your very fortunate place in the annals of time. We live in a time where science answers many of the natural wonders that the original inhabitants of this land would never understand…a time where technology allows us to connect with and discover the farthest corners of the globe…a time where you won’t get sacrificed for being on the losing side in a game of kickball. As I explored Calakmul, I remained humbly cognizant of its historical significance. I walked among symbols of great power and strolled through ancient hallways of artistry and wonder.
Now let’s get to these monkeys that were ready to engage with me in a full-on turf war. What began as a cordial initial encounter, with the natural underpinnings of curiosity, quickly turned into a Clint Eastwood “Get off my lawn” scenario where the native tree-dwellers began to express to me just how peeved they were with my presence in their “jungle hood”. I hadn’t been briefed on the hospitality of the local monkey community before entering the area, therefore I just continued to go about my business, observe them, photograph them and proudly reinforce to them (by standing my ground) that there wasn’t gonna be any Planet Of The Apes-inspired ego flung in my direction. What WAS flung in my direction, however, was a tree branch straight towards my head by one of the two feisty little hairy bastards that I was shooting in the trees above, followed by some maniacal gestures of chest-beating and flashing of the teeth (those teeth are no joke!). This isn’t how I typically like to be received into a new place. The capuchins in Costa Rica posed for my camera like girls auditioning for a Lowrider magazine cover on Instagram. There was no “Welcome” mat on these two monkeys’ front porch. They began shaking the tree branches and beating on their chests like little King Kong wannabies. Oh, hell no. It was getting serious now. I was dealing with some bonafide bullies. As soon as that tree branch came flying towards my head, I was reminded of my surroundings in this “wild” and “unpredictable” jungle environment. This isn’t like being at the zoo where you’re able to laugh and make faces at an animal and feel safe from retaliation due to the security provided by the double-paned glass or steel cage that lies between you and the animal. This was the wild wild west of Mexican jungles – untamed and virtually unexplored – and these monkeys were the last holdouts of their village who weren’t gonna backdown from any foreign “bandits” armed with cameras and binoculars. I must admit, the intimidation tactics did work. (Again, those teeth are no joke!) I didn’t stick around too much longer to find out of they were bluffing. I wasn’t in the mood for a face full of poo that day, or a couple of jungle hoodlums trying to bully me for my bananas. Their aggressive behavior was enough for me to wrap up my photo shoot and quickly move along. Monkeys 1 – Gringo 0.
The fact that you can visit one of the world’s most fascinating remnants of ancient times and experience the full ambience of the natural world that surrounds it makes Calakmul a “must-see” destination on anyone’s Mexico travel list. Here, you can enjoy Mayan ruins that rival all of the grandeur and scale of the ruins of Chichen-Itza, but in a much more exotic and remote (and far less manicured) environment. You’ll also escape the crowds of day-trippers and local vendors trying to negotiate the “good price for you” sale of painted jaguar masks and plastic pyramid paper weights. If Chichen-Itza is Starbucks, then Calakmul is your out-of-the-way coffee shop reserved for enjoying an authentic blend in a quiet environment. Calakmul offers its visitors a chance to enjoy some seriously impressive ruins and experience the environment the way the ancient Maya saw it – in a natural state, remotely enclosed by the very jungle that witnessed its rise and fall. If you’re lucky, you’ll have a close encounter with the modern-day native inhabitants of this exotic land…the wildlife. There is an abundance. Just watch your back. As soon as a tree branch comes flying towards your head it might be your cue to continue your tour and move on to the next structure. As I was reminded, it’s best to never outstay your welcome in the wild…a lesson I also learned in the chaotic urban jungle of Mardi Gras in New Orleans back in 1996, but that’s a story for another day.