The Yucatan peninsula has infinite possibilities if one decides to get away from the vertical Caribbean beaches. Driving towards the interior of the peninsula, the jungle tries to engulf the road that begins to have fewer vehicles;
the activity is on its flanks, covered with vegetation when you cross the state of Campeche on your way south, to the ancient home of the Mayas. Of them today remain entire cities and several well-preserved pyramids, now inhabited by monkeys, hundreds of birds, reptiles, jaguars and, sporadically, by a handful of tourists, still few, who enter this protected jungle, the second largest in America after the Amazon, which is still waiting to be discovered.
Xpujil and more than three million bats
With the backpacks loaded with snacks for the two lunches that are presented between pyramids and jungle, you have to go to Xpujil. This is the starting point because it is the closest town to the reserve; at its entrance is the Calakmul Tourist Information Center. There, they manage a community network of alternative and sustainable tourism, with fauna and archeology guides accredited by SECTUR (the Federal Ministry of Tourism, through the General Directorate of Tourism Certification), and the five indigenous eco-sustainable communities that can be visited and where you can spend the night. It is best to arrive around 3:00 pm to receive maps and information and request a visit to the bat cave -or make a reservation in advance-, as there is limited seating and the guides leave before 5:00 pm.
From the Information Center, take Federal Highway 186, which is a straight line, and stop on the right flank about 35 minutes from Xpujil. There, accredited guides are waiting to take a short route to a dry cenote from which, at five o’clock, very punctually, more than three million bats come out. It is the second largest community of bats on the planet. They live in the depths of the cenote and tourists wait on one of its flanks with masks, or cloths to cover mouth and nose, prepared for the intense smell of ammonia that rises when the bats begin to leave.
At five o’clock a small group comes out, making sure there are no predators. A minute later, thousands, millions of bats begin to fly from the depths of the cenote to the surface creating a whirlpool of such intensity that predators (eagles, owls…) must wait in the trees to avoid being dragged to the bottom with the centrifugal force they exert. Ten minutes of flight, at full speed upwards, among the trees, among the tourists, until a cloud is created in the sky, above the canopy where the spider monkeys are already playing. A good group, jumping from one tree to another and looking down from the heights.
The first night in the jungle
It gets dark early and it is not advisable to drive in the dark, there is no lighting or cover. Fifteen minutes from the cave, continuing along Highway 186 and turning left onto the trail that leads to the archaeological site of Calakmul, you reach the Yaax’che camp. It is run by Fernando and Leticia, an elderly couple who have been living in this settlement in the heart of the jungle for more than 20 years. She cooks Yucatecan dishes and hot chocolate with honey and flowers from her bees. Fernando shows the camp, composed of nine huge tents on cement pavement to prevent animals from approaching, although the real protectors are the cats that live there and scare away the reptiles without fear.
At night, you can walk a small trail of about 5 km. You have to be patient and let your eyes adapt to the darkness, the nice thing is to do it with the moonlight. Towards the middle, a wooden tower about 20 meters high puts vertigo to the test and allows visitors to climb to the height of the trees to see birds by day and the jungle and its sounds at night, sometimes howler monkeys.
On the way to the home of the Maya
There are two very marked areas to visit if you are going to Calakmul for a few days. One is the area surrounding the archaeological zone of Calakmul, to the south from the bat cave and the camp. It can be accessed directly by car, but it is advisable to first take the walking route that goes into the jungle, towards the crocodile watering hole, to learn about its biodiversity. The routes are done with accredited guides provided by the Calakmul Tourist Information Center. For safety, for information and because, among all that vegetation, their eyes are used to spotting even a hummingbird.
You have to leave early to see coatis, monkeys, reptiles, deer (yes, there are deer in the jungle), tapirs, hundreds of bird species (toucans, turkeys, hummingbirds, macaws…) and even crocodiles resting in the aguada, a Mayan construction to store rainwater underground that leaves a puddle on the surface. Very few lucky ones have managed to see jaguars: their hearing is too fine. Although the guides who live in the jungle communities have seen them on their routes and even in their gardens when one, absent-minded and hungry, has wandered into the village. Insects also populate this jungle, so, despite the heat, it is advisable to be completely covered.
Calakmul archaeological zone, climbing pyramids and touring the Mayan city.
It is one of the most important Mayan sites in the world, not only for its extension, but also for the amount of structures that remain standing and form a whole city, for having been the capital of the kingdom of Kaan (the Kingdom of the Serpent), one of the most important in the Mayan world, and for its location in the jungle, which, compared to other sites more prepared for tourism, makes it a more authentic, more remote and richer visit.
The city is organized in five complexes organized around a central plaza -where political, economic and religious life took place-, like a clock, in fact it served as such. The most striking are structures I and II, two pyramids of enormous dimensions that give the name to Calakmul: Ca, means two, lak is adjacent and mul means mound or pyramid, “two adjacent mounds”. They can be climbed and must be climbed, of course, the Maya had to be as agile as advanced, because its narrow stone steps and uneven heights require effort in the ascent and care in the descent, without fear of descending sitting down when things get complicated. Structure II is the highest of all, 50 meters high, you can reach what is now the top (it lacks a part of another ten meters approximately) and observe the entire jungle, with the structure I peeking through the trees.
Seen the most impressive, you have to pay attention to the acropolis, the ball game, the roads leading to the square, the water supply network … These public works account for the progress, and the large number of stelae at the foot of the pyramids (120 have been found throughout the site), of the great landmarks of the city that have helped to reconstruct its history. It is necessary to look carefully, some of them still conserve the carving and the remains of painting.
Driving on the road to Xpujil, two hours and 45 minutes away, is Hormiguero, where an even more recondite site awaits and some panuchos for dinner with cochinita pibil before resting in the community’s wooden cabins.