West of Chetumal, along the border with Guatemala, lie the little-visited but dramatic Río Bec sites, many tucked in dense jungle that harbours diverse birds and beasts, especially in the larger Calakmul Biosphere Reserve, around the ruins of the same name. The area was once heavily populated by lowland Maya, and linked with the site of Tikal in Guatemala. The largest ruins here, with their long, low buildings, dramatic towers (really elongated, stylized pyramids) and intricate carvings, are easily as impressive as Chichén Itzá, heightened by the jungle setting. The area is accessible either from Campeche or from Chetumal, and you’ll need to have a car or hire a taxi to see many of these sites – but this means you’ll see few other tourists.
The largest town in the area is Francisco Escárcega (usually just called Escárcega), far to the west in Campeche state. It’s a major bus hub, but somewhat dusty and unwelcoming, so most visitors to the sites use the much smaller village of Xpujil, on the border of Campeche and Quintana Roo, as a base for visiting the area. It’s a one-street town straddling Hwy-186, with basic hotels and restaurants, as well as taxi drivers prepared to shuttle visitors around. If you’re in your own car, note there’s a gas station just east of town.Read More
CalakmulThis ruined Maya city is one of the best places for contemplating the culture’s architectural legacy. The complex is only partially restored and a long drive south of Hwy-186, but its location in the heart of the jungle and its sheer size are awe-inspiring. Probably the biggest archeological area in Mesoamerica, Calakmul has nearly seven thousand buildings in the central area alone and more stelae and pyramids than any other site; the great pyramid here is the largest Maya construction in existence, with a base covering almost five acres.
The view of the rainforest from the top is stunning, and on a clear day you can even glimpse the tip of the Danta pyramid at El Mirador in Guatemala. Arrive early (the gate to the biosphere on Hwy-186 opens at 7am) to look for wildlife such as wild turkeys, peccaries, toucans and jaguars. Even if you don’t spot anything, you’ll likely hear booming howler monkeys and raucous frogs. Plan to spend about four hours exploring the site – more if you’re a Maya-phile. Bring snacks and water, as there’s no vending at the ruins.
During the Classic period, the city had a population of about two hundred thousand and was the regional capital. A sacbé (Maya road) running between Calakmul and El Mirador (another leads on to Tikal) confirms that these cities were in regular communication. Calakmul reached its zenith between 500 and 850 AD but, along with most other cities in the area, it was abandoned by about 900 AD. Excavations begun in the 1980s have so far uncovered only a fraction of the buildings, the rest being earthen mounds. Some of Calakmul’s treasures are on display in the archeological museum at Campeche, including two hauntingly beautiful jade masks. Another mask was found in a tomb in the main pyramid in 1998.