The ruined Maya city of Calakmul 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 steles 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 – longer 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.