Calakmul is a large Mayan site in a very remote area of southern Mexico, just 35 km north of the Guatemala border. It was one of the largest and most powerful Mayan cities. About 50,000 people lived here. There were 6,750 structures, but most of them were little and unimportant. Most are now just piles of rocks. There are three large pyramids, the tallest of which is more than 45 metres in height (148 feet). The size of the site was approximately 70 square kilometres but most of that was residential structures which have long since disappeared. The site now covers about 20 sq km.
Calakmul had an on and off relationship with Tikal, another large Mayan city to the south in what is now Guatemala. At times they were friends but they were often at war with each other. Both cities sought to be the most powerful of the Mayan kingdoms. In the 6th and 7th century, Calakmul was the more dominate city but Tikal beat Calakmul in battle in the year 695 and afterwards Tikal was the more important city. Both cities, like all other Mayan cities collapsed and were abandoned Most Mayan cities were abandoned by the 1500s. There are several theories as to the reason for the collapse but there is no proof for any of them.
In modern times, Calakmul was discovered in 1931. What was once one of the largest cities in the Mayan empire is now in a very remote area in the Mexican state of Campeche. Southern Campeche and northern Guatemala are mostly jungle with few towns.
Southern Yucatan is littered with hundreds of small Mayan sites. It would take more than a year to visit them all. Most are small and not important. Just as today there are very large cities surround by little villages. Many have one nice buildings with carvings that would be worth a visit to see, however, there is simply not enough time to visit them all, and nor would I want to. Many are in very remote areas and difficult to get to. The rural Mayan population around Calakmul is estimated to have been 1.75 million people. Today there are just a few small towns in this area.
Many of the structures had stela in front of them (spelled correctly with one L, the plural is stelae). A stela was like a political billboard. It is a huge rock that is positioned upright and had a carving on it. Some of them had pictures of kings and others had pictures of famous warriors and priests and other important people. Some had depictions of their gods and images of battles. Almost all of them are now so weather-worn that the pictures are no longer visible. W hen they were new and painted they must have been very pretty as well as important objects to the glory of the city.
My photos of the pyramids and other structures are not too good because of the poor lighting. It was a gloomy day and the structures seemed to be almost the same colour as the sky. They almost look like black and white photos.
The trees in Calakmul are very interesting. Many of them are twisted and have strange formations. We saw some of them wrapped around stela or growing out of a pyramid. Of course, when the city was occupied, the people would not have allowed trees to grow on their buildings or stela. I saw one bright green tree that was covered in red spikes.
Calakmul is a very interesting site but I still think that Chichan Itza and Uxmal are the most magnificent that I have seen so far. I still have two more large Mayan cities to visit at Palenque and Tikal.
The Mayan site of Calakmul is now within the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve. The reserve covers an area of 7,231 sq km, which is about 12% of the tropical jungle of southern Mexico. It was established in 1989. The reserve is home to five species of cats including jaguar, jaguarundi and ocelot, two species of monkeys, tapirs and many other animals. Most are rarely seen.
The ruins are excellent places to find birds and I go to many of them as much to see the birds as to see the ruins themselves.
Today we saw the Ocellated Turkey, which is a more colourful version of the wild turkeys that can be found in USA and Canada. I saw them before but today I got a nice close look at one. The body is blue and black and green. The tips of the feathers are blue, green and gold,. The wings are florescent turquoise, white, black and metallic copper. The featherless head is blue and covered with large orange warts. It is quite a bird. This is the only place in Mexico where they are found. They probably were more common in previous times but have been hunted out in places outside of parks where they are protected. They can also be seen in remote parts of Belize and Guatemala. I saw them once before in a very remote area of Belize near the Guatemalan border.
Another nice bird that I saw is the Great Curassow. This is another large ground bird. It is mostly black with a white belly. The bill is bright yellow and has a large knob on it. I saw three of them but not long enough to get a photo. It is a little smaller than the turkey. Both of these birds spend the day on the ground and roost in trees at night.
I saw another bird that I had been looking for years. The Painted Bunting is just a little bird but is one of the most beautiful. The belly is a bright red. The back is green and the head is blue. I saw it just briefly in the shade before it flew away. I would like to see another one in the sunlight to see the colours better and would love to get a photo.
I also searched for an eagle called the Ornate Hawk Eagle but was not able to locate it. If I have time, I might go back and try again before I have to go back to Canada.
The reserve was designated a United Nations World Heritage Site in 2002. World Heritage Sites are protected areas to preserve places and objects (both natural and manmade) that are very important for future generations. This site, together with Petan in northern Guatemala is the only remaining large tract of undisturbed tropical jungle left north of South America. It preserves the Mayan ruins as well as rare birds like the Ornate Hawk Eagle and the Ocellated Turkey and many other animals such as the jaguar.
It has been sunny for almost three weeks but most of my three days in Calakmul were gloomy and rainy. Birds on the ground were easy to see but all the birds in the treetops appeared to be black due to the dark clouds and lack of sunlight. (see the photos). Much of my trip has been plagued with bad weather. Almost every time I go into the jungle it is dark and gloomy and rainy. I managed to get some nice photos during brief sunny periods. I saw several parrots but have yet to get a single nice photo of one in the whole time I have been in the tropics.
The village of Conhuas where we stayed is near the entrance to the Calakmul Biosphe Reserve. It is the closest place with accommodations. Still, from the gate of the reserve to the ruins is another 65 kilometres, much of it on narrow windy road with a speed-limit of 30 kph. We made several stops to look for birds so it took us three hours to reach the ruins from the gate. If you speed and don’t stop for the birds, it could be done in less than two hours. This gave us an appreciation of the immense size of the place.
I hope I have time before going back to Canada to visit it again with better weather. Perhaps next time I can find the eagle. There are so many wonderful things in this world to see. I need to live to be about 300 in order to visit them all.