Situated in the State of Campeche at the base of the peninsula of Yucatan and at the border with the Peten Region in Guatemala, the Calakmul biosphere reserve is one of the largest protected areas in Mexico. The area counts with many species of flora and fauna and it’s a paradise for photographers, bird watchers, and animal lovers in general.
Inside the biosphere, you will find located one of the most precious and biggest Mayan archaeological sites and the most popular in the region.
What I would like to highlight here is that although it has become famous for the magnificent Calakmul national park, the region has much much more to offer. During my road trip, after speaking with the helpful guys of the Tourist information center VISIT CALAKMUL, I have decided to extend my stay for about 5 days in order to see everything as much as possible, and, believe me, I should have stayed longer in order to see completely everything.
You can refer to the below map to have a better idea
HOW TO GET TO CALAKMUL AND MOVE AROUND
TRAVELING TO CALAKMUL BY CAR
This is the best option and it’s not because I live here that I find it easy.
The road is in great condition and there is absolutely no danger. Besides, you will be free to move around at your pace without having to depend on taxis or buses. It is also advisable to rent the car before getting there, as it might be more complicated to rent it from there and you would have less choice.
You can check out my post on driving in Mexico for more info.
Driving from Bacalar or Campeche you will enter route 186 and right after about 1-hour driving you will pass the frontiers of Quintana Roo and you will be in the Campeche region.
You will see a military checkpoint. Not to worry: they are doing random checks and will only ask for your driving license and car documents. You will notice the difference of attitude from the Police in the Riviera Maya. They are very laid back and don’t play any tricks.
However I can tell you that I was driving on my own and as a blond woman mastering the Spanish language, I was asked extra unnecessary questions but that was fine. You just smile and answer politely and you are good to go.
TRAVELING TO CALAKMUL BY BUS
ADO provides a great Bus service from the main locations, From Cancun is about 25 USD and it’s 8 hours trip. From Merida, you need to get to Escarcega and then hop onto another bus. From Playa del Carmen, Tulum, Bacalar, is the same bus leaving from Cancun. You need to look for Xpujil which is the core of the entire area. When you reserve your ticket online you can get help on the itinerary using their chat from 7 am to 10 pm. They speak English too.
In every village they also have “colectivos” minivans that go basically everywhere, you will be less comfortable and sometimes a little squeezed, but it is another option if you have the sense of adventure. 😉
If you get there by bus, you will need taxis to move around. There is a taxi station right in the center of Xpujil and they will ask you about 500 pesos to go to Calakmul, whereas if you stay in the hotels around the Biosphere they will call a taxi for you. It’s going to be a bit expensive but it is doable. To rent a car once you are there is more complicated, near to impossible.
WHAT TO SEE IN THE AREA OF CALAKMUL
CALAKMUL BIOSPHERE AND ARCHAEOLOGICAL SITE
The Calakmul Biosphere Reserve was established as a natural protected area in 1989 and it is a Unesco World Heritage site since 2002.
The deep and thick jungle is home of one of a great abundance of wildlife and hosts rich biodiversity, that was very appreciated by the Mayans and represented in their paintings, pottery, sculptures, rituals, food, and arts in general, that have been discovered as witnesses of the grandeur of this civilization. Several of the species are considered threatened and in danger.
It is home to two of the three species of primates and five of the six wildcat species (felines) that exist in Mexico”, among which the Jaguar ( Balam in the Mayan Language) which is considered a sacred animal by the ancient Maya civilization and you will see it represented in numerous paintings and various decorations (CIT UNESCO).
It is one of the largest Mayan sites brought to light even though excavations are a perpetual work in progress due to the immensity of the territory, which extends for 70km2 of which only 2% of the buildings are accessible.
A lot of information has been found from “the number of stucco friezes and mural paintings in some of the massive temple pyramids and palaces, as well as burials of kings and other members of nobility, containing a rich variety of body ornaments and other accompanying objects including elaborate jade masks, ear spools, and polychrome pottery vessels.
The hieroglyphic inscriptions on stelae, altars, and building elements reveal important facts about the territorial organization and political history, and some epigraphic records provide information that has not been found anywhere else in the Maya Area.” (Source: UNESCO web site )
The city of Calakmul was the capital of the reign of the Kaan, in the classic period between the 3rd and 7th century, and it seems that it reached 100.000 inhabitants, second only to the capital of Tenochtitlan, the Aztecan city, on which Mexico city has been eventually built.
It is so incredible how much advanced this population was in astronomy and Agricultural technology, engineering, and architecture. It was in fact
The old city included something like 6500 structures and, considering that only the 2% of it has been brought to light, it will take forever to see all of the remaining parts covered up by the thick vegetation.
I loved to see that the excavation works have been very much respectful of the surrounding nature, though and many secular threes have been spared, despite the huge amazing work that has been done from the archeologist so that we can admire and get closer to such a brilliant and mysterious civilization.
One of the things that impressed me the most while visiting any of those archeological sites is how secular trees are rooted over massive blocks of stone and it is not rare to find vegetation on top of an ancient tower. Fascinating!
If you love to climb up you will have your own natural amusement park in Calakmul, where you can reach the top of the main structures; just do it with respect and paying much attention to where you put your feet. Especially if it has rained, it can be slippery. The view of an infinite green carpet from the top is mesmerizing.
There is so much to know and see about this site that you will need a full day to visit and yet it wouldn’t be enough! I would wholeheartedly suggest you should hire a local guide for the entire time so that you can make the most of it and learn about the local spices of flora and fauna that grow here and more details on the Mayan civilization besides local anecdotes. You can ask the office of Pro Natura to find a guide for you.
When I was there I found a travel companion in the office and we get together for the trip and hire a great guide. We drove together since morning, 5 am, in order to enter the park at 6 am and be able to see different bird spices, monkeys and other animals.
If you are lucky you could also spot a jaguar; we didn’t unfortunately, but it is very rare to find. The guide stayed with us for the entire day for 900 pesos ( about 50 USD).
It’s going to be a very hot and sweaty day but all worth it.
WHAT TO BRING: remember to bring at least 2 bottles of water and some food to get you through the day, as the only cafe’ is at half an hour from the entrance and besides it might be closed if there are not enough visitors. A hat, sunscreen, mosquito repellent, especially for early morning as the mosquitoes are quite aggressive.
- OPENING HOURS 8 AM TO 5 PM but if you go with a guide you have access earlier
- PRICE 150 MXN ( about 8 USD)
The biosphere is one of the best areas for the birds’ lovers or those who want to approach this world of birdwatchers, there is no better place to start. There are specialized guides available to take you to the best spots. Ask your concierge or the Visit Calakmul office for information.
NIGHT SHOW OF THE BATS
This happens in a cave just outside the entrance of Calakmul. You need to go with a guide (that you can book here [email protected]). It will be around 6 or 7 depending on the time of the year, it has to be after sunset when the bats come out in a circle all together forming something like a vortex. It is an amazing show.
VISIT THE UNIQUE ARCHAEOLOGICAL SITE OF BALAMKU
I am not sure why this Mayan site always passes unnoticed although it is of great importance as well, situated within the premises of the biosphere of Calakmul, the entrance is almost opposite to the Calakmul site entrance. Balamku is small especially compared to the main site but it has one of the largest surviving stucco friezes in the Maya world, worth seeing.
- OPENING HOURS 8 AM TO 5 PM
- PRICE 50 MXN ABOUT 2.5 USD
VISIT THE ARCHEOLOGICAL SITE OF XPUJIL
It is a very small site located right on the way out of Xpujil town. For the passionate photographer, it is better to visit in the morning, for the light illuminating the front of the three main towers.
The name Xpujil comes from the name of a rare plant that is now extinguished due to the urbanization, that was called the tail of cat (xpuh in Maya language)
- ENTRANCE FEE 55 MXN (3 USD)
- OPENING HOURS 8 AM TO 5 PM
Becan is another archaeological site in the region, considered the capital of the Rio Bec area during the classical period, as witness the magnificent buildings.
It has also a particular characteristic that makes this site unique among others, a ditch that surrounds the most important buildings of the site, accessible only by 7 bridges.
Other important features are the mascarones on the main facade representative of the different cultural periods of the city and the ideology of its governors of the time.
WHERE IS SITUATED on the main road (route 186) 10 km after Xpujil on the way towards Calakmul
- COST 55 MXN
- OPENING HOURS 8 AM TO 5 PM
Situated on the way to Calakmul, right after Becan, on the left side, at about 10 km from Xpuji, Chicanna’ is considered one of the elite centers of the Region Rio Bec for the elegance of the decorations of the buildings.
Chicannà is also called “Casa de la Boca de la serpiente ” which means home of the mouth of the snake, in Spanish. That’s because of the masks of Itzamná, the god of the sun and wisdom represented by a face with enormous open jaws and bejeweled ears. (see picture)
- OPENING HOURS 8 AM TO 5 PM
- COST 50 MXN
WALK OR BIKE TO HORMIGUERO
This archeological site is one of the most fascinating among the small ones because it is located deep inside the thick jungle and you can reach it either by bike, which you can rent at the village, just outside Xpujil, or you can also drive up to the entrance.
Of the numerous structures, you can only see a couple that has been restructured. One of them, in particular, has a stunning mask on the facade, looking like a monstrous open mouth with giant fangs which has been interpreted as the entrance to the underworld.
Also worthy of note is the zoomorphic facade and the masks of the god Chaac which decorate another of the structures. (Source – INHA page )It was called Hormiguero by the researcher who found it because it was full of ant’s nests (Hormiguero in Spanish)
VISIT RIO BEC ON A QUOD OR A MOTORBIKE
The archaeological site of Rio Bec is located very close to the boundaries of Guatemala in the region of Peten Guatemalteco.
The name Rio Bec also classifies a kind of architectural style typical of that same region. The main structure is made of two towers with no particular functionality if not decorative. The style is similar to the one in Tikal, probably for the proximity.
HOW TO GET THERE – to reach Rio Bec is not so simple as the road is really agnostic even for a Jeep. For this reason, the local community organizes guided tours by quad, which is almost the only possible way to get there. You will need to reach the Community of 20 de Noviembre, which is right before the borders between Quintana Roo and Campeche where your guide will wait for you.
COST– 900 pesos (50 USD) per person at the time I checked (2017) but you need to organize it with the Pro Natura Office.
If you are alone and you don’t want to go by quod ( 4 wheels motorbikes) you can ask the guys of Pro Natura and see if they can find somebody to take you by motorbike which is the only other option.
This is what I did and was totally worth the trip. It’s a full immersion into the unspoiled nature and if you go early you might encounter some wild creatures. FUN! The view of the site emerging from the jungle is just spectacular!
COMUNIDAD 20 de NOVIEMBRE –
It is one of the local communities that you can visit and if you wish to spend some time with them, they have some workshops where they teach you their art and crafts, you will learn about their creativity and how they make their living. Here they do beautiful hammocks, a typical product of Yucatan and Campeche, totally handmade.
You will be left speechless before the creativity and the manual ability of these people. They also make necklaces, earrings, woodworks for the house, both for decorations or household usage, huipiles (typical local dresses for women), honey, and natural skin products.
COMUNIDAD LA MANCOLONA
Also, La Mancolona was an interesting place to visit. Here I stayed for half a day and learn how to make candles and basketworks. They also offer guided tours in the countryside to see the pepper cultivations and other interesting aspects of the surrounding regions.
They showed me their lifestyle and how they made tamales, a typical dish, to sell to the community.
It was an interesting experience to immerse yourself in the local culture and to support them.
CAVES OF CASA DE LA LLUVIA – CRISTOBAL COLON
In the community of Cristobal Colón, at a few km from Xpujil, the knowledgeable guide Faustino Hernandez will take you into the heart of mother earth, literally.
This cave is extremely huge and deep. You will see rivers and the remaining Mayan utensils that have been found and left there. The guide will tell you about the history of that place and its legends. It’s an amazing walk into the underworld.
WHAT TO WEAR front light and boots, very important. They will give you a hard hat for protection. WARNING: DO NOT GO if you are claustrophobic. 😉
VISIT OR CAMP AT VALENTIN NATURAL
A beautiful lagoon (Laguna Carolina) located just 5 km from Xpujil where you can live in total connection with nature. You can either camp there and spend the night or just go for a daily visit.
In the lagoon, you can do different activities such as bird watching or kayaking. It’s a special place for a peaceful day in nature. For more information, you can contact the Pro Natura office ([email protected]) or directly the lagoon offices ([email protected])
DISCLAIMER: I am not getting any sponsorship from this, I just genuinely loved the place and the visits.
- Once you get to Xpujil you should stop by the Tourism office VISIT CALAKMUL. It’s just located on the road before you reach the center of the town. They are amazing and will help you sort out your planning. It’s convenient if you ask them to book and organize some of the visits in the nearby areas such as the communities or the tour at the cave because the local guides need to know in advance. Also if you wish to have a guide in Calakmul they can arrange it for you.(advisable )
- Xpujil is the main center where you find gasoline stations, restaurants, and hotels and although it is at 1-hour distance from Calakmul it’s advisable to stay there if you want to be in communication with the rest of the world, as in Calakmul there is no signal for most of the area.
- If you are driving bear in mind that when you leave xpuhil there are no more gas stations until Escarcega, therefore make sure your tank is full.
- Always bring water with you as they don’t sell it at the entrance of the sites.
- Wear mosquito repellent and sunscreen as there is an abundance of both mosquitos and sun.
- Have Mexican pesos with you as in many places such us Archaeological Sites or small shops don’t use a credit card.
- You can have a more detailed information on how to stay safe in Mexico on this post
WHERE TO STAY IN CALAKMUL
The area offers a variety of accommodations for all needs and budgets. I have created a separate post where I will give you my personal reviews on the hotels as I have personally taken the time to visit some of them. You can check this article on the hotels in Calakmul Area.
For more to see near Calakmul
- Store your bags in the main cities and walk around freely hands and weight free with Bounce
- Check if you need a visa and get help processing it with iVisa
- Never ever leave without
travel insurance. Get complete coverage from World Nomads or long term insurance from Safety Wing
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- Book your daily tours locally to support local businesses, or if you don’t find any reliable company, or you prefer to book in advance, check out GetYourGuide or Viator. Some of their tours are refundable up to 24h in advance.
- I rent my long and mid-term apartments on VRBO
- Book hotels with Booking.com or Hotels.com
- Compare car rental prices at Discover Car Rentals
- Check out my travel planning guide if you are planning your trip and feeling overwhelmed