In the land of Mayan genius, where sophisticated cities flourished while Europe scrabbled bleakly through the Dark Ages, I was having a...
YUCATÁN PENINSULA, Mexico — In the land of Mayan genius, where sophisticated cities flourished while Europe scrabbled bleakly through the Dark Ages, I was having a Leonardo moment.
Not da Vinci. DiCaprio.
I stood tall, raised my eyes to the sky in a “Titanic” pose and almost crowed “I’m king of the world!”
I stopped only because my 13-year-old daughter would probably have pushed me off the pyramid.
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But the view, the place and the moment were unforgettable. We stood alone atop the biggest pyramid the Maya ever built, far off the tourist track. This was the ancient city of Calakmul, a superpower in its day. As we looked down from 17 stories above the jungle floor, only a few other ruins poked through treetops. To the horizon in every direction stretched a hazy jade canopy, home to jaguars, toucans, orchids and howler monkeys. Some 28 miles south in Guatemala rose the ghostly outline of Calakmul’s twin city, El Mirador. Both prospered around the time of Christ.
After days of driving, my daughter and I were all by ourselves on the rooftop of Latin America, at Ground Zero of an ancient civilization of influence, innovation and ambition.
It was so incredibly cool.
Off the beaten path
Remote Calakmul (“CAW-lock-mool”) was the climax of our journey, a father-daughter road trip through the land of the Maya.
Before planning our travels, my artistically oriented child had thought Yucatán was in the Middle East. Most of what I knew about the Maya came from National Geographic.
We decided to go beyond the Mayan sites that most tourists see, making a full circle of the Yucatán Peninsula, including little-visited Calakmul. Opened to visitors fewer than 10 years ago, it is believed the largest of Classic Mayan cities.
Our 12-day trip took us 1,200 miles in a tiny red rental car that we affectionately dubbed Juan Paco, or “J.P.” (a tribute to Seattle’s favorite clown, J.P. Patches; it resembled one of those cars that dozens of clowns climb out of). With my daughter, Lillian, as navigator and Chief Morale Booster, it was our own little journey of discovery, education, and parent-child bonding like you just don’t get driving to soccer practice.
A world of wonder
The Maya did it
The Maya developed and lived by a calendar with many similarities to our modern calendar, with 18 months of 20 days each.
Many Mayan structures were oriented to heavenly bodies, including the sun, moon and certain stars and planets, especially Venus. Doors and windows might be aligned to frame Venus on a certain day of the year. At Chichén Itzá, the El Castillo pyramid is situated such that at the spring and fall equinoxes, the sun casts a shadow that resembles the undulating body of a snake going up the corner of the pyramid and connecting with carved serpent heads.
The Maya are credited with developing the mathematical concept of zero.
The Mayan culture that built pyramids and sophisticated cities in the challenging terrain and climate of Central America lasted six times as long as the Roman Empire.
For a teenager, the Mayan world was full of weird and wonderful things: Human sacrifice raised practically to an art form. A knowledge of astronomy bordering on the spooky. A magical dwarf reminiscent of Tolkien, and a field sport startlingly like Harry Potter’s Quidditch.
Add to that a colonial city, Campeche, where walls built in the 1600s to repel pirates still stand, and my daughter, who saw “Pirates of the Caribbean” seven times in the theater, was never bored.
At the start of our journey, a high-speed tollway sliced through tropical forest to deliver us quickly from the tourist-glutted beach town of Cancún to a first encounter with the Maya, at Chichén Itzá. About 120 miles inland, it is one of the most-visited Mayan sites.
Climbing El Castillo, the magnificent main pyramid, we counted the steep steps to find out if they really did add up to 365, the number of days in the year. Sweating and puffing, we counted only 91 to the top. Huh?
“Oh, wait, I guess you have to add up the steps on all four sides,” Lillian guessed. A check of a guidebook confirmed that. And it said the top level counted as the 365th step. It was only our first encounter with how the Maya were attuned like Swiss watchmakers to time and seasons. Many of their cities included observatories.
The Maya Quidditch Court, as we came to call it, was a sporting ground larger than a soccer field. It was sandwiched between ancient limestone walls bearing two large stone hoops, placed vertically as in the Harry Potter game.
On the walls, carvings illustrated what presumably once drew the crowds: players wearing customary Mayan plumes and ornamentation, along with what looked for all the world like football helmets and padding.
Road trip highs and lows
High point: A refreshing swim in Cenote X-Kekén at Dzitnup. Common on the riverless Yucatán Peninsula, cenotes are limestone caverns partially filled with water. Swim among giant stalactites and dangling tree roots.
Low point: Plastic bottles, the blight of rural Mexico, piled high on many roadsides. And to the shame of tourists who visit Chichén Itzá: Like climbers on Everest, visitors to the steep pyramid of El Castillo have trashed tomb rooms at the top with hundreds of discarded water bottles.
High point: A walk with a local guide to the edge of a cenote in woods near Calakmul to see millions of bats emerge like a silent tornado at dusk.
Low point: When our months-in-advance arrangement for a pair of local guides at Calakmul — confirmed before we left home — was apparently forgotten by the guides. Lesson learned: In remote areas, allow extra days for complications caused by lack of phones, laid-back lifestyles and other differences from the city (which drew you there in the first place, remember?).
High point: The sun-bleached sheets, varnished wood, artful crockery and other civilized touches we didn’t expect in our simple “jungalow” at Rio Bec Dreams lodging, the ambitious undertaking of two ex-pats who are carving a low-impact resort out of the tropical forest near Calakmul.
Some held what resembled cricket bats. Another had a cylindrical or maybe a disc-shaped object. It was a flint knife, archaeologists have concluded. The knife related to what was in the team leader’s other hand: a severed head.
Some historians theorize that the losing captain was sacrificed — or maybe even whole losing teams — perhaps reflecting the warlike habits of the Toltecs from central Mexico who intermixed here with the Maya after the 10th century.
“Look, there’s a guy kneeling down without his head!” my daughter enthused, continuing to scan the carvings. “And what’s that?” she wondered, pointing to arcing lines coming from the headless torso. “It could be spurting blood! This is cool!”
This precocious civilization had its dark side, my daughter and I agreed. Then we went to the visitor center to get Sno-Kones.
A change of scenery
The clown car took us on to the Uxmal ruin, back to the glory days of the Maya, about 600 A.D., long before Columbus or Cortes.
Unlike Chichén Itzá’s flat jungle setting, Uxmal (“OOSH-mahl”) is in the rolling hills of the Puuc region. Touring the grounds was like strolling through a park, with pleasant trees full of golden orioles and their pendulum nests.
Morning light cast a lovely glow on the Magician’s House, an unusual oval pyramid. Legend says it was built in one night by a dwarf, the son of a witch, who had been given the challenge by the king of Uxmal. By this and other sorcery, the dwarf became ruler of the land.
Another pyramid, the Dwarf’s House, featured a crumbling throne bearing the likeness of Chac, the Mayan rain god, an entity much honored in this dry part of the Yucatán.
Lillian resisted sitting on the remnants of Chac’s distinctive curly nose, often described as resembling a rolled-up floor mat. “But I’m more worried about the wrath of the gods than the sign that says to keep off it,” she declared, getting into synch with the Maya.
Bumps and goats
The tollway a distant memory, we rattled south toward Calakmul, dodging old dump trucks with wobbling wheels and passing dusty villages with names such as Xbacab and Xbonil — typical Mayan spellings. Ubiquitous speed bumps on the highway slowed us for glimpses into thatched-roof huts built of sticks. No windows. Only a hole for a door. Goats wandering freely.
Other towns boasted new sidewalks and street lamps. School kids in uniforms watched us pass on narrow streets where pedicabs were a common mode for primly dressed women to get to shops.
The clown car, an economy model, had no CD player or radio. So we sang and whistled as we drove (see audio link on Web). Occasionally on our travels we passed military checkpoints, a fact of Mexican life. Only once were we flagged over. Rifle-wielding soldiers instructed us to get out while they searched the car and our luggage for drugs or guns.
The upside to that unsettling experience, I told my daughter: less worry about bandits on these lonely highways. But we both hoped it would never happen in the United States.
Road trip to Calakmul
The Mayan ruin of Calakmul is near the Guatemala border 377 highway miles from Cancún, on roads allowing speeds ranging from 70 mph down to 15 mph. No public transportation goes to Calakmul. It is on few tour itineraries. Most travelers get there by rental car.
To visit remote Mayan sites, rent a reliable car with air conditioning, unless you’re really prepared to sweat. If you require automatic transmission, ask for it. Auto rental is expensive in Cancún (and gas prices in Mexico usually exceed American prices). Our Hertz rental car had a daily rate of about $19 U.S. for a tiny economy car (reserved via the Internet). But with insurance at about $27 per day (American liability insurance is not valid in Mexico), plus sales tax, airport fees and licensing fees totaling 26 percent, our 11-day rental bill ballooned to more than $600 U.S. Renting from off-airport locations and using local rental firms can cut costs substantially.
Rio Bec Dreams is off Highway 186, about 8 miles west of Xpujil. Offers cabanas and simpler “jungalows.” www.riobecdreams.com.
Hurricane Emily came ashore at Tulum in mid-July with winds of 130 mph and crossed the Yucatán Peninsula, causing significant damage in some areas. Calakmul was not in the storm’s path. Keep in mind that guidebooks will not yet reflect closures of some hotels or tourist sites damaged by the storm. Contact individual lodgings for up-to-date information.
Mexico Tourism Board, www.visitmexico.com
All else aside, Calakmul is a ghost town — a big, really old ghost town.
With well more than 6,000 individual structures identified since its modern discovery in 1931, the core residential area is bigger than West Seattle. Population estimates range from 60,000 to as many as 200,000 at its peak between 600 and 800 A.D., part of a Mayan world that some scholars estimate at more than 10 million people throughout Central America — second at that time on Earth only to the T’ang Dynasty of China.
The name means “City of Two Adjacent Pyramids.” It was the seat of power of the Kingdom of the Snake, with rulers such as Sky Witness, Scroll Serpent and Great Jaguar Claw.
Besides its size and importance, Calakmul’s remoteness draws adventurous travelers. The highway turnoff is 36 miles from the nearest town of any size (little Xpujil, 300 miles from the international airport at Cancun). It’s then another slow 36 miles along a narrow, snaky road into the center of the 1.8-million acre, UNESCO-designated Calakmul Biosphere Reserve. Paired with an adjacent preserve in Guatemala, this is the greatest expanse of tropical forest remaining in Central America.
Tour buses rarely go to Calakmul. Wildlife is abundant.
The nearest lodging we found was 2 ½ hours away, near Xpujil, where Diane Lalonde and Rick Bertram — she English, he Canadian — have created an isolated oasis in the arid forest.
They call their lodgings Rio Bec Dreams, named for the Rio Bec style of Mayan architecture.
Lalonde, 60, with bangly earrings and a Petula Clark hairdo, is a world traveler whose fascination with the Maya borders on obsession (see audio link on Web). Scholarly books and articles on the Maya stack high on the counter of her open-air bar.
Calakmul is a far different experience from Disney-esque Chichén Itzá, she told us over a cold Montejo, the local beer, and a Fanta Orange. For one thing, inferior limestone around Calakmul meant few carvings stood the test of time. But overriding the lack of visual pizazz is the dramatic jungle setting and the knowledge that this was once a leader in regional wars, a crucible of Mayan culture — which mysteriously lost its people.
“I have a theory … that the Maya kept building higher and higher and the pyramids got higher and higher basically because you got closer to the gods. And at Calakmul you got as close as you could to the gods. You’re on top of the world.”
With sack lunches, water, sunscreen and bug repellent we left for Calakmul at 6 the next morning.
The Calakmul road narrowed halfway in, but it was well-paved, to the contrary of what most guidebooks report. (Possible explanation: Mexican President Vicente Fox had visited a few weeks earlier.) The biggest hazard: wild turkeys, one of whom refused to yield the right-of-way (see audio link on Web).
At one point, I braked hard and stopped the car in the middle of the road. Seeing a wild toucan for the first time can cause that reaction.
Only one other car occupied the parking lot. A single caretaker staffed a one-room visitor center. Mostly, we had the sprawling, tree-crowded site to ourselves, except for dozing howler monkeys draped over branches above.
Calakmul’s largest pyramid is Structure II, named by pragmatic archaeologists. The pyramid’s size is boggling: 175 feet high, with a base covering 5 acres.
Hoisting a camera bag and knapsack, we clambered and sweated to the top on weathered steps. Just as we thought we were nearing the top, another tier rose above us.
We spent some time at the top, above the jungle canopy. Even here, small trees sprouted straight from the limestone.
Looking out on the miles and miles of green, we had time to wonder what many have: What brought down the Mayan empire? Why were these cities given up to the creeping vines? Archaeologists estimate that they’ve uncovered only a small fraction of Mayan sites in this region. Indeed, along back roads we’d seen many high mounds of vegetation with stone steps protruding, forgotten amid weedy pastures.
Theories on the downfall have long focused on drought, perhaps worsened as the Maya cut more forest to grow more crops. And the longer the sun parched their crops, the more forest they cut to burn more lime to make more temples and pyramids to appease the rain god. Less forest, less moisture in the air, less rain.
Recent discoveries of hieroglyphs from the era also suggest that a prolonged war between superpowers Calakmul and rival Tikal in Guatemala withered this flowering civilization.
Lillian and I opened our knapsack and ate our lunches up there. Breeze whispered in our ears, birds whistled in the trees below and butterflies pirouetted around us.
We munched sandwiches and took in that divine view.
For a while, not unlike the people who built this stairway to the sky and looked on a similar view centuries ago, we felt a little bit like kings of the world.
Brian J. Cantwell: 206-748-5724 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Principal references: “Chronicle of the Maya Kings and Queens” by Simon Martin and Nikolai Grube, 2000; “The Lost Chronicles of the Maya Kings” by David Drew, 1999; National Geographic magazine, various issues.