It’s more than three hundred kilometers from Tulum to Chetumal close to the border of Belize. The road is straight for what seems to be hours with nothing in sight but dry low jungle on either side. Not so lush as the earth is mostly made up of white limestone just above sea level.
We should have filled the gas tank as the rental car is approaching empty. With zero kilometers of mileage left in fuel and nothing in sight but a road sign indicating seven miles until the next pueblo, we slow down, turn off the air conditioning to preserve the last drops of energy until the next Pemex gas station– Mexico’s one and only monopoly gas station wearing the patriotic green, red and white corporate colors with a stylized eagle as a logo, a sort of modern graphic representation of the Mexican flag.
The road to the hidden Mayan ruins we seek is in the center of Reserva de la Biosfera de Calakmul, over an hour’s drive from the highway linking Chetumal to Escárcega from Xpujil. Then another sixty kilometer drive to the actual site. And at two in the afternoon we have a late start. The guard asks if we have enough water before we continue, we believe we are fine, a big mistake as their is no food or water at this site which we would harshly find out later.
The road is again straight and endless, rolling up and down as if we were floating over soft round gentle ocean waves. It’s cut out of the jungle like a green tunnel eaten out by a monstrous earthworm, perhaps it’s the Earth Monster depicted on some of the ruins with its gaping mouth and voracious teeth. The road narrows about thirty kilometers after we pass by a museum barely visible in the the forest, until we finally stop in a small clearing fashioned into a parking lot.
All the ruins are equipped with a few casitas that serve the small staff. The ruin’s entrance is a small thatched adobe structure with a central door framing the next door which opens to the winding trail to be followed. Inside you pay forty seven pesos each, write your country of origin on the ledger and are told to follow the signage. It’s a thirty minute walk to reach the first structures which lie there in silence, trees growing from the stones entwined in the many steps leading to columned doorways that were once alive with people. As we continue we are lost at a trail crossing, but in the trees, we see a small palapa where two people are working. We ask for directions and meet Manuel who offers to guide us in this immense Mayan labyrinth.
Manuel is a smiling sixty-four year old man with slightly bowed legs which don’t hinder his climb up the first pyramid. It’s steep as usual, but we follow him snapping photos along the way as we get above canopy level of the forest. Below is the evidence of an expansive plaza flanked by two large structures on each side and in front is an imposing monument hidden behind trees which make it invisible until you are above the canopy.
Manuel takes a seat and looks beyond, we join him and before us growing up out above the jungle is an immense pyramid much bigger than any we have seen so far, with yet another about one kilometer away of similar size. The strong hot wind cooling us from the climb is forceful enough to push you down, but the sight is one that takes your breath away and knocks you down on your ass. Sitting with Manuel who is a quiet presence, one can only contemplate this as Mayan magic.
The man is a godsend, as he leads us through his magnificent Mayan gardens that he tends daily clearing leaves and branches, one of which was just tossed by a Spider Monkey watching us from his tree-top playground. The wild animals have inherited the once bustling city. Perhaps Indian spirits still reside here in these hidden Mayan ruins reincarnated as Howler Monkeys, loud pheasants, screaming birds or the kaleidoscopic blue wild turkey strolling the steps of one of the large pyramids. We can only wish to catch a glimpse of a jaguar to make this marvelous visit complete.
Continuing along the countless ruins many are pointed out by our guide which are still to be excavated and are detected as pyramidal hills covered by vegetation. Calakmul was discovered in 1931 and excavations lasted until 1938. It wasn’t until 1982 that archaeologists returned. The area covers more than two square kilometers with the remains of about one thousand structures which many have yet to be seen under the jungle. It is part of the UNESCO’s world heritage sites, and has since been more popular with tourists not afraid of distances.
We arrive at the bottom of the second pyramid we saw earlier. Again the climb is steep and facing west which shelters us from the westward wind. The sun is slowly setting, hot and beating down as we ascend. Once on top, the forceful wind tries to push us back down the steepness, but it offers cool relief all over our sweating skin, and again we sit with Manuel as he points to a young Spider Monkey playing in a tree growing on the back of the structure. We realize then that only the front of the pyramid has been excavated, and the back is just a steep mountain covered by jungle.
A jungle that reaches as far as the eye can see. An endless sea of green trees washed by the hot wind before the gleaming sun. There are no signs of any human presence besides the pyramids. No buildings or power lines. No dwellings or clearings. Not even a jet trail in the sky. This is the purest nature we’ve ever experienced.
We have one more summit to ascend as if we were mountaineers on a conquering quest and our guide Manuel has saved the best for last. As the trail opens, a tall tree dressed in hanging lichens flowing in the wind like a furry scarf around its neck casting a long skeletal shadow growing out of the bottom steps of a immense structure. Although it is anchored to the foundation, the tree moves as if it were a live Katrina doll dancing on the steps of a temple like a scene from a Tim Burton movie with special effects painted by nature.
It is well after the five o’clock closing time as the sun clearly indicates. We have just enough time to climb the more than one hundred steps and catch the last rays of the sunset. Manuel gives us a half hour while he waits this one out in the shade. Once on top, there is a secondary level which rises just behind the initial structure, and in between there appears to be a private courtyard where royalty may have gathered for tea and biscuits or a bludgeoning sacrificial offering. One can only imagine what life must have been like so long ago, yet we will never really know. But the last treasure to be discovered lies at the very top of the second level. It is revealed from the very edge of the highest point reached, between large trees growing on the backside of the edifice that is in fact a small mountain. It is Eldorado, the city of gold!
The pyramid we have just climbed reflects a vivid gold color from the low lying sun. This is golden hour like we have never seen. A photograph can only capture this still image frozen in time. The wind is still warm and powerful, cooling our sweaty ascending selves. This is perhaps the closest I have personally been to having a spiritual experience. My knees are again weak from the sheer magnificence of a golden ancient pyramid piercing the immensity of the forest and escalating the narrow steps. The conquistadors were right about the existence of Eldorado. They were just a few hundred centuries too late to see a living bustling treasure.
What was it like in 600 AD? When this was home to more than fifty thousand people. Kings and queens, warriors and craftsmen, women and children. They must have ran about, played, danced, cooked, loved, ruled, fought and died. You can feel their spirits. See their presence in the trees swaying in the wind, their roots griping the squarely cut stones. Hear them cheering the Pelota athletes in the arena. Smell the aroma of freshly made tamales and searing meat.
Imagine the colors that dressed their brown corpulence and pitch black hair. Letting the imagination take over is all one can do to catch a glimpse of a civilization long gone. A puff of hemp on each of the summits helped take us a little closer to the mystery, without ever really knowing the true story of The Mayans. What is the fate of our civilization one thousand years from now? Will we abandon our great cities and leave ruins behind overtaken by nature only to be visited by curious onlookers wondering what we once were?
Leaving the park we are greeted by more wildlife making their way through the forest at dusk. Giant black pheasants, mischievous monkeys, soaring birds but no jaguar. Manuel has often seen it. He’s been face to face with the living legend. He scans the forest pointing out the animals who do not seem too afraid of our presence giving them names difficult to recall. It’s almost dark by the time he escorts us to our car, the small motorized metal cage that will take us back to modern civilization. We bid Manuel good bye, give him a token of appreciation in the form of two hundred pesos which he humbly accepts hoping he could offer us some much needed refreshment.
We search the car for a lost bottle of water, a few sips of warm Coca Cola, anything to quench our thirsts, but we are empty and regretful not to have been better prepared. We have more than an hour’s drive in our car which will be a sort of time machine that will take us back to the modern world, and that seems very long. We have no choice and drive off as fast as the little winding road will allow. It is pitch black now, and the only thing visible is the endless tunnel channeled out of the jungle. Impossible to see the trees from the forest as we make a sharp hairpin turn and are all of a sudden faced with The Living Legend which stops us dead in our tracks. There he is, The Jaguar. He is real and more than majestic in his polka dotted gold attire. It’s green eyes reflect our headlights and for a moment we stare at each other like two strangers never meant to ever see each other. It is his domain that we are briefly visiting as he turns and calmly trots down the road for a few seconds as I desperately try get my camera out, only to fumble and snap away with the lens cap on. But this beautiful creature allows me a quick instant to catch his image as he disappears into the forest. We have seen the legend and can prove it.
A big thank you to my brother Stephane who made this trip possible. Executive production credits: Stephane Terrin.