Uncovering Calakmul, one of Mexico's most majestic Mayan cities

I sat on a limestone block at the apex of the giant pyramid, gazing south. The wind sent green waves lapping through the treetops below me, cutting the heat of late March. Butterflies in a dozen colors bounced on the breeze. In the distance I could see crests of jungle ridges in Guatemala. The two site guards were waiting back by the gate, idly chopping at weeds with machetes, and for a moment I had Calakmul, the greatest of all ancient Mayan cities, to myself.

Centuries of slash-and-burn agriculture have turned most of Mexico's Yucatán peninsula into a scrubby savanna, but not Calakmul. On the southern fringe of the state of Campeche, it lies hidden in the country's largest rain forest. The Calakmul Biosphere Reserve, created in 1989, represents a heroic effort to preserve the Mayan heartland: not a tree can be felled, not an animal hunted.

Until four years ago Calakmul was among the hardest-to-reach of the major Mayan ruins. In the dry season, the approach, by a series of rutted tracks whose treacherousness escalated as you neared the site, took even the few archaeologists who toiled there three days to traverse. A 1993 guidebook to Yucatán ruins warned, "With luck you may not get a broken windshield, but you may lose some trim."

Finally, in 1993, the Mexican government paved a road through 40 miles of wilderness to facilitate excavations at Calakmul. A visit is now within reach of mildly adventurous travelers equipped with a rental car out of Cancún or Mérida. Yet word about Calakmul is only beginning to emerge. For the next few months or even years, visitors will be able to wander alone through a ruin as majestic as tourist-thronged Tikal.

Slowly I descended the staircase of the 165-foot pyramid, which is twice as tall as Chichén Itzá's famous Castillo. A path through the woods took me to Structure III--as the archaeologists prosaically designate this work of the ancients. On a doorjamb, I found a neatly carved inscription:

What today we would deplore as an example of graffiti was actually standard documentation of the site's discovery by C. L. Lundell, a botanist who worked for a company that exported chicle, the key ingredient in chewing gum. (The latex of the rare sapodilla tree, chicle is found only in rain forests.) Lundell was guided to Calakmul by chicleros (chicle collectors), descendants of the ancient Maya, who for the last century have prowled confidently through jungles where gringos would get lost. Chicleros have been responsible for the rediscovery of a vast majority of known Mayan sites.

Although mounds of earth and trees covered nearly everything in 1931, Lundell knew what he was seeing. In particular, he was struck by the huge number of stelae--tall stone slabs--he found, a few still upright but most toppled in the weeds. The Maya erected the stelae in front of their palaces and pyramids, carving on them images of gods and kings, and row upon row of hieroglyphs. For centuries this ancient script defied all efforts at decipherment, but in the past two decades a small group of scholars has cracked the code, setting loose an avalanche of new insights about the Mayan culture.

By now, 116 stelae have been found at Calakmul--easily the largest number at any Mayan site. If they could be read, the texts carved on these stones would amount to a rich history of the great city. But here a cruel irony intervenes: Calakmul's native limestone is fiendishly soft and crumbly, rendering the texts illegible. On an upright stela much taller than a person, I could barely make out the severely eroded silhouette of a gaudily ornamented king. The glyphs, reduced by a millennium of wind and rain to unreadable dog biscuits, ached with lost meaning. Several stelae stood enclasped in the roots of giant trees, which strangled boasts of long-forgotten deeds.

When Lundell came to Calakmul, only Structure III stood free from the vines and hummocks of the greedy forest. I moved pensively through the building, believed to have been a palace. At the center, I peered past a heavy stone that once plugged a spacious underground vault. Archaeologist William Folan, who knows Calakmul better than any other man alive, found the remains of a royal burial in that vault a few years ago. The skeleton was adorned with three jade masks: the one covering the face had collapsed into 170 pieces. His team reconstructed these masks, as well as three others Folan unearthed during his 14 years of work at Calakmul. Only two days before, I had seen the six masks on exhibit at the Fuerte de San Miguel, a colonial fort in Campeche. No two alike, they were the most dazzling Mayan artifacts I had ever seen.

Immediately after discovering Calakmul, Lundell brought the site to the attention of Sylvanus Morley, the leading Mayanist of the day, who led a Carnegie Institution expedition to the site in 1932. Morley's team wrung all the meaning it could out of these stelae, long before glyphs could be read. They dated Calakmul between a.d. 514 and a.d. 830, and they figured out that there had been a dynasty of 10 kings, whom they designated Ruler 1, Ruler 2, and so on. Calakmul was so important that it is mentioned in texts found at other sites, including Dos Pilas, more than 100 miles away in Guatemala. Six years ago, archaeologists found a text claiming that, in 695, Calakmul's Ruler 4 was captured by the brazen lord of Tikal, held for 40 days, ritually adorned, and then sacrificed. In the seventh century, this gruesome triumph was news all over the Mayan world.

From the central plaza, I moved past a 15-foot-high wall and out into the "suburbs." Folan has mapped a mind-numbing 6,250 structures, stretching across some 20 square miles of jungle and proving Calakmul to be one-third larger than Tikal, which was long regarded as the greatest Mayan site.

I followed a trail to Structure I, a massive pyramid that, like 99 percent of Calakmul, lies unexcavated beneath vegetation. I struggled up the steep and slippery mound. At last I reached the top, where the Carnegie expedition found Stela 89, one of the ruin's two best-preserved slabs. On it, an outlandishly costumed ruler, wearing a headdress, scepter, and shield, embodied the pomp of Calakmul.

But nothing of Stela 89 remains. Sometime in the 1960's or 70's, looters sawed it into pieces and smuggled it through the black market to private collectors, most likely in Europe. (Fortunately, the Carnegie expedition's report had published two photos of Stela 89 sharp enough that scholars could read the glyphs.)

On my way up the pyramid, I came across four other stelae lying facedown, never moved since they toppled shortly after a.d. 900. The glyphs on a facedown stela do not turn to dog biscuits: the earth preserves them. As I sat on Structure I's topmost stone, I realized that beneath me lay untold treasures and secrets. Plumbing them will be the life's work of a future generation of archaeologists and a glorious revelation for visitors yet to come, as the city peels itself free of the jungle that has smothered it--and saved it--for more than a thousand years.

David Roberts writes for Smithsonian and National Geographic. His latest book is In Search of the Old Ones: Exploring the Anasazi World of the Southwest, published by Simon & Schuster.

Calakmul lies south of Mexico's Highway 186, which runs between Escárcega and Chetumal in the Yucatán peninsula. The side road branches off east of the small village of Conhuas, at a well-marked junction where you register and pay an entry fee of about $1.80 a person. The 40-mile trip to the site follows a narrow but adequately paved road. If you're driving, be sure to gas up in Escárcega or Xpujil. From Cancún or Mérida, count on two to three days by car.

You can make a wonderful loop of Mayan sites by driving from Cancún to Mérida to Campeche, south to Escárcega, east along Highway 186, and back up the east coast of the Yucatán. In 10 days, it's possible to visit 14 important and varied sites along this loop, including Calakmul, well-known Chichén Itzá and Tulum, Uxmal, Cobá, Dzibilchaltun, Becan, and the eerie funerary cave of Balankanche.

The best time to visit is during the dry season, November through March. April and especially May are almost too hot for travel, and during the rainy season--June through October--it can be impossible to drive to Calakmul.

Chicanná Ecovillage Hwy. 186, Xpujil, Campeche; 52-981/62233; doubles from $83. Until two years ago, there were virtually no hotels near Calakmul. Now there's an "ecovillage" opposite the entrance to the Mayan site of Chicanná (about 10 miles west of Xpujil and a two-hour drive from Calakmul), with 32 handsome air-conditioned rooms in wood-and-thatch bungalows. The Chicanná Ecovillage uses rainwater for all its operations and runs on energy from solar panels.

A daylong visit to Calakmul is included in a 10-day group-tour package offered by the Mexican adventure-travel company Quinto Sol (52-5/211-8208, fax 52-5/211-3208; or write Quinto Sol, Mexicali 36, Mexico, D.F. 06140; tour $1,970 a person, which includes meals, accommodation, and activities such as diving, white-water rafting, rock climbing and mountain biking). English-speaking guides accompany the tour, which is called "Balam: The Jaguar's Path."
Wilderness Travel links symposia of leading scholars at Palenque and Copán with trips to Mayan sites, including Calakmul. Contact Julie Wilson, Wilderness Travel, 801 Allston Way, Berkeley, CA 94710; 800/368-2794 or 510/548-0420, fax 510/548-0347.

If you travel to Campeche on your own but prefer to let an expert handle the visit to Calakmul, look up Juan de la Cruz Briceño, caretaker of the Becan site on Highway 186. For only $50, de la Cruz Briceño will lead groups of up to 10 to Calakmul, supplying a jeep that holds six. This knowledgeable guide has no telephone, but he can be found nearly every day from eight to five at the Becan site; allow a day or two for him to set up a tour. De la Cruz Briceño speaks little English, but if one member of your group has phrase-book Spanish, the essential information will be conveyed.

The six jade masks discovered at Calakmul by William Folan will be on display in Campeche at least until the end of this year, along with matchless ceramic objects from the site. You can see them at the Exposición Temporal in the Fuerte de San Miguel.

Joyce Kelly's excellent and thorough Archaeological Guide to Mexico's Yucatán Peninsula (University of Oklahoma Press) is the only true guidebook to the Yucatán's Mayan sites.
Very little of the research from Calakmul has reached the popular press, but a good summary of what is known can be found in Robert J. Sharer's The Ancient Maya (fifth edition; Stanford University Press).
A lively general guide to the Yucatán Peninsula is Richard Harris's New Key to Cancún and the Yucatán (Ulysses Press).
The finest introductory book about the ancient culture is Michael D. Coe's The Maya (Thames & Hudson).