The word Calakmul encompasses a huge biosphere reserve that takes up much of the southern Yucatan areas. It also refers to the archeological site which is found deep (very deep) within that reserve. The ancient Mayan city of Calakmul has been known about for some time, but it is so remote that real excavation only started in 1982. Progress is barely noticeable to the average visitor because the site is so vast. There are really no books or guides specifically on Calakmul. The map at the entrance is the only reference, and we recommend taking a digital picture because it is easily possible to get lost out there.
The natural side of Calakmul is difficult to visit independently. There are a few hiking trails around but they are not encouraged in general and maps seem to be non-existent. There's also a sizeable list of extremely venomous snakes living in the area that have to be considered. We actually had one large snake coil and rear threateningly at our car (while we were in it). It did eventually decide that it was best to leave the road, but encounters like that will give one second thoughts about hiking without a guide. This picture is of an oscillated turkey. We encountered more of these than just about any other bird, lizard or mammal. They're big, they're colorful and they make assorted interesting noises.
Getting to Calakmul truly is half the fun, and well more than half the time. There is a turn-off from Mexico 186 which is about 2 hours from the nearest town of any size in either direction. A toll is collected at the turnoff which leads to a 60km road which is paved but is very narrow and winding. Expect this road to take at least an hour to drive, especially if you have to stop periodically for ocellated turkeys, iguanas and disgruntled snakes. The road ends in a small parking area, where the official entrance is. From here it's a hiking trail of maybe 2-3 kilometers to get the edge of the city of Calakmul. It takes a little while to realize that the hills rising around you as you hike in are actually unexcavated buildings.
The Stelae at Calakmul blend in suprisingly well with the jungle. There are two of them in this picture, the carvings on the front are substantially eroded but in general the stela at Calakmul were placed in front of the buildings to indiciate their purpose and status.
Important buildings like this one have several stelae out front. The trees growing out of the steps of the temples add an extra difficulty to climbing the already difficult stairs. However, Calakmul is shady and this is a very good thing. It reached 112 F (44 C) when we visited.
They recommend arriving early at Calakmul to beat the worst of the heat. We arrived fairly early but the site is enormous and we didn't leave until late afternoon. It is absolutely imperative to bring a lot of water with you to Calakmul. There are no services at the site, it is literally hours by car to the nearest store and even in the shade the heat is oppressive.
We would be explaining something about these buildings except that we don't really know much regarding them. As mentioned, there really aren't any guidebooks. There are markers at many of the buildings but they are minimal and serve mostly so that you can attempt to cross-reference the structure (by number) to the map and figure out where you might be.
The most popular buildings at Calakmul (and the only place we saw other visitors) are the two grand pyramids. These are the only two locations where you climb up above the jungle canopy, maybe catch a little breeze if there is one, and watch the jungle's birdlife from above.
The southernmost of the two pyramids is steeper but more direct to ascend. Depending on the route you take through Calakmul you can arrive here fairly quickly from the visitor center, or like we did, at the end of the tour. Earlier would probably have been better when it wasn't quite so hot.
The view from the top of either pyramid looks pretty much like this in all directions. With binoculars and a clear day it is actually possible to see the Grand Pyramid at Tikal in Guatemala far to the south. Remarkably, very few buildings from the city of Calakmul can be seen through the canopy. This view is looking back across the bulk of the city's ruins with no obvious signs of it at all.
As with other Mayan sites, climbing down is a bit more exciting than climbing up. You should definitely not leave your camera sitting on top of the pyramid like we did. Luckily its absence was noticed on the first tier going down.
This is the second (northern) pyramid. This view only shows about half of its height as there is a temple at the midway point before it continues upwards. This pyramid is a bit better excavated and has more bulk to it. As an added bonus, a section of the stairs (far left) can be ascended in the shade, at least in the afternoon.
The stairs here are individually higher but also wider than those on the other pyramid. You should also not leave your camera at the top of this. The lack of Melanie's camera on her in this picture is reasonable evidence that we have in fact done just that. We would notice in another 5 minutes or so.
The upper half of this pyramid involves a series of zig-zagging staircases that ultimately lead to a shady top platform. From here you can see much the same jungle as the other pyramid. Since there are no features visible, you can't tell how distressingly far away from the parking area you might be by now.
This is a view from the top of the pyramid looking down at the middle level of it. In fact, Melanie is standing down there in the center of the picture to provide scale. Behind her, stairs descend the rest of the way to the jungle floor. This area is actually a resonable spot to watch for wildlife from. The tops of the pyramids are really too high up to provide a view of what might be happening down below.