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The ambition, power, and downfall of the great Calakmul

Archaeology Monday provides historical background, photos, and practical information about these ancient marvels and how to get out and enjoy them for yourself. This week we explore Calakmul, one of Mesoamerica’s greatest and most powerful cities.

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Carlos Rosado van der Gracht
Born in Mérida, Carlos Rosado van der Gracht is a Mexican/Canadian blogger, photographer and adventure expedition leader. He holds degrees in multimedia, philosophy and translation from universities in Mexico, Canada and Norway. Sign up for the Yucatán Roundup, a free newsletter, which delivers the week's top headlines every Monday.
Photo caption: Structure II piercing Calakmul’s thick jungle canopy. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Calakmul is an ancient Mayan city found deep in the jungle of the southeastern Mexican state of Campeche, near the border with Guatemala. The site is also in the heart of the biosphere of the same name which covers an area of 700,000 hectares. The archeological site itself is well over 70 square kilometers and is home to approximately 6,000 structures that range enormously in size. 

Calakmul was first documented by the biologist Cyrus Longworth Lundell in 1931. But it is widely believed that the existence of the ancient city had become an open secret of sorts between the few people living in this remote territory and workers who would delve into the jungle to harvest chicle trees. 

Chicle is a natural gum that is traditionally used in making chewing gum and other products. The word chicle comes from the Nahuatl word for the gum, which can be translated as “sticky stuff.” Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

In Mayan, Calakmul means “the city of the adjacent pyramids,” but in antiquity the city was known as Oxte’Tun, meaning three stones. The date of Calakmul’s foundation has been lost to time, but most scholars agree that the city first rose sometime between 700 and 350 BCE. During excavations, archaeologists discover a network of Mayan roads or Sacbés connecting Calakmul with the powerful pre-classical age cities of Mirador, Nakbé, and Uaxactún. This fact, even taken on its own, hints at an extremely early foundation date, power, and prestige.

During the classic age, starting in the second half of third-century BCE, Calakmul had risen to considerable importance. But it would not be until several centuries after that the city would reach its greatest splendor. During the fifth century CE, Calakmul had become bold and strong enough to begin challenging the city which would become its greatest rival, Tikal. It is also during this time that the powerful Kan dynasty appears to have consolidated its power in the city.

Calakmul’s stelae 51 depicting the 7-century lord Yuknoom Tok Kawil. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Much has been written about the causes of the wars between Calakmul and Tikal. But when it comes right down to it, the catalyst for these conflicts was most likely economic. During this time, Tikal was powerful enough to extend its reach along the banks of the Usumacinta River. They used this route to trade and collect tribute from great cities including Yaxchilán and Piedras Negras. Control of the Usumacinta also allowed Tikal a monopoly over trade with the then-booming cities of the Yucatán Peninsula.

But hostility turned to war in 562 CE under the leadership of the king of Calakmul, Sky Witness, who launched an all-out invasion of Tikal. The battle was hard-fought, but in the end, Calakmul managed to capture Tikal’s ruling class, including its king who they put to death, and turned the once hegemonic power into a vassal kingdom. 

It is likely that several of Tikal’s highest-ranking nobles were forced to play the mesoamerican “ball game” upon their capture by Calakmul’s forces. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

The conquest of Tikal was a great victory for Calakmul, but the Kan lords soon discovered that the disappearance of Tikal from the equation of Mesoamerican power politics had created an enormous power vacuum that they were not yet prepared to adequately fill. After a period of growing pains, Calakmul managed to consolidate its power and launched further invasions, this time targeting the magnificent city of Palenque

The remains of a badly damaged mask that once adorned the facade of Calakmul’s Structure II. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Eventually, chafing under the yoke of Calakmul, Tikal would rebel against its new master. Though this conflict would prove disastrous for Tikal, they eventually regained their composure and risked everything during a third and final war in the 9th century, which would ultimately see them come out on top by bringing Calakmul to its knees. Much more can be said about these great conflicts, which have been nicknamed the Star Wars, but we will save further details for an upcoming article on the topic.

A wild peccary roars in warning at passersby in Calakmul. Although they have fairly decent eyesight, it is believed that individuals identify other members of their group by means of their strong odor — hence their nickname of skunk pigs. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Visitors to Calakmul often note that the city feels quite dispersed. This is likely because the great distance between structures and the surrounding thick vegetation makes it a little hard to imagine its original layout. It is enriching and well worth one’s time to take a few minutes to study a map of the city and try to imagine its temples painted in bright red atop large landscaped artificial platforms. 

A cluster of ancient constructions is visible in the distance from atop Calakmul’s structure I. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Calakmul’s Structure 1 is a 50-meter, or 160-foot tall structure to the east of the city’s main core. It is often believed to be the tallest construction at Calakmul, but this is indeed not the case, as it was built atop a natural hill.

In front of its main stairway sit a series of heavily eroded stelae. Despite their present state, much information has been gleaned from these stelae, including the dates of important events such as births, deaths, coronations, and wars. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

The massive structure known as Structure 2 is one of the largest in the Mayan world and comes in at a whopping 55 meters, or 180 feet tall. During excavations, archaeologists discovered that the enormous temple visible today is the final 8th-century iteration of a temple that was first built sometime in the pre-classic, likely in the 2nd or 3rd century BCE. 

Calakmul’s Structures I and II are often described as pyramids, but in some ways are better described as enormous multi-level ceremonial complexes. Though one could be accused of splitting hairs here, even a cursory inspection of these impressive temples will likely lead observers to a similar conclusion. Photo: Courtesy
Because Structures I and 2 are built on such a backward incline, their summit is not even visible from their base. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

The Lundell Palace, also known as Structure III, is a large multi-purpose construction made up of several rooms. It likely served as the official residence of several of Calakmul’s leading families. 

Calakmul’s structure III and its massive inclined staircase. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Like Structure III, Structure VI likely also was built to serve several functions. It is also the largest structure of an architectural complex located to the west of the central plaza.

In 1989 it was noted that during the vernal equinox, the sun rose behind Structure 4b when observed by Structure 6. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Calakmul contains 117 stelae making it one of the largest collections of these carved stone time capsules in the Mayan world. Calakmul also houses several incredibly vibrant murals, though sadly, these sections of the archaeological site remain off-limits. Interestingly these murals depict scenes of everyday life, such as at its market, as opposed to the more commonly seen motifs of ceremony, coronation, or battle. 

Also notable about Calakmul’s these murals and frescoes is the number of women depicted and the beauty and clarity of its painted hieroglyphs. Photo: Courtesy

If you go

Getting to Calakmul is not really possible on a whim. As it is not possible to spend the night close to the site, your best bet is to spend the night at a hotel or campsite in Xpujil

A map shows the location of Calakmul on the Yucatán Peninsula. Image: Google Maps

From Xpujil you will drive along the highway to Escarcega for about an hour before reaching the entrance to the Calakmul national park, within the biosphere of the same name. When entering the park you will have to drive for another hour or 90 minutes, depending on the conditions of the road before you get to the entrance to the archaeological site. 

Day trips to Calakmul are offered from Campeche, but honestly, the trip is so long that you will hardly get any time at the site. 

A beautiful bird of prey poses for a photo in Calakmul. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

If you are driving, it is smart to leave your vehicle at the entrance to the national park and take a ride in the back of a pickup truck or van offered by local guides. This is a good idea for a number of reasons. First of all, there is no cell phone reception out this far, so if your vehicle stalls you will be out of luck. Second, the drivers of these shuttle vehicles are great at spotting wildlife and alerting their passengers to the sight of wild cats, tapis, and exotic birds.

Ocellated turkeys may not look particularly threatening, but make sure you don’t get too close as they are known to attack with their powerful hind claw. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Exploring Calakmul requires a lot of walking, so make sure you are up for it before heading out. That being said, if hiking around is too difficult, you may luck out and spot one of the few locals with rickshaw tricycles who frequent the site to give older folks a lift in exchange for a tip. 

Be warned, these rickshaw drivers found at Calackmul’s entrance are not always around, so it is not wise to count their services. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

The entrance fee to Calakmul is 80 pesos from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Saturday. On Sunday admittance is free for Mexican nationals and foreign residents of Mexico with ID. Be warned that the entrance to Calakmul national park costs 65 pesos and usually closes by 2:30 p.m.

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