Xpujil and the road to Calakmul

I know, I know, the title is a little tricky but let me tell you about our short two night adventure to Xpujil and Calakmul. To start with I’ll help with the pronunciation of Xpujil; it’s said Ish-poo-hill. So now as you read along you hopefully won’t struggle too much with this one. But there are other places we visited with just as fun names. If you run into trouble with them or want more information just remember; Wikipedia is your friend.

So lets get started.

We left Tulum bright and early and headed to the bus station where we boarded a bus to Chetumal. After using our lazy time in Tulum we were still actually undecided as to our next destination: would we stick around in Chetumal or would we mission to Xpujil? The issue was that Tom had lost his wallet with his driver’s license in Merida and driving was the easiest and cheapest way to get inland to the places we wanted to visit. They weren’t really on the usual tourist trail to say the least.

It was late afternoon when we arrived in Chetumal and we made a bit of a spur of the moment decision and got a taxi driver to take us to a car hire agency. The plan was if the hire car was too expensive we would just stay in Chetumal for a day or two before departing Mexico into Belize. Luckily the car was just within our budget for two days hire, this was after the nice rental car guy lowered the price a little as well. But of course having the hire car meant that one of us would have to drive it. As Tom no longer had a licence that meant I would be driving on the right-hand side of the road for the first time, ever…

After we loaded the tiny white Chevrolet Matiz with our packs we were on the road with no stalling or bunny-hopping. It had been 10 months since I’d been behind the wheel and I can proudly say that I drove OK. On one or two occasions I went looking for the gears with my left hand and only succeeded in smacking my hand into the door and making Tom laugh at me. It took about three hours to make our way to Xpujil where we found a hotel quick enough. We didn’t have anything booked as per usual but we had done our research and had one in mind. As it was late we ate a quick meal at the restaurant attached to the hotel before heading to bed.

We wanted to be up and on the road at 7am and after breakfast we were on our way to visit Calakmul which would be a two and a half hour drive, especially at my Nana-style speeds. The distance to Calakmul isn’t huge but once we had turned off the highway we were on rough, narrow roads with the chance of literally running into animals such as turkey, deer, peccary or even a jaguar! Unfortunately we didn’t see any jaguar but we did see many turkey and other large birds as well as a group of collared peccary before arriving at the site.

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A foggy morning to start our adventure at Calakmul

Calakmul is an archaeological site located only 35km from the Guatemalan border within the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve. It is said to have been one of the largest and most powerful of the Mayan cities. Because of the size of the site we knew we were in for a large amount of walking that day and had come prepared with water and snacks. The walk through the rainforest was amazing and we were constantly stopping to look for birds in the trees. We saw more ocellated turkey as well as guans which are another large bird and we were constantly hearing the ‘tok-tok-tok’ sound of woodpeckers (or pajaro carpintero in Spanish, which I find to be a cute translation: carpenter bird). Another special sighting was the group of collared aracari which are a type of small toucan with black, bright red, and yellow colouring and a wicked looking serrated beak.

The paths took us through the different areas, many of which are still under excavation or even just unnatural looking mounds of stones and plants. This isn’t a surprise as the city apparently spanned at least 20 square kilometres. The site has a lot of stelae which was immediately obvious as we walked down paths lined with the large engraved slabs, a majority of which were significantly taller than us. We were surprised at the quantity which were still in the places they had been found instead of being carted off to museums or at least having roofs erected above them to slow the process of erosion.

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Tom taking in the scenery on top of Calakmul

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Large stelae at Calakmul

The most impressive part of Calakmul other than the area was the two large pyramids; structure 1 and 2. Structure 1 stands at 50m and 2 is 45m so both are grand landmarks which stick out above the forest canopy. At around this part of the day I wasn’t feeling great, a combination of dehydration, heat, humidity and activity was taking it’s toll. I managed to mission through the rest of the site although I didn’t join Tom at climbing all the remaining small temples.

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Jumping on top of the tallest pyramid at Calakmul. Why… Because we can

Back at the car we drank our fill of water before setting off again to see some more sites on the way back to Xpujil. The area is full of small satellite cities which would have been part of the greater Calakmul region once upon a time. With the remainder of the day we had time to see a second site before the closing time of 5pm. A short distance down the highway we stopped at Balamku which was a nice although small site. We spent a while here just sitting on the steps of a temple watching some toucans in the trees. When we continued we found that there was another area in the site which had a great reconstructed temple. At the side of this temple was a door, the interior we discovered was completely hollow and the frontage just a well modelled façade. The reason for this was to preserved some beautiful, intricate friezes which had been uncovered still in great condition. After snapping a few photos it was closing time so we made our way back to the entrance and onward to out hotel back in Xpujil.

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Stucco frieze at Balamku

That night we were weary from our days walking so we again opted to eat at our hotel. I had what turned out to the be the biggest plate of Chilaquiles I’d ever seen. It was delicious and I had to stop myself pigging out on it so I let Tom polish off the remainder. This is a dish I only have ordered on occasion for the sole reason that I just feel like I’m eating a plate of junk-food. It’s corn chips smothered in a mild red salsa with a large amount of crema (similar to sour cream) and queso fresco (fresh mild crumbly cheese) on top. Definitely not healthy. It is often served with either chicken, which I had, or a fried egg and is a very popular breakfast dish as well. Although they sound similar don’t get this confused with Tex-Mex style nachos, the idea of Chilaquiles is the salsa makes the chips soggy which sounds quite weird but it really is tasty.

The next day we checked out and started on our way back to Chetumal. It was another early start because even though the trip was only about two hours driving we wanted to see as many archaeological sites along the way as we could. We set off in the opposite direction from Xpujil in order to see a few to the west which we had driven past the previous day but not had time to see. First stop was Chicanná which had a fantastic temple that looked like the open mouth of a stylised Mayan god. Aptly this building is named after the site itself (or vice versa) which means ‘house of the serpent mouth’.

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House of the serpent mouth temple at Chicanna

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Being a monster in front of the monster doorway at Chicanna

The next stop for the day was Becan. This site stands out because it has a ditch running the circumference which acted like a moat. The two rather large pyramids were fun to climb and we sat at the top of the larger to enjoy the view and have a breather. I was surprised that other temples in the area couldn’t be seen peeking out above the treetops. Perhaps maybe with binoculars it would be possible. Although with a sea of greenery surrounding us we would’ve probably needed the direction to look in as well as the binoculars.

Returning to Xpujil we stopped at the archaeological site the town is named after. It’s a very small complex and we found the main attraction to be structure 1 which is by far the biggest on site and in the best condition. It consists of three temples on a base. The temples had a front with the false-staircase design which from a distance makes them look climbable but when you look from close up you can see that each step is only about 10 cm deep so would make climbing both difficult and dangerous. Tom quickly discovered that there was a tunnel inside one of the temples and went adventuring inside it. It wasn’t long and he popped out a doorway further up the side of the temple.

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Three temples at Xpujil

We were a wee bit naughty on the next part of our trip as we headed towards Hormiguero and Tom took over driving. Luckily we had no issues and it was a good thing that I wasn’t the driver as the road turned into a dirt track. Tom was a much better driver in these conditions than I would’ve been able to. This site is a very out of the way tourist attraction and when we arrived we were the only car there and the staff member who would usually be in the information hut at other sites was no where to be seen. There was however a sign-in sheet as per usual and we noted that we were the only people who had visited in two days. It was definitely not a bustling destination as only a few of the 84 known structures have been excavated. One of those however was worth the slightly dodgy rental car off-roading. Structure 2 is a carved and majestic platform with two of the false-staircase temples sitting on either side of a huge doorway which has been designed to look like a god/monster. In this was it was very similar to what we had seen already at Chicanná and Xpujil but in a more grand scale. It was definitely worth the drive out there but we soon felt small raindrops and were afraid that the typical Mexican rainstorm would follow, so we ran back to the car incase the off-roading became too slippery for our little Matiz. We didn’t want to become stranded.

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Impressive stucco façade on the temple at Hormiguero

The last stop for the day was a quick visit to Kohunlich. It really needed more than the 45 minutes we were left with before closing time but we were determined. As this site was closer to Chetumal it was more tourist orientated, this meant that there was more well manicured bright green grass, well defined paths and less jungle feeling. Our preference is definitely the rough around the edges less touristy sites, mainly because some tourists can be obnoxious but also because when a site is more reconstructed and roped off it starts to loose it’s special, antiquated and mysterious airs. However touristy Kohunlich was a nice site which had some cool buildings. One of the pyramids had interesting stucco masks down the both sides of the stairs which were worth a look but overall it wasn’t the largest (Calakmul or Cantona), tallest (Teotihuacan or Tonina, depending on who you ask), hottest (El Tajin), coldest (none, it’s Mexico. Just checking if you’re still reading), most voluminous (Cholula), most adventurous/scary (Yaxchilan), best murals (Cacaxtla) and didn’t have a museum (Zibulchaltun) or a cenote (Zibulchaltun and Ek-Balam).

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Stucco masks at Kohunlich

Kohunlich was our last stop for the day so we headed back to Chetumal in the growing dusk. Although we still had an hour or two before the car had to be back we went straight to the hire company as I was too tired of driving to be bothered with navigating city roads or parking. Driving in an unfamiliar country is definitely more draining than what you are familiar with back home, especially when you are on the wrong side of the road and the car feels all backwards.

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