Lost in the Jungle
Deep in the Yucatan's primordial forests, a sprawling Maya city lies protected by jaguars, monkeys and miles of flatout wilderness.
The sun has set since we entered the jungle, leaving us in total blackness except for the beam of light from José's head lamp, which bobs over vines and trees. As we ascend a rise, I notice square stones emerging from the black ground around us, stacked into low, uneven walls.
"What's this?" I ask José, our teenage guide, who we rustled up from the nearest village. "A Maya structure," he says, without breaking stride.
"Does it have a name?" I ask. "No," he says. It doesn't.
When we climb another rise where tree nroots embrace tumbleddown walls, I ask again. Also Maya, he says, also nameless. José knows his birds and beasts, and he finds the jungle so peaceful that he spends weeks at a time camping out. No surprise, then, that he's much more interested in showing us a small cane toad, which he stoops to capture from a puddle. He holds it in the light so that we can see its yellowish skin and blinking eyes. When threatened, cane toads excrete a toxin from certain glands, which some historians think the Mayas used as a hallucinogen, consuming it by licking the skin.
The presence of semiintact buildings more than 1,200 years old, barely buried just a couple of miles from his home, is humdrum to José.
Around here, the signs of ancient Maya civilization are everywhere, rising like ghosts from the ground. In the state of Campeche
(which borders Cancun's Quintana Roo on the west), Mexico's archeological authority, INAH, has catalogued more than 1,500 Maya sites. These sprawling, longago cities and towns covered so much of the area that when the government sought to widen Highway 180, it had to choose which ruins were small enough to plow under and which were worthy of preservation.
Even amid such archeological bounty, though, an ancient city called Calakmul stands out, and I'm hoping it will bring me some winter peace. I've come from the frenetic concrete jungle of New York; Calakmul in 600 AD was every bit as vibrant as the modern Big Apple, but today it's just stones in the woods. Sometimes cities just come to an end, an idea I find almost reassuring in my mood of urban flight.
In its heyday, Calakmul was one of the most important cities in the Maya world, which stretched over southern Mexico and parts of Guatemala, Honduras and Belize. Its power rivaled that of the great Tikal to the south in modernday Guatemala, and in the late 7th century, as Europe was sinking into the Dark Ages and Islam was being born, the two cities engaged in bloody battle. Spanning nearly 12 square miles, Calakmul is three times the size of Mexico's Chichen Itza, a later city much better known to tourists, both because it sits much closer to the resorts on the Caribbean coast and because, like Tikal, archaeologists explored it much earlier.
Chichen Itza, in fact, was known to Spanish colonizers in the 16th century. But no outsider came across Calakmul until 1931, when chicleros, descendants of the ancient Maya, led botanist Cyrus Lundell into the jungle to search for rare chiclebearing sapodillatrees (he was working for a company that exported chicle, the key ingredient in chewing gum). Though the pyramids appeared as little more than massive, halfburied mounds, he recognized them for what they were — a magnificent ruin.
Lundell quickly shared his discovery with Sylvanus Morley — an American archeologist and leading Maya expert of the day, who'd been excavating Chichen Itza since 1923. Morley led a short Carnegie Institution expedition there in 1932 to create a map of Calakmul but then turned his attention back to other, more accessible ruins. The site remained unvisited by outsiders for the next 35 years. Heavily forested, far from any road, and with heavy rainfall and few sources of fresh water, it was just too hard to access.
But thanks to Morley's map, more contemporary archeologists became enamored with the promised grandeur of what was buried so deep in the jungle. "It was a mythical place in many ways," says Simon Martin, an archeologist who has visited Calakmul every year since 1993 to participate in its excavation. "We knew that the monuments were enormous and that there were a great many of them." In the 1980s, the University of Campeche began smallscale exploration, but even then it took archaeologists three days to reach the ruins. In the '90s, after the government laid a road through miles of primordial wilderness, INAH launched the excavation that continues today under the direction of Ramón Carrasco Vargas.
Calakmul is still the most remote ancient Maya city that's accessible to visitors, and that's part of what makes it so special. Whereas you can drive right up to the wellcleared grounds of Chichen Itza or Tulum, and Tikal sits 40 minutes from a major city, visitors to Calakmul can experience some of the awe that Lundell must have felt when he first saw that unmistakably manmade structure loom above him in what had appeared to be virgin jungle. "People get a real sense of being one of those early explorers," says Martin, who is an associate curator at the University of Pennsylvania's Museum of Anthropology and Archeology.
The first time Martin visited, the road to the site was just being built. He was bowled over when he and his colleagues started doing their work. "When you start peeling back the forest and seeing the buildings coming out of it, that's when you understand its true scale." Calakmul's tallest pyramid, called Structure II, stands at a majestic 184 feet, making it the secondtallest Maya structure archeologists have ever uncovered. (The tallest is at El Mirador in Guatemala.)