Calakmul – A Real Jungle Adventure
Part 3 – Jungle Ruins!
A blog post by Greg
Hasn’t the world changed since I last sat down to write one of my blog posts?! Many of us are now in various levels of isolation and lockdown – and Felicity and I both wish you all well, and hope that you and yours are managing to stay safe!
On to happier things – since we last wrote we have also released a new travel adventure video with a lot of history included all about Romania, and our attempts to find ‘Dracula’s Castle’, dealing with both the fictional Count Dracula, and the Wallachian warlord Vlad the Impaler. It was an amazing journey, and will be the subject of future blog posts – but in the meantime you can watch the video here! For now, however, I must finally finish up our three-part blog post on Calakmul, and our first travel adventure video, ‘Mexico: Mayan Mystery and Marine Majesty’!
It seems a long way from not leaving our house at the moment, to being halfway around the world last March, deep in the jungle, and headed deeper towards the Mayan ruins at Calakmul. Isolation is a word that applies to both situations, but there was a real beauty in the isolation that we found in the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve, and particularly when we arrived with our guide to the entrance of the site and went in.
The three of us probably accounted for about a third of the people in the site for most of the time we were there – a far cry from the fifty thousand people who would have called the vast city their home at its peak! This was truly reclaimed by the jungle – only three structures breached the canopy of trees and when sat atop them, it was a sea of green as far as the eye could see. In fact, after the city had dwindled and was finally abandoned in the 10th Century, it was so thoroughly overwhelmed by jungle that it took the invention of flight before, in December 1931, the site was rediscovered from the air when these temple tops were spotted.
What added to the magic for me was that from the ground the centre of the city is still remarkably well preserved.
Here you can see some of the genius of the Mayan culture at its very finest – there are pairs of temples on opposite sides of one square which align with the sun on the solstice and equinox, and other buildings built to line up with the movements of planets. The feel is that there is no random building going on here – the city, and especially the city centre, was a planned layout which joined together to create an intricate whole. At least, that is how it appears when you look at the significant astronomical markers like the solstice. A few of them where the line of planets and dates seem a little more random do make you wonder whether sometimes a combination of archaeologists and tour guides may just have wanted to find intricate connections a little too much and are stretching them just a little bit. The people here at Calakmul were clearly very advanced in their use of astronomy and their charting of stars and planets, and they were clearly very skilled at charting these in such a way that two connected perfectly. Some of the buildings, however, I would dare to suggest, just may have been put in locations without necessarily taking into account where Neptune and Jupiter on the third full moon after the sun shone through the left temple after midday … you get the idea!
When we set off to climb up the first of our three temples that day our guide, who had been there many times before, wisely opted to head for the shade and wait for us to return. We would later find out that after our early start into the jungle with him leading us on our animal trek, and then the long drive into the site, he would then return to the hotel with us before he set off for his other job, donning full protective gear in the heat and going to work as a beekeeper! Suddenly I felt quite feeble for having struggled so much in the heat when the air-conditioning had packed up for a couple of hours in the cabin the day before (if you haven’t done so already, you can read about that here).
For this couple from England, climbing those pyramids in over 32 degrees with the suns rays on us was hard work. The steps are all a lot steeper than you might expect, and we had spent most of the last fortnight climbing up and down similar steps all across the county. We had been taught to climb on a slight diagonal to protect our knees, but I think it is fair to say that, although we would miss being among the temples, we were both looking forward to bidding farewell to the temple steps for a while – at least until our legs had been given a rest.
When we reached through the tree line and stood atop the first temple we looked out over the treetops and saw another temple rising above us. It was the most ‘Indiana Jones’ that I think I had felt in the entire time we had spent in Mexico – we had been edging closer and closer to it and here we were, atop one temple hidden in the trees, and looking out at another temple rising above us and aiming to get to it. Once we had our breath back we went back down to the courtyard, and worked our way through the trees towards the second temple.
As we went along our guide made us particularly jealous as he explained that he had been inside this temple, known simply as ‘Structure II’. This is particularly impressive as this is the highest and largest pyramid yet discovered in the Mayan world, and is currently sealed off. He only managed to see inside as he was part of the team working there to excavate the site, which has had two excavations since the turn of the century – one in 2005 and one in 2008. When he told us, the idea of going into those temples immediately struck me as an incredible experience to have. Since we were lucky enough to get a look ‘behind the curtains’ at the dig on a Greek site at Laodicea (see our Turkey travel adventure video here for details on that one), I can’t even begin to imagine how special it must have been to be one of the few who had the opportunity to explore inside the pyramids!
We made our way up past the stelae (large inscribed stones), of which there are 117 in total around the site, although many of these are so warn by time and weather that the information which they were built to preserve has long since been lost.
Finally we made it to the top, and once again looked out above the trees. We could see the slightly lower pyramid which we had stood on last, and one more we had yet to climb. We paused there, high above the ruins, high above the Mayan city, and tried to picture for a moment a city below us, the trees cleared, fifty thousand people living their lives beneath us. To imagine the people leaving as the city dried up, to imagine the first trees starting to take route among the buildings left behind. The rains returning, the water rolling over the stelae which such care had gone into making, washing away the writing and images which had been recorded there. Finally the trees covering the site, wildlife running freely through the ruins as they fell silent but for the sound of the animals and the breeze in the trees.
Finally the sound of a plane flying overhead in 1931, and the first people returning to the site to discover a monument to a great city which had stretched too far, and ultimately disappeared – not with a dramatic clash of swords and annihilation, but with a slow fade into history.
All of these images and thoughts were what flashed through my mind as we stood atop that pyramid, which left room in my head a short while later as we sat atop our final pyramid for a moment of reflection on our journey so far.
The Mayan stage of our adventure had been truly incredible. There was a real tinge of sadness that this was the last time we’d be standing atop a Mayan pyramid, certainly for the foreseeable future. As I said at the time, however, if one has to have a last Mayan pyramid to stand on (or indeed a last Mayan ruin to visit), then Calakmul is a wonderful choice!
We’ll be back next week with our first blog about our Romanian travels, but for now thanks for reading, and stay safe!