America,  Mexico,  TDM,  Tips

Road trip in Mexico #6: the Ruins of Calakmul, at the end of the jungle

Calakmul, once the most powerful Mayan city in the area and constantly in rivalry with Tikal in Guatemala (as the crow flies, we are only 30km from Guatemala), had at its peak 50,000 inhabitants and covered more than 70m². Covered by trees and buried in the protected reserve of Calakmul, this ancient city is now little frequented by tourists. The capricious transport schedules make that everyone sulks these absolutely splendid ruins. By taking the bus, it is necessary 1/2 day to go there, 1 day of visit and 1/2 day to leave.

The visit of the Calakmul ruins is one of the most awaited of this roadtrip, as I took a long time to find the adapted transport and was very hesitant to remove it completely from the itinerary.

Note: this article is part of the 17-day roadtrip series in Mexico. Go to previous articles: part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5

Part 1: Travel Diary Part
2: Practical Tips

Part 1: Travel Diary

Day 9 (December 27th)

How to get to Xpujil?

In order to visit the ruins of Calakmul, you have to go to the small town of Xpujil.

As there are only 2 direct buses leaving quite late from Bacalar, we decide to make a small detour by Chetumal because there are more buses leaving from Chetumal to Xpujil. The bus ADO Bacalar – Chetumal is often cancelled and it is still the case today. We just have to cross the street to stop one of the many colectivos to Chetumal, then take an ADO bus to Xpujil at 6:30 pm. More info on how to get to Xpujil and Calakmul here

Xpujil, a small village in the middle of the forest

We arrive in Xpujil a few hours later. Xpujil is in the state Campeche so it is less than an hour from the state Quintana Roo (where Bacalar is located). So instead of 8:30 pm, my phone automatically displays 7:30 pm. We had spotted a shuttle company which proposes the round trip at 400MXN/person with a stop at the bat cave. We go there(Google Maps coordinates) and leave a deposit at the agency (50% of the amount) and take the opportunity to ask questions about the itinerary. We did well to pass by to see them instead of communicating only by Whatsapp because we understand that

(1) they can pick us up at our hotel
(2) they can make a stop – at no extra charge – in front of the bat cellar, provided that all the tourists of the shuttle agree to go there
(3) and that we have to buy food and drink here before going there because there will be nothing at the ruins. The shuttle leaves starting from a minimum of 3 people, we are only 2, but there are two other interested tourists also – otherwise we would have had to privatize the shuttle by paying the expenses for 3 people.

We have a quick dinner in a taqueria near the traffic circle (it’s medium but not expensive) before walking 10 minutes to our Cabanas Chaac Inn. All the budget hotels in this small village are badly rated, except this one so I asked JB to book it (1 month in advance as well). But the two girls of the reception are completely in the west (they forgot our reservation), they do not even find the key anymore… and absolute horror: there are holes everywhere in the wall and at the level of the roof what makes that any animal (I think of the snakes because we are in the jungle) can enter. We try as best as we can to put the mosquito net – which doesn’t close (too small). And because of the total lack of insulation in the room, I had to put a woollen blanket – which doesn’t seem to have been washed for a long time – so as not to freeze to death in the night. JB gets a mini-shock because the shower is electric and there is an exposed electrical wire. This system isn’t very safe and like everywhere in Latin America, when you see an electric shower, you must always turn off the water with a dry hand or an insulator otherwise you risk getting a shock. Without even speaking about the doubtful cleanliness, you understood, I advise you against this housing.

Day 10 (December 28th)

2h drive to the ruins

The next day, at 8 am, a big pick-up truck comes to pick us up. Surprise: the 2 other guests who have to take the same shuttle are in the same hotel as us. One is Italian, the other is Mexican. I am happy because if a Mexican takes the same shuttle as us, it is because we surely found a good plan. This info is confirmed later because these two travelers are touring around Mexico and they always take care to compare all the agencies and options before choosing the cheapest one. In fact, I took the opportunity to ask them for all the good plans for Palenque, which I will share with you in the next article.

Our driver isn’t stingy in explanations and even if we didn’t pay for the “guided tour” option (it would have cost 800MXN/person instead of 400MXN, lunch included), on the way, he still tells how rich this part of Mexico is in fauna and flora. He even has pictures to show us: all the animals that we can find in the reserve. The driver confirms all that I had marked in my article of transport to Calakmul : there is a public bus going to the entrance of the reserve, but then, the shuttle to the ruins (450MXN) costs more expensive than the option that we currently take. In short, I did my homework well 😀 JB tells me that I am now able to write advice articles on destinations where I didn’t even set foot, because I have reached a high level of planning after 4 years of touring the world ahahha

Note: to find information not found on Google (e.g. the recent fare of a small cab between such and such a place), Tripadvisor can be a very good source. Just go to the Tripadvisor page of the ruins for example and search for “cab” in all languages. There will always be a nice tourist who tells how he went to the ruins and for how much. This is especially useful for places with little traffic, where the blogs aren’t up to date, or when everyone comes with a private car like Calakmul. This information is obviously to be cross-referenced with other sources – because many tourists forget the micro details or get ripped off and then share the wrong info. The second trick, for Latin America, is to search directly in Spanish.

Let’s get back to our sheep: so the driver took out a kind of notebook with all the pictures of the animals we are likely to come across in the reserve.

And during one hour (out of the 2 hours) taking us to the ruins, he does not stop telling us about the incidents that were in the area. Luckily my Spanish was not good enough to understand all the gory details, but one thing I did remember: that we shouldn’t worry because the attacks were mainly against women. Oh, and what am I? So I think that if you come here in a private car, you shouldn’t get out of the car anywhere on the way (unless you have a guide). But you have to go directly to the ruins.

From the entrance of the reserve and the ruins, there are 3 payment stations. 2 correspond to the road construction costs. And the last one is for the access to the ruins. On the first 40 km, there are 2 lanes; but on the last 20 km, there is only one lane (and a few holes), you have to be very careful, especially if you come in the afternoon.

The structures

I keep telling you that such and such a ruin is in the jungle… they’re all in the jungle, but these are really deep in the jungle. At 2 hours from the nearest village which itself is in the jungle. There are about twenty structures scattered in the jungle. The indications and signs are clearly not intuitive, I strongly advise you to download the offline map on before coming. And as soon as you visit a structure, tag it or else you will confuse them all and don’t know where to go afterwards.

Compared to Coba, the forest is really denser and a little more frightening. Usually according to our driver, there are only 4-5 cars maximum in the parking lot. Today, as it is the Christmas period, the parking lot is full. We are very afraid to be on top of each other like in Chichen Itza but in fact not. The site is big enough, with many small roads in the forest that most of the time, we are alone.

We choose to ride on the 3 largest structures: 1, 2 and 7, advised by our driver. The 7 is the best, we reserve it for the end.


Structure n°2

We first climb on structure 2. Some clever people climb on the side because the steps look bigger, but this strategy doesn’t work because the steps on the sides don’t lead to the top. We have to go through the steps in the middle. Contrary to the ruins visited so far, on this site, there are a lot of steles. Everywhere everywhere. In front of each pyramid, and everywhere all alone. 117 in all, the highest concentration in the region. Most of them are paired two by two representing kings and their wives. Sculpted in soft limestone, they are almost all eroded, we can’t see much more on them. Some stelae still retain some traces. To realize their size, just look for me on this picture – where I stood in front of a stele.

The view from above is very very satisfactory. We see the structure n°7 and the tourists over there taking our picture.

Move a little bit, go to the edge on the right, you will see two other small structures in the middle of the trees.

Going around the big main boulder, you can see the 2nd boulder to be climbed:


Going up to the top, you can see structure n°1. We have a nice view on this structure, but the tourists on top of structure 1 do not have a nice view on us (everything is hidden by the trees).

So that you can see better the architecture of structure 2, here is a picture taken by the drone and the synthetic image of reconstruction. You can see better why it is one of the most important pyramid temples in the Mayan world. It doesn’t have the astronomical characteristics of Chichen Itza but it is my favorite pyramid in the Yucatan Peninsula. The place gives off an incredible energy, you feel really good there.

All the southern part is hidden by the trees, it is however this side which interests us because we would have perhaps had a small view on Tikal in Guatemala?

Well, it’s already time to go back down. The steps are wider and more regular than in Coba, so if the descent isn’t easy, it is less terrifying. Moreover, there are much less people.

As you can see, here trees are invading the ruins. They grow right on top of them and no one removes them. There is a very nice “Angkor temples” side to it, because we liked to see how nature was taking back its rights.

We regularly see monkeys passing from one tree to another. They are quite small and avoid any contact with humans. When they see us, they tend to run away. Jaguars avoid humans too, but pumas, if they are hungry, will not hesitate to attack. At the ruins, no incidents have been reported – the pumas have other more appetizing things to eat anyway.

Your worst enemy will be mosquitoes. Today, we are lucky because the supply of tourists is more abundant and mosquitoes have a multitude of choices. But as soon as we find ourselves alone somewhere, we get attacked mercilessly, long sleeves or not.

Structure n°1

We continue to explore small structures and arrive at structure n°1.

On the ill-advised advice of two tourists who have just come down, JB goes up to the top, not to see anything at all. The view on the structure n°2 is completely blocked by trees, and no way to know where Tikal is.

the view from structure n°1

Structure n°7

The structure n°7 isn’t the most beautiful, but it is from here that we have the best view of the site.

From the top, we can clearly see the tourists climbing structure n°2 and see the top of structure n°1. The view is so satisfying and we feel so good that we stayed here for 30 minutes (in the shade as well, with some nice fresh air).

Go a little zoom because it’s too beautiful!

At one point, we hear an impressive noise, and quite close, making us think of a nasty animal. The tourists are very afraid. The first reflex is: a puma?. But as we were fooled in Chichen Itza, by many sellers imitating this noise with a ceramic tool, we know how to recognize it now: it is the noise of howler monkeys. I reassure the tourists by telling them that it is the howler monkeys, but I must not have the right physique and authority – because they only believe me when they see these so-called monkeys, perched on a tree about 40 meters above the ground. While in Vietnam, everyone thought I was a tour guide, tourists were asking me a lot of super sharp questions ahahah

I find this pyramid steeper than structure II (or else I’m tired), I almost went down on my buttocks.

In all, we spent 5 hours in the ruins. If it was up to me, I would have spent maximum 4 hours on the ruins, but the tourists of the shuttle insisted that we leave from here only at 3 pm. It turns out to be a good decision because we will arrive at the perfect moment for the bat cave.

Bat cellar

With my little level in Spanish, I manage to convince the 2 tourists of the shuttle to also stop at the bat cave(la cueva de los muciélagos). Because it is necessary that everyone agrees. It is a well hidden information because the agency does not want to drop us there; the driver does not want to stop there.

Tourists hesitate a lot because they have never heard of it, and they have seen a small cellar the day before. The driver is hesitant because he keeps asking if this stop is included in the program (I think it’s a freelance paid by the agency). So I tried to explain to everyone “yesterday, at the agency, I was told that it was included”, but I used the wrong conjugation in simple past tense and I repeated in Spanish “I said it was included ” ahahahha which doesn’t reassure anyone. Note to myself: it’s time to resume the conjugation exercises

At the end of the 3rd attempt, I finally understand that I misspoke and ended up showing the agency’s written proof on Facebook to prove to everyone that yes we can stop there, free of charge.

I repeated again and again, this time in English, that everyone had to agree to stop. And frankly, if they had said no, I think I would have turned myself into a puma and devoured them on the spot (especially since I didn’t eat much at lunch). Luckily for them, they said yes, with a small, trembling, very skeptical voice.

Normally, only 15 people are allowed on site at a time, but with the influx of Christmas, the site guard closes his eyes and lets everyone pass. The funny thing is that he takes pictures of all of us, probably to find out who went on site and who didn’t come back alive? Here, there is a huge cellar, from where millions of bats come out just before sunset. Yes, I did write “millions”. At first, I didn’t believe in that number either, but they’re very small (like hummingbirds) and the cellar is so big that there are an estimated 4 million bats in there. The smell is very strong, I’m not hiding it from you. Some tourists even have a mask on their nose, probably provided by their agency.

We are all on top of each other, behind a rope, watching the entrance to the cellar and waiting. Around 4:50 pm, suddenly, the bats come out, more and more numerous. The sky is covered with bats, but they are so small that it doesn’t create an “eclipse” effect either. I thought I was much more scared than that because I hate bats, but in the end no, because they don’t care about us, they don’t touch us, they just want to get out of the basement actually. In the middle of this chaos, a monkey appears, passing from one branch to another.

According to the driver, two people went to explore the cellar and couldn’t go all the way, I think they went 600 meters and then turned back because they didn’t have the right tools (the excrement of 4 million bats must do something). In reality, we don’t know how big this cellar is or where it leads.

Well, I went to a lot of trouble to get us to stop here, but the experience is so satisfying. The two tourists are delighted that I forced them to go and see the cellar. It is incomparable with the cellar they saw the day before.

We go back to the agency to pay the remaining fees and have dinner downtown, in this bui bui right next to the ADO terminal. The small burger and the hot dog aren’t bad at all.

We pass again at the hotel and when we hear the girl of the reception asking us, looking surprised, if it was planned that we stay 2 nights and if we had really paid for the 2 nights (whereas we paid her the day before the 2 nights in cash), that drunk us directly. Especially as again she does not find our key! JB says, the amused air, that it is the only hotel of all the roadtrip chosen by my care, and it is the only one to be rotten of rotten home.

Well, I have a bus at 3:30 in the morning, I don’t feel like walking among wild dogs in an unlit street and being cold until 3:30 in the morning. We do our business and we leave like thieves from the hotel – otherwise the girl will really believe that we did not pay for the 2nd night. We go towards the ADO terminal in search of another hotel. The first one is the good one: Gran garra de jaguar (Agoda link), there is only one room left at 300MXN. I don’t know why it is badly rated online because in real life, it is 20 meters from the terminal, the room is clean and 10 times better than what we had. We lose the equivalent of 15€ in this story, nothing very serious

The next day, we have to take the bus at 3:30 am to Palenque (aie). I checked and re-checked, it’s the only bus of the day to Palenque bouhouhouuu

To be continued… Follow the rest of our adventure in Palenque here

Part 2: Practical Tips

To know how to get to Xpujil & Calakmul, see my detailed article here


  • Colectivo Bacalar – Chetumal: 45MXN (or 65MXN with the ADO bus)
  • Bus ADO Chetumal – Xpujil : 206MXN
  • Hotel in Xpujil: Gran Garra de Jaguar: 300MXN (Agoda link)
  • Shuttle Xpujil – Calakmul (a/r): 400MXN (more info here)
  • Cave des 4 millions de chauve-souris: free entrance
  • Entry to Calakmul: payment in 3 installments: 60 MXN, 72 MXN then 75 MXN

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