The screech that echoed around the jungle was so awful, so loud, it seemed alien.
We walked forward, caught between fear and curiosity, expecting some huge creature to blot out the sunlight. But all we saw was a scampering family of monkeys. Could this earth-shattering noise come from such small animals? We’d encountered all sorts of wildlife driving to the lost temple of Calakmul: tropical turkeys, their plumage a-shimmer with turquoise and orange, green parrots flitting from tree to tree, a couple of racoon-like coati-mundi dashing in front of the car. And our eco-lodge had wire mesh for windows; we slept to a soundtrack of chirping insects. But this was something else.
“Bridget Jones v Indiana Jones” I call it. The classic couple summer holiday row. She wants beach and books. He wants lost temples and action. I thought Mexico’s Yukatan peninsula seemed the perfect compromise. But maybe I’d gone a little too far?
We continued along a narrow pathway, monkey-bellows still ringing in our ears. There rising in front was a vast staircase, almost impossibly steep. It went up forever, a stairway to the heavens. This stepped pyramid was the biggest we’d seen. Two masks of Chac, the Mayan god of rain, made of huge stones, stared at us from each side. Without a word we started to climb. The steps were not only steep, they were large. I was soon sweating. About quarter of the way up I made the mistake of looking down. I was already level with the tops of the smaller trees. It felt distinctly precarious.
It seemed like we’d never reach the top, we were now five storeys high.
Two other explorers looked tiny far below. But the pyramid kept going. After a flat section there were more steps. At the very top the views across vivid green jungle went as far as the Guatemalan border. To the left and right other tumble-down pyramids poked their heads above the canopy. I could see a few people on top of one. It was as if we were marooned on islands in a sea of leaves.
Calakmul is one of the lesser-visited of the Mayan temples in Mexico’s Yakatán Peninsula. Consequently it was my favourite, we were virtually the only explorers. But there are more accessible sites.
Our adventure started at Chichén Itzá the grandest complex of all. We arrived after dark at our hotel by the ruins and were soon stumbling between trees towards the great pyramid, just in time for the sound-and-light show. Rows of chairs were set up facing the pyramid. Its triangular outline appeared ghostlike from the gloom, all the more mysterious for the light of a three quarters-full moon.
Crashing music boomed from loud speakers, the pyramid was bathed in brilliant yellow light. We listened to English commentary through headphones and heard gory tales of violence and human sacrifice. For 15 minutes the show was spellbinding. Then it stopped. The Spanish on the loudspeakers continued, but we got silence. Then it started again. Then it stopped again. Then we got a high-pitched scramble of sounds as the technician fast-forwarded to catch up with the Spanish commentary. The moment had been lost. The Mayans would have tossed the sound technician off the top of their temple. We just had to grin and bear it.
It’s a great idea to stay in a hotel at the ruins at Chichén Itzá.
They’re hugely popular and by mid-morning there are busloads of tourists swarming the site. But we enjoyed a leisurely breakfast and wandered in in the cool of the morning ready to explore with few others around. Despite their bloodlust, Mayans created a complex society. Whilst the West was entering the Dark Ages, they devised accurate calendar systems and built technically advanced, intricate buildings. That great pyramid is perfect in its proportions, a representation of the Mayan calendar. Each staircase has 91 steps which added to the single step at the top amounts to 365. Unfortunately we didn’t get to count them. You can no longer climb it which was disappointing, but understandable given the huge numbers the site attracts.
You can get close to some of the smaller buildings though. In a perfect example of Mayan contrariness – mixing civilising instincts with barbarous bloodletting – every site we visited featured a ball-court. Us blokes can get a bit fanatical about football. Losing a derby match can seem like the end of life itself. But that’s nothing. For Mayans wall-ball might have been a game – but winning wasn’t just about promotion to the next division. Mayan pelota was played on an I-shaped court with a hard ball. Players tried to score goals in circular stone hoops built into the walls. There’s a frieze on the wall of the huge court at Chichén Itzá. We could see one of the players had been beheaded. Fountains of blood were spurting from his neck, his opponent holding his severed head. Archaeologists differ in their interpretations. Some say the winning team were sacrificed as a gift to the gods, others the losing team for failing to win. We decided it was the losers who lost their heads. Otherwise there wouldn’t be much incentive to win. We imagined bloodthirsty ball players suddenly developing unexpected politeness: “No, after you old chap. You have a go. Feel free to try and score!”
Even Indiana Jones needs a little down time between adventures.
So we took some time out in the city of Mérida which mixed cultural refinement with its workaday outlook and crazy traffic. We wandered the markets, dazzled by the brashness of bright fruit, everything plastic imaginable, tortillas cranking out of hot ovens, shoemakers bashing at heels and soles. And we put our stomachs on the line and dined on refried beans, tortillas, salsa and sopa de lima, a sour Yakatán soup. In the evening we strolled to Santa Lucia park where chairs were laid out in front of a stage. A phalanx of lads and lassies, the girls in white skirts and blouses with brightly embroidered boarders, the lads in starched white with panama hats danced a Yakatán trot to the brassy sounds of the town band, swinging back and forth to the bustling rhythm. The girls produced red scarves and swung and sashayed with them; the boys flirted with their partners, smiling from cheek to cheek. It was captivating, seriously Latin, charming.
The dancers’ headgear had made me envious.
I needed a hat to get into the Indy spirit before we ventured further. As we were driving ourselves, it was easy to detour to the sleepy town of Becal next day where local artisans have produced hats from sisal for generations. We’d hardly slowed down before Candelario cranked over on his three-wheeler cyclo. “Do you want to buy sombrero?” he asked. He peddled us to a house nearby. Here we met a modern day Mayan: Balodomero Dzul Uc (“In Mayan Dzul means ‘man’ he explained.”). Sisal grows in his garden. Its green leaves are dried, stripped and platted to make the intricate hats. “A cheap one takes two and a half days to make,” he explained. “A fine-weave panama takes a week and costs £90.” Balodomero showed us his cellar where keeping cool were 20 hats in various stages of completion. I found one that fitted just right. It was more Dan Cruickshank than Indiana Jones, but it exuded an air of class and at £12 was hardly a bank-breaker.
We stopped next at Uxmal another popular site with its quota of supersize Americans puffing around its courtyards. Its oddly cone-shaped pyramid is unique in the Mayan world, but regardless of your waistband, you can’t climb it. At Edzná however, there were no restrictions. Some might argue that climbing these monuments is desecration or contributes to their decay, but for me, scaling their vertiginous stairs made my adventure come to life. High above the complex I looked down like an ancient high priest, closer to the heavens, all powerful. It was a true Indiana Jones moment. Leaving the site we spotted an information board. It said without irony that ‘the Maya were not helped by extraterrestrials’ to build their cities. I was beginning to see why some might wonder about alien intervention, the temples were otherworldly.
By the time we reached Calakmul, several days later, my hat was bashed, our arms pink with sunburn.
It’s well off the tourist trail, but quite reachable with a car. The eco-lodge at the entrance to the reserve – which is also a conservation area teeming with wildlife – is basic, but comfortable. There was a small pool for a dip and hammocks to swing in. The temples are an hour’s drive on a narrow road through the jungle. We left at the crack of dawn after a mighty thunderstorm which only added to the sense of adventure. Calakmul is the largest Mayan site uncovered, extending 50 miles, once home to 200,000 people. We wandered forest trails, stumbling on temples and houses; some were restored, but huge tree roots had reduced others to piles of stone, squeezing them like vast grey fists. And then we heard that awful, ear-splitting howling. My girlfriend grabbed my hand so hard it hurt. Maybe I’d overdone it with the adventure?
Over a dinner that night of spicy fajitas and cold beer we chatted to Sergio the eco-lodge manager. “They’re called Howler Monkeys,” he laughed. “No prizes for guessing why.” My girlfriend looked at me and smiled. “Well Indy, it’s been a nice adventure. But now we’re going to the beach and I’m drinking the coldest margarita in Mexico.” After a week of jungle temples that sounded like a fine idea.
Fancy a Mayan adventure?
Stay There: Hotel Mayaland Chichen-Itza is located inside the temple complex.
Casa del Balam in Merida is friendly and comfortable – ideal for exploring the town.
Hacienda Puerta Campeche is a luxury hideaway, perfect for a splurge.
Puerta Calakmul hotel is a friendly eco-lodge at the entrance to the park.
Do The Tour: Latin America specialist Last Frontiers Last Frontiers organises good value self-drive tours of the Yukatan peninsula.
Find Out More: The Official Visit Mexico website.