home Mexico Mapping Out Calakmul (1997)

Mapping Out Calakmul (1997)

Photo: Sergey Yeliseev, Sitio

From the archives (1997)

by Cynthia Brink and Laray Polk

Mexico — When my partner Laray and I began planning a college field study course focusing on archaeology, iconography and history of the Maya, both she (as professor) and I (as Mexico liaison) knew that we would have to make a special trip to the area to work out itineraries, logistics, and housing for our group of faculty and students. Both of us had experience traveling to, and living in, the Yucatan Peninsula, and we had visited many of the major and minor sites, but neither of us had ever ventured this far south. We had found a few pictures of the Calakmul region but had difficulty finding much “scholarly” information or documentation of the sites. The remote location and difficult communications with this part of Mexico would require a personal visit.

The genesis of our interest in the region had come out of Laray’s 1994 field course she led from North Lake College in Irving, Texas. All the requisite major sites were on the program – Chichen-Itza, Uxmal, Edzna – but Laray wanted to try one or two smaller, more remote sites as a balance to the tourist manicure and polish of the big sites.

So we headed out in a University minibus to the little known site of Hochob. On the rutted dirt road leading to Hochob we were thwacked for about an hour with branches through the windows and wondered if the minibus had the moxie to withstand the rocks scraping its belly. But at the end we were rewarded with arguably the best experience of the trip: total seclusion and freedom to explore and study as we wished. Later, on the way back when a flat tire left us stranded for several hours in the village nearby, we watched the town’s comings and goings, talked to a few people and began to be intrigued at the prospect of knowing more about the Maya who live presently around the sites rather than simply speculating their ancestors who lived a thousand years ago. It was this experience, and the excited reaction of the students, that led to our decision to embark into terra incognito: we would bypass the blockbuster sites and explore in our own right.

There were eight sites on our “to do” list. This would be fairly easy because of their geographical concentration, all basically along highway 186 in the southern part of the state of Campeche. We wanted to study the stairstepped Rio Bec style architecture as well as compare and look at influences of other styles along the route. The challenge would be in finding our way. (Our guide would later educate us on “road maintenance in the rain forest”, where roads can literally disappear from week to week in the rainy season.)

The target destination was the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve about 40 miles from the border of Guatemala. The Reserve is a 178,799 acre parcel of protected land on which sits the ancient, mostly unexcavated city of Calakmul. With a little encouragement from the U.N., Mexican President Carlos Salinas sanctioned the area protected in 1989. Dating from 100 B.C. to 900 A.D., Calakmul was apparently the largest of three cities in this part of the Maya world, with as many as 60,000 inhabitants at its zenith. Archaeologists maintain that Calakmul was larger than Chichen-Itza or Tikal in Guatemala, and was a city with tremendous commercial power. About 7,000 structures have been mapped so far. But because of the thick jungle around it and its remote location in the midst of small Maya communities, Calakmul remains one of the peninsula’s least excavated and least known sites.

What’s great about Calakmul is that you can still visit there and be totally alone. We hiked, climbed the buildings and listened to the forest for almost an entire day without seeing anyone at all. Until 1993 there was no paved road to reach the site; it took four wheel drive vehicles about six hours (in dry weather) to reach the center from the highway turnoff. Only researchers and archaeologists were admitted in. An archaeological team led by Dr. William Folan of the University of Campeche has been working each dry season since 1982 to uncover and restore some of its more important buildings. The work continues.

Calakmul is located within the peninsula’s only high forest selva, an area where about 16 feet of rain fall annually. Cactus, orchids and bromelids are everywhere, and the forest is still reputedly shared by white-lipped peccaries, jaguars and pumas, although we encountered none in the wild. According to Frommer’s Guide to Mexico, the area has at least 250 species of birds. When we stood atop the highest structure at Calakmul, we could see nothing but a thick canopy of trees, bumpy in places where other unexcavated buildings stand. We sat on top of that temple for hours, overwhelmed by the sounds of bees, howler monkeys, macaws and cicadas and listening to their sounds change with the rising and falling temperatures of the day.

We had everything researched and arranged for ahead of time – we thought. Laray put study guides together and worked out distances; I arranged for hotels and for a guide to meet us in the town of Xpuhil. We flew to Cancun, got our rented Volkswagen and headed toward the town of Bacalar, where we were to stay the first night.

Day two was bright and sunny. We had requested a guide to meet us in Xpuhil and had planned to visit one, maybe two of our sites between 2p.m. and nightfall. Then,we had planned to use the rest of the week to visit the other sites, check out local “hotels” and palapas we had heard about, make adjustments to the itinerary, and go home. Total control. What a naive, first- world expectation that was. It’s easy to forget that Mexico doesn’t conform to itineraries.

The next morning, about eighteen hours after our requested guide was supposed to meet us (with a four wheel drive vehicle and cooler so that we could stay out for long periods a the sites) our “alternate” guide (ironically named Zeus), stepped off the bus with only his knife, bag of granola and a water bottle. We glared at each other while my Mexican friend from an ecotourism company in Campeche, who had made the arrangements, tried to ease the tension.

…But it’s Mexico, so you just go with it. On Zeus’ suggestion we decided to go to the site of Rio Bec for the day. However, we would have to go in our rented Volkswagen beetle. From what we had heard about the road into Rio Bec, we knew that we’d never make it in that car. Zeus didn’t think so either. It was then that Zeus went into action.

Rio Bec is technically part of an ejido called 20th of November, so we had to “check in” with its community before going to the site. Zeus knew a family there who would let us park our car on their property while we hiked in. We parked, and Zeus knocked on the door. Several children peeked out and a few dogs and chickens looked us over with a careful eye. In a minute the woman of the house waved to us with a smile, and we were off.

It was this kind of experience that defined our trip. Zeus and his mother have been involved for many years in social programs for the benefit of these communities; they know and trust him well. The communities by nature are reserved and very cautious toward strangers. Zeus, as our diplomat, took us easily into places where we would have otherwise been treated with suspicion. But he didn’t always tell us everything. He had his own rules. And he had his own plans for our strict indoctrination into the Maya culture before he would allow us to study it. He would often chastise our “western” way of imposing our own viewpoints on his culture.

“This is easy. It’s a one-hour walk at the most,” said Zeus. We smiled, andale pues, and started walking. Three and a half hours later, we reached Rio Bec.

We were angry at Zeus’ omission of important pieces of information: the condition of the roads, the need to take water and food, and the amount of sightseeing that we could reasonably do in a day. He thought we should forget our silly worries about such things. But the tradeoff was that by the end of the trip we had learned more about the Maya people by being with him than we possibly could have learned with someone less familiar with the communities. Our experience with him brought about a transformation to our plans for the course: we now wanted to include the area’s human dimension.

It is impossible to study these ancient structures and ignore the people who live around them. A cliche prevalent in universities and documentaries about the Maya tells of their “strange and mysterious disappearance” from the ancient cities about 800 a.d. But the Maya are still there. They do not live in the old complexes, but they live around them, working and producing many of the same products in the same ways that they have for over a thousand years.

The area is heavy in the harvest of chicle, the sap from a tree called the sapodilla and used in the production of raw rubber. Spearmint flavored chicle is our own chewing gum. During the right time of year and the correct cycle of the moon, harvesters from the ejidos ride their bicycles, sometimes many miles, into the high forest areas where the trees grow most abundantly. On their bicycle handlebars they carry well-worn liter coke bottle containing rainwater for drinking that they draw from the same natural aguadas used since ancient times. The chicleros were often the only other humans we saw on our hikes. Except for the orange plastic buckets they use to collect the sap, chicleros have harvested in this same way since their ancient counterparts worked to make the rubber interiors of the balls used in the life-or-death Maya ball games. It is the chicleros who know the forest, and the sites, best. In fact, many archaeologists have been led to discover major archaeological sites by these men.

Although at several sites local Maya guides employed by INAH (Instituto Nacional de Antropologia e Historia) live on premises in small huts, maintain the sites and oversee visitors, most sites are guarded unofficially by the local communities. Where there is little or no funding from INAH, the Maya people have taken it upon themselves to keep and protect the sites closest to their villages. It is they who are really in charge. At each village we visited the inhabitants knew exactly when we went in, and one day when we didn’t return by dusk, three men came bicycling into the forest to find us. Both the de facto guides and the official INAH guides were proud for us to see their heritage, and were very respectful and giving. Even though tips are an important addition to their meager salaries, except for the tiny fees that INAH charges we were never asked directly for more money. In fact, one of them gave us fruit from one of his fruit trees along with an impromptu lecture about its uses and sabor delicioso.

Anyone who has been to Latin America understands its high cultural and social contrast. It’s easy to see in tourist areas, or in big cities where mansions with swimming pools back up to shabby huts. In rural Yucatan peninsula, generally the economic contrast is less pronounced – everyone is pretty much on equal footing economically. But even in these secluded areas we could see cultural and commercial influences seeping in from the outside. We weren’t there long before we learned that Disney Corporation had inquired about land for an “eco-tourism park”. To our relief the people we spoke to seemed to think that INAH had rejected the idea, but money is a powerful drug for a country that sees tourism as a potential end to some of its financial woes.

For the moment, all we can see through the doorways of the oval thatched-roof Maya houses are the occasional TV and sometimes a satellite dish and VCR, placed oddly on the dirt floor under a single bare light bulb. Someone buys a TV and suddenly the house is a neighborhood hot spot; we saw twenty or thirty people one night gathered around a 12″ black and white box, drinking cokes and discussing the night’s boxing match. The Maya houses we visited had color photographs of the family on the wall; plastic toys made in Taiwan for the children; a few sprigs of silk flowers. Everyone wears plastic sandals and flip-flops. When we walked into Rio Bec and didn’t come out for over seven hours, the men who came bicycling in to find us were equipped with a refrigerated liter of Pepsi.

We continued on to the rest of our planned sites, Becan, Xpuhil, Chicanna, Balamku, Hormiguero and Kohunlich. Each site has its own personality; each is fantastic, scary, weird and beautiful at the same time: the giant monster mouth facade at Chicanna used to represent the entrance to the underworld; the stacks of the rain god chac in greater abundance than at Uxmal; depictions of strange animal combinations at Balamku; scores of stelae with images of kings – and a queen – still visible at Calakmul; unusual stonework representations of slaves on an outcropping next to one of Calakmul’s buildings; impeccable stone masonry and intricate stucco facades; traces of rich red and blue paint still visible; huge, flawless faces designed for psychological subordination at Kohunlich. Here it’s fascinating to look at differences and similarities in architectural details between the sites. The Rio Bec style architecture is most prevalent, although heavy influences of other regional styles are visible. It is the combination of styles which gives us an indication that the cities were not isolated communities but a network of trading and commercial centers, part of a system of trade routes to the interior of Mexico from the Caribbean.

In this area we were glad to encounter a sense of need for tourism balanced by caution: people seem aware and sensitive to the fact that tourism can upset both the environment and the indigenous ways of life. We saw heavy conservation efforts in two research centers, one for education and protection of the local ecosystems, and the other for wildlife repopulation. At least one of these was partially funded by the Mexican government – unusual in a country with so little capital spent on issues not directly related to day to day survival. When we were there the Chicanna Ecovillage, a comfortable hotel down the road from Calakmul, was building a rainwater collection tank for use in all its operations; its power is already generated by solar panels. Universities are beginning to work with the local ejido communities to demonstrate alternative agricultural methods to the destructive slash and burn. Groups of Mexican students are building palapas near some of the most rural sites to develop educational ecotourism as an alternative to “slash and burn” tourism. The palapas provide close access to the more remote sites and lessen the need to damage the forest with the carbon monoxide of tourist vehicles. As part of Zeus’ personal efforts to teach outsiders about Maya lifestyles, we were able to eat lunch in the home of a Maya family and taste an incredible, fresh chicken cooked with a sauce made from pumpkin seeds from a recipe invented centuries ago.

Zeus’ protectivist perspective is, I believe, indicative of a trend in the way some guides are beginning to bring people to the area. His careful indoctrination of us before agreeing to accompany us into the villages and sites meant that he has an investment, a moral obligation to these communities. His view is long-term.

The question is, how will Mexico balance tourism -even allegedly “friendly” ecotourism – with an preservation of an ancient, rich culture that has just begun to be “re-exposed” to some of the greed and mishandling (the same reasons the Maya may have rebelled against the ancient royalty and abandoned the cities) that comes with development?

Changes are slow, but coming. The Mexican people must now learn to balance day to day survival practices with a new long-term view to the preservation of wealth. Just as they are now thinking in new ways about their future, our conceptions of them are transforming with each new encounter. Each time we take groups of university students to the Calakmul region, what we hope to accomplish is exactly that: to foster a change in fundamental understanding of not only the history, religion and archaeology of the ancient Maya but also of some of the problems facing Mexico and the modern Maya people.


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