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Lineated woodpecker

The Reserva de la Biósfera de Calakmul is in the state of Campeche in the Yucatán Peninsula. With more than 720,000 hectares under protection, it is Mexico's largest intact tropical forest. The Biosphere Reserve completely encompasses the large Calakmul archaeological site--a major city-state of the Maya civilization.

Indigenous peoples who live in and around the reserve are involved in agriculture, raising cattle, forestry, and the harvest of chicle, the naturally produced substance used to make chewing gum (the Chiclet brand takes its name from its base ingredient). Principal crops include corn, beans, squash, and chile peppers. Farmers also raise bees for honey, and the honey from this region is especially prized.

The biosphere reserve and the archaeological site together constitute a UNESCO World Heritage Site.



The Tropical Jungle

Calakmul bio reserve

Calakmul is the second-largest tropical forest in the Americas (after the Amazon).

Most of the biodiversity of Earth is in the tropics, and the purpose of the biosphere reserve is to conserve an entire ecosystem of jungle and tropical forest. Calakmul has a huge variety of native species: around 250 species of trees, 500 species of butterflies, more than 30 species of amphibians, more than 100 species of reptiles, more than 280 species of birds, and more than 100 species of mammals. Approximately half of these species are endangered or threatened to a degree that they require environmental protection.

The reserve is threatened by loss of habitat, loss of biodiversity, and population growth in the region around the reserve. Other problems include illegal trafficking in tropical woods and forest resources, fires associated with agricultural activities, and introduction of invasive species. One of the biological consequences of Route 186 has been a tendency to interrupt genetic flow within the reserve, isolating populations north and south of the highway.

Ocellated Turkey (Meleagris ocellata) on the road - Calakmul Biosphere Reserve

A millenium has passed since Calakmul was at its peak, but naturalists still see signs of past human impact on the forest's native vegetation. The forest bears signs of long-term application of traditional Maya practices of species selection and regeneration, similar to those in use by Maya communities of the modern era.

When you visit Calakmul, even if you just stay within the archaeological site, you'll hear the constant jungle chatter of birds, monkeys, and other forest creatures. You'll almost certainly see two or three kinds of monkeys, since they're generally curious about humans and like to check you out from their treetop perches. Most of them are howler monkeys, but there are lots of spider monkeys as well. If you're lucky, you'll spot the brilliantly colored long tail of a quetzal in the treetops, but you're more likely to spot a few toucan. You might hear the roar of a big jungle cat in the distance, though you're unlikely to see one. Jaguars, pumas, ocelots and some species of wildcats like in Calakmul.

The Archaeological Site

Structure II at Calakmul

The ancient Maya city-state of Calakmul thrived for more than 12 centuries since its establishment around 500 BC. Sometime around 1000 AD, the city suffered a dramatic downfall resulting in the complete depopulation of the city and its surroundings.

Calakmul is a significant example of the way Maya civilization colonized territory and expanded their realms. Calakmul grew from a small output to a large, complex city-state that interacted commercially and politically with other population centers in the region. Calakmul was a seat of power where the Kaan, one of the most powerful Maya dynasties, had its base during the late Classic period.

Calakmul archaeological site map

Calakmul is a good-size site with several major structures to explore, but much of what the original city would have encompassed has yet to be explored, cleared, and opened to the public. Outside the bounds of the archaeological site (but still within the much larger biosphere reserve) lie dozens more unexplored structures and settlements, including huge architectural complexes and sculpted monuments. Archaeologists have yet to mount extensive mapping expeditions in Calakmul and knowledge about the site and its role in Maya history is likely to evolve in coming decades. Expeditions have taken place in recent decades, but the site is large and there is much yet to be explored.

Similar to other Maya sites in the Yucatan, the archaeological site (and sites elsewhere in the reserve) show large engineering works needed to support a sophisticated urban population. Water management facilities have been found along with defensive systems and a highway network (sacbeob) similar to those at Coba and other sites. UNESCO's citation notes that these are all "constituent parts of the extremely rich and exceptionally well preserved ancient cultural landscape."

Archaeological excavations at Calaxmul found tombs of kings and royal family members together with a treasure trove of personal items belonging to the Maya nobility: everything from body armor and gold jewelry to jade masks. Inscriptions carved in structures and stelae tell stories of noble bloodlines and add details to the body of factual knowledge known about the Maya region and its long history.

Some of the site's monuments reflect an architectural style known as Peten style, but most of the site exemplifies the Rio Bec style common in this part of the Yucatan peninsula (though examples of it can be found at sites quite far from Campeche). The Rio Bec style evolved during the Late Classic period (600-900 AD) and is characterized by towers and stone mosaic facades, such as doorways carved to resemble the gaping jaws of a jaguar or anaconda.

Fresco at Calakmul

Calakmul's remote and inhospitable location helped keep it from being plundered in the centuries following the Spanish conquest. Elaborate sculptures have been found together with frescoes and murals reminiscent of the great artwork found at Bonampak or some of the Aztec sites around Mexico City. At least 117 stelae (carved stone tablets) have been found at the site.



Calakmul was a very old city that was established well before what archaeologists call the "Pre-Classic period". I guess that makes Calakmul pre-pre-classic. 1000 years ago, the Maya were fighting wars between the various city-states. Calakmul was one of the heavy hitters, and went up against other huge Maya powerhouses, like Tikal and El Mirador. They also founded several smaller vassal states, installing kings that would pay tribute to Calakmul.

The fighting and power building went on for centuries, until something happened after 1000 A.D. to cause either the abandonment or annihilation of the city. The site remained lost until 1931 when an American botanist studying the biology of the area found a temple with many stelae. He told an archaeologist at the Carnegie Institution named Sylvanus Morley. Morley visited the site for the first time in 1932 and made subsequent trips until 1938. Over those 6 years, he documented 103 stelae. The site was ignored until 1982 when a project by the Universidad Autónoma de Campeche began to examine the site. Since 1994, the archaeological site and its scientific explorations have been managed by the Mexican governments INAH (Instito Nacional de Arquelogia y Historia).

The Biosphere Reserve was created by presidential decree in 1989 by President Carlos Salinas.



If you climb to the top of the pyramid at Structure II, the jungle appears like a flat, green canvas as far as the eye can see, but when you're down at ground level walking around the site, you'll find quite a few hills. The soil is known as karst soil, which means it has a lot of limestone sand in it. Dense foliage is everywhere with vines covering many of the hidden archaeological structures.

Flora and fauna


The biosphere reserve includes hundreds of plant and animal species, including several endemic to the area and several endangered or threatened species.

Species in danger of extinction include the Yucatan black howler monkey, the spider monkey, ocelot, tigrillo, jaguar, tapir, pato real, zopilote rey, and two species of eagle. Threatened species include a half dozen mammals, such as jaguarundi and anteaters, two dozen birds such as the Toucan, the green Parrot, the Yucatan Parrot, and various species of raptor; various reptiles, like salamanders, boa constrictors, and various other species of snakes; and various plant species.



The reserve has a humid, moist climate with rains in summer. Temperatures average 24–28°C (75–83°F). Annual precipitation is 1000–1500 mm (40–60 inches).

Get in


Nearby towns include Zoh Laguna and Xpujil. The southern Yucatan is traversed by a well-maintained, paved highway, Mexico's Federal Route 186, but most roads in the reserve are seasonal tracks, passable only in the dry season and with a proper vehicle.

Calakmul is remote with little supporting tourist infrastructure. The best way to visit Calakmul is to rent a car and drive there. Highways in the area are good with light traffic. If you have a car, Calakmul is a very easy place to visit. If you don't, it's moderately difficult as you need to travel to Xpujil and then arrange something there.

From Xpujil, the easiest way to get to Calakmul is to hire a taxi for the day. Drivers will charge about M$1500 (US$75), but it's a long drive to the park entrance, a longer drive from the entrance to the archaeological site, and then the driver will need to wait at least 3 hours while you explore the site before making the long drive back to Xpujil. It might seem like a lot of money for a taxi, but the driver is earning it.

If you don't have a car, it is possible to get to the main entrance of the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve by bus, but from there it is a 60 km drive on park roads to get to the archaeological site. (You can usually get transportation by hitchhiking from the park entrance into the reserve). Catch the bus in Xpujil (first one leaving at 05:30 am) and tell the driver you want to get out at the Calakmul National Park.

Fees and permits


Separate entry fees are charged for the biosphere reserve and for the archaeological site. You pay at the main entrance to the biosphere. You can also hire a local tour guide here.

Price is M$180 for the natural park and M$90 for the archeological site (Nov. 2023)

Get around


There is one road into the biosphere reserve from the main entrance. It is 60km from the entrance to the archaeological site, all of it through undeveloped jungle on a secondary road. Buses go past the main park entrance, but there are no buses inside the park. You may be able to catch a taxi at the park entrance or at the small parking lot in the archaeological site. Otherwise, anywhere you go, you walk.



One of the most impressive Maya sites in Yucatan, Calakmul includes the second highest pyramid after El Mirador (Guatemala). Very nice ruins in the jungle. Monkeys, deers, and other animals can be seen. An under-rated site to be discovered.

Bring tons of repellent: mosquitoes are very aggressive there.


  • Ka´an Expeditions, Ejido Valentín Gómez Farías (5km west of Xpujil), +52 5554515793, +52 9831196512. 24/7. Day tours and camping tours to the Calakmul archaeological site and biosphere reserve. Certified bilingual nature guide. Small and personalized groups only.



This isn't a commercialized site. Anything you want to buy you'll have to get outside the park.



This isn't a commercialized site. Anything you want to buy you'll have to get outside the park. Bring food with you.



This isn't a commercialized site. Anything you want to buy you'll have to get outside the park. Bring water with you.



Lodging is not available within the biosphere reserve. You can get a room for the night in Xpujil or Chicanna. There are also some local campgrounds where you can sleep in a tent.

Stay safe


This region is sparsely populated and is extremely safe. Crime is unlikely to be a concern. Driving is low-risk (but watch out for topes (speed bumps) and myriad potholes on the back road from the park entrance to the archaeological site.

Bring mosquito repellant and use it liberally. Mosquitos in this region can carry malaria and other tropical diseases, such as dengue.

Go next


There are several busses passing by the entrance of the park going toward Chetumal

or Escarcega ( one is passing around 3pm - waive at the bus) and then connections can be made to Campeche Villahermosa and Palenque

This park travel guide to Reserva de la Biósfera Calakmul is a usable article. It has information about the park, for getting in, about a few attractions, and about accommodations in the park. An adventurous person could use this article, but please feel free to improve it by editing the page.