Calakmul

Calakmul is a huge Maya site located deep inside the tropical forest of the Tierras Bajas of southern Mexico. The City of the Two Adjacent Pyramids, Calakmul was one of the most important Mayan cities of the lowlands together with archrival Tikal. The Mayan ruins contains almost 7,000 ancient structures including one of the tallest Maya pyramid ever built. The residential remains of the city cover some eight square miles (20 square kilometers), and its extensive system of canals and reservoirs once served a population of over 50,000 Mayans.

Calakmul was first sighted from an airplane in 1931 by Cyrus L Lundell during a botanical expedition. It was he who gave it its present name, made up of the Mayan words ca (two), lak (near), and mul (mount/pyramid). The original Mayan name is Ox Te’ Tuun, (“Place of Three Stones”) which may refer to the triadic pyramid Structure 2.

Calakmul largest pyramid, referred to as Structure 2. Photo credit: Pete Fordham

Calakmul largest pyramid, referred to as Structure 2. Photo credit: Pete Fordham

History of Calakmul

Not only is Calakmul enormous, it is also very old. A monument some 40 feet (12 meter) high was already built here between 400 and 200 BC, with other major buildings erected by 350 AD. This helps to account for some of the huge structures at Calakmul. Maya practice was to build new temples on top of existing ones and Calakmul had plenty of time to pile on the layers.

The first dated inscription from Calakmul is from 431 AD found on a stela commemorating a Calakmul king. A hieroglyphic text, dating to 529, indicates that the city was within the control of the Kaan dynasty. Calakmul eventually emerged as a powerful force in the Peten, controlling neighboring towns who in turn controlled over smaller villages. These villages governed even smaller political units all of which were ultimately under the power of Calakmul. This vast region was known as Kaan or the Kingdom of the Serpent’s Head. One hypothesis is that El Mirador in northern Guatemala once was the capital of the Kaan kingdom. After the collapse of El Mirador and other major sites in its vicinity, around AD 150 refugees moved towards Calakmul and continued the kingdom there.

At around 550 AD Calakmul allied itself with other powerful Mayan cities in the Peten. Calakmul formed alliances with Naranjo in the east, Yaxchilan in the west, and Caracaol, a former ally of Tikal in the south. This alliance allowed Calakmul’s leader Sky Witness to encircle the great city of Tikal and ultimately defeat the city in 562 AD. Tikal’s ruler Wak Chan K’awiil was captured and sacrificed. Over the next one hundred and thirty years, Calakmul enjoyed the height of its influence and most of the great structures at Calakmul were built during this time. Its highest achievements occurred during the reign of king Yuknoom Che’en II who was 36 years old when he came to the throne in 636 AD. The king commissioned 18 stelae and was probably also responsible for the construction of the palace complexes that form a major part of the city core.

Tikal returned with a vengeance in 695 AD when Jaguar-Paw, the ruler of Calakmul, was defeated by Ah-Cacaw of Tikal. This event marked the end of Calakmul’s zenith, with diplomatic activity declining and fewer cities recognizing Calakmul’s king as overlord.

Later kings continued to erect monuments for the next century. Recorded history at Calakmul ends abruptly in 909 AD. By this time the far-reaching power of Calakmul was only a distant memory.

Map of Calakmul Mexico

The map shows the location of Calakmul. The buttons on the left can be used to zoom in or out. Click and drag the map to move around.

Calakmul Highlights

The city core is built around the Central Plaza flanked by major palace complexes. On the east side of the plaza is a giant pyramid, referred to as Structure 2. With a base of 460 by 390 feet (120×140 meters) square and a height of 148 feet (45 meters) it is one of the largest in the Maya world. The core of the structure is a triadic pyramid dating to the Late Preclassic period, that still forms the highest point of the pyramid. In the Early Classic a massive extension was added to the front of the pyramid. Calakmul also contains 117 stelae, most of them in paired sets representing rulers and their wives.

Visit Calakmul

Calakmul is located 37 miles (60km) south of the highway at the end of a decent paved road. There is a road maintenance fee of M$40 per car and M$20 per person.

The entrance fee is M$37.