How to Visit Calakmul (Campeche): The Definitive Guide


Calakmul: Everything You Need to Know

Calakmul is a hidden gem and one of the best places to visit in Mexico.

This UNESCO World Heritage Site and Biosphere Reserve is home to the second largest forest in the Americas and the biggest tropical reserve in Mexico.

You can wander through the ancient ruins of a powerful Mayan city, surrounded by lush jungle and curious monkeys.

But this amazing experience comes with a challenge: it’s a long 5-hour drive from Campeche, near the border with Guatemala. That’s why it’s off the beaten track, and that’s what makes it special!

Calakmul is one of my top picks in Mexico.

To help you plan your trip, here’s everything you need to know about Calakmul:

Visit Calakmul Early During Construction
With the major construction site of the Maya Train, Calakmul is temporarily open from 5am to 1pm, with last access at 10am.

I therefore strongly recommend that you sleep nearby the night before, because if you arrive after 10 a.m., you will be refused entry!

The history of Calakmul in a nutshell

Calakmul’s name means “two towering mounds” in the Yucatec Maya language, after its two largest pyramids: structures I and II. But the city also had other names in the past, such as Kan, meaning “serpent”, or Ux te tuun, meaning “three stones”.

Calakmul boasts the most stelae of any Mayan site, containing valuable information that has helped to reconstruct the history of Calakmul and the kind of society it was.

Along with Palenque in Chiapas and Tikal in Guatemala, it was one of the most important and influential cities of the Mayan world.

A brief summary of its history:

  • It was occupied from 550 BC and reached its peak from 250 to 900.
  • Between 636 and 695, Calakmul formed a very powerful socio-political network.
  • After being defeated by Tikal in Guatemala, Calakmul had to change its political strategy. The new rulers established relations with other cities further north, such as Río Bec.
  • Between 1000 and 1500, it was mainly a pilgrimage site.
  • Calakmul was a hub of creativity and culture from 400 BC to 1000 AD. It attracted talented artists and craftsmen who produced stunning works of art and architecture. They built magnificent buildings, murals, friezes and giant masks, as well as colorful pottery for the elite houses and tombs. They also made exquisite jade jewelry and masks, shell and wood objects, and more. Calakmul has the most funerary masks of any Mayan site, revealing the beliefs and customs of its people.

What to see in Calakmul

The archaeological zone of Calakmul has 6,500 ancient structures, but only 21 of them have been excavated and restored so far.

My advice
 You can choose from 3 options to explore Calakmul: a short path (2h), a medium path (3h), or a long path (4-5h).

There is a map at the start of the tour that shows all the accessible structures and the different routes. I took some photos of this map and they were very helpful. I suggest you do the same! Luckily, the path is well marked.

I went for the long path. After driving for 5 hours from Campeche, I thought, I might as well make the most of it. 

rutas sugeridas calakmul
suggested routes calakmul

So, I present to you What to see in Calakmul, in the order of the route I followed:

1. Chan Chi’ich

This was a residential area where large families lived together. They were not all related by blood, but by their common ancestry.

They had a drainage channel to deal with the heavy rain and avoid flooding.

chan chiich calakmul
chan chiich calakmul

2. Chii’k Naab

This was a huge complex of 68 structures with plazas and corridors. It was probably a place for festivals and celebrations.

chiik naab calakmul
chiik naab calakmul

3. Great Acropolis

It was the first big site I saw in Calakmul, and it blew me away!

It was a large residential area with two main parts: a semi-public part and a private part for the elite.

  • The semi-public area had about 10 buildings around two plazas. They were separated by structure XII. The north plaza had a ball court, and the south plaza had a staircase. The main entrance to the Acropolis was through structure XIV. It was open to the public, but very controlled.
  • The private area was where the governor and the elite of Calakmul lived. There were about 70 structures around 17 courtyards and plazas.

The Great Acropolis was not only a residential area, but also a center for administration, politics, society and ceremony. Some of the structures had tombs of important people with offerings, such as structure XV, where three tombs were found.

gran acrópolis calakmul
great acropolis calakmul
estructura 14 calakmul
structure 14 calakmul
estructura 15 calakmul
structure 15 calakmul

4. Gran Plaza and Structure II

The Gran Plaza is the main plaza of Calakmul. It is surrounded by several structures, such as the famous Structure II. Besides being the largest pyramid in Calakmul, it is also the heart of the city.

This pyramid is one of the tallest and most important in the Mayan world. It stands at 55 feet high, but it used to be 66 feet high in its glory days!

 It was the symbol of power and authority in Calakmul, and the burial place of some of its rulers. Archaeologists have found nine tombs inside the pyramid.

You have to climb up to admire the view, beyond the top of the trees. And if you look closely, you will see some dots emerging from the vegetation: they are other pyramids. Among them, on your left, you will see the other great pyramid of Calakmul: Structure I.

My advice
The pyramid has different levels, and the highest one is a bit hidden.

I thought I had reached the top, but I was wrong. The pyramid is bigger than it looks from the ground.

Luckily, I followed someone who knew the way to the top. You have to take the stairs on the right as you go up!

gran pirámide calakmul
Great Pyramid Calakmul
pirámide 2 calakmul
From the top of Structure II, Calakmul
estructura I calakmul
View on Structure I, Calakmul

5. Structure I

Structure I is the second tallest pyramid in Calakmul, after Structure II.

It’s 44 feet high, and you can climb it if you’re brave enough. But watch out, the stairs are uneven and steep.

From the top, you can see the amazing view of the jungle. And you can also spot Structure II peeking through the trees. It’s a breathtaking sight, and it feels like you’re in a movie!

estructura 1 calakmul
structure 1 calakmul
vista sobre la estructura II
view on structure II

6. Small Acropolis and Structure III

This is your last chance to see the ruins before you leave, so make the most of it.

The Small Acropolis may not look as impressive as the big pyramids, because they are not well restored.

But trust me, it’s still fun to climb around and explore. You’ll feel like an adventurer, like Lara Croft or Indiana Jones!

pequeña acrópolis calakmul
small acropolis calakmul

Structure III is located on the edge of the Small Acropolis.

It’s a palace where one of the oldest lineages of the city lived. Two tombs have been found here, one of them with offerings (ceramic, jade masks) and plaques with hieroglyphic writings, indicating that the deceased was an important ruler.

This was a palace where a royal family of Calakmul lived. They were one of the oldest and most powerful lineages in the city.

Archaeologists have found two tombs inside the palace, with valuable offerings (ceramics, jade masks) and inscriptions. One of the tombs belonged to a great ruler of Calakmul.

estructura III calakmul
structure III calakmul

7. Fauna of Calakmul Reserve

The Calakmul reserve has a rich wildlife: 235 species of birds, 5 of the 6 Mexican felines, numerous reptiles and monkeys.

As for the archaeological site of Calakmul, I saw several howler monkeys playing from one branch to another and a couple of ocellated turkeys walking around. You will probably encounter them along the way, so keep your eyes open.

monkey calakmul
monkey calakmul

Calakmul tourist map

Here is a map of Calakmul with all the buildings accessible to the public, provided by INAH.

mapa calakmul
calakmul map

Calakmul: My Opinion

Calakmul is a hidden treasure in the jungle, waiting for you to discover it.

You can roam freely around the ancient Mayan site, climbing up and down the pyramids and other structures. This is a rare opportunity, as most other archaeological sites in Mexico don’t allow it anymore.

Calakmul is not very famous, but very important. It was once a powerful city, rivaling Tikal in Guatemala. Now, it’s a peaceful place, with few visitors and lots of wildlife. You might see only 100 people on a busy day, or none at all!

You need to be fit and adventurous to explore Calakmul. There are many steps to climb, and some are steep and slippery. But don’t worry, you’ll find people of all ages and backgrounds enjoying the site.

The big question is: is it worth the long drive to get there? YES, absolutely.

Trust me, it’s a unique and unforgettable experience that you don’t want to miss on your trip to Mexico!

How to get to Calakmul

On your own

It takes a while to get to Calakmul (4h from Campeche, 2h15 from Bacalar, 40 min from Xpujil), so plan ahead.

After that, you’ll need another hour to get to the site entrance, driving at 17 mph

Going by car

  • From Campeche: take Highway 261 south to Escárcega, then Highway 186 to Chetumal. At km 95 (Conhuas), take the junction south for 37 miles. Important: when passing through Escárcega, take the opportunity to fill up your tank because there is no gas station until Xpujil.
  • From Bacalar: 2h15 via Mexico 186 and Villahermosa – Chetumal/Mexico 186
  • There is free parking

With public transportation

To get to Calakmul by public transportation, you have to take two things into account: you will have to arrive first to Xpuijl, spend the night in Xpujil and the next day, take the transfer from Xpujil to Calakmul (round trip 7am – return 3pm)

  • From Bacalar: there is an AU bus departing at 23h55 (from the ADO terminal) and arrives 2h45 am to Xpujil. It is direct, but the schedule is not practical. Another option is to take a bus or colectivo from Bacalar to Chetumal (40min) and then the ADO bus from Chetumal to Xpujil (takes 1h45, departures 18h30, 21h, 22h, or with AU at 00h55)

Take a tour to Calakmul from Campeche

You can take this tour from Campeche, which includes pick up at your hotel, guided visit to Calakmul and the archaeological site of Balamkú.

Book it here:

Rent a car in Mexico

Renting a car is for sure the best way to explore Calakmul and make the most of your stay!

To rent a car, personally, I always use Cars, for a few reasons:

  • You can easily compare the rental cars prices between all the agencies: for sure the easiest way to find the best rate!
  • Cancellation is often offered free of charge: no need to worry if you change your mind
  • Booking Cars offers full insurance coverage at a lower price than the rental companies, so it’s an instant saving with no effort

Simply click on the green button to find your rental car at the best price:

Where to stay near Calakmul?

It really depends on your itinerary.

If you want to visit Calakmul in one day from Campeche, you’ll need a good place to stay in the city. My recommendations for hotels in Campeche are:

  • Melisa Hostal: very well located hostel in a beautiful typical house in the center of Campeche, friendly staff, with a small pool, access to a kitchen, and very clean and comfortable mattresses. Bed in shared room, from only 20 $usd per night
  • Casa Serena Beautiful Colonial Loft: a spacious apartment in the center of Campeche that offers excellent value for money. With air conditioning, a living room, kitchen, terrace, good wifi with breakfast included. Sleeps 2 to 4 people, starting at 125 $usd per night
  • Boutique Hotel Casa Don Gustavo: an elegant 18th century manor house completely restored on a pedestrian street in downtown Campeche. A beautiful blend of modernity and colonial decor, with comfortable air-conditioned rooms. Wifi, outdoor pool, jacuzzi and a very tasty à la carte breakfast await guests. Starting at 65 $usd!

Xpujil is a good option to stay if you are visiting Calakmul from or on your way to Bacalar. It is a small town with some hotels and restaurants, and it is close to the entrance of the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve. Here are some of the hotels in Xpujil that I recommend:

  • Coa de Collar: great budget option in Xpujil with simple, but clean and well-located rooms, close to restaurants and supermarkets. Miguel, the owner, is a tour guide, which is very helpful. From 40 $usd a night
  • Ecohabitat: a small country house surrounded by vegetation. It is comfortable, very clean, with a very nice welcome. In the morning they bring you breakfast on the veranda, or if you prefer they prepare it to take away. Delicious breakfast included, from 70 $usd per night
  • Casa Kaan: comfortable cabins with air conditioning, terrace and kitchen, in the middle of nature. It is an ecological lodging that works with solar energy, has several fruit trees and the residues are used as fertilizer for the vegetable garden. Breakfast included, from 98 $usd

What to bring to Calakmul

Calakmul can be hot and humid, so dress comfortably and wear sturdy shoes.

You’ll be climbing up and down the ancient structures, and you’ll want to avoid the sunburn and the mosquito bites. Bring some repellent and sunscreen.

Don’t forget to pack some binoculars if you have them. You’ll be amazed by the wildlife and the ruins that are hidden in the jungle.

Remember: Calakmul is isolated, so bring enough snacks and water. There are no shops or restaurants nearby.

Visiting Calakmul: other practical information

Here you have all the information you need to visit Calakmul:

  • Entrance fee 255 pesos for foreigners, 90 pesos for nationals
  • Optional guide 500 pesos (maximum 4 people)
  • Open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily

How to find the best flight deals

To find a cheap flight ticket to Cancun, Campeche or Chetumal, I recommend you to use our flight comparator, in partnership with Skyscanner: it’s the guarantee to pay the best price!

Book your trip now and save money!

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visit Calakmul
visit Calakmul

I have created this blog to give you all my best tips to plan your next trip to Mexico, regardless of your budget. I share detailed itineraries, advice about places to visit as well as recommendations for transportation, hotels and restaurants. I hope I will also help you to discover amazing off the beaten path destinations in Mexico!

Discussion2 Comments

  1. Jennie Bassett

    We are traveling to Calakmul the very end of January/beginning February, do you know it they will still limit entry 5am to 1pm, with last access at 10am.

    • Vanessa

      Hi Jennie! It’s a bit hard to give a definite answer since it really depends on the progress of the Maya Train construction. But, given there are still two months to go and the train is already running up to Campeche station, there’s a good chance it might be finished by then. If that’s the case, Calakmul should be back to its normal opening hours soon.

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