FROM PALANQUE WE STARTED NORTH. Up until now we’d been traveling south and west, away from our starting point in Cancun. Now that we’d made a U-turn it started to feel like our trip was winding down. I didn’t like that idea, and maybe that’s part of the reason I didn’t like Campeche. It was an old colonial town on the Gulf Coast. In fact it was the first permanent Spanish settlement in the Yucatan. The Spanish had made Campeche their beachhead for the conquest of the Maya homeland, and while things didn’t go quite as smoothly as their earlier expedition in Mexico due to strong resistance from the Maya and the fact that many of the conquistadores were lured away from this part of the New World by stories of greater plunder to be had in Peru, the end result was the same. We stayed at the Monkey Hostel, which looked across a small square at the main cathedral. After visiting so many Maya sites, I felt as if I were now in enemy territory.
There wasn’t much to do in town, so my girlfriend and I asked about nearby Maya ruins. We were told that Edzna was the one to see, and it could be thrown in with a full-day tour that would include historical sites and caves as well. But we weren’t interested in any of these pricey itineraries. We just wanted to see Edzna. The travel agents told us that it was a complicated affair to reach the site, that we could get stranded, lost, etc. etc. In fact it turned out to be a piece of cake.
We asked a taxi driver to take us to the bus station, which was a chaotic jumble of buses, minivans, and taxis all sharing the street with an open-air market. We stood around in a daze for a few minutes until a smartly dressed old man tapped me on the shoulder.
“Edzna?” he asked.
He pointed out a row of red minivans on the other side of a playground, then tipped his hat and disappeared into traffic.
We got on board a minivan that was almost full (knowing that they never leave until they have every seat filled). The driver took us all the way to the site for a few pesos and told us when we could expect him to return to take us back to town.
The site turned out to be comparable in size to Xunantunich, and just as much of a surprise. It was beautifully restored with an open parade ground in front of a long stepped platform known as the Nohoch-Na (the Big House). One could easily picture the steps crowded with spectators as ceremonials were conducted in the yards. Across from this platform were steps leading up to the central acropolis with finely-chiseled temples and cylindrical stone columns. The main temple, known simply as the Edificio de los Cinco Pisos (the five-story building) rose one hundred feet above the plaza. It retained a part of its roof comb, a peculiar fence-like adornment atop certain Maya temples that may have supported large stucco engravings of kings or deities. In front of the main temple was a temascal, a low rectangle of stone that may have functioned as a bathing area for the priests. This Classic Maya city was abandoned only a few decades before the arrival of the Spanish. As at Xunantunich, we had the place entirely to ourselves. As we walked around the ruins in the company of iguanas, I mentioned to my girlfriend that Edzna had been affiliated with Calakmul. Before I could launch into an unsolicited lecture about the Tikal-Calakmul rivalry (again), she look at me and smiled.
“You really want to see Calakmul, don’t you?”
“Well, sure. But it would mean backtracking. It’s almost at the Guatemalan border, and we’re already halfway to Merida.”
But she knew that I needed to see this remote site, even if it meant straining the budget, or else I’d feel that La Ruta Maya was incomplete. We’d been following the course of history, and if we continued on to the sites of the northern Yucatan we’d be leaving the Classic period behind. It was our last chance to see Tikal’s great rival, and I was fortunate to have an indulgent girlfriend. We agreed to rent a car for two days, which would give us just enough time to visit Calakmul and perhaps a couple of other nearby sites as well.
Back in Campeche we located a rental agency and asked for their cheapest car. We picked it up at 8:30 in the morning the day of our road trip. It was a tiny white Chevy. We asked what model it was and the lady said, “Chevy”.
“What kind of Chevy?” we asked.
So we gassed up the Chevy Chevy and hit the highway. It was a nice day for a drive, with plenty of sunshine and the Gulf Coast splashing ashore to our right. There was very little traffic and we were only slowed by the abundant topés, speed bumps, that were only occasionally preceded by a warning sign. By early afternoon we were pulling off the main road to visit our first archaeological site in the region: Balamkú. It was a minor site reached by a short, paved road that was bursting with verdant potholes. The ruins were still in ruin except for the Jaguar Temple, which had a jaguar motif at its base (somewhat recognizable, if you squinted and used your imagination). A man on a bicycle rode up behind us, parked, then wordlessly led us up some scaffolding on the side of the temple and unlocked a steel door leading to the interior. We followed his outstretched arm and went inside. It was fairly dark so I pulled out my headlamp and switched it on. When I played the light over the wall I was surprised to see a panel of fantastic creatures staring back at me: serpents and Maya earth monsters populated the entire length of the chamber. Our nominal guide spoke no English, and chose to remain outside anyway. When we were done we thanked him and watched as he flicked the ash from his cigarette and closed the door. He reminded me of one of those small town America entrepreneurs who sell tickets to oddities like three-headed cows and chunks of meteorite.
Our next stop was just a few miles down the road at a site called Xpuhil. It was also a minor site, but it gave us our first glimpse of the architectural style known as Rio Bec. After a short walk in the woods we came upon a trio of partially restored pyramid temples rising steeply from a raised platform. Their facades were in crumbles, but an interpretive sign showed that the original structures had steps leading to their summits. These steps were too small and steep to be functional, and there were no chambers atop the temples themselves. Beautiful to look at, but seemingly useless. This was the Rio Bec style.
Our last stop prior to spending the night in the town of Calakmul, was Bécan. As the capital of the Rio Bec region Bécan was a major site, and we spent the rest of the day until sunset exploring its ruins. The main plaza was crowded with tall pyramids which afforded wide views of the surrounding country. The site was fortified and had a moat around the main part of the city. It was thought that Bécan, despite its proximity to Calakmul, maintained its autonomy from that powerful polity, at least for a time.
We drove the rest of the way to town and got a room at a serviceable little lockup. Right across the street was an open-air restaurant where I was enjoying a wonderful chicken mole until a delivery truck backed up to our table and filled the air with choking exhaust. The pleasures of Mexico always seem to come at a heavy price.
I threw open the curtains to reveal a beautiful blue sky. We tossed our bags in the Chevy Chevy and hit the road for the final hundred kilometer stretch to Calakmul. Most of the drive was on a side road that was well paved but narrow. The forest pressed in on all sides while trees hovered over us like censorious nuns. Whenever a car came from the opposite direction we’d be forced to the edge of the road where branches would slap our windshields to punish us for our impertinence. We arrived at 9:00 a.m. It was a long walk to the main plaza, which had not been cleared of trees so it afforded no great AHA! moment when we burst on the scene. The plaza was a bit smaller than the one at Tikal, and held many stelae. The limestone used here at Calakmul was of an inferior quality and did not weather well, so that many of the engravings on these stelae had eroded away and were illegible to Mayanists studying the site. There was hope, however, in a new scanning technology that allowed scientists to see patterns that were all but invisible to the unaided human eye.
This rather lackluster introduction to Calakmul was swept away once we stumbled upon Structure II, an enormous temple whose base was as wide as the plaza itself. Because of the trees we hadn’t seen it until we were upon it. It was fronted by five large stelae and rose almost one hundred and fifty feet, dwarfing the plaza temples. Halfway up this structure was another large stela, upon which it was still possible to see the outlines of a female personage, most likely a queen. From the top of this pyramid one looked out upon unbroken jungle, but in its day this vantage point must have overlooked a vast expanse of limestone-plastered courtyards, religious and residential structures, and waterworks. It is believed that the rulers of Calakmul were the heirs of the Kan Dynasty which ruled at the great Pre-Classic city of El Mirador. If so, Calakmul represents a ruling house that lasted for well over a thousand years. Longer than any Egyptian or Chinese dynasty.
But Calakmul was abandoned by the end of the 9th century along with the other great cities of the Classic era, ending this long-lived line. In the Books of Chilam Balam, a series of 18th-century Maya documents that cover subjects from history to medical recipes, we find the following passage:
There were no more lucky days for us, we had no sound judgment. At the end of our loss of vision, and of our shame, everything shall be revealed.
With the end of the Classic period came the end of the institution of divine rulership. No longer would kings rule as gods. Perhaps the constant warfare, droughts, and ever-increasing privileges of the elite had finally come to a head and revealed to the masses the decidedly fallible nature of their leaders. The populace voted with their feet and bequeathed the magnificent temples they had helped build to the squatters.
This seemed like a good way to end our tour of the central lowlands and the cities of the Classic period. We left Calakmul in the late afternoon and arrived back in Campeche well after dark, dropping off the Chevy Chevy and darting through the rain to our hostel. Over a bottle of Chilean Sauvignon Blanc we discussed our next stop: Merida and the Postclassic world.