Jun­gle

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - OUT­DOORS -

Calak­mul is a mas­sive site, cov­er­ing about 70 square kilo­me­tres of jun­gle. From about 600 B.C. to 900 A.D., Mayans carved out aque­ducts, reser­voirs, dwellings and a cen­tral city that once served as a home to 50,000 peo­ple and ri­valled Gu­atemala’s Tikal as a re­gional power. Arche­ol­o­gists have only un­cov­ered a hand­ful of Calak­mul’s 6,750 struc­tures, as the site was only re­dis­cov­ered in the late 1920s and ex­ca­va­tions be­gan in earnest a mere two decades ago. Guide­books credit the re­dis­cov­ery to the Amer­i­can botanist Cyrus Lun­dell, but res­i­dents of the town of Corn­huas, near the en­trance to the road to Calak­mul, say the hon­our be­longs to Mex­i­can chi­cleros who ven­tured into the rain­for­est in search of sapodilla trees to tap for chi­cle, the resin used for chew­ing gum. To­day, this area re­mains much wilder then it was mil­len­nia ago. Calak­mul’s pop­u­la­tion peaked be­tween 250 and 700 A.D., dur­ing what’s known as the Clas­sic pe­riod of Mayan civ­i­liza­tion. Like many other Mayan cities, it was slowly aban­doned over the next few cen­turies due to what’s be­lieved to be the com­bined ef­fects of cli­mate change and too many peo­ple ek­ing out an ex­is­tence in a rain­for­est ecosys­tem that could not sus­tain farm­ing, hunt­ing, ir­ri­ga­tion and ur­ban de­vel­op­ment on a scale that dwarfed what was oc­cur­ring in the cities of Europe at the time. The Mayan pop­u­la­tion of the south­ern Yu­catan dwin­dled fur­ther af­ter the Span­ish ar­rived in the New World, bring­ing dis­eases that wiped out as much as 90 per cent of in­dige­nous peo­ple, who had no im­mu­nity to Euro­pean pathogens. Con­flict be­tween the con­quis­ta­dors, their criollo de­scen­dents, mes­ti­zos and mod­ern Mayans over the next few cen­turies en­sured the in­te­rior of the jun­gle re­mained all but un­known. After Lun­dell vis­ited in 1931, he took no­tice of the two largest pyra­mids pok­ing above the for­est canopy and dubbed the site Calak­mul, us­ing the Mayan words for “two nearby mounds.” It’s un­known what Mayans called the place, though schol­ars have a good idea about which kings ruled the city dur­ing its hey­day, thanks to an un­usu­ally elab­o­rate se­ries of ste­lae, which are up­right slabs of rock in­scribed with Mayan glyphs and cal­en­dar dates. Walk­ing around the site, the ste­lae are im­pres­sive if in­com­pre­hen­si­ble with­out the ser­vices of a guide. But you don’t need as­sis­tance to ap­pre­ci­ate the scale of the city or views of the seem­ingly end­less jun­gle from the top of Calak­mul’s pyra­mids. The panorama from the sum­mit of the 45-me­tre Struc­ture II, which faces Calak­mul’s main plaza as well as low rolling hills in the dis­tance, is out­stand­ing. Struc­ture I, nearly as high, af­fords an un­ob­structed view well into Gu­atemala; On a clear day, it’s re­put­edly pos­si­ble to see the pyra­mids of El Mi­rador, more than 40 kilo­me­tres away. Arche­ol­o­gists have also ex­ca­vated tombs at Calak­mul con­tain­ing masks made out of jade, but the price­less ob­jects have been carted away to a mu­seum in the city of Cam­peche for safe­keep­ing. An elab­o­rate wall mu­ral de­pict­ing rare scenes of or­di­nary vil­lage life, un­earthed only 12 years ago, re­mains off lim­its while the site’s ad­min­is­tra­tors de­ter­mine how to both pro­tect the scene and dis­play it to the pub­lic. The an­cient city is not the only rea­son to visit Calak­mul. The rel­a­tively pris­tine state of the jun­gle sur­round­ing it, pro­tected by the Calak­mul Bio­sphere Re­serve, means the wildlife-watch­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties are ex­cel­lent, es­pe­cially if you ar­rive early in the morn­ing. Driv­ing be­fore dawn along the 60-kilo­me­tre road to Calak­mul from Mex­ico’s High­way 186, you must travel slowly to avoid crested, pheas­ant-like birds called great cu­ra­caos and colour­ful ocel­lated tur­keys, the lat­ter of which have a ques­tion­able habit of try­ing to run along­side and in front of ve­hi­cles. White-col­lared pec­ca­ries, which are rel­a­tives of pigs, and the ro­tund ro­dents known as agoutis bounded along the road. I was also lucky enough to see a pair of tayras — odd-look­ing mem­bers of the weasel fam­ily, with white heads, black bod­ies and long, bushy tails — dart across in the dis­tance. At Calak­mul, troupes of spi­der mon­keys swung across the for­est canopy while more cu­ra­caos strut­ted about be­low. I spot­ted two types of colour­ful tro­gons in the trees but failed to see any of the tou­cans who taunted me all day with their frog-like croaks. This was frus­trat­ing, be­cause these large-beaked birds, dubbed “fly­ing gar­den shears” by travel writer Ron­ald Wright, aren’t ex­actly in­con­spic­u­ous. Out­side of the Calak­mul site, it’s im­pos­si­ble not to see the fly­ing crea­tures that emerge ev­ery evening full at El Vol­cán de Mur­ciela­gos, (the Vol­cano of Bats,) a cave lo­cated 12 kilo­me­tres east of the Calak­mul en­trance-road gate. An es­ti­mated 3.5 mil­lion bats, be­long­ing to nine dif­fer­ent species, spend their days in­side this cave, which is an an­cient, dry cenote — a hol­low cav­ity in the por­ous lime­stone. At dusk, the winged mam­mals emerge from the cave in a vor­tex that whips up a warm, guanoscented wind that’s strong enough to cause trees to shake. The bats swirl about for nearly half an hour, dark­en­ing the skies be­fore they stream out into the jun­gle in search of in­sect prey. This spec­ta­cle alone makes Calak­mul a wor­thy visit for a na­ture nerd. The abun­dance of wildlife, the an­cient city and the chance to en­joy it in the pres­ence of very few other peo­ple make it a com­pul­sory stop for any­one who has the time to get away from the Caribbean-sea tourist drags and ex­plore a bit more of the Yu­catan Penin­sula.

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