Calakmul: Epic Off Path Ruins in Mexico

Calakmul: Epic Off Path Ruins in Mexico

Sometimes we escape to untouched beaches. Other times we search for the best waterfalls around. But one of our favorite things to do – especially in Mexico – is escape the tourist crowds, go deep into the jungle, and find incredible ruin sites. 

And we found another one that we can’t wait to tell you about: Calakmul.

The archeological ruins at Calakmul in Campeche, Mexico are a true off path adventure that will stay in the front of your memory forever. Calakmul is a massive archeological site located deep inside of dense jungle.

It takes at least three hours to explore the many pyramids and temples here. You can climb most structures, including two which have incredible 360-degree views high above the canopy.

If you want a memorable experience visiting a historical site, set your target to Calakmul, Mexico and don’t look back.

In this guide to the Calakmul ruins, we cover everything you need to know to visit including how to get there, where to stay nearby, and what to see.

Michael and Kristina on top of Structure 1, our favorite part of Calakmul

A view of Structure 13

About the Calakmul Ruins

After going to nearly 20 different archeological ruin sites in southern Mexico, we can tell you with absolute certainty that Calakmul is one of the best experiences we have ever had. The only one that comes close is Yaxchilán, an epic site located deep in the jungle of Chiapas.

What makes Calakmul so interesting? Why is it better than the ever so famous Chichén Itzá? Easy. First, you can still climb nearly everything at Calakmul and get views that you’ll remember forever.

Second, it’s far away from most tourist crowds and you are going to have a chance at getting lost in the vast site without seeing many other people at all (and forget about vendors entirely). And finally, it is full of intricate carvings, stelae, and structures that will take hours to pour over.

So trust us. If you want to truly explore a magical archeological ruin site, head to Calakmul.

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Looking for a tour to Calakmul? Check out these highly-rated tours:

The small temple on top of Structure 2 at Calakmul in Mexico

Kristina half way up Structure 2

How to Get to Calakmul, Campeche

We’re not going to sugar-coat it: This ruin site takes some effort to get to and the easiest and quickest way to get there is to drive. Calakmul is on the Yucatan Peninsula, near the boundary between the Mexican states of Campeche and Quintana Roo, only about 10 miles (16 km) from the Guatemala border. The nearest town to Calakmul with hotels and restaurants is Xpujil.

The closest airport is in Chetumal, Quintana Roo. Rent a car in Chetumal, drive about 1.5 hours to the town of Xpujil, and stay the night there to get an early start the next morning. It’s another 2-hour drive from Xpujil to the Calakmul ruins.

Cancun is the nearest major international airport to Calakmul. You can rent a car in Cancun, but it’s about an 8-hour drive from there to Calakmul. You might want to consider breaking up the drive by staying a night or two at the enchanting Laguna Bacalar along the way. It’s about a 5-hour drive to Calakmul from Campeche City on the Gulf of Mexico.

Check out our post on renting a car in Mexico for what to know before booking and driving tips. We recommend booking rental cars with DiscoverCars. With DiscoverCars, you get no hidden fees, 24/7 customer support, and free cancellations. They also have a 24-hour price guarantee and offer full coverage protection (including coverage for windows, mirrors, and tires) for less than $8 USD a day.

Getting to Calakmul on public transportation is a bit tricky, which is why we recommend driving instead. If you’re on a budget, there is an ADO bus from Chetumal to Xpujil that only runs on Mondays and a second-class night bus from Bacalar. Once in Xpukil, you can find a tour to take you the final 1.5 hours to the Calakmul ruins.

Regardless of where you come from, it is best to stay the night before and after your visit to the Calakmul ruins in nearby Xpujil. You want to spend at least three to four hours at the ruin site itself, arriving as early as you can to see the most wildlife. And it’s best to have additional time for other nearby attractions, especially the unforgettable Volcan de los Murcielagos (Volcano of the Bats). More on that near the end of this post, but that’s no misnomer. Millions of bats shoot out of the ground like a volcano!

Calakmul Tours

If you prefer a guided tour of the Calakmul ruins, check out these highly-rated tours by Viator and GetYourGuide:

No matter where you come from or how you get to Calakmul, it’s going to take some time, effort, and money. But it will be worth it!

The bats going out to hunt for the night at Volcan de los Murcielagos in Campeche Mexico

Kristina and Michael at the base of Structure 2 after a long day of exploring

Kristina and Michael from Off Path Travels on top of Structure 1 in Calakmul Campeche

The base of Structure 1, showing the long staircase to the top

Where to Stay Near Calakmul

Xpujil, Campeche is the closest town to Calakmul with some tourist infrastructure like hotels and restaurants. It’s about a 1.5-hour drive from Xpujil to the ancient ruins.

Xpujil Hotels

There are several hotel options in Xpujil.

You can also stay at Puerta Calakmul, Chicanna Ecovillage Resort (11 miles away from Xpujil), or one of the other reasonable accommodations in Xpujil.

Our Journey to Calakmul

Our tour of southern Mexico in 2018 and 2019 took us all around the Yucatan Peninsula, going clockwise from Campeche to Chetumal. We started seeing signs for tours to Calakmul in Campeche, then Merida, and even Valladolid. But since we knew we were going all the way to Chetumal, we waited until there since it’s the closest.

That wasn’t easy. Our anticipation for visiting Chetumal kept building and we almost broke down a couple of times to take a tour group there. But we waited and have the perfect trip.

We made plans to do this adventure with part of our family. Kristina’s mom joined us, as well as one of her uncles and his lovely wife. They’re all extremely experienced with Mexican travels and everyone couldn’t wait to see this incredible site.

We arrived in Chetumal a few days before them to get some work done after being away from good internet for a little bit. Bacalar Lagoon and Mahahaul are two incredible locations, but not great for working online.

Like many travel experiences, the carefully crafted plans fell apart before everyone arrived. Kristina’s family originally planned to fly into Chetumal, but a small delay on their first flight caused them to miss their connection. Due to the limited flights to Chetumal, they had no choice but to fly to Cancun instead.

They landed around 11 pm, took a taxi to the ADO station, then boarded an ADO bus for the long ride down to Chetumal, finally arriving around 5 am. Seriously loooong day for them!

After they slept for a couple of hours, we met up with them in Chetumal. After a nice breakfast and stopping to buy tickets for the next leg of our adventure (Caye Caulker, Belize), we started the journey to Calakmul by taking a taxi to the airport, renting a car, and driving to Xpujil.

The main stelae at the base of Structure 2

Driving from Chetumal to Xpujil

The drive from Chetumal to Xpujil is easy. The roads are in pretty good condition and the landscape builds with dense vegetation as you drive farther in. Eventually, you’ll go from the state of Quintana Roo into the state of Campeche. A lot of this area is located within a protected area: the Biosphere Reserve for Calakmul. A very large reserve full of life, including jaguars, howler monkeys, a wide variety of birds, and MUCH more.

After about 2 hours of cruising on nice highways, we arrived in Xpujil – our home base for exploring the Calakmul ruins in Campeche.

The next morning, we drove to the ruins at Calakmul in Campeche.

A view of the Gran Plaza from Structure 4, looking at Structure 2

Calakmul Mexico Archeological Site

Fees at Calakmul Ruins

The turnoff for Calakmul from the main highway is only 36 miles (58 km) from Xpujil. But it takes at least another 1.5 hours from the highway to actually get to the main ruin site.

Just as you exit the highway, there is an entrance gate which will collect the first round of fees.

There are three different places which collect a fee for Calakmul. As of early 2019, the total cost is $198 pesos per person ($10 USD).

The first fee is for accessing the local, community land (ejido) and costs $50 pesos per person. The second one is to enter the protected area (regulated by CONAMP) and costs $72 pesos per person. The final fee is the usual INAH entrance fee found at almost every ruin site in Mexico and costs $75 pesos per person.

The entrance fees for Calakmul ruins as of early 2019

One of the entrance gate collection points

Wildlife at Calakmul Campeche

After you pay the first entrance fee, the jungle begins to envelop the road. It’s thick with trees, vines, and a ton of greenery. For a large majority of the drive, you are inside of a tunnel with the green branches and leaves arching overhead.

Shortly after we started down the road, we heard a loud noise that sounds somewhat like a pig fighting coming from the treetops. We had heard this noise before, so we knew exactly what it was and pulled over.

Howler monkeys! All over the place! We probably saw about ten in this one area. Hanging high above us, swinging around, and causing a ruckus in the forest.

During our time in Calakmul, we also saw pheasants, wild turkeys, spider monkeys, tejones (a type of badger), owls, and a type of tailless rat I’ve never seen before.

As we continued down the road for about 45 minutes, we eventually made it to the entrance by the museum and paid the second fee for CONAMP. And we were now only 25 miles (40 km) from the ruin site!

A howler monkey in the tree on the roadside on the way to Calakmul ruins in Campeche

A phesant on the road in Calakmul

The lond, rough road going into Calakmul ruins

The Entrance Area to Calakmul Ruins

After about an hour, you’ll get to the parking lot at the entrance to Calakmul ruins. It’s a small lot and the ticket area is inside of a palapa. There is quite literally nothing else here except for bathrooms – no vendors, no vending machines, no souvenirs, nada.

Make sure you bring food and drinks! There are some picnic areas in the parking lot to enjoy a snack before and after you visit the ruins. It’s a big site and you’ll need something. You aren’t allowed to bring food inside the ruins. We saw some people with snacks, but please be respectful and make sure to find a trash bin if you do sneak anything in!

Water, of course, is allowed. And necessary.

Kristina entering the ruin site entrance at Calakmul Mexico

Different Path Selections

There are three different paths to choose from at Calakmul: short (corta), medium (media), and long (larga). Here’s a quick summary of the routes:

  • Short: Takes you to biggest structures (I & II), but skips the Gran Acròpolis (a large area far away from the rest of the site)
  • Medium: Skips Structure I and includes the Gran Acròpolis.
  • Long: Sees most everything at Calakmul. We took this route, tracked it on GPS, and found that we walked about 3.5 miles (5.6km) over the course of the 3.5 hours we were there. Don’t let this fool you though – the humidity and constant climbing makes it more intense than you’d expect.

Unless you really have difficulty walking, I highly recommend taking the long route. You’ve traveled very far to get to Calakmul. The Gran Acropolis is full of amazing stelae, small buildings, and shows many examples of what life was like when this was a major city. Structure II is perhaps the most magnificent of the entire area and cannot be missed, but we also very much enjoyed Structure I.

More details about all of these areas are yet to come.

A sign showing the three route options for visiting the Calakmul ruins on a self-guided tour

Get a Map

After you park, buy your entrance ticket, use the restroom, then head down the main path. There is only one other restroom onsite and it’s pretty close to the entrance as well.

BUT FIRST, pull out your phone and take a photo of the trail map! This area has nice walkways, but it’s a vast complex and is somewhat easy to get a little lost in. The signs aren’t really that clear, especially for the medium path. Having this map handy (on your cell phone) is perfect to make sure you see everything.

We also highly recommend using some sort of GPS app on your phone. Our favorite is Motion-X GPS since it is very affordable and does all that you need. Gaia GPS is another very popular service but requires a subscription.

Calakmul is usually not very crowded at all. So you don’t have to be overly concerned about tour groups here. This post will take you through the recommended route.

A map of the entire Calakmul ruin site in Campeche Mexico

Groupon Noreste

All three path choices (short, medium, long) start off in the same direction. Regardless of the route you choose, you’ll pass by Grupo Noreste (North Group) first. It’s a small area that was once used to greet visitors to this vast city. We skipped this and briefly walked by on our return route back to the parking lot.

After Grupo Noreste, continue straight and you’ll hit an intersection where all three paths meet to return to the parking lot. This is located just before Acrópolis (City) Chik Naab. To follow the recommended route, you’ll stay to the right.

Follow along the trail to the right after Grupo Noreste, and you’ll see a small water basin. This area may have been significant since the winters are very dry here. The ancient Maya built small underground reservoirs, called Chultunes, to funnel and store water for the winter. They are essentially large underground storage containers that I think look like large pots or vases.

Acròpolis Chik Naab

Continue along and you’ll come to the first major site at Calakmul, Acroòpolis Chik Naab, a residential area on the right side of the trail. While the sign indicated there are 68 structures here, you’ll be able to easily spot a few small rooms and a small temple. This wasn’t where the highest elites resided but is thought to be from a family with importance to the past city.

If you’re taking the Ruta Corta (Short Route), then you will skip the next part and immediately turn south toward Estructura VII (Structure 7).

But for those doing the Media (Medium) and Larga (Long) routes, you’ll get back on the trail and keep going about 20 minutes west to find the large residential area.

Some of the Chik Naab structures at Calakmul

The City Center: Gran Acrópolis

You’ve just approached Side A of the Gran Acrópolis (Grand City). This is a very large area which housed many residents of the past civilization. There are lots of small rooms and other structures joined together. In addition to a large wall, which they’ve aptly named La Muralla (The Wall). Don’t get your hopes up too high, Game of Thrones fans, this is a relatively small wall.

Some of the families housed here shared blood ties and others that did not. They have reconstructed some of their beds inside of the rooms. And you can even see the areas where they had fires used to cook meals and heat their homes. You’ll also see some well-reserved murals here, one of the best parts of this section.

This area gets you excited about what’s to come. It connects you with the everyday side of life for the past people who lived here. Eating, sleeping, and finding shelter in this very spot, over a thousand years ago.

The hair on the back of my neck stood up a few times while scouring around here. It’s just incredible to think about the history you are observing, especially when it’s done in near silence with nature taking over once again.

An archway in the Gran Acropolis area of Calakmul Mexico

Estructura XIII (Structure 13)

Continue along, through the homes and next to the wall, and then you’ll find the first truly impressive part of the site. This area is full of very large stelae, some of which hold stories engraved in their faces. They tell of the past rulers’ births, achievements, and other major historical points.

The tallest structure in the Gran Acrópolis is Structure 13. It was built on top of a large mound, has numerous stelae at the base, and you can climb the steps toward the top.

There is a sign here letting you know that this is the largest structure in the Gran Acrópolis. We saw some people who were very disappointed, thinking this meant the largest in Calakmul. This is NOT the tallest structure at Calakmul. It gets even better than this.

Various medium-sized structures are all throughout the Gran Acrópolis area. It is nice to explore here, check out all of the intricate carvings, and imagine a time when this was a busy center of life for the past inhabitants.

The base of Structure 14

The base of structure 13 with a couple stelae

A View from Above: Estructura I (Structure 1)

Once done exploring the Gran Acrópolis, you’ll turn back toward the rest of the site which you’ve already passed by. If you’re taking the long route, which we highly recommend, you’ll stay to the right and exit between Estructuras XV and XVII (15 and 17).

This will lead you down a narrow path through the forest, straight to our favorite temple of the entire site: Estructura I. Keep quiet as you walk and you have a good chance at seeing wildlife.

If you’re taking the medium route, you’ll leave the Gran Acrópolis near Estructura XIV (14). The worst thing about the medium route is that it does not take you to Estructura I. For that reason, we HIGHLY suggest taking the long route.

Estructura I is the second-tallest structure in Calakmul Mexico at 131 feet (40 m) tall. It was built in the 8th century on top of an existing structure which was originally built sometime between 150 BC and 150 AD. Talk about some serious history!

The steps here are steep and a bit small, but well worth the view from the top. Our best advice is to make your way up and down in a zig-zag pattern. As you go across, your foot will land diagonally across each step, making more contact with the ground. If you go straight up and down, you’re relying on your toe and heels only.

There is a platform about 20 feet by 6 feet (4.5 m x 2 m) on the top, with a nice seating area all the way around it. Perfect for a photo opportunity.

The view from the top of Structure 1

The base of Structure 1

The Main Attraction of Calakmul Campeche: Estructura II

After climbing back to solid ground, you’ll turn north toward the crown jewel of Calakmul: Estructura II (Structure 2). This is a very large temple which was constructed in two phases.

It has three staircases on the front side, a large group of stelae at the base, and stunning views from the top. The staircases are massive, as is the structure itself. It basically has two levels, with one massive temple acting as the base for another intricate temple on top.

If you’re only going to climb one structure at Calakmul, this is it.

Pro tip: As you’re looking up the structure, the right staircase is the easiest way to the top. The left staircase stops at about the midway point and the center one is the steepest of them all.

The base of structure 2 showing the three different staircases

Some of the staircases on the top of Structure 2

Once you reach the first platform, it’s obvious that there were many rooms on top here and the probable location of the highest elites in the community. The small terraces and beautifully-constructed staircases must have been grand achievements at their time. I’d say they are still so even compared to today’s buildings!

There are many great vantage points for photos and just checking out the views on Structure II. On top, there is a sizable platform with stunning views all around.

After climbing back down the many stairs, we looked back in awe at this incredible masterpiece. Kristina’s mom was giddy, even after an already long, hot morning in the sun. The smiles on everyone’s faces stretched from ear to ear. Did I mention how it’s worth it to go to Calakmul?

Kristina and her mother, happy after climbing down from Structure 2

A depiction of Structure 2

The Gran Plaza aka Plaza Central

As you step away from the base of Estructura II, you’ll enter the Gran Plaza which they also refer to as Plaza Central. We recommend climbing Estructura VII (Structure 7), even if you think you’ve seen it all and your legs are a bit tired.

It’s a relatively small structure, but at the top you can get an excellent view of Estructura II from above the canopy. It is well worth the short climb up.

You can wander around the Gran Plaza a bit more, then head back and pass through Grupo Noreste if you didn’t check it out on your way in, then finally back to the parking lot.

And hopefully to some food and drinks waiting for you in your car!

Once refueled, make sure to use the bathroom, then get back on the road for the long, pot-hole-filled drive out. You can stop by the museum on your way out if desired. We ended up skipping this so that we could do two other things that same day.

Michael on top of Structure 4 looking over the Gran Plaza in Calakmul Campeche

A map of Plaza Central

Things to Do After Calakmul Ruins

There are some other ruin sites in the area, but you might be better off saving those for another day. We opted to do two things which we definitely recommend.

First, if you want to try a very unique tortilla, head to La Selva and ask for a dish with tortilla de ramon. This is a tortilla made from the seed of a local tree and has an earthy flavor you can’t find in many places.

While it wasn’t necessarily the absolute best meal I’ve had, it was another great way to get connected to the people of the area and get some insight into how they utilize so much of the resources available to them. These seeds are scattered all over the Calakmul ruins. A guide mentioned these tortillas to us as we were talking with them at Structure II.

It’s a small restaurant located just west of the entrance to Calakmul, on the north side of the road (GPS coordinates 18.541143, -89.923395). It is not on Google Maps.

Second, and more importantly, head to Volcan de los Murcielagos. You really, REALLY should do this one!

A tortilla made from a local seed, ramon

Volcan de los Murcielagos (Volcano of the Bats)

Sometimes things don’t match their name. But this one does. This “Volcano of the Bats” is a stunning display of wildlife that is hard to find.

Each evening just prior to sunset, this deep cavern explodes with millions of bats. Yes, literally millions. Don’t believe me? Head there yourself!

They all swirl up in unison, blasting out of their deep home, and into the air.

This is located at KM 106 along the main highway (Carretera Escárcega), between Xpujil and Calakmul ruins. There are some very small signs and one very small parking lot just off the highway. You might miss it your first time past. The GPS coordinates for the parking lot are 18.521719, -89.826787 (Google Maps link).

Get here about an hour or so before sunset (sunset around 5:30, depending on the time of year). Park your car, trying to leave space for as many people as possible. Then walk less than a half mile (800 m) to the entrance of the cave.

You will find yourself on top of a cylindrical hole in the ground that doesn’t really look like much. It’s somewhere around 60 feet deep and 30 feet wide (18 m deep and 9 m wide).

Grab a spot along the side. There are no guardrails and guides mentioned that the part on the left side has eroded over time. Don’t turn into a horror story. Stay a suitable distance away and keep your wits about you when the bats come up.

The cave at the base of Volcan de los Murcielagos in Mexico

A guide's vest at the Volcano of Bats

As you look down into the large opening, you can just barely see the entrance to the cave on one side.

This cave system stretches deep into the ground, going over a half mile (almost 1 km) down. And it holds over a million bats live inside. Some guides said the total is around 3 million!

Just before sunset, they start to come out of the cave. Just a few at first, followed by more, and more, and more. Soon the entire hole is filled with swirling bats. Most of them go above the canopy and out on their way to find the meal of the night. Some of them turn abruptly and scatter around the trees where you’re at.

In order to keep yourself safe, bring eye protection and a face-mask. Not going to lie, you’re still risking a bit by being so close to this many bats.

(Sorry to be a downer, but if you do think you’ve been bitten, take it seriously. Rabies comes fast and you need to get to a doctor very quickly in order to avoid a horrible, often fatal, experience. Fun huh?!? You can get a rabies vaccine, but it is commonly quite expensive and it simply extends the period of time for you to go for help.)

But it is incredible. When we visited, there were about two dozen people there with us to watch the event. And everyone was blown away.

The bats keep going for hours. They are leaving their home in order to hunt for the night. As they finish up, they will trickle back into the cave throughout the night and into the morning.

We consider this a must-do activity if you can make it happen.

Millions of bats existing Volcan de los Murcielagos

Bats swirling up into the sky at Volcan de los Murcielagos in Campeche, Mexico

A sign showing where Volcan de los Murcielagos is located

Summary of Calakmul Ruins in Campeche, Mexico

Okay, so that was a LOT of information. And as I said from the beginning, it’s a site that’s hard to get to, but well worth the effort.

You’ll get to immerse yourself deep in the jungle, see all sorts of exotic creatures, climb magnificent structures, and witness the marks made by people nearly 2,000 years ago. What an adventure! Just make sure you take it slow on the road to and from the site.

Visit Calakmul. You seriously won’t regret it.

A view from Structure 14 looking out over the Gran Plaza and at Structure 2

Does this sound like an awesome journey? Then you should also check out the incredible ruin sites of Yaxchilan and Bonampak. These are located in Chiapas, Mexico and will blow your mind, just like Calakmul. You can even stay overnight in lovely cabanas and go for hikes led by the local Lacandon people.

Looking for more things to do in the Yucatan Peninsula? Check out these posts:

Would you venture out this far to visit an archeological site? Have you gone somewhere you think we’d enjoy? Please leave us a comment below to share your thoughts!

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Calakmul: Epic Off Path Ruins in Mexico. Don't miss out on one of the best ruins in Mexico. This post has all you need to know: how to get there, where to stay, and what to expect when you're there.

Calakmul: Epic Off Path Ruins in Mexico. Don't miss out on one of the best ruins in Mexico. This post has all you need to know: how to get there, where to stay, and what to expect.

2 thoughts on “Calakmul: Epic Off Path Ruins in Mexico”

  1. Thank you for your details post. Just a quick update, I took the trip today Jan 1, 2022. The road isn’t that bad, maybe they fix all the potholes mentioned in the post. The cost was 160 total for the first two fees and 85 at the ruin.

    1. That’s great to hear and thank you for passing along the updated information! We’ll update the post accordingly.

      Sounds like they made some improvements to the road because it was seriously one of the roughest drives we’ve been on in all of Mexico! We’re in Baja now and are finding that the roads people declared treacherous a couple years ago are no longer the case. Have to love infrastructure improvements!

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