“Calakmul”, says captain Jose Arroyo as he points with his index finger towards the clouds below the plane. The engine of the noble Cessna propels us with a deafening hum while our pilot, granting the wishes of his four passengers, performs a low altitude flight that should enable us to photograph the Maya city of Calakmul from the air. Dawn looked promising earlier when we took off from Campeche’s airport, but a persistent layer of clouds has come between us and the landscape and is now refusing us a coveted birds-eye view of the capital of the kingdom of Ka’an. We feel disappointed but realize our flight must continue heading north-east towards our final destination, the town of Xpujil. The aerial shots of Calakmul will have to wait for a better day.
As we approach the brief landing strip in Xpujil the clouds continue to conspire against us. The small airport’s radio antenna stands atop a metal tower 50 meters in heigh which, hidden as it is among the clouds, presents a real possibility for a fatal collision. My handheld GPS registers for almost forty minutes the airplane’s turns as we hunt for a window to descend. The tracks on the small screen make our veteran pilot smile, but nevertheless the atmosphere inside the cabin becomes tense and the need to look for a different place to land begins to seem evident when, finally, clouds part and we spot the antenna. “There it is”, says captain Arroyo, facing without hesitation our approach to the ground. The much wanted contact of landing gear and tarmac makes the Cessna bounce and fills the cabin with smiles.
After boarding a van that has been waiting for us we put our plan for the day in full gear, starting with breakfast in the town of Xpujil and continuing with visits to the archaeological sites at Xpujil, Becán and Chicanná. We want to enjoy one of the most captivating aspects of the Yucatan Peninsula: the possibility of simultaneously exploring rich ecosystems and fascinating archaeological sites. The ancient cities of the Mayan world offer trails and open spaces that, combined with the forests that harbor them, provide excellent opportunities for bird observation. The birding experience is thus made more stimulating, tempting the visitor’s curiosity and motivating him or her to delve deeper into the important connection between nature and cosmogony in Mayan culture.
Several references to that connection can be found in the pages of the magnificent volume “Calakmul – World Heritage Site”. I take the liberty of including here a photograph and a quote from that book, describing one of thirteen vases found in Tomb II of Structure IV-B, in Calakmul. The vase prominently features several heads of King Vulture (Sarcoramphus papa), and the specialists write: “The support and handles on the lid, modeled in the shape of the head of a King Vulture (…) could refer to the title or name of the individual in the tomb. In Maya writing, the head of the King Vulture could replace the sign for ajaw as a symbol of the ruler. (…) The handle modeled in the shape of a King Vulture might allude to the deity known as Vucub Caquix, the false sun at the beginning of creation in the Popol Vuh (…). This mythological bird played an important role in the definition of the institution of divine kings. The Mayas used it as a symbol to represent the power of dynastic rulership.”
The King Vulture is without a doubt one of the birds I crave to photograph. However, as befits its regal and divine status, seeing one of these large birds is not an everyday occurrence. Upon entering the archaeological sites it is rather the Brown Jays (Cyanocorax morio) who welcome us in large numbers and with great scandal. These birds behave like the forest’s alarm system, announcing our presence with voices that put all other birds in a state of alert. This does not make our photographic work easier. Their attitude is so noteworthy that respected authors Howell and Webb cannot hide their derision for this species, flagging it in their field guide as “unmistakable, large, noisy, obnoxious” and describing their calls as “monotonous and obnoxious, an all-too-soon familiar sound (…) often repeated mercilessly”. I personally find them interesting, perhaps because my sightings have been less frequent and probably also because, as we walk deeper into the archaeological zones, their presence becomes less ubiquitous.
For several hours we walk as planned through the archaeological sites in Xpujil, Becán and Chicanná. A couple of times we come across a group of silent Japanese tourists and also a few national visitors, but most of the time we’re on our own. It’s a very different experience from that of visiting the Yucatan Peninsula’s best known sites, at the top of which stands Chichen Itza (Mexico’s second most visited site after Teotihuacán). About two million travelers visit that emblematic city of the Maya world each year, which means the presence of busloads of tourists is always a given. And therein lies one small but important secret good travelers learn in their transit through this magical peninsula: the further inland you go, away from the Riviera Maya in Quintana Roo and towards the depths of Yucatán and Campeche, the further away you’ll be from the influx of mass tourism. Below I include a series of images showcasing our lonely transit through these ancient cities.
All these cities were engulfed by the forest after they had been abandoned by their original inhabitants in different periods of Maya civilization. Thanks to the work of explorers and archaeologists like Karl Ruppert and John Denison, who “rediscovered” Becán in 1934 during an expedition to Campeche financed by the Carnegie Institution, and to the continued work through decades by many other researchers, universities and institutions (prominent among these Mexico’s own Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia – INAH), Maya cities have been cleared for study and opened to the public.
Present day visitors may erroneously think that when these cities where fully active they were surrounded by forest, as we find them today. In reality these were highly developed societies that modified their environment and adapted it to their needs. Going back to the pages of “Calakmul – World Heritage Site”, the authors illuminate us with their vision of that important city: “In roughly AD 690 the landscape visible from Calakmul Structure II must have been extremely different from what we can see today. At the foot of this acropolis the lives of some 50,000 individuals were governed by the most powerful royal house in the Maya world and perhaps in all of the Americas. Dozens of palaces housed merchants, artists warriors and priests surrounded by the dwellings of a growing middle class and thousand of laborers and peasants. Dispersed in a radius of slightly more than 50 km (31 mi.), some nineteen other cities and close to three hundred towns were linked to the great capital by marriage, commercial or tribute ties. (…) Instead of the magnificent rainforest visible today from Structure II, the Divine Kings of Calakmul must have looked out with pride on the mosaic of towns, cultivated fields and fallow lands that gave rise to the splendor of their dominion.”
It is a fortunate fact that vast areas of this geographical region have been declared officially protected, a status that enables modern day visitors to witness the coexistence of the architectural remains of ancient Maya cities, current human settlements and rich ecosystems which, on account of their water reserves, biodiversity and important biological corridors, are of incalculable value for Mexico and the world. For all these good reasons preservation is of utmost importance for future generations and for the very health of life on planet Earth.
At this point in this story some of you may be wondering, what about the birds? It’s true that, in our eagerness to visit three archaeological sites in one day, we took emphasis away from our photographic hunt. We saw and heard the birds, but as far as capturing them in images we weren’t at our most prolific. The two following days would turn out to be much more productive, as we devoted our attention to Calakmul’s archaeological zone and it regaled us with many opportunities to photograph not only birds but also monkeys, as I have already narrated in the first part of this reportage.
Not long before dusk we arrived at the place chosen for our overnight stay. Francisco Hernández, organizer and promoter of this trip, had arranged lodgings for us at Chicanná Ecovillage Resort, a collection of 42 cozy cabins surrounded by forest. We only had time for a hot shower, a tasty dinner and a few hours of well deserved sleep in preparation for our departure towards Calakmul at dawn the next day. This ecological hotel is well known among visiting birders, as many species of birds can be seen within the grounds and in the surrounding areas. I close this chapter with a couple of images of a place that, without a doubt, deserves a longer stay in the near future.
(…to be continued)
RIDE INTO BIRDLAND sincerely thanks the Government of Campeche, the office of Governor Lic. Fernando Ortega Bernés and the Campeche Secretary of Tourism for their invaluable support with air and ground transportation that made this story possible. We also thank Don Francisco Hernández, Ambassador ad-honorem for the State of Campeche, who invited us to discover the wonders of his homeland, and Chicanná Ecovillage Resort for a well deserved night of rest.
Calakmul – World Heritage Site. (2012 – Various authors). Published by the Government of Campeche, its Department of Culture, INAH and Mexico’s Federal Government.
A Guide to the Birds of Mexico and Northern Central America. (2010, Steve Howell and Sophie Webb).
Árboles del Mundo Maya. (2011, Edited by María Peña-Chocarro and Sandra Knapp. Various authors). Published by Natural History Museum, Pronatura Península de Yucatán, Universidad Autónoma de Yucatán, Fundación ProPetén and Universidad del Valle de Guatemala.