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Dzibanché & Kinichná

Dzibanché (or Tzibanché) means "place where they write on wood" -- obviously not the original name, which remains unknown. It dates from the Classic period (A.D. 300-900) and was occupied for around 700 years. Scattered over 42 sq. km (16 sq. miles) are several groupings of buildings and plazas; only a small portion is excavated. The turnoff, 37km (23 miles) from the highway intersection, is well marked; another 23km (14 miles) brings you to the ruins. Ask about the condition of the road before setting out. These unpaved roads can go from good to bad pretty quickly, but this is an important enough site that road repair is generally kept up.

Temples & Plazas -- Two large adjoining plazas have been cleared. The most important structure yet excavated is the Temple of the Owl in the main plaza, Plaza Xibalba. Archaeologists found a stairway descending from the top of the structure and deep into the pyramid to a burial chamber (not open to visitors), where they uncovered some beautiful polychromatic lidded vessels, one of which has an owl painted on the top handle with its wings spreading onto the lid. White owls were messengers of the underworld gods of the Maya religion. Also found here were the remains of a sacrificial victim and what appear to be the remains of a Maya queen, which is unique in Maya archaeology.

Opposite the Temple of the Owl is the Temple of the Cormorant, named after the bird depicted on a polychromed drinking vessel found here. Archaeologists also found evidence here of an interior tomb similar to the one in the Temple of the Owl, but excavations have not yet begun. Other magnificently preserved pottery pieces found during excavations include an incense burner with an almost three-dimensional figure of the diving god attached to the outside, and another incense burner with an elaborately dressed representation of the god Itzamná attached.

Situated all by itself is Structure VI, a miniature rendition of Teotihuacán's style of tablero and talud architecture. Each step of the pyramid is made of a talud (sloping surface) crowned by a tablero (vertical stone facing). Teotihuacán was near present-day Mexico City, but its influence stretched as far as Guatemala. At the top of the pyramid, a doorway with a wooden lintel is still intact after centuries of weathering. This detail gave the site its name. Date glyphs for the year A.D. 733 are carved into the wood.

Another nearby city, Kinichná (Kee-neech-nah) is about 2.5km (1 1/2 miles) north. The road leading there becomes questionable during the rainy season, but an Olmec-style jade figure was found there. It has a large acropolis with five buildings on three levels, which have been restored and are in good condition. Fragments of the original stucco are visible.

Kohunlich

Kohunlich (Koh-hoon-leech), 42km (26 miles) from the turnoff for Hwy. 186, dates from around A.D. 100 to 900. Turn left off the road, and the entrance is 9km (5 2/3 miles) farther. Enter the grand, parklike site, cross a large, shady ceremonial area flanked by four large pyramids, continue walking straight ahead.

Just beyond this grouping you'll come to Kohunlich's famous Pyramid of the Masks under a thatched covering. Six stucco heads, more than 2.4m (8 ft.) tall, flank the giant staircase. Dating from around A.D. 500, each is slightly different but all are elongated and wear a headdress with a mask on its crest and a mask on the chin piece -- essentially masks within masks. The carving on the pupils suggests a solar connection, possibly with the night sun that illuminated the underworld. It's speculated that masks covered much of the facade of this building, which was built in the Río Bec style with rounded corners, a false stairway, and a false temple on the top. At least one theory holds that the masks are a composite of several rulers at Kohunlich.

In the buildings immediately to the left after you enter the site, recent excavations uncovered two intact pre-Hispanic skeletons and five decapitated heads that were probably used in a ceremonial ritual. To the right, follow the shady path through the jungle to another recently excavated plaza. The fine architecture and the high quality of pottery found there suggests this complex housed priests or rulers. Scholars believe overpopulation led to Kohunlich's decline.

Xpujil

Xpujil (Eesh-poo-heel; also spelled Xpuhil), meaning either "cattail" or "forest of kapok trees," flourished between A.D. 400 and 900. This small, well-preserved site is easy to get to; look for a highway sign pointing right (north). The entrance is just off the highway; the main structure is a 180m (590-ft.) walk farther. Along the path are some chechén trees, recognizable by their blotchy bark. Don't touch; they are poisonous and can cause blisters. On the right, a platform supports a restored two-story building with a central staircase on its eastern side. Remnants of a decorative molding and two galleries are connected by a doorway. About 90m (295 ft.) farther you come to Structure I, the site's main structure -- a rectangular ceremonial platform 2m (6 1/2 ft.) high and 50m (164 ft.) long supporting the palace, decorated with three tall towers shaped like miniature versions of the pyramids in Tikal, Guatemala. These towers are purely decorative, with false stairways and temples that are too small to serve as such. The effect is beautiful. The building holds 12 rooms, which are now in ruins.

Becán 

Becán (Beh-kahn) is about 7km (4 1/3 miles) beyond Xpujil, visible on the right side of the highway. Becán means "moat filled by water," and it was in fact protected by a moat spanned by seven bridges; the city is a stellar (and rare) example of Maya fortification; dirt from digging the moat was piled up to create a fortified wall around the city. The extensive site dates from the early Classic to the late post-Classic (600 B.C.-A.D. 1200) period. Although it was abandoned by A.D. 850, ceramic remains indicate that there may have been a population resurgence between 900 and 1000, and it was still used as a ceremonial site as late as 1200. Becán was an administrative and ceremonial center with political sway over at least seven other cities in the area, including Chicanná, Hormiguero, and Payán.

The first plaza group you see after you enter was the center for grand ceremonies. From the highway, you can see the back of Structure I, a pyramid with two temples on top. Beyond and in between the two temples you can see the temple atop Structure IV, opposite Structure I. When the high priest exited the mouth of the earth monster in the center of this temple (which he reached by way of a hidden side stairway that's now partially exposed), he would have been visible from well beyond the immediate plaza, where it's thought that commoners had to stand. The back of Structure IV is believed to have been a civic plaza where rulers sat on stone benches. The second plaza group dates from around A.D. 850 and has perfect twin towers on top. Under the platform supporting the towers are 10 rooms that are thought to be related to Xibalba (Shee-bahl-bah), the underworld. Earth-monster faces probably covered this building (and appeared on other buildings as well). Remains of at least one ball court have been unearthed. Next to the ball court is a well-preserved figure in an elaborate headdress behind glass, excavated not far from where he is now displayed. The markings are well defined, displaying a host of details.

Chicanná

Slightly over 1.5km (1 mile) beyond Becán, on the left side of the highway, is Chicanná, which means "house of the mouth of snakes." The central square is surrounded by five buildings. Structure II, the site's outstanding building, features a monster-mouth doorway and an ornate stone facade with more superimposed masks. As you enter the mouth of the earth monster, you are on a platform configured as the monster's open jaw, with stone teeth on both sides. Again you find a lovely example of an elongated building with ornamental miniature pyramids on each end, typical of Río Bec architecture.

Calakmul 

This area is both a massive Maya archaeological zone, with at least 60 sites, and a 70,000-hectare (172,900-acre) rainforest designated in 1989 as the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve, including territory in both Mexico and Guatemala. The best way to see Calakmul is to spend the night at Xpujil or Chicanná and leave early in the morning for Calakmul. If you're the first to drive down the narrow access road to the ruins (1 1/2 hr. from the highway), you'll probably see plenty of wildlife. On my last trip to the ruins, I saw two groups of spider monkeys swinging through the trees on the outskirts of the city and a group of howler monkeys sleeping in the trees in front of Structure II. I also saw a couple of animals that I couldn't identify, and heard the growl of a jungle cat that I wasn't able to see.

The site is open Tuesday to Sunday from 7am to 5pm. The rainy season, when the place is soaked, is from June to October.

The Archaeological Zone -- Since 1982, archaeologists have been excavating the ruins of Calakmul, which date from 100 B.C. to A.D. 900. It's the largest of the 60 known Río Bec sites. Nearly 7,000 buildings have been discovered and mapped. At its zenith, at least 60,000 people may have lived around the site, but by the time of the Spanish Conquest in 1519, less than 1,000 lived there. Arriving at a large plaza filled with trees, you immediately see several stelae; Calakmul contains more of than 100 -- more than any other site -- but they are much more weathered and indistinguishable than the stelae of Palenque or Copán in Honduras. Looters have cut the face off of some. By Structure XIII is a stela of a woman thought to have been a ruler that dates from A.D. 652.

Some structures here are built in the Petén style characteristic of Guatemala, with extraordinarily high crested structures, steep staircases, and false facades. Others are typical Río Bec style. Structure III must have been the residence of a noble family. Its design is unique and quite lovely; it retains its original form, never having been remodeled. Offerings of shells, beads, and polychromed tripod pottery were found inside. Structure II is the tallest pyramid in the Yucatán, at 54m (177 ft.). From the top, you can see the outline of the ruins of El Mirador, 50km (31 miles) across the forest in Guatemala. Two stairways ascend along the sides of the pyramid's principal face in the upper levels, with masks further breaking up the space.

Temple IV charts the line of the sun from June 21, when it falls on the left (north) corner; to September 21 and March 21, when it lines up in the east behind the middle temple on the top of the building; to December 21, when it falls on the right (south) corner. Numerous jade pieces, including spectacular masks, were uncovered here and are on display in the Museum of Mayan Culture in Campeche. Structure VII is largely unexcavated except for the top, where, in 1984, the most outstanding jade mask yet to be found at Calakmul was uncovered. In their book A Forest of Kings, Linda Schele and David Freidel tell of wars among the Calakmul, Tikal, and Naranjo (the latter two in Guatemala), and how Ah-Cacaw, king of Tikal (120km/75 miles south of Calakmul), captured King Jaguar-Paw in A.D. 695 and later Lord Ox-Ha-Te Ixil Ahau, both of Calakmul.

Calakmul Biosphere Reserve -- Set aside in 1989, this is the peninsula's only high forest, a rainforest that annually records as much as 5m (16 ft.) of rain. The tree canopy is higher here than in the forest of Quintana Roo. It lies very close to the border with Guatemala, but, of course, there is no way to get there. Among the plants are cactus, epiphytes, and orchids. Endangered animals include the white-lipped peccary, jaguar, and puma. So far, more than 250 species of birds have been recorded. At present, no overnight stay or camping is permitted. If you want a tour of a small part of the forest and you speak Spanish, you can inquire for a guide at one of the two nearby ejidos (cooperatives). Some old local chicleros (the men who tap sapodilla trees for their gum) have expert knowledge of flora and fauna and can take you on a couple of trails.

The turnoff on the left for Calakmul is located 53km (33 miles) from Xpujil, just before the village of Conhuas. There's a guard station there where you pay 40 pesos per car. From the turnoff, it's an hour's drive on a paved one-lane-road. Admission to the site is 41 pesos.

It's advisable to take with you some food and drink and, of course, bug spray.

Balamkú 

Balamkú (Bah-lahm-koo), just off Hwy. 186 about 5km (3 miles) west of Conhuas, is easy to reach and worth the visit. A couple of buildings in the complex were so well preserved that they required almost no reconstruction. Inside the Temple of the Four Kings, covered by a later pyramid built over it, is one of the largest stucco friezes in the Maya world. The three major figures -- looters made off with a fourth before the frieze was discovered in 1990 and protected -- are a rabbit, an alligator, and a crocodile, flanked by many carvings of animals, mythological beings, and kings. The concept behind this temple is life and death, and figures of men sit in the gaping maws of crocodiles and toads as they descend into the underworld. On each stucco figure's head are the eyes, nose, and mouth of a jaguar, followed by the full face of the human figure, then a neck formed by the eyes and nose of another jaguar, and an Olmec-like face on the stomach, with its neck ringed by a necklace. Now the frieze is under lock and key, and visitors must ask the caretaker to let them view the unique art. Much of the original painting remains, so flash photography is not allowed.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.