The Maya ruins of Lamanai, in Belize, are an easy day trip if you have transportation (not a rental car). You can explore the Río Bec route directly west of the city by taking Hwy. 186.
Side Trips to Maya Ruins from Chetumal
A few miles west of Bacalar and Chetumal begins an area of Maya settlement known to archaeologists as the Río Bec region. Numerous ruins stretching well into the state of Campeche are intriguing for their heavily stylized, lavishly decorated architecture. Excavation has brought restoration, but these cities have not been rebuilt to the degree found at Uxmal and Chichén Itzá. Buildings here often were in such great shape that reconstruction was unnecessary.
Nor have these sites been cleared of jungle growth like the marquee ruins mentioned above. Trees and vines grow in profusion, creating the feel of lost cities. In visiting them, you can imagine what John Lloyd Stephens and Frederick Catherwood must have felt when they traipsed through the Yucatán in the 19th century. The entire route is rich in wildlife; you might see a toucan, a grand curassow, or a macaw hanging about, while orioles, egrets, and several birds of prey are common. Gray fox, wild turkey, tesquintle (a bushy-tailed, plant-eating rodent), the coatimundi (raccoon kin with long tapered snout and tail), and armadillos inhabit the area in abundance. Several bands of spider and howler monkeys circulate Calakmul and the surrounding jungle.
Opening Hours -- The archaeological sites along the Río Bec (except for Calakmul, which has its own opening days and hours) are open daily, 8am to 5pm.
The Route -- Halfway between Bacalar and Chetumal is the well-marked turnoff for Hwy. 186 to Escárcega (about 20km/12 miles from either town). This same road leads to Campeche, Palenque, and Villahermosa. A couple of gas stations are en route, including one in the town of Xpujil. Carry plenty of cash, as credit cards are rarely accepted in the area.
The Río Bec sites lie varying distances off this highway. You pass through a checkpoint at the Campeche state border; guards might ask for your travel papers or simply inquire where you've been and where you are going before waving you on. Rarely, they will want to inspect your trunk or even your luggage. You can divide your sightseeing into several day trips from Bacalar or Chetumal, or you can spend the night in this area and see more the next day. If you get an early start, you can easily visit a few of the sites mentioned here in a day.
Evidence, especially from Becán, shows that these ruins were part of the trade route linking the Caribbean coast at Cobá to Edzná and the Gulf Coast, and to Lamanai in Belize and beyond. A great number of cities once thrived here, and much of the land was dedicated to cultivating maize. All of this has been swallowed by the dense jungle blanketing the land from horizon to horizon.
The following sites are listed in east-to-west order, the way you would see them driving from the Caribbean coast, ideally after visiting the Museo de la Cultura Maya in Chetumal to gain some context. If you want a guide to show you the area, Dan Griffin (email@example.com) is based in Mérida but is studying archaeology with the University of Leicester and works on archaeology and anthropology projects all over the Yucatán Peninsula. You might meet him guiding for Río Bec Dreams, but he also leads independent tours focusing on lesser-known sites and on bird-watching. Another good choice is Luis Téllez (tel. 983/832-3496; www.mayaruinsandbirds.com) in Chetumal. He's knowledgeable, speaks English, and drives safely and well. He's acquainted with archaeologists excavating these ruins, knows the local wildlife, and guides many tours for birders.
Entry to each site is 31 to 49 pesos. Informational signs are in Mayan, Spanish, and English. Few if any refreshments are available, so bring your own water and food. All the principal sites have toilets.
A Driving Caution -- Numerous curves in the road obscure oncoming traffic (what little there is).
Food & Lodging -- The only town in the Río Bec region offering basic tourist services is Xpujil, which doesn't have much else going for it. Of the basic affordable hotels in town, the best food and lodging is at Restaurant y Hotel Calakmul (tel. 983/871-6029), which rents air-conditioned doubles with TV for 600 pesos. They have tile floors, private bathrooms with hot water, and good beds. The restaurant is reliable and is open daily from 6am to midnight. Main courses cost 45 to 120 pesos.
A rental car opens up some better options. Just beyond Xpujil, across from the ruins of the same name, is Chicanná Eco Village at Carretera Escárcega-Chetumal Km 144 (www.chicannaecovillageresort.com; tel. 981/811-9192). Its 42 comfortable, nicely furnished rooms are distributed among several two-story thatched bungalows. They offer doubles or a king-size bed, ceiling fans, a large bathroom, and screened windows. Pathways through manicured lawns and flower beds link the bungalows to one another and to the restaurant and swimming pool. Doubles go for 1,200 pesos.
Río Bec Dreams, Carretera 186, Escárcega-Chetumal Km 142 (www.riobecdreams.com; tel. 983/126-3526), 11km (6 3/4 miles) west of Xpujil just past Becán, rents "jungalows" -- small, wooden cabins on stilts -- scattered through a tropical forest. They have good screens and such niceties as curtains, tile counters, hand-painted sinks, porches, and very comfortable beds with mosquito netting, for 550 pesos a night. Cabins have wash basins, but guests share spotless bathrooms (the one unit with private bathroom costs 700 pesos). Rates are for a 2-night minimum stay; for 1 night, add 50 pesos. Three large cabañas with screened-in porches and private bathrooms rent for 1,000 pesos (1 bedroom) to 1,150 pesos (2 bedrooms), with a 2-night minimum stay. For all its rusticity, the hotel provides Wi-Fi. The Canadian owners have lived in the area a long time and are devoted students of Río Bec architecture who guide tours of the ruins; tours run from short excursions to smaller ruins for 250 pesos to all-day treks through Calakmul for 1,500 pesos. The owners are a wonderful resource and good companions around the open-air bar. The restaurant is easily the best in the area.
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.