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Calakmul Biosphere Reserve: What You Need to Know

Calakmul Biosphere Reserve: What You Need to Know

The Calakmul Biosphere Reserve is a place that so few tourists visit, but it should most definitely be on your Yucatan ruins itinerary.

I think one of the reasons so few people visit Calakmul is because it’s somewhat difficult to get to and you need a few extra days to make sure to see it properly. 

I made the trip to Calakmul while I was staying near Bacalar.

I was intrigued about how difficult it was to get to and I wanted to see for myself why this jungle-city wasn’t getting the tourist-traffic that it deserves.

I say this in all seriousness, it was truly one of the most magical places I’ve been to in all of Mexico.

It combined the remoteness of Palenque with the towering structures of Uxmal while being quieter than any Maya ruins that I’ve been to in Mexico.

There are a few ways to check out Calakmul from Bacalar, but we opted to rent a car and self-drive. We stayed overnight in the town that is closest to the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve, Xpujil. 

This town basically serves only as a base for truck drivers and visitors to Calakmul. There are plenty of affordable hotels as well as local restaurants.

What is the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve?

The Calakmul Biosphere Reserve is home to an ancient Maya city as well as tons of protected animals and plant life. 

Head here between December and February to get a glimpse at Jaguars (they are around more often during their mating season). 

While it’s located in the state of Campeche, it’s actually closer to the Quintana Roo Border than it is to the city of Campeche. It’s only 22 miles or 35 kilometers from the Guatemala border and on a clear day you can see the nearby ruins that are just across the border.

However, it is easier to spend a long weekend in Campeche and then take the bus to Xpujil than it is to visit Bacalar and take the bus to Calakmul from there (but renting a car is easy from anywhere!).

This site is one of the latest to be discovered in this region, which is why there is still so much excavating going on. It’s one of the few Maya sites around Mexico that makes you feel a little bit like Indiana Jones.

There are still vines everywhere. There aren’t any vendors selling whistles or statues made in China inside the gates of this Maya site. You can still climb all of the structures.

Over 6,000 structures have been identified, but there are only about a dozen that you can see and explore while the rest are still being excavated.

Our guide told us that Calakmul was one of the largest and most important Maya cities. It used to be a capital of this region of the Maya territories and at its peak had a population of over 50,000.

taking in the views of the calakmul biosphere reserve

Taking in the views of the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve

How to Get to the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve

Getting to Calakmul can be a little bit of a disaster if you are relying on public transportation.

Like I mentioned above, if you want to self tour Calakmul, or use a local guide, you will need to get yourself to the town of Xpujil.

There is only one bus a day between Xpujil and Bacalar and it leaves at 11:55pm, getting you to Bacalar basically in the middle of the night.

It is a little bit easier if you want to start and end your trip in Campeche. 

You can take the ADO bus from Campeche once a day at 2pm. You can then take the bus every day (once a day) from Xpujil back to Campeche which leaves at 12:55pm.

If you are coming and going from Bacalar, I highly recommend renting a car. I talk more about the car rental company I used below.

Once in Xpujil, it’s still another hour to the entrance of the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve. This is why you’ll need to either rent a car or hire a guide because there is no public transportation (other than hitchhiking I guess). 

And even once you are at the entrance, you are still 45 minutes from the ruins. The ruins are deep inside the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve and the road between the entrance and the ruins isn’t the best, so you have to take it slow.

one of the tombs inside the Calakmul biosphere reserve

There are plenty of steep steps to climb and at the top, the views are incredible!

What to Wear to the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve

This is more important than you might think.

The Calakmul Biosphere Reserve is different than any ruins I’ve been to in Mexico before. It’s completely surrounded by jungle, much like Palenque, but with the added bonus of being outrageously humid.

Most serious tourists wore long pants and long-sleeve shirts. If this is how you want to do it, make sure that they are incredibly lightweight as well as light in color.

While the humidity is bad, the real problem that you’ll need to address when arriving at the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve is the mosquitos. The mosquitos are truly horrific.

I actually wore shorts and a t-shirt because I’m a terrible traveler and I hate zip-off cargo pants. I then liberally doused myself in natural bug spray (which I bought at the Chedraui Supermarket, but similar here). I covered every part of my exposed skin and I sprayed my clothes.

I got back to my hotel that night with only one bug bite.

Luke and I on top of the Calakmal ruins

This is what we wore inside the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve. This plus about a liter of bug spray!

Hotels in Calakmul

If you plan to spend the night in Xpujil before a trip into Calakmul Biosphere Reserve, there are tons of choose from.

I stayed at Hotel Xpujil. It was very affordable, has an outdoor pool, and the rooms were very clean.

Their budget double room is only $25 a night and their family room which sleeps four is only $30 a night. Book a stay at Hotel Xpujil here.

It doesn’t include breakfast like some of the other places, but we just grabbed a few sweet breads (pan dulces) from the nearby bakery and fruit from the supermarket before our tour in the morning.

It did, however, have a huge water cooler where we could fill up our water bottles for free (and without needing to use more plastic) as well as unlimited coffee. 

A few other hotels that I considered when planning my trip to Calakmul are:

monkeys inside the calakmul biosphere reserve

A somewhat blurry photo of a tree full of sleeping monkeys that we spotted inside the Calakmul ruins

Tour Guides for Calakmul in Xpujil

There aren’t a ton of tour options for Calakmul Biosphere Reserve (yet), but the ones that do exist are pretty spectacular.

I took a tour with Abel, who was an absolutely awesome tour guide. You can contact him on his Facebook page and see what some of his tours are like on his page, too.

There are basically two options. The first options is that he picks you up in the morning at your hotel in Xpujil and tours you around the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve including the ruins and a hike around the grounds to spot different wildlife. He then takes you back to your hotel in Xpujil.

The second tour option is the same as the above, except that after you hike around the reserve, just before sunset, you head to see a bat cave that is truly magical. It takes the idea of swarms to a whole new level.

At last check, the first tour is 1200 Pesos (about $60 USD) and the second option is 1400 Pesos (about $70 USD). Both include a huge lunch, all entry fees, and all the water you will want to drink, kept nice and cold in a cooler in his car.

There are a lot of reasons I loved touring with Abel. He is from Xpujil, so he grew up around Calakmul. He knows it so well. 

He has a serious love not just for exploring the ruins like a curious child, but he has a passion for the animals in this region, too. He knows SO much about the different species and has a real eye for spotting them.

We saw tons of toucans, wild boar, several different types of monkeys, and a few smaller rodents whose names I’ve long forgotten.

If you are happy to make your own way to Xpujil, there is no better guide than Abel, so be sure to send him a message and take a tour with him.

one of the temples inside Calakmul in the state of Campeche Mexico

One of the pyramid-like buildings that you can explore in Calakmul

Tours of Calakmul from Bacalar

The alternative option that I recommend is if you are based in Bacalar and you don’t have a ton of time to spend three days in tiny Xpujil (or two nights). You can take a tour from Bacalar with Explora Car Rental and Tours. 

This is who I rented my car from in Bacalar, but they also run one-day tours from Bacalar. You leave very early and get back quite late, but you won’t need to rent a car or spend the night elsewhere.

You’ll need to head into the office in Bacalar (located here) to book the tour. Alternatively, you can send them a message on Whatsapp on the number found on their website.

Of course, you don’t have to take a tour. You can rent a car, drive to Xpujil, spend the night in a hotel, wake up early and drive yourself into the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve. 

Just know that unlike other ruins around Mexico, there are hardly any signs to tell you what you’re looking at and you may not see as many wild animals. 

one of the calakmul ruins tucked inside the jungle

These Maya ruins in Calakmul were some of the most magical I have ever seen.

Where to Eat in Xpujil

If you decide to head to Xpujil for a night or two, you’ll need to eat.

Most of the places are along the main road which is also the highway. It’s a massive truck-stop area, so this is where you’ll find the best and cheapest options.

These were my favorite spots, click the links to see their location and opening hours on Google.

  • Restaurante Bistro Mahuaha: Cheap, but tasty burgers
  • La Pizzeta: The best pizza in town (doesn’t really say much, but it was pretty decent)
  • La Tejita: classic Mexican fare, good prices.
  • Genesis: The best place for good Mexican food. This would be my top recommendation for dinner.

Abel’s mom also runs a small restaurant called Loncheria Paty, but I can’t seem to find it on Google. It’s along the main street, the same as the above restaurants.

She makes seriously delicious empanadas (I’m pretty sure it’s just to the right of this place), but if you take a tour with Abel, be sure to ask him!

Renting a Car in Bacalar

If you are spending most of your time in Bacalar and want to rent a car in Bacalar so that you can self-drive to Xpujil, then I highly recommend renting from Explora Rental Car. 

This is a family-run business with brother and sister usually running the office. Both speak a bit of English.

There aren’t actually that many cars. They basically have one of each size. We went into the office about 3 days before we wanted to rent the car, but we were traveling during a low time when it wasn’t so busy. 

If traveling during peak times (Easter or Christmas weeks or in summer right after school gets out), then be sure to message them on Whatsapp (on the number on their website) so that you can get the car you want.

Like many small rental companies in Mexico, the price includes everything. There are no extra or hidden fees. You pay a flat rate ($50 a day for the cheapest car) and you get full insurance, roadside care, etc. 

The cars are relatively new, but not so new that you’re afraid to get it dirty. 

Head to their website to learn more about their rental car options, just avoid emailing. I sent several emails about renting a car and they don’t seem to check the emails very frequently.

If you would prefer a cheaper option, you’ll need to rent a car in Chetumal. This is quite convenient if you are flying into the Chetumal airport or are getting here by bus before moving onto Bacalar or Calakmul.

There are plenty of rental car options here because of the airport like Enterprise and National. Read more about my thoughts on renting a car in Mexico if you have other questions about this.