It was obvious we were going to die. The roaring had started at around nine-thirty in the morning, when we were halfway up Structure II, one of the tallest Mayan pyramids in the world, and had continued on and off ever since. Every now and then it would grow quiet or cease altogether, and we, the only tourists in nearly two million acres of jungle, would allow ourselves to relax a little. But then it would start up again, louder and closer and more intense than before, and our grips would tighten on our very large sticks, which we were pretty certain we were going to have to use to break open the jaguars’ skulls when they attacked. Of course, when I say “sticks,” I really mean “club-like branches”: Calakmul is not merely Mesoamerica’s largest and most significant archaeological site (not to mention one of its least visited), it is also home to one of the largest jaguar populations in the world, and we were not taking any chances. Or at least, not until we were forced to take one, which, eventually, we were: the only way out of the biosphere and back to the car was along a path that lead directly through the roaring, which was coming from over a lushly vegetated rise that was coming up alongside us on the right. Making every attempt not to make any noise, we tiptoed along, our branches cocked, while the roaring reached a crescendo no more than twenty metres away from us. There must have been five or six cats over there! Consulting Google later that evening, to confirm how close we’d come to death, we were dismayed to find that the sound of jaguars in the wild was only a little like the sound we’d heard. Further Googling dismayed us further. The big sticks had been completely unnecessary. The sound we’d heard had not been a jaguar at all. We’d been tiptoeing away from a howler monkey.
Words by Matthew Clayfield / Photos by Austin Andrews
Fertile Rubble: Trees grow on one of Calakmul's nearly seven thousand structures. Located thirty-five kilometres from the Guatemalan border in the Mexican state of Campeche, the city is the largest and most important archaeological site in the Mayan world.
The Great Pyramid: Calakmul's Structure II is one of the tallest in the Mayan world and houses four tombs. This view was taken from the slightly smaller Structure I. A direct reference to these structures, "Calakmul" means "City of the Two Adjacent Pyramids" in the Mayan language.
A Well-Manicured Ruin: Palenque's Temple of the Inscriptions contains the tomb of K'inich Janaab' Pakal, who ruled the city state for nearly seventy years. Located in the state of Chiapas, Palenque is one of southern Mexico's most popular tourist destinations.
The View from the Steps: Calakmul's Structure II, which is forty-five metres tall.
Stairway to Heaven: Calakmul's Structure II. The archaeological site, which mostly covers some twenty square kilometres and consists primarily of residential structures, was discovered by air in 1931.
This Machine Kills Jaguars: On top of Calakmul's Structure I, Matthew prepares to murder a big cat in the interest of self-defence.
Not Quite Jaguars: Two of Calakmul's resident spider monkeys. In addition to being home to five of Mexico's six species of big cat—including jaguars—Calakmul is also the natural habitat for three hundred and fifty species of bird, ninety-four species of mammal, and sixteen hundred species of plant.
A Sea of Green: Looking out towards Guatemala from Calakmul's Structure II as one of the site's minor structures pokes its head through the jungle canopy.
A City in the Mist: Palenque from its highest point, the Temple of the Cross, which is the largest temple in the Cross Group of structures that also includes the the Temple of the Sun and the Temple of the Foliated Cross.
Rebuilding a Ruin: Scaffolding flanks Palenque's Palace complex, which contains a number of well-preserved sculptures and bas reliefs. The complex's four-storey observation tower is visible in the background.
Structural Work: Construction work on Palenque's Palace complex. The Temple of the Inscriptions is visible in the background.
Siesta in the Ruins: Workers take an afternoon nap at Yagul, an archaeological site in the state of Oaxaca associated with the Zapotec civilization. Occupied during the Spanish Conquest and its residents relocated, Yagul was excavated in the 1950s and 1960s.
If These Walls Could Talk: One of the Cross Group temples looks down on the ruined walls of Palenque's Palace.
Temple Views: A tourist—one of the thousands who visit Palenque each year—alights the Temple of the Cross. Arriving at the site first thing in the morning affords a visitor two pleasures: the chance to experience the ruins while they are still shrouded in mist and the run of the place before the tour buses and hawkers begin arriving.
An Eroded Maze: A worker's wheelbarrow overlooks the ruined walls of Yagul's Palace of the Six Patios.