The municipal seat of Calakmul, Xpuhil (also spelled Xpujil) is a town of about 3,000 people in the middle of the huge Calakmul Biosphere Reserve. It is not exactly remote, however: Highway 186, which connects southern Campeche State with the capital of Quintana Roo, runs right through the middle of town. Xpuhil is a supply center for 82 small communities within the far-flung municipality of Calakmul. Established in 1996, this sparsely populated county has about 27,000 inhabitants, many of whom emigrated from elsewhere in Mexico in search of opportunities. Xpuhil has a Wild West feel, with shops and a few restaurants and basic hotels clustered around its main street.
On a recent visit, we visited the archaeological sites of Calakmul Biosphere Reserve, including fabulous Calakmul itself as well as smaller but still wonderful Becán, Chicanná, Hormiguero, and Xpuhil. Winter temperatures, while plenty warm, were not too high, and the humidity relatively low. Visiting during the summer rainy season means more mosquitos, sweltering heat, and fewer opportunities for visiting places accessed by a dirt road. For example, I’ve been to the area three times but never been able to visit the Río Bec archaeological site, which is not far from Xpuhil but on a dirt track.
On this trip we were fortunate to tour the area with Roque Camacho, secretary of the city council, local entrepreneur, and a big Xpuhil booster. One day he took us around Chicanná and Becán archaeological sites. There we met up with the knowledgeable young guide Enrique Rodríguez, who explained early Maya history and talked about the plants and animals of the area. The next day we set out early to visit the ruins of Xpuhil and Hormiguero as well as several small, rural communities.
Rediscovered in 1938, Xpuhil was first inhabited in the pre-Classic period, approximately 300 BC. Some 20 groups of buildings are spread over a large area, but only the center of the old city has been restored, and this is the part that can be visited. Most of the buildings in this central area were residential, no doubt housing the more important citizens. Evidence includes decorated sleeping benches built into walls and niches where cloths were hung to separate one room from another, giving privacy.
The Rio Bec style architecture predominates. Long, low buildings have rounded corners, false stairways, and lateral towers topped by false, crenellated temples. Facades were stuccoed and decorated with zoomorphic masks, some representing the earth monster, Itzamná, others a stylized jaguar or other figures.
Building I, called the Three-Tower Building, was constructed at the highest point of the site. A Rio Bec-style palace or temple, it sits on a platform with rounded corners. It has a wide front stairway and, as its name implies, three solid towers, which taper in diameter as they ascend. Remains of zoomorphic figures grace the three entryways. Constructed around the VII century, it was inhabited by the ruling elite. Subterranean spaces may have been used to bury their dead or to store food. Archaeologists don’t have enough clues to say for sure.
On to Hormiguero and Rural Hamlets
After a brief tour of the Xpuhil site (its name in Yucatan Maya means “cattails,” for the water-loving plant that grows nearby), we continued to Hormiguero, named “ant hill” for the looters’ tunnels that snaked through the site by the time archaeologists began their formal, sanctioned excavations. Although only a handful of structures have been restored, the site is well worth visiting. Carved stone masks honoring the rain god, Chac, and zoomorphic figures adorn building façades with geometric mosaic designs.
After visiting Hormiguero, we took a narrow, paved road to Ejido 20 de Noviembre, a settlement of about 600 people. Established around 1967, its one- and two-room plank houses are painted bright colors, and have tin or thatched roofs. Because they are within the Biosphere Reserve, options for making a living are limited; large-scale farming and logging operations are discouraged. Several local families have launched handcraft co-ops, and Roque Camacho is anxious to help spread the word and promote their work (as is The Nature Conservancy, which supports the endeavors of this sustainable tourism project through the work of another not-for-profit organization, Pronatura Península de Yucatan). We first stopped at a shop called Las Amapolas, where Sra. Maria Margarita and her daughter Sarita sell embroidered bags, table runners, and other items made by themselves and other local women. I bought a muslin bag embroidered with a zoomorphic ear of corn, just to be supportive.
Next we visited Sra. Rosa María’s shop. She sells elaborately embroidered huipiles (sacklike dresses typical of the Yucatan peninsula), men’s shirts, and filipinas (house dresses) made on a beautiful old sewing machine. Some of the garments are made to order, but if she doesn’t have much in stock, she also sells bags and hammocks. Her pink-painted house at Calle Adelina #17 was cozy and bright, with a thatched roof.
A few blocks away, Sr. Mateo and his wife, Sra. Ofelia, make bowls, platters, and statuettes of local hardwoods. I bought two shallow bowls that I admire every time I see them in my kitchen, and wish I’d bought more. Our last stop was the home of Sra. Ester Estrella, who sells homemade soaps and honey from the stingless Yucatan bee, melipona. Unfortunately, it was getting late in the day, and no one was home.
Finally we crossed Highway 186 and heading north toward Hopelchén (in northern Campeche state), took a drive to Zoh Laguna, founded in 1947 to exploit mahogany lumber. Today the logging operation is closed and, with just about 1,000 inhabitants, the village slumbers in the tropical sun. Its little wooden homes are cheerful and well-maintained, with neat front gardens. At the office of the abandoned saw mill we met up with Sr. Marciano Ramírez, who worked at the saw mill and was later retained to keep an eye on the deserted buildings. The 84-year-old told us that although he hasn’t been paid in a while, he continues to live in his old office, along with his daughter and grandson. (He has a bad heart, he says, and isn’t going anywhere.) There are several lodgings in town, which is just about 14 km (9 miles) north of Xpuhil.
Another eco-touristic project in the area is La Raiz del Futuro, in the community of Carrizal near the Hormiguero ruins. The village was settled in 1980; townspeople keep bees and sell honey, hammocks, aromatic candles, and woven goods. They have opened lodgings which are supposed to give outsiders the opportunity to participate in small-town life, but apparently not all of the townspeople are down with the project, which hasn’t totally gotten off the ground. We didn’t have a chance to visit, but if you are in Xpuhil and looking to promote grassroots entrepreneurism, ask around and check it out, along with the businesses mentioned above.
One of Mexico’s safest and richest states---rich in culture if not in per capita wealth---Campeche has many wonderful Maya ruins and, in this way-off-the-beaten-path area near the Guatemala border, a sense of Mexico’s rural roots. It feels like an earlier, less complicated version of Mexico: one that I highly recommend visiting.