The Rio Bec region includes most of the southeastern portion of the Yucatan, the area where the borders of modern-day Mexico, Belize, and Guatemala all come together. There are a number of important Maya sites in that region, and they share a common suite of distinctive architectural traits, known, collectively, as the Rio Bec Style. The biggest and baddest of the Rio Bec kingdoms? That would have been Calakmul, located in the southernmost part of what is now the Mexican state of Campeche. Calakmul dominated the lesser cities in its corner of the Maya World, in the same way that Coba dominated its neighbors in the north. They were contemporary with, and peer to, not only Coba, but to Tikal, to Palenque, to Uxmal, to all of the major Mayan centers that reached their peak in the Classic Period. Of all of these famous Mayan archaeological sites, Calakmul is perhaps the least well known, not only to the general public, but to the scientific community as well, largely because of the site’s relative isolation. Until quite recently, there was no passable road anywhere near the place, so those who wanted to go had to hoof it in on foot. And when they got there? So few of the buildings had been cleared, there really wasn’t much to see. All that has changed. The road was finally built, a paved road, no less, and at the site, a number of important buildings have been properly and thoroughly excavated by research teams and are now accessible to visitors. Research at the site has been ongoing for a bit more than 20 years–a painstaking process that continues to produce important finds. It’s still relatively isolated–which helps to keep it relatively unspoiled. You have to travel two hours from the nearest town of any size just to get to the turnoff, and the road south toward the ruins, even though it’s new, is still typical back country Mexico. It’s only 60 km, but that will require at least another hour of driving, complete with topes (killer speed bumps). A bit of touble? Yes, but for any true Maya aficionado, it’s definitely worth the trip. For one thing, Calakmul boasts the largest Mayan pyramid ever built! (Emphasis on Mayan).
Calakmul. Photo from the History Hub
A massive structure that rises up out of the jungle to a height of 148 feet, with a base that’s close to 400 feet on each side? If bigger is better, this thing takes the prize, and the surrounding forest is so thick that it grows back almost as fast as they can chop it away. There are tours available, leaving from Chetumal, in the state of Quintana Roo, as well as from Escarcega, in the state of Campeche, but if you go on your own, in a rental car, for example? You’ll probably have it all to yourself. Visiting Calakmul will give you a taste of what it would have been like to tramp around in any of these major Mayan ruins in the century gone by, before the crowds and the vendors, before the cosmetic restoration and the T-shirts and the faux Mayan curios made in China. 95% of Calakmul remains completely hidden, so you get to look at the overgrown mounds, choked with thick jungle growth, and you get to imagine. There’s nothing quite like that feeling.
However you get to Calakmul, you should allow a minimum of two full days, and, ideally, you should combine it with some of the other Rio Bec sites in the area–keeping in mind that the closest decent lodging is in Chetumal, or Escarcega, neither of which is all that convenient. On my own recent trip to the Yucatan, my time, sadly, was not unlimited, and Calakmul was just a little bit too far out of our way. Looking back, I regret skipping it, so I made a promise to myself: Calakmul is still on my bucket list. One of these days I’ll get back down there, and next time? I’ll take the time.
I didn’t want to skip the Rio Bec sites altogether, so we stopped at two that didn’t require any detours: Becan and Chicanna, which are directly across the highway from each other, off Mexico Route 186. We were traveling from Tulum to the city of Campeche, on the Gulf Coast, following the southern route across the lower part of the Yucatan, and that route was going to take us right past those two sites. We’d set a leisurely pace for the day. We left Tulum early that morning, stopping first at the ruins of Muyil, just 20 km to the south. (I described Muyil in detail in my previous post, “Coba and Muyil: Mayan Cities in Quintana Roo”). After Muyil, we kept going south to Chetumal, on the border of Belize–but we didn’t stop there. Less than a week earlier, Chetumal had been the scene of devastating floods that destroyed large sections of the city and a fair bit of their infrastructure:
Newspaper from October 20, 2015. We had a small problem with the weather at that point. Click for expanded view.
The rainy season in southern Mexico is nothing to joke about. We were there in October, which, in an average year, is the last of the wet months. Statistically speaking, that last month of the rainy season is often the wettest of the lot, so my plan to travel at that time of year was a calculated risk. Crowds would be minimal, I reasoned, and that was a good thing. So what if we ran into a little rain? Ha! When we passed through Cancun a few days earlier, we hit the fringes of the same storm system that caused the “Collapse” of Chetumal (see newspaper headline, above). There was so much rain coming down, in such a short span, that there was water in the streets all the way up to the floorboards of my Jeep. Major boulevards were running like rivers, and this was in a modern, master-planned community built with what should have been adequate drainage. In an older urban center, like Chetumal–places that didn’t have the benefit of any sort of planning, where every piece of ground that was halfway flat has a structure on it? Places like Chetumal are a recipe for disaster. Hit them with a “once-in-a-lifetime storm”, one of those lollapalooza gully-washers that seem to be happening with alarming regularity these days? The result will be devastation–collapse–and tragic loss of life. At exactly the same time as this east coast storm, the west coast of Mexico was being slammed by Hurricane Patricia, officially the most powerful hurricane ever recorded, and there were fears that the two systems might collide over central Mexico. That didn’t happen, praise be, but we paid very close attention to the weather reports during that particular week. It’s easier now than it has ever been to stay current with the weather forecast–using your smart phone, the televisions in the bars and hotels, whatever you’ve got. That’s one aspect of modern life that you probably shouldn’t leave behind when you’re traveling about the planet, even (or especially) when you’re off the beaten path.
Click map to enlarge.
On the day in question, we bypassed Chetumal and turned due west. After about 123 kilometers, we left the state of Quintana Roo and entered the state of Campeche. Less than 5 km beyond that, we spied the following sign:
This one was NOT on my bucket list–truth be known, I’d never even heard of it before circling it on my map just a few days before. It had the virtue of being directly along our route, so, why not stop? The first thing we saw walking in was this, the official map of the site, and this map had a feature I’d never seen on any other:
A moat! This Mayan city had an actual moat? Okay, I was officially intrigued. The Mayans didn’t build moats, and yet here, in this place, they’d done exactly that. What secrets lay buried here, within that unique line of defense?
Becan was an independent, self-sustaining City-State, not subordinate to any of the larger centers, such as Calakmul or Tikal. The settlement was first occupied a very long time ago, as early as 550 BC, in the early pre-classic period, and by around 250 AD it had grown into a major population center. The 60 acre site was indeed completely surrounded by an artificial moat, 16 feet deep and 30 feet wide that was built as a barrier against invasion. Dirt and stones removed from the excavation were used to build a fortified wall just inside the moat, creating a formidable double line of defense that puts a lie to the notion that pre-classic Maya were a purely peaceful people. Archaeologists gave the city its name based on this feature: the Mayan word Becan meaning “ravine formed by water”.
There was a surge in the population of Becan around 500 AD, the same time period that saw most of the monumental construction in the ceremonial center. Just as at many other Mayan sites, that construction reached a peak, then essentially stopped by around 830 AD. At that point, the city went into a slow decline, only to be abandoned altogether around 1200 AD. This is consistent with the mysterious collapse of the Mayan civilization in the 13th century, the period when the great majority of the large Mayan ceremonial centers fell out of use, and their remaining populations migrated to other areas. The reason for the collapse is not fully understood, but it’s widely believed that a period of extended drought caused crop failures that made it impossible to sustain the large populations in the vicinity of the larger cities. Ongoing crop failures caused famine and mass starvation, a reduction in the population, a breakdown in the social fabric, and, for those who survived, forced migration to other areas that were better suited to sustainable agriculture. That’s a theory, one of several, but it’s supported by studies that seem to indicate abnormally low precipitation in the region during this time period. We’ll probably never know exactly what happened, but until a better theory comes along, or until further research proves otherwise, we can blame that perennial bad boy: climate change.
Most of the structures in Becan were built in the Rio Bec style. Instead of the traditional step pyramid topped by a temple, as found in other locations, the Rio Bec sites built wide structures with twin towers on either end that narrowed toward their tops, giving the illusion of greater height. Much about this architectural style was based on illusion: common elements include staircases that go nowhere and serve no function, false doorways into alcoves that end in blank walls, and buildings that appear to be temples, but are actually solid structures with no interior space. In these locations, form won out over function, and the massive structures were–no joke–strictly for show.
The largest edifice at Becan. The buildings at this site were never given fanciful names, in the manner of most other Mayan cities, so this classic example of Rio Bec architecture is known simply as Structure IX.
Chicanna is on the other side of the highway, just 2 km from Becan. It’s a fair bit smaller than its neighbor, and has no particularly large buildings. Still, it’s a rather interesting site in its own right, with some unique features. The name means “House of the Serpent Mouth” in the Mayan language, which is a fair description of its most famous building, officially, “Structure II” a free-standing portico representing the stylized mouth of a serpent, complete with teeth:
House of the Serpent Mouth: Click for an expanded view
You’ll need to use your imagination to visualize this, but the ornate carvings surrounding this portico (above) represent the eyes, the snout, and the teeth of a snake. The open doorway is the mouth, hence the name, “House of the Serpent Mouth”. That’s “Chicanna”, in the Mayan language: Chi (mouth) Can (serpent) Na (house). It’s thought that the priests would disappear through this door during ceremonies, to symbolize their entry into the underworld to commune with the gods. Back in the day, the wall would have been painted, so the eyes and teeth would have stood out garishly, and with the priests in their elaborate feathered costumes, that little bit of stagecraft would have been quite a spectacle! Awe inspiring? More likely terrifying to the common folk.
Chicanna was first occupied around 300 BC, about 50 years after Becan got its start, and was abandoned around 1100 AD, which was about 100 years sooner than Becan. It’s thought that Chicanna was actually an exclusive enclave for Becan’s elite, a segregated suburb for the rich and famous. The houses were finer, the temples more ornate. Nothing was too elaborate for the noble folk, and when times were good, they lived like kings. Chicanna peaked early, from the time of its founding until around 250 AD, and it remained, throughout its existence, intertwined with its patron, Becan. There’s nothing big here, no pyramids, just an assortment of smaller structures, done in a hodge-podge of architectural styles.
There’s a Rio Bec influence, as might be expected:
Typical Rio Bec architectural style structure, featuring twin towers, false pyramids, on either end of a basal platform.
This is combined with the Chenes style, as exemplified by the serpent mouth doorway, and by the front facade of this building, Structure XX:
The entire front side of Structure XX is a giant zoomorphic mask in the Chenes architectural style
There is also a bit of Puuc influence, apparent in the elaborate facades with geometric patterns on the upper portion of some of the buildings, including the back side of Structure XX, the tallest structure at Chicanna:
Elaborate geometric patterns on the upper facade of Structure XX are typical of the Puuc architectural style
These two sites are absolutely worth visiting, but unless you just happen to be passing by, the way I was, my recommendation would be to combine these with a trip to Calakmul, and possibly to Rio Bec, or El Ramonal (which you’ll pass right by on your way to Calakmul). If you do go, however you get there, you’ll find these all-but-empty Rio Bec sites a delightful change of pace from the jam-packed attractions closer to Cancun.
Click the thumbnail (above) to view a gallery of photos from Becan and Chicanna. Be sure to click the “i” symbols in the lower right corner of your screen to view captions.