Rio Bec

The Ruins of Calakmul in the Rio Bec Region

What with all my visits to the Maya ruins in Yucatan, Chiapas, Guatemala, and Honduras, you would think I would be getting tired of the endless ruins. Well, not yet! One incredibly dense region of Maya ruins is in the southeast corner of the state of Campeche, known as the Rio Bec region. Included are such archeological sites as:

  • Calakmul, with Tikal in the Petén region of Guatemala, perhaps one of the largest Maya cities at its height 1,500 years ago
  • Xpuhil (pronounced shpoo-HEEL)
  • Balamku
  • Chicanna
  • El Hormiguero (“The Anthill”)
  • Rio Bec
  • Becán

And these are only the better known ones, and even some of these are difficult to get to because they are at the end of dirt tracks in the jungles of the region.

Maya Ruins at Chicanna

Unlike many of the better known ruins in the state of Yucatán, those of the Rio Bec region are in steaming monkey jungles. The only town of any size is Xpujil near the eponymous ruins, and it’s only a blip on the long road between Francisco Escarcéga and Chetumal. To visit any of these ruins requires reserving a chunk of time, from three days to a week. Public transportation is virtually nonexistent, and the only places to stay (and not a large selection at that) are clustered around Xpujil.

To do the Rio Bec area any justice, I would have to rent a four-wheel-drive vehicle. Still, I would love to go. I would have to pack a lot of insect repellent (like 100% DEET) and be prepared for some really dicey shit. Hey, if it’s on my travel bucket list, you can bet it’s no cakewalk.

Unfinished Business Abroad

The East Fjords of Iceland

I still have places to see. Even though I have been to Iceland, Argentina, and the Yucatán Peninsula of Mexico several times each, I have missed a number of destinations. These are just some of them.

Iceland’s Far Northeast

I have been to Egilsstaðir where I had to change buses on my way to Höfn and Hornstrandir, but I have never seen Iceland’s wild northeast coast between Seydisfjorður and Borgarfjörður Eystri. As my brother once told me, I am drawn to wild and desolate places—probably because I have lived most of my life in the United States’s second largest city.

This is one trip for which I would have to rent a car, as public transit here is mostly potty. And I would have to be prepared for bad weather at any time of the year. But with a good four-wheel-drive vehicle, I think I can hack it.

Southeastern Campeche State

Look at All the Maya Ruins Along Route 186 in Campeche

Back in the heyday of the Maya from around AD 600-800, the southeast of the State of Campeche was where it was happening. Particularly important was Calakmul, which was a major competitor to Tikal in Guatemala’s Petén region. The only town of any size in the area is Xpuhil. Ruins include Balamkú, Chicanna, El Ramonal, La Muñeca, Hormiguero, Xpujil, and Rio Bec.

This is one trip where I would have to hire a guide with a car. The accommodations and dining are probably acceptable, but not great. And I would need to apply large amounts of DEET insect repellent, as this area is jungle and thinly inhabited now.

Argentina’s Patagonian Coast

The South South Atlantic

I am intrigued by this wild coast and would love to visit Rio Gallegos, Puerto San Julian, Puerto Deseado, and Comodoro Rivadavia, the port from which Argentina launched its attack on the Falkland Islands, or the Islas Malvinas, as they insist on calling it to this day.

The extreme South Atlantic coast of the provinces of Santa Cruz and Tierra del Fuego are very much unfinished business. In 2006 in broke my shoulder in Ushuaia, which forced me to cancel my ride via a TecniAustral bus to Rio Gallegos, from which I planned to work my way north back to Buenos Aires. But, as the pain was too much to bear, I had to fly back to the United States and get better.

In 2011, Martine and I flew from Ushuaia to El Calafate, and thereupon on to Trelew and Buenos Aires. I’d love to do it by bus, at least as far as Comodoro, from where I could fly the rest of the way.

Obviously, I still have places to go.

The Perfect House

Courtyard of the Casa Montejo in Mérida, Yucatán

When most Americans think of the ideal house, they always see it as set back from an immaculately manicured front lawn. Perhaps owing to my hatred of mowing lawns, I much prefer the Mexican house, which presents a blank face to the street—no windows, one regular-sized door—and with a delightful courtyard which can’t be seen from the street.

I cannot for the life of me see myself doing anything on a front lawn other than working my butt off. But a courtyard, that is a different matter altogether. I could set out a chair and read there, or talk to my friends, or even have breakfast.

Courtyard of the Former Archbishop’s Palace in Mérida

In Latin America, you can live in a beautiful house—as seen from the inside—and not have to worry about what the neighbors think. When I think of sliding glass doors opening onto decks, I wonder if most American houses are secure from theft and home invasions.

Street in Campeche: No Front Lawns Here

Above is a typical street in the center of Campeche. Some of the buildings are businesses; other, homes of the well-to-do. There isn’t much zoning in effect.

Truth to tell, unless I win the lottery, I cannot see myself as owning a house. And if I could somehow afford one, my idea of the perfect house would come into conflict with zoning regulations and local customs. I will probably continue to live in an apartment, where I don’t bother my head about perfection in any sense of the word.

Pirates of the Caribbean

Statue of Pirate on a Bench in Campeche

It was by no means one of the gold and silver ports used by the Spanish treasure fleets (those were in what is today Panama), but the city of Campeche, Mexico, was the main port of Yucatán from the 17th through the beginning of the 19th centuries. The city’s wealth came primarily from a plant used for dyeing textiles called palo de Campeche, salt from evaporation, and shipbuilding. The result was that the city was frequently attacked by pirates.

The most prominent of these were the Dutchman Laurens de Graaf, called Lorencillo, and Jean David Nau, called El Olonés. Of the latter, it was said:

He committed innumerable and famous stumbling against the Spanish viceroyalty of the mainland. In a terrible storm, he lost his ship on the coast of Campeche. All the men were saved, but, arriving on land, the Spanish persecuted them by killing most of them, and also hurting the Olonés. Not knowing this how to escape, he thought about saving his life through a ploy: he took several handfuls of sand and mixing it with the blood of his own wounds he smeared his face and other parts of his body. Then, hiding with great skill among the dead, he remained motionless until the Spaniards left the field of struggle. Since they were gone, he retired to the forest, sold his wounds and took care of them until heal and then headed to the City of Campeche perfectly disguised. In the city, he spoke with certain slaves to whom he promised freedom in case they obeyed him. They accepted their promises and stealing a canoe at night, threw themselves into the sea with the Olonés.

Surviving Fortifications in Campeche

Other pirates included Sir Francis Drake, John Hawkins, Cornelius Jol, Portuguese Bartholemew, Jacobo Jackson, Michel de Grandmont, Henry Morgan, and finally Jean Lafitte, who helped Andrew Jackson win the 1815 Battle of New Orleans during the War of 1812.

What the Spanish and the people of Campeche did was to fortify their city, surrounding the center with walls on all sides and putting separate fortifications on the north and south.

The Fortress of San Miguel, South of the City

With independence from Spain, the pirate menace eventually abated. But many of the walls (baluartes) that surrounded the city still exist and are walkable. You can also visit the two large fortresses that protect Campeche on either side.

 

Unfinished Business with the Maya

The Three States on the Yucatán Peninsula

I have not been to the Maya parts of Mexico since 1992, when I traveled to the Yucatán Peninsula with Martine and several co-workers at Urban Decision Systems. Now I am thinking of going again. My January trip to Guatemala only whet my appetite for more.

On past trips, I have seen the ruins at Chichén Itzá, Uxmal, Dzibilchaltun, Acanceh, Mayapan, Palenque, Tulum, Kabah, Labna, Sayil, and Xlapak. I would not mind seeing Chichén, Uxmal, and Palenque again, and perhaps even spending a little time at Valladolid and Izamal, which I have not seen. New destinations would include several Maya ruins in the State of Campeche, most notably Calakmul and Edzná, and Bonampak and Yaxchilán in the State Of Chiapas. The latter two can be seen on a tour from Palenque.

The most problematical destination is Calakmul, which may possibly have been the largest Maya city at one time—perhaps even bigger than Tikal in Guatemala. The problem is that the southeastern edge of the State of Campeche has not yet been sufficiently developed for tourism by the Mexican government. I can possibly get a tour from either the city of Campeche or of Chetumal in Quintana Roo.

Maya Structures at Calakmul

There is also the possibility of Cobá in Quintana Roo. I might visit it if I have to go to Chetumal to set up a tour for Calakmul. Otherwise, I would be reluctant to run into the passenger ship mobs that dock at Cancun and the Maya Riviera.

Two cities I would love to re-visit are Mérida in Yucatán and Campeche in the state of the same name. Both are delightful places that positively reek of contemporary Maya culture, with hints of the Mexican mestizo culture and—oddly—an admixture of Lebanese and Syrian, due to the merchant classes that set up there in the 19th Century.