Heading east from Structure XIII at the Gran Acrópolis, bear left to Structure XIV, a rare “two-sided” temple with stairways on either side of the structure. It dates to the Late Classic era and has stelae marking the year of the temple’s construction, A.D. 740. Climb up and over Structure XIV—or take the path around—and continue beneath the trees to the Gran Plaza. As in the Gran Acrópolis, make a counterclockwise loop through this large plaza, keeping the buildings to your right.
The first one you pass is Structure VI, a large pyramidlike temple with two reasonably well-preserved stelae at its summit; some of the original red paint is still visible. The structure’s precise orientation suggests it was used for astronomical purposes, primarily observations of the sun; it is aligned with Structure IV, on the opposite side end of the plaza, allowing Maya astronomers to mark the yearly equinoxes and solstices.
Continuing on, you’ll encounter Structure V, a small square temple surrounded by well-preserved stelae. Dates on the stele are from the 7th century, and the glyphs and images commemorate accomplishments of Yukom the Great and his father, Scroll-Serpent.
And then there’s the big guy: Structure II, also known as the Great Pyramid. It forms the southern edge of the Gran Plaza, rising 53 meters (174 feet) over a hefty five-acre footprint. It’s the largest Maya pyramid yet discovered, and the highest in the Yucatán peninsula. Unlike sites like Chichén Itzá, where the most impressive structures were built relatively late, Structure II dates to the very beginning of Calakmul’s rise to power, in the Pre-Classic period.
The huge stoic masks flanking the central staircase were covered by subsequent additions, and were discovered only recently. Structure II has proved a treasure trove of Maya artifacts: several exquisite jade funeral masks have been found in elaborate tombs housed in temples at the top of the structure (a total of nine such masks have been found in Calakmul, more than any other site, and are displayed in Campeche City).
More recently, archaeologists discovered a perfectly preserved temple deep in Structure II’s core (à la the Rosalila Temple in Copán, Honduras.) The temple is still being excavated, and is off-limits to the public, but in time visitors may be allowed to view this inner sanctum via a short tunnel about halfway up the main stairway.
Climbing Structure II is a must for most visitors, though it’s no easy task—use the right-hand staircase, as it’s in the best condition.
Continuing around the Gran Plaza, Structure IV is the oldest building in the group, and one of the oldest in the city. Its core sections—others were added in later years—date to between 300 B.C. to A.D. 250. Structure VII completes the loop around the plaza; it was here that one of Calakmul’s most recognizable jade masks was found.
Climb Structure VII for one last look, over the treetops, of Structure II in all its glory. And if you’re there in the late afternoon, you may spot a family of howler monkeys that gathers in the Gran Plaza’s trees.
From the Gran Plaza, a path cuts between Structures IV and VII and back to the entrance and parking lot. For those who can’t get enough, two more structures await your exploration: Structure I, another huge pyramid, is visible from Structure II, though it remains almost completely ensconced in dark green vegetation.
To get there, look for a path on the east side of Structure II. From Structure I, another path leads to the Structure III, a Petén style structure and the principle temple in the East Group, the oldest part of the city. Structure III is unique for apparently having never been altered; two jade masks were found in tombs here. From the East Group, a path leads back to the Grand Plaza.
© Gary Chandler & Liza Prado from Moon Yucatán Peninsula, 9th edition