Calakmul Biosphere Reserve

This vast jungle with prowling jaguars, ocelots, scarlet macaws, screaming eagles, and howler monkeys—2,660 square miles (6,883 km2) in the southern Yucatan peninsula—adjoins 5,160 similar square miles (13,360 km2) in Guatemala and Belize. Together these three reserves make up the second-largest tropical forest in the western hemisphere—second only to the Amazon— a habitat with some of the greatest diversity of life on the planet!

Counts of fauna and flora, still incomplete, include among 94 kinds of mammals more wild felines than any other North American reserve—five, including jaguarundis, margays, and pumas—as well as 329 kinds of birds and 1,500 kinds of plants, many endemic or endangered.

Long-tailed spider monkeys scream shrilly in treetops. Endangered water-loving tapirs wade in alongside endangered Morelet’s crocodiles. Tamandua or collared anteaters climb trees after choice insects. Ocellated turkeys vibrate multihued iridescent plumage. Curly-crested turkeysized great curassows boom resoundingly for mates. King vultures shake orange wattles. Colorful toucans and raucous parrots seek out ripe fruit.

Almost a third of the avian species are increasingly rare migratory neotropical songbirds. Threatened hawk-eagles are among 30 raptors. Spectacular orchids of 40 species cling to tree trunks. Many plants furnish traditional Mayan medicines as yet unstudied.

The Mayan city of Calakmul thrived here in 500 AD leaving massive pyramids, fascinating relics such as a large renowned jade mask and more Mayan stelae than anywhere else.

Threats, especially in Guatemala, include poaching both of animals and lumber, along with slash-and-burn farming. Environmental groups are working with citizen groups to educate and start programs of local benefit that will avoid exhausting natural resources.

Lodging is available at nearby Xpujil. Roads are unpaved—travel should be attempted only during the dry season October–June.