Visiting these little-known Mayan ruins is like having a private tour of one of the world's most amazing historic sites.
Have you ever imagined what it might be like to visit one of the world's most amazing historical sites with no other tourists, and have it all to yourself?
A private tour of the Parthenon in Athens, perhaps, where there are no ropes stopping you from venturing inside. Or maybe an early morning walk around Stonehenge, walking right up to the huge stone plinths and touching them, trying to feel the history seeping through the stones?
How about the Great Pyramid of Giza? Imagine being able to scale the heights unimpeded, climbing all the way to the top and gazing across the Sahara just as the day is breaking.
A private tour for sites like these might be in reach for the world's rich and famous, but not for us mere mortals.
But what if there were still places like that, little discovered ancient wonders, remote and magnificent, where there are so few tourists that you really can have the place to yourself?
Well, in Campeche, Mexico, we found such a place, the once mighty city of Calakmul, set deep in the jungle of the Mayan lowlands of Mexico.
When you think of Mexican Mayan ruins, what comes to mind? For me it was always Chichen Itza in the Yucatán Peninsula, the place of pilgrimages and mysticism, or the ruins of Tulum, mysterious and inviting, overlooking the sparkling Caribbean Sea.
Before going to Mexico I had never heard of Calakmul, a Mayan superpower rivalling Tikal to the south, a huge ancient city home to a rich Mayan culture and war mongering kings.
We discovered Calakmul quite by accident. A Mexican friend sent me a link to a promotional video for the Yucatán Peninsula, in which a grandfather and his small granddaughter explore the many sights of this culturally rich corner of Mexico.
In the video the grandfather and his granddaughter climb a stunningly remote pyramid, surrounded by lush jungle and the requisite exotic animals - spider monkeys, toucans, howler monkeys, and the like. I thought "I want to go there!".
We did some research and found out this magical place was Calakmul, a remote ancient city in Campeche, which is one of the provinces that forms the Yucatán Peninsula. Despite Yucatán being the most visited area of Mexico, very few people have even heard of Calakmul, let alone visited there.
Calakmul was only "discovered" in 1931, however after some excavation work up to 1938 archaeologists did not return to the site until 1982. Archaeologists are now saying that this was perhaps the biggest Mayan city that there ever was.
Since 1982 there has been some excavation work, however so much of the site still remains untouched - of the identified 6750 ancient buildings only a handful have been excavated and most of the buildings still lie sleeping under the jungle.
Set deep in the jungle, Calakmul is so remote you really do need a car to get there, which is definitely part of its appeal.
The site itself is 60km from the main road that links Campeche with Quintana Roo, which runs in parallel to the border of Mexico and Guatemala.
Once you arrive at the turn off you enter a national park, and 6km from the park gates is a campsite where you can bring your own tent or rent one that is already erected.
The entrance to Calakmul is another 20km away, and then it's another 30km drive or so to actually get to the site.
We spent two nights camping in the jungle, surrounded by spiders and wildlife, and woken up nightly by the haunting cries of howler monkeys. Camping was part of the adventure and meant we could get up early and get to the site when it opened at 9am.
The days are hot and humid, and the site needs at least four hours to walk around.
Amazingly, there are no hawkers or stalls — far from finding a trinket or souvenir, you can't even buy a bottle of water. On the day we journeyed there we saw four other people — yes, four! — and that was only at the gates. Once in the site we were on our own.
Through the campsite we found a local English speaking guide who chaperoned us and shared what history is known about Calakmul as we explored the site — soaring pyramids, a market place, tombs, sports fields, dwellings of the aristocracy.
During the whole time we walked around the site and clambered up the pyramids (no ropes holding us back here!), we didn't see another soul.
In a country as populated, and as popular, as Mexico, to have such an experience was magical — we really were having a private tour of this magnificent ancient city.
The pyramids that have been excavated are huge, and visitors are allowed to climb all over them (unlike many of the more popular sites).
The most impressive is the 55m Structure 2, a pyramid which soars high above the jungle canopy. Climbing to the top, watched by our spider monkey friends in the trees, we could see only jungle in every direction. No buildings, no power lines, no mobile phone towers. Just lush green jungle and a private world at our feet.
Some of the buildings that have been excavated are so well preserved inside that they have been closed up again, to keep intact the history and the stories they hold.
We saw photos of inside the ancient market place, resplendent with murals in bright reds, oranges, golds, telling stories of daily life, rich treasures offering clues to a past civilisation rich with culture. It looked as if the murals were finished yesterday.
As I closed my eyes, standing there surrounded by trees, pyramids and birds, I could almost hear the chatter of the ancient Mayans, going about their daily business in this once thriving city.
On the way back to the campsite we stopped by a the water hole set back from the road in the jungle. Silently we crept towards the water, where we saw a huge wild deer quenching its thirst, crocodiles wallowing and toucans flying.
The jungle was truly alive and our hearts skipped a beat as a toucan flew so close we could almost touch it. Later that evening we visited a bat cave a few kilometres up the road. There were no signs, but we were pointed in the right direction by a local, and witnessed around four million bats flying out at dusk to feed, swirling above us in a tornado of fluttering wings.
Again, we were alone, another private tour for this Australian family. It really was quite something.
IF YOU GO
We stayed: Camping in Yaax'che.
We recommend: Stopping for lunch at the Hotel Puerta Calakmul — the rib eye was out of this world (and a great price), and they even let us cool off in the pool after lunch.
Rachel Sainsbury is a travel writer, digital producer and teacher. She is currently travelling indefinitely with her husband and two children through Central America. Follow their travels at udreamido.com.