In Belize, Mayan History Comes to Life

Archeologists now believe that Belize was once the center of the Mayan world, densely populated by a civilization advanced in art, architecture, mathematics and astronomy. For thousands of years before Christ to a thousand after, the Maya dominated this area of the world. The Maya population, in its heyday, was several times the population of Belize today. The Mayan people lived in thatch and plaster villages, with their elite living in palace-like residences. They worshiped in temples, in their caves and in their cities, and while new discoveries are being made every day in Belize, Cayo appears to be the epicenter of the population with some of the country’s most impressive sites including Caracol, in the Chiquibul area, Xunantunich, in Benque Vejo and Cahal Pech in San Ignacio.

Many people ask, “What happened to the Maya?” We know that the population was in crisis between the 8th and 9th centuries and eventually abandoned their temples and cities, but they are still here. The people have become one of the colorful threads in the tapestry of Belizeans that live here today.

Hidden Valley Inn provides convenient access to the Mayan world. Discover past and present cultures by visiting ancient Mayan archaeological sites and modern day rural villages. Four of the main Mayan sites are accessible from Hidden Valley Inn and other Mayan tours include caves in the area, where artifacts including carvings, pottery and even ancient skeletal remains exist.

Caracol is the largest of the Maya sites found in Belize today. Located 35 miles from Hidden Valley Inn, deep in the Chiquibul Wilderness and cloaked in jungle, it is difficult to appreciate the extent of this mighty city in one breath. Excavation and preservation of Caracol began in 2000, with the restoration of Caana, The Sky Palace. Caana stands at 140 feet tall in what was once the center of this city. Today, it is still Belize’s tallest man-made structure and boasts impressive views of the surrounding jungle.

Caracol consists of more than 4,000 structures spread over 55 square miles. Exploration of this temple has led to the discovery of, among other things, a large hieroglyphic panel which describes solstice rituals conducted by Lord Kan II in approximately 7AD and a frieze of the Witz Monster Mask which represents the sacred mountain.

Approximately three hours across the border into Guatemala lies Tikal, one of the greatest of all Classic Mayan cities with its spectacular temples penetrating through the thick jungle canopy. The flora and fauna are almost as spectacular as the temples themselves. Howler monkeys, spider monkeys and coatimundis are seen regularly as well as an abundance of exotic birds.

Twenty-five miles from the Inn on the banks of the Mopan River and three miles from San Ignacio lies Xunantunich. A unique hand-cranked ferry takes you over the Mopan on the way up to the entrance. The main temple, the 130-foot El Castillo, is the second tallest temple in Belize and is surrounded by a stone and stuccoed frieze, decorated with Mayan glyphs. Some of these friezes have been restored and others are in their original state.

Cahal Pech is one of the most overlooked and most beautiful sites in the Belize archeological treasure trove. The reason for its small reputation may be its billing as a “smaller site” and, although it may not rise to the heights of Caracol or overlook the border to Guatemala, Cahal Pech offers both a beautiful setting and fairly complete story of Mayan city life. Built in 1,200 BC and abandoned in 800-900 AD, Cahal Pech provides archeologists a picture of the first settlers in the Western area of Belize. A population of relative sophistication, ceremonial platforms, carved pottery and objects of jade and obsidian were found.

In its heyday, Cahal Pech was not a vast temple, but a thriving city of trade in the Classic Period between 300 BC to 300AD. It sits in the center of the Belize River Valley Region, between the Macal and Belize Rivers, as a passageway to larger interior cities like Caracol, Tikal (Guatemala) and El Pilar.

The site has been well restored and showcases how the Mayan structured their plaza areas including the areas for the common community, administration and elite residences. In addition, a ball court and two round dance platforms have also been restored, offering a view into Mayan community life.

During their fieldwork, archeologists found that generation after generation constructed their residences on top of one and other. For example, beneath several of the Middle Classic structures (500-700 AD) are Late PreClassic structures (300BC-250AD). An opening demonstrating this remains covered only by a grate for viewing and scientists believe that these generations of buildings represent the generations of families.

Cahal Pech has been restored not only as an archeological place, but with a park-like setting. Trees crop up through the plaza providing shade and beauty and stone paths make the site easily accessible for most.

The site is in the town of San Ignacio and the tour is about 1-1.5 hours.

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Demonstrating the domestic customs of the Yucatac Mayan, the San Antonio experience begins with a tour of the village’s open air, thatched-roofed kitchen which includes an authentic Mayan stove, or fogon, and a matate where the maza, or corn dough, is made. In addition to preparing the various dishes of the Maya culture, visitors learn about pottery. Clay brought up from the nearby riverbed is soaked and wedged and formed into sculpture, pots, plates and cups. A demonstration is given, followed by lunch.