We had two excursions into the tropical rainforest jungle of Belize, which offered windows into the world of the ancient Maya. Last year, when we were in Arizona, we visited the Tuzigoot National Monument, which lies in the Verde River floodplain in Cottonwood. Tuzigoot was built by the Sinagua people between 1125 and 1400 CE.; in Apache, it means “crooked water.” But in Belize, we have visited structures thousands of years older. It’s so hard to grasp.
On Easter Sunday, we traveled a short distance to the Mayflower Bocawina National Park. Arwyn once again was our driver, and our guide along the Southern Highway. In terms of parks, it’s rather compact (11 square miles), but it packs a big wallop. We chose the mostly vertical 2.9K hike up to Antelope Falls, where we ditched our hiking gear and bags, changed in the middle of the forest into bathing suits (there’s nothing as exhilarating as stripping to the skin under cover of giant palms and praying that nobody comes along), and swam in the cool swimming hole formed by the Antelope Falls waterfall. It would’ve been nicer had we had the swimming hole to ourselves, but we enjoyed ourselves all the same. Two small Maya pyramids and nine other structures that were occupied in the late 9th and early 10th centuries are located here. The whole park, for the most part, seemed to have only 10 or 15 people … beyond the swimming, we rarely ran across other humans. On the way home from Bocawina, Arwyn stopped along the Southern Highway, surrounded by Valencia Orange groves, to let us pick a couple of oranges (it’s how we learned to select them). The groves, we learned, are owned by a man in Florida who most often just lets them fall to the ground. The crop from most of the groves is turned into concentrate and makes it way to Florida, where it’s labelled “Florida orange juice.” Tsk, tsk. But they were some pretty good damn oranges, however they’re labelled.
Our next journey into the jungle was on Tuesday, when Santos took us up into the Maya Mountains, to the Maya archaeological site Xunantunich (pronounced shoo-nan-two-neesh). It’s about a mile from the Guatemalan border, and Santos told us the neighboring countries didn’t always have good relations. Santos, by the way, was remarkable. At one point in his life he leased farmland in the Maya Mountains, selling cacao beans to Hershey’s in PA. Cool, right? We rode a hand-cranked ferry across the Mopan River to reach the ruins. Xunantunich is estimated to have been occupied as early as 1,000 BC, making it two millennia older than that of Tuzigoot. There are three main plazas at the site, with the dominant structure being El Castillo (there’s a photo of my family there). El Castillo rises 130 feet high, with NO guard rails on the way up or down, and is the highest structure in Belize. From the top, on a clear day, you can see for about 11 miles; most days you can see the Guatemalan border, just a mile away. There are a couple of plaster friezes at the site. It’s amazing that we got to (a) actually climb El Castillo and (b) got to touch the friezes. We told the mini me that once the Belizean government caught up with tourism, these things would likely be roped off and no longer accessible to visitors. We learned that the bedrock forms the foundation of many of the structures, but the variety of stones brought in were carried by hand, not cards, meaning the primitive/formative Maya were extremely strong (short) people. In the side-show, you’ll see photos of the ruins, where mounds of earth and grass cover parts of the structures. Before they were excavated (and they’re still in the process; it’s very expensive and slow-going), all but the top levels of El Castillo were covered. Beneath the earth is perfectly formed and preserved stone. Cool, huh?
Simple things, like the way our Mayan guide, Edri, would refer to the people who built El Castillo as “the formative Maya” stick in my mind. Or the way our guide Santos, who took us along the Hummingbird Highway and up into the Mayan Mountains, talked about how “the primitive people followed the animals; when the animals ran, so did the people,” in reference to the destruction incurred at the hands of Hurricane Hattie in 1961 and not standing on the shore watching the ocean, wondering what was happening.
Here are some great sites with information on Maya archaeological sites in Belize: