Mysteries of the Maya

The Maya may be best remembered for doomsday “predictions.” But real mysteries about Mayan culture can be found in the jungle of Belize

  • Standing 130 feet high, the Mayan temple El Castillo is still one of the tallest man-made structures in Belize.  Photograph by Jeremy Beeler/
  • El Castillo's stucco friezes depict Mayan gods. Photograph by Adam Derewecki /
  • Xunantunich. Photograph by Gary Yim /
  • The view from the top of El Castillo is definitely worth the climb. Photograph by Ramunas Bruzas /
  • Actun Tunichil Muknal cave entrance. Photograph by Blue Ice /
  • Hieroglyphic texts at Caracol. Photograph by Zimmytws /

The ascent to the summit of El Castillo is not for the faint of heart. If the hike up an imposing stone staircase doesn’t leave you breathless, the narrow footpath (sans handrail) along a sheer drop-off is enough to give anyone a touch of vertigo. But the view from the top is definitely worth the hard work. Every angle is picture-postcard-perfect. Rolling hills carpeted by varying shades of jade rainforest extend as far as the eye can see, before the horizon gives way to azure skies dotted with fluffy cotton clouds.

Standing 130 feet high, the Mayan temple El Castillo — located at the archaeological site of Xunantunich, about eighty miles west of Belize City — is still one of the tallest man-made structures in Belize. Xunantunich — pronounced Shoo-nan-ta-nich by locals — is a Mayan name, meaning Stone Lady or Maiden of the Rock. It’s said to derive from the legend that since exploration of the site by archaeologists began in the late 1890s, visitors have seen a woman with glowing red eyes and dressed in white haunting the steps of El Castillo. The apparition then disappears into one of the temple’s stone walls. Ghost stories aside, a recently discovered ancient stone carving has revealed the original inhabitants once called the site Ka-at Witz, or Supernatural Mountain.

The ghost isn’t out today, but Xunantunich definitely lives up to the other one of its names. The view from El Castillo does seem supernatural — a simultaneously mystifying and serene sight. I take it all in, and a distinct sense of peace washes over me, as warm as the wind wreaking havoc in the leaves of the canopy below. Years of extensive excavation and restoration work have revealed an impressive scene. Before me, three sprawling grass-covered ceremonial plazas are surrounded by the white-grey remnants of temples and palaces. Beyond the clearings, three more plazas as well as more than 140 mounds — remnants of ancient Mayan homes — are yet to be excavated.

No visit to El Castillo is complete without a closer inspection of its extraordinary stucco friezes, carved on the eastern and western walls of the structure. The elaborate carvings depict the gods of creation, rain and moon gods, the royal family, and the Cieba — the tree of life, which the Maya believe extends from Xibalba (the underworld) through earth and into the heavens. The East Frieze features symbols associated with Mayan astronomy and ideology, including the Bacabs, responsible for holding up the sky.

Admiring the view from El Castillo, I find myself trying to imagine what life might have been like in Xunantunich’s heyday. (Though originally settled earlier, by 400 BC it was a significant centre of activity, survivng until circa 1000 AD, when Xunantunich was deserted by its inhabitants.) Based on the discoveries made by archaeologists, this was clearly an important religious centre at its peak. I imagine Mayan leaders — dressed in robes of colourful bird plumage, adorned with intricate jewellery — standing at this very spot, proudly surveying their kingdom. A shiver runs down my spine as I imagine grisly sacrificial offerings made to the gods to bless crops with good weather. For centuries, archaeologists have made it their mission to discover what caused this proud civilisation to collapse, but today there are still more questions than answers. The silence of pondering the mystery is suddenly shattered by the blood-curdling cries of some of the few modern-day residents of the site — troops of black howler monkeys — lovingly referred to as the “noisiest animals in the forest.” Their jarring calls to each other echo through the trees for miles.

Every year, tens of thousands of tourists travel to Belize to explore the wonders of the country’s archaeological attractions. Xunantunich has the distinction of being the country’s first archaeological attraction opened to the public. It’s also incredibly easy to access: the site is just a few minutes off a main highway, eight miles west of the tourist-friendly twin towns of San Ignacio and Santa Elena. The Succotz ferry crossing to the site provides unique photo opportunities of the picturesque Mopan River. But most important, and like several others of Belize’s archaeological sites, excavations are ongoing at Xunantunich — so new discoveries are made every year.

According to renowned Belizean archaeologist Jaime Awe, it’s that last point that has firmly established Belize’s central role in the rise and prosperity of the ancient Maya civilisation. “Belize contains some of the earliest lowland Maya settlements, some of the largest Maya cities, as well as the remains of several communities that challenged Spanish attempts to dominate them in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries,” says Awe. “There is no question that Belize’s archaeological sites, with all their related legends, myths, and unique contributions to scientific knowledge, are a must-see for either the casual visitor or the archaeology aficionado.”

And the Maya have recently occupied a significant place in the world’s social consciousness, given the drama and hype that surrounded the end of the Mayan Long Count calendar on 21 December, 2012. The calendar spanned more than five thousand years (5,125 to be exact), and was once used to document the ascension of new royal families and the legacies of dynasties. For a number of people, the end of the calendar was a sign of Armageddon. But for Awe, it was always just a new beginning. “It’s very much the way most people would look at the end of one year and the beginning of another, but over a very, very long period of time. It’s a time for reflection and for considering future direction.”

No matter what direction you take when you first arrive at Xunantunich, you always end up feeling like you’re on hallowed ground. Retracing the steps of the Maya evokes a feeling of reverence like few other experiences. And the growing fascination with Mayan culture has created unprecedented opportunities for tourists to search for their own answers among the ruins — and among the Mayan descendants that still make Belize their home. Word to the wise: a number of modern Maya make their living as tour guides, so for a truly authentic experience, hire one of them to learn as much as possible about the site — and simultaneously support local sustainable tourism efforts.


Land of the Maya

Xunantunich is just one is several sites where you can experience the ancient Mayan heritage of Belize — shared with nearby Guatemala, Mexico, and Honduras.

Altun Ha (Water of the Rock)
Belize District
Belize’s crown jewel, a ten-pound, six-inch-high jade head — the single largest carved jade object yet to be discovered in the Mayan world — was found at Altun Ha. Truly a work of art, the jade head is a cultural icon for all Belizeans. Located an hour from Belize City, at Altun Ha visitors can explore ancient temples and learn about the Maya community that mined for flint and traded treasures of the Caribbean Sea.

Actun Tunichil Muknal (Cave of the Stone Sepulcher)
Cayo District
“ATM” was ranked the number-one sacred cave site in the world by the National Geographic Society in 2012. Visitors swim through the entrance and then hike for about a kilometre to the beautiful main chamber, filled with sparkling stalactites and stalagmites — not to mention the skeletal remains of fourteen individuals, approximately one hundred and fifty ceramic vessels, and several ground stone artefacts.

Lamanai (The Submerged Crocodile)
Orange Walk District
One of the largest prehistoric Mayan cities in Belize, Lamanai has the longest history of continuous human occupation. Spanish conquistadors tried hard to convert the Maya inhabitants to Roman Catholicism. But as soon as the priests left, rebels burned down the church and reverted to their beliefs. Today, three hundred and fifty years after they were built, the masonry walls of the sanctuary as well as a small stela and altar can still be seen at the site. Take a river boat tour to the site to see a wide variety of wildlife, including crocodiles.

Lubaantun (Place of the Fallen Stones)
Toledo District
One of the most impressive features of Lubaantun is that its structures were built without mortar — each stone used at the site was carefully measured and cut to fit exactly to form a solid wall. In addition to hundreds of beautifully molded, life-like figurines of humans and animals, a crystal skull, perfectly carved from a single piece of quartz crystal, was discovered here.

Caracol (The Snail)
Cayo District
Belize’s largest Mayan site — dwarfing present-day Belize City — Caracol is home to the Caana, or Sky Palace, a 140-foot pyramid with three temples at its peak. Rediscovered in 1937 and under long-term excavation, it contains a particularly rich trove of hieroglyphic texts carved on dozens of stelae.


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