4 mins

Mayan Belize

The caves and jungles of Belize harbour both ancient Mayan ruins and the villages of the modern-day Maya

(Michael Schamis)

The Brothers Grimm were Mayan.

I came to this conclusion while stepping gingerly through a vast subterranean cathedral, in search of a crystal maiden preserved forever in a hidden chamber.

To reach this point, I’d trekked through jungle, narrowly avoiding a lethal fer-de-lance snake. I’d swum into the cave’s dark entrance, waded through cold creek water slick with blind catfish, and marvelled at the shimmering curtains and pillars of calcite adorning the caverns. I’d jumped at the shadow of a huge jaguar, whose jaws yawned in my headlamp’s flickering beam, and tiptoed past grinning skulls embedded in the rock.

Fairytale stuff indeed. So it’s no surprise that this cave of wonders was sacred to the ancient Maya, and an important piece in the puzzles being unravelled by Belizean archaeologists today.

What’s more surprising is that these treasures are guarded by neither mystical beasts nor locked gates. Although access is restricted to two small, well-trained operators, limited numbers of travellers are permitted to tread – carefully – among hundreds of years of Mayan history: a unique museum in situ.

Central western Belize is dominated by the karst outcrops of the Maya Mountains, their limestone ridges riddled with cave systems. These grottos served a multitude of purposes for the Maya: water sources, food stores, places of refuge and ceremonial sites. The entrances to the majority of the sacred caves were buried in the jungle and forgotten after the collapse of the Mayan civilisation, only rediscovered in the past couple of decades.

Actun Tunichil Muknal, my fairytale cave on the edge of Tapir Mountain Nature Reserve, is a short jungle hike and three river fordings from the nearest roadhead. I rolled up my trousers and started walking.

Underworld, overwhelmed 

At Tunichil’s hourglass entrance, sunlight shimmered off the limpid pool at the cave’s mouth. Lighting our head torches, we slipped into the water and swam into the gloom.

The beams of our lamps cast bizarre shapes on the rocks – a phenomenon that didn’t escape the Maya, as Ben Cruz, my Mestizo guide, explained. “The ancients modified rocks and stalagmites so the shadows resembled sacred things. See the jaguar’s mouth? The Maya believed that the jaguar descended into the underworld – Xibalbá – each night, leaving his spots above as stars, a promise of his return in the morning.”

Tunichil penetrates eight kilometres into the mountainside; visitors follow in the footsteps of the ancients, wading upstream – sometimes armpit-deep – to reach the key spots. Crouching to avoid sharp dolomite outcrops, I felt as if we were embarking on our own descent into the depths of Xibalbá.

After almost an hour’s splashing, we clambered onto a broad shelf five metres above the creek. Ben became more serious. “Remove your shoes, tread only where I step and watch for relics – they’re hard to avoid.”

I looked up and my lamp beam swept the cave floor, revealing dark shapes scattered all around: blackened terracotta ollas – large pots – broken on the base to free ancestral spirits believed to be trapped in Xibalbá. Between them, skulls leered up at us as we tiptoed through to the ‘cathedral’, an echoing chamber of towering stalagmites and calcite curtains.

We picked our way between the artefacts to reach a ricketty ladder leading to a narrow passageway and the small chamber that gives the cave its name: Actun Tunichil Muknal – Cave of the Stone Sepulchre.

Here, over a millennium ago, a teenage girl was sacrificed. Her bones remain, now covered with a glittering layer of calcite. She’s known as the crystal maiden, and she’s as beautiful and mysterious as someone dead for 11 centuries can be.

The chill I felt as I gazed down at her wasn’t caused by the damp cave air. Who was she? Was the blade lying nearby used by her killer? Why was she chosen?

Her life was cut short in an echo of the fate of her civilisation. For almost 2,000 years the Maya dominated Central America until quite abruptly, around AD 900, the great cities mysteriously emptied, their temples, ball courts and plazas abandoned. The Maya dispersed into small villages, leaving the jungle to overwhelm their once-proud structures.

But in the villages of south-western Toledo district their descendents preserve the ancient traditions of their forebears. I headed south to explore the lives of the modern Maya.

North to South

Belize is a small country made big by a lack of infrastructure. There are only five roads to speak of. The trip from Tunichil to Toledo – though only around 100km as the crow flies – takes the best part of a day.

The compensation was a glorious ride along the Hummingbird Highway, skirting the Maya Mountains. Quaintly named villages of stilted houses in peeling pastels flashed by: Teakettle, Gallon Jug, Monkey River and Belmopan – the nation’s pocket-sized capital, a less-than-bustling metropolis of 7,000 inhabitants.

Taking a five-minute sightseeing detour into Belmopan, Ben slowed at a junction to wave at a 4WD. “That’s the prime minister’s car… actually, that’s the prime minister driving the prime minister’s car.” Tick: my first national head of state.

Earlier I’d passed a sign at Belize Prison, a ramshackle construction ringed by listing fences, inviting passers-by to ‘visit our gift shop and internet café’. A relaxed country? Masterful understatement.

Belize is a whippersnapper – 24 years old this September – with a small population coming to terms with its diversity. Creoles, Mestizos, Garifuna, Lebanese, Taiwanese, East Indians, Amish-like Mennonites – all rub shoulders in this fledgling nation.

Belize’s three Mayan groups have mostly slipped to the fringes. But among the ruins of great ancestral cities lie living Mayan villages – which travellers are just starting to discover.

Place of fallen stones

The largest ancient site in southern Belize, Lubaantun was once a wealthy city, trading with communities in Mexico, Guatemala and beyond. Overtaken by jungle, its plazas, temples and ball courts crumbled thanks to the destructive power of vegetation and the dynamite-assisted ‘excavation’ methods of early adventurers – hence the Yucatec name, meaning ‘Place of Fallen Stones’.

I explored the ruins with Santiago Coc. His dark eyes and aquiline nose, as well as his passion for the site, betray his Mayan heritage. Caretaker for 30 years, Santiago worked on the site’s last major excavation in 1970; what he doesn’t know about Lubaantun isn’t worth knowing. A basilisk scuttling between the rocks was the only sign of life as Santiago began to interpret the site’s secrets, discussing the fine dovetailed stonework, unique rounded corners and the moulded ocarinas (whistles) still being unearthed.

The central plazas and three main buildings have been reconstructed, and they’re big: thousands of workers hauled the stones to their hilltop positions. But the sense of jungle waiting patiently at the edges to reclaim its own is palpable.

The city’s three ball courts held a special fascination. I was reminded of Bill Shankly’s comment about football – not a matter of life and death: “it’s much more important than that”. Players of the Mayan game were believed to be descending to Xibalbá when they entered the court; for some this was terrifyingly literal: experts debate whether it was the winners or losers who were sacrificed to the gods.

The site, with others nearby, is still sacred for the Maya. “Lubaantun was rediscovered by local Mayan peoples in around 1875, and they were still performing rituals here at the end of the 19th century,” Santiago explained. “When an archaeologist tried to investigate older sites he was driven away by villagers defending the ruins.”

The grassy slope back down to the track serves as a marketplace for young girls to display their crafts, and a playground where boys kicked around a misshapen football. Actually, the boys are there to sell crafts too – they’re just not as motivated, and it’s easy to see why. On a busy day, Lubaantun might see a dozen visitors: great for soaking up the atmosphere minus tourist groups; not so good if you’re one of 20 vendors trying to sell embroidery and baskets to a trickle of visitors.

Cash can be scarce for the Maya. They grow maize, beans and vegetables, but it’s two commodities – one new, one very old – that are helping: tourism and cacao. 

Village life

A mile or two down the road from Lubaantun, the Kek’chi Maya village of San Miguel has 526 inhabitants (the sign had been recently repainted, so I’m pretty sure of my figures). There’s one small store, a primary school, a well-kept football pitch, three churches and two bars – Paradise Bar and Two Cans Watering Hole, replete with pool table and Kenny Rogers soundtrack.

Wooden, single-room palm-thatched huts are interspersed with concrete block, zinc-roofed buildings and blossoming bougainvillea. Hens and pigs scratch around in the dirt next to washing stones where women smack the hell out of the laundry. Down at the river, lads hunt spiny, metre-long iguanas – “Delicious in stew with onions, garlic and peppers.” The flavour? Like chicken, of course.

San Miguel is one of 11 villages in the Toledo Ecotourism Association (TEA) programme, encouraging travellers to experience daily Mayan life first-hand, and bringing in much-needed cash. The families in the village rotate duties – guiding trips, playing music, taking visitors to Mayan healers, telling traditional stories, hosting meals – so everyone gets a chance to share in the dollars. And because everyone knows why you’re there, there’s no sense of voyeurism or resentment.

Dolores Ack squatted over the clay stove in the corner of her beaten-earth kitchen hut. She was mashing beans and mixing hot peppers with callaloo in a battered pan, while her mother and niece slapped maize tortillas on a round iron griddle. The glow from the fire lit the room, its smoke curing the pork back hanging above it and scenting the hut.

Mayan people appear very diffident; it’s normal for women in particular to look away from you when you’re speaking. So squatting at the foot-high table with the family while they relaxed at dinner was a great way to get an insight into their lives.

Chocolate & cheers

Husband Pablo lolled in a hammock after his day’s work, his two children gazing shyly from behind, while Dolores talked about their marriage. “We’d never met before our parents arranged the engagement, which lasted for a month.” She spotted my surprise: “That was quite fast; some people are engaged for two or even three months before marrying.”

After I’d mopped up the last of my beans with tortilla, Dolores brought a glass of chocolate made with warm water and ground beans – some traditions of the ancient Maya live on. Gritty and bitter, it was a sharp antidote to the somnolent effects of the smoky, warm room and low lighting, and reminded me of cacao-bean-motif ornaments Santiago had described at Lubaantun.

I wondered if the villagers still performed rituals there. “Not any more; we go to sacred caves nearby,” said Pablo. “For example, if a crop is being destroyed by insects, we burn incense in the cave, along with 12 insects, and perform a ceremony to remove the plague.”

After dinner, most villagers go either to church or to bed, ready to wake at 3.30am for an early start in the fields. I left Dolores and Pablo to sleep and strolled down to the bridge over the Rio Grande.

Perched on the railing, Kenny Rogers to my right battled with Kek’chi hymns to my left; God seemed to be winning, in terms of both patronage and volume. But though most of the villagers are Christian, they don’t see a conflict between faith and traditional ways. As Pablo asserted: “I am Christian, but I’m also Mayan. I celebrate my heritage, and treasure the stories and lessons of my people.”

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