The Maya have made Belize a fascinating treasure trove of ancient temples, pyramids, palaces, observatories, towns and cities, boasting magnificent repositories of pottery, stone carvings, paintings, and relics in gold, jade, obsidian – a feast for the intellect and the senses, laid out for the edification of the modern traveler.
Although evidence of the Maya is found across present-day Guatemala, Mexico and Honduras, many cultural anthropologists believe that Belize was the epicenter of this ancient civilization. Archaeological findings establish the Maya as a skilled and clever people who worked to optimize their planting, harvesting, irrigation, and the use of resources to promote prosperous lifestyles in tune with their environment – an example our current world politico-economic systems could generally stand to better emulate.
The religion of the Maya bears strong similarities to that of ancient India, involving a belief in the importance of the cosmos and its direction of human life. Godliness is assigned to natural phenomena, and worship recognizes and respects both the benevolence and malevolence found in nature; the need for propitiation is recognized… Also, the socio-political structure included a hierarchy of priests, elites, artisans and farmers, very similar to the caste-based society in India around the same time.
Belize’s tourism industry is the organic outgrowth of an incredible natural environment and a fascinating ancient culture. Belize’s potential as a premier adventure travel destination first began coming to light around the time of Belizean independence in 1981. Archaeologists made significant progress in the 1980s deciphering Mayan hieroglyphics, gaining deeper insight into this mysterious culture and spurring something of a Maya revival. NASA satellite technology revealed over 600 previously-shrouded sites and temples beneath the rainforest canopy. As recently as the 1990s, which saw the onset of the “eco-craze” in Central America, the tourism industry in Belize first gained recognition as a viable source of revenue.
With the government’s investment in archaeological projects – $30 million in the year 2000 – what was previously thought of as a “lost” culture is once again becoming a living entity. Modern descendants of the Belize Maya survive in various ethnic subgroups including the Yucatec, the Mopan, the Kekchi and the Xol. They continue to speak the ancient languages and showcase ancient rites and skills by engaging with traditional ceremonies, crafts, clothing, cuisine, and medicinal practices, offering today’s culturally-conscious Belize travelers a glimpse of the past.
Because of their location and nature many historical and cultural experiences do not require a tour guide allowing one to be spontaneous and on one’s own schedule.
The ancestry of this newest nation in Central America is still being discovered. Belize is thus an archaeologist’s paradise with numerous live sites across the country turning up new treasures. The Maya, best-known among the classical civilizations of Mesoamerica, originated in the Yucatán around 2600 BC. Their civilization reached its zenith around AD 250.
The main must-see sites on any visitor’s agenda include the following:
- Xunantunich (“maiden of the rock” or “stone woman”), a Classic Period ceremonial center and one of the most-visited sites in Belize.
- Altun Ha, rich in exotic, indigenous wildlife, and a major ceremonial and trade center of the Classic Period. The Jade Head, representing the Mayan Sun God, Kinich Ahua, is housed here.
- Caracol (“shell”) at the end of a challenging, uphill, scenic drive is the largest known Maya center that holds Canaa (“Sky Place”) the largest pyramid in Belize at 140 feet.
- Cahal Pech (“Place of Ticks”) was inhabited from 1000 B.C. to 800 A.D.
- Santa Rita dates from 2000 B.C. Remains of jade and mica ornamentation, gold ear decorations, and examples of Swasey-style pottery show that the Mayan city played a commanding role for trade.
- Lamanai (“submerged crocodile”) was a large ceremonial center, inhabited for two millennia. Approach by road or water-taxi makes for an exciting jungle cruise, viewing birds, exotic plants and reptiles. Due to its longevity, several periods of Maya construction techniques, from the Classic Period to the Post Classic are on display here.
- From 400 B.C. to 100 A.D., Cerros (“Maya Hill”) was a pivotal coastal trading center. Today, Cerros is partially underwater, but what remains is stunning – temples, plazas, and a canal system.
- Barton Creek, in the Cayo District, has great natural beauty. Artifacts, hearths, and human remains deposited on ledges above the river indicate that the cave was of great ritual importance.
- Nim Li Punit (“the big hat”) was the ruling dynasty’s place of worship. The name is derived from a stela carving portraying a figure with a massive headdress.
- Lubaantun (“Place of Fallen Stones”) was a Late Classic ceremonial center with distinctive southern Belizean architecture. The large pyramids and buildings are constructed of dressed stone blocks with no mortar binding them.
This modern-day cultural revival was not free of controversy. Maya human rights activist and Nobel Prize winner Rigoberta Menchú protested the world’s view of the “mysterious” Maya heritage, stating: “We are not the myths of the past, or ruins in the jungle; we are people, and we want to be respected.”
Today, the new understanding of the past has fostered a changed attitude. The Maya culture is a source of pride, a defining feature of Belizean identity, and an endless source of discovery and wonder.