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From Sacred Caves To Mayan Ruins: Exploring Cayo, Belize

Traversing The Caves And Ruins Of Cayo

When we think of Belize, it’s easy just to be captured by the images of white beaches, turquoise waters, hammocks, and piña coladas. 

It’s easy to think you’re in a land that time and history forgot, with little past and an indefinite future.

But, while newcomers to Belize might have forgotten the history pertinent to this part of the world, history has not forgotten Belize.

In fact, many consider the main jewel in the crown of Belize to be her rich and ancient Mayan roots and heritage.

A Brief History Of The Maya In The Region

The Maya highlands were first settled around 11,000 years ago with the migration of humans across the land- and ice-bridge between Northern Europe and North America that existed at the time.

These peoples branched off into tribal groups that became the native populations of the Americas. 

In approximately 2000 B.C., the Maya people began farming, and this allowed growth in population centers, specialization of labor, the evolution of cultures, and the emergence of empires.

The Maya occupied an area that is modern day Belize, Honduras, Guatemala, and the Yucatán Peninsula of Mexico. They were actually not a collective group, but instead were made up of many tribes that were always warring and making pacts with each other. 

Small kingdoms were conquered by larger ones and had to pay tribute to their new rulers.

Here are some of the most spectacular Mayan archaeological sites in the Cayo region… 

Xunantunich

Xunantunich was a medium-sized city and a vassal state to stronger cities like Caracol and Tikal.

Despite its modest size (only 22 acres of central ruling-class buildings, totalling only 1 square mile in size), its buildings are some of the tallest in Belize.

Situated about 8 miles from San Ignacio and 1 mile from the Border with Guatemala, Xunantunich is one of the most accessible and interesting ruins in Belize.

Directions: Drive out on the Western Highway from San Ignacio until you reach Succotz village, which is on the Mopan River. If you go by bus, they will drop you at the ferry if you ask.

The hand-cranked car ferry runs from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. The parking lot to the site is less than a mile walk uphill from the ferry.

Entrance is US$7.50 but is well worth it.

Inside you can avail the tourist education center and enjoy full access to the ruins.

Xunantunich means “stone maiden” and was named by the hunter who discovered it, claiming to have seen an apparition of a woman at the site.

Peak Civilization Was 650–900 A.D. 

Xunantunich was abandoned in the 900s and was briefly reoccupied in the post-classic period.

Its main temple, El Castillo, still stands at 130 feet, making it the second tallest building in Belize.

Thomas Gann began the initial excavations in 1892 using explosives, inadvertently destroying more than he was discovering.

It wasn’t until the 1990s that proper scientific excavations began.

Boasting 2 alters and 8 stelae, 6 plazas and 25 palaces and temples, elite residential centers, and a ceremonial center, Xunantunich was, and still is, a spectacular site to visit.

If you are up for it, climb to the top of El Castillo and see the view for miles.

Actun Tunuchil Muknal (Cave Of The Crystal Sepulchre)

For the Maya, caves were entrances to the underworld and refuge for evil gods that demanded sacrifices.

This tour is without doubt the most unique and spectacular archaeological tour in Belize.

The cave was discovered in 1989 and has been open to the public since 1998.

Inside you see skeletons, ceramics and ancient artifacts, stalagmites and stalactites, and the Mayan underworld.

One of the most unique artifacts is the Crystal Maiden, a skeleton of an ancient sacrifice calcified into a sparkling crystalline monument to history.

 

Other calcified artifacts litter the cave system.

This is such a sensitive archaeological site that only specially licensed tour guides are allowed to operate in the cave. You must book in advance with licensed guides if you want to visit.

Located in the Tapir Mountain Nature Reserve in the Cayo district and accessed from the highway at Unitedville village, the cave is about 3 miles long. 

When you arrive at the parking lot, it takes 45 minutes to hike to the cave. The journey involves crossing streams and actually swimming into the cave. Once inside, you do need to wade through water for about a half-mile to access the main chambers.

Because of the somewhat strenuous nature of the tour, you must be capable to hike and swim, and remember to bring dry clothes for the drive home.

This tour of the sacrificial cave is spectacular, even winning international acclaim through the National Geographic Society, which has rated it the world’s number one in their list of “Top 10 Sacred Caves.” 

The TV show Ghost Hunters International also filmed an episode in Actun Tunichil Muknal, but it seems that the vengeful spirits weren’t in that day. 

Caracol

Caracol is the largest Mayan site in Belize and was one of the oldest, largest, and most politically important in the ancient Mayan world.

Originally named Uxwitza (Three Water Hill) after one of the ancient rulers there, it was later called Caracol (the snail) in reference to the spiral pattern of the access road leading to it… or maybe due to a huge population of snails that lived there.

Located 25 miles south of San Ignacio in the Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve, it can be quite a drive to get there.

Coming from San Ignacio, you drive up the Cristo Reye road in Santa Elena and continue through San Antonio into the Mountain Pine Ridge Reserve. 

Coming from the city, you take the left turn at Georgeville, about 7 miles before San Ignacio, and enter the reserve from that direction.

The trip requires a two- to three-hour drive due to the unpaved road that’s in bad condition. The good news is that the road is now in the process of being paved, and travel time will soon be drastically reduced. 

Bring a map.

History Of Caracol

Caracol was discovered in 1937 by Rosa Mai. Soon afterward, excavations were begun by A. H. Anderson.

The largest building in Belize is the main pyramid in Caracol, Ca’ana or “Sky Palace,” standing at 140 feet. 

The city-state occupied nearly 80 square miles. 

The ruling elite numbered about 15,000 at the peak of the empire. The total population of this city-state was estimated to be between 120,000 and 180,000 people. Belize currently has a total population of 360,000, so this is a staggering statistic.

Also staggering, over 35,000 buildings have been identified via radar mapping. 

Wars with Tikal and other Mayan dynasties were common. Much is known about these altercations, as the history of the Maya is carved onto stelae around the various sites. 

Caracol survived longer than many other Mayan sites, the city being partially abandoned around 900, and the settlement finally disappearing in 1050 A.D.

If that wets your taste buds, be sure to come to Belize to check out the stunning empire of the ancient Maya. 

Are you brave enough to face their dark gods by entering the Mayan underworld?

Con Murphy 
Belize Insider

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