Belize's Pook's Hill Lodge: Discovering Secrets of the Maya Heartland

By Steven Hartshorne

Pook's Hill, a nature lodge located in the foothills of the Maya Mountains in the Cayo District of Belize, is an ideal setting for jungle hiking, horseback riding, swimming, birding, spelunking, and gaining an authenitc experience of local culture.

Set in a 300-acre private nature preserve, the lodge has two miles of frontage on the Roaring River and borders on the Tapir Mountain Nature Reserve, a 6800-acre rainforest sancutary which is home to colorful toucans, hummingbirds, howler monkeys and jaguars.

The lodge is also among the best places in all of Central America to see firsthand the archaeological investigations which are unearthing the secrets of the Maya heartland. One historic site of major importance in located right on the grounds of the lodge itself, where a team of archaeologists has recently uncovered an ancient Mayan sweat bath.

The lodge also provides day trips to Caracol and Tikal, Guatemala, two other important Mayan population centers, and to numberous caves in the Roaring River Valley including the Actun Tunichil Mucnal, the Barton Creek cave and the Caves Branch.

Portals to Xibalba
The Mayans believed that these caves were the portals to Xibalba, the underworld. Artifacts in the caves and at Pook's Hill link these sites to Caracol, Tikal and even to the superpower of Mesoamerica, Teotihuacan, near modern-day Mexico City.

Pook's Hill is located at the site of a Mayan "plazuela" or "little plaza," the residence of an extended family with a temple, a 'feasting hall,' burial grounds and several masonry platforms that once supported pole and thatch buildings. The plaza was surrounded by cultivated fields and stone dwellings.

The Mayan sweat bath was discovered by the Belize Valley Archaeological Reconnainssance Project under the direction of Dr. Jaime Awe, Belizean archaeologist with 22 years of field experience in Maya archaeology, and was detailed in an article in the Belize Archaeology Journal by Awe and Dr. Christoph Helmke of University College, London.

Medicinal Purposes
They write that the sweat bath was located near the primary residence of the plaza, and was probably used by the most exalted members of the community. Sweatbathing was a common practice among the ancient Maya, they write, as it still is among many modern Amerindians. It was associated with medicinal purposes, and was thought to be of particular importance to pregnant women.

Written evidence suggests that male and female recreational bathing was commonplace and that the sweat baths were also used for discrete romantic encounters.

Architecture and artifacts from Pook's show signs of long-distance contact with central Mexico (Teotihuacano ceramic styles, green obsidian, and a circular shrine) and with the Caribbean coast of Belize (parrotfish and the incised Hawksbille turtle piece). Pook's contined to flourish during the entire Terminal Classic period (830-950 AD, when many other sites had been abandoned), playing host to feasts boasting parrotfish, venison and beverages served in molded-carved vessels. Shortly thereafter however, Pook's, like countless other sites, was abandoned.

"Our investigations are still ongoing," Awe and Helmke write, "and we are certain that furture analyses of the artifacts recovered within the chamber will undoubtedly shed more light on this intriguing aspect of ancient Mayan culture."

Visitors to the Pook's Hill Lodge are welcome to tour the archaeological site and talk to the people involved in the excavations.

They can also take guided day trips to the caves of the Roaring River Valley where archaeologists have discovered the untouched remains of Mayan rituals, human remains, jewelry, pottery and snail snells broken in a way that suggests they were part of ancient banquets.

Pottery sherds and vessels, burials, altars, and other ceremonial objects found in the caves west-central Belize attest their ritual use in the Maya Classic period (AD 300-900).

A Real Junge Experience
The Pook's Hill Lodge itself is a real jungle experience, on route to Tikal and the Mountain Pine Ridge Area. It surrounds the Mayan plaza with lawns leading to the creek and jungle. The lodge has screened, detached cabanas with private bathroom (hot showers) and excellent bar/restaurant serving European cuisine with a flavor of the Caribbean.

Pook's Hill is ideally situated to see Western Belize; Five Blues Lake, The Blue Hole, Mountain Pine Ridge, Caracol, and Xunantunich. The lodge is easily reached from the International Airport and ideal for heading south to Dangriga and Placencia.

The lodge is located in a 300-arce private reserve of prime broad leaf forest, originally preserved by its remote location and later by the commitment of Svea Detrich Ward, the founder of Tapir Mountain Nature Reserve.

The Lodge is situated in a lawn clearing within the reserve, with white-washed cabanas circling the ruins of the Mayan plaza.

Traditional Mayan Cabanas
The cabanas, built in the traditional Mayan style with high thatched roofs are fully screened, spacious and cool. Each is detached with a roomy bathroom and hot water is provided in the showers. All rooms have electricity.

The main building, also designed in the traditional Mayan style, nestles on the hillsdie, looking down over the lawns to the creek and dense forest below. Lantern-lit evening meals of European and Caribbean dishes are served buffet style.

The Verandah Bar and Lounge is a large thatched open space, comfortably furnished. A welcoming center for relaxing. There is a small but interesting library. The tranquil environment is ideal for simply relaxing.

Other activites at Pook's Hill include:

Birding - Many birds nest in the area including toucans, jacamars, spectacled owls, ferruginous pygmy owls and, of course, numerous types of hummingbirds. Pook's Hill Reserve is said by ornithologists to be in a league of its own for birding.

Horseback Riding - The varied trail under the jungle canopy, through the river and into the Roaring River Valley offers riders an interesting and exciting ride, suitable for both novice and experienced riders.

Swimming - Visitors can swim in the crystal clear jungle pools of the Roaring River or enjoy a "tube float" along the two-mile stretch or river adjoining Pook's Hill Reserve.

Hiking - Pook's Hills Reserve is a delight to explore. There are several well-marked paths and trails. There is also an information sheet about the plants and trees and a guides is readily available to accompany visitors.

Caving - One of the most exciting adventures in Belize is in the valley, on the lodge's doorstep. Actun Tunichil Macnal (Mayan for Stone Sepulchre Cave) is a unique caving experience, combining outstanding natural formations and the untouched remains of ancient Maya rituals. Visitors can take a journey to the ancient Maya underworld and discover what gave the cave its name.

Pook's hill also has an Iguana Rearing and Release Program set up in 1996. In March 1997, one hundred green iguanas were released in the Pook's Hill Reserve and Tapir Mountain Nature Reserve. The iguanas are housed in an enclosure in the grounds and visitors are welcome to see and learn about them.

One way to book a stay at Pook's Hill Lodge is through Adventure Life Journeys, a travel company committed to quality small-group tours in Latin America that have a positive impact on the local culture and environment. They utilize local guides, family-run hotels and local transportation.

Adventure Life Journeys has always had a commitment to community tourism - locally-initiated offerings that preserve the natural and cultural resources of destinations, while producing better livelihoods and higher standards of living for residents.

Community tourism empowers local people to identify the cultural and natural resources in their midst and convert them into assets that can improve the economic life of their community. In so doing, community tourism becomes the engine for restoring the preserving those irreplaceable resources. This style of tourism falls under the umbrella of low-impact, socially conscious travel widely known as "ecotourism."

While some travel companies use the term "ecotourism" for marketing purposes only, Adventure Life Journeys lives up to its definition by building environmental and cultural awareness through education, activites, and pre-departure information; providing direct financial contributions for conservation efforts; minimizing impact on the environment and the lcoal culture; traveling in small groups; training tour guides in "Leave No Trace" ethics; seeking out excursions offered by local or indigenous people; supporting local businesses and serve providers and using locally-owned services - hotels, lodges and transport companies - to ensure that as muchn revenue as possible stays within, and therefore benefits, local communities.