Mysteries of the Maya Come Alive in Belize

Pottery CaveFor the people of Belize, Mundo Maya (The World of the Maya) is more than a joint program established with its neighbors to help preserve the rich Maya culture. It is a deep-rooted passion that is felt in every corner of this small Central American country.

While deeply immersed in the traditions of the Maya, Belize is now the only English-speaking country in the Maya world. The spirit of the Mundo Maya is in the faces of Garifuna (Carib-Indian) and Creole children, as they help prepare a daily meal in their villages. It is in the women dressed in traditional, colorful garb as they celebrate the Deer Dance, a nine-day Maya cultural celebration, or washing the family's clothes, waist-deep in creeks. It can also be found in the many professional guides who will gladly explain the mystical Maya culture at any one of the hundreds of Maya sites within Belize.

Belize is often referred to as the "Heart of the Maya" and boasts the highest concentration of Maya sites among all Central American countries. To truly appreciate the beauty of the Maya sites, you must appreciate the beauty of the Maya people, for it is within their past that Belize's ancient history unfolds.

The Maya were in Belize prior to the first millennium, and through the years suffered numerous persecutions. Among the most brutal was the Spanish Conquest in 1524 that led to continuous religious suppression committed to shattering the Maya culture. But the Maya spirit proved to be indestructible and has endured.

It is this desire to protect and preserve this rich cultural heritage that has led Belize and its Central American neighbors 3 Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador 3 to establish Mundo Maya in the late 1980's. The countries now work together to create programs that preserve and promote the legacy of one of the greatest civilizations of all time.
History of the Maya in Belize

History of the Maya in Belize

It is estimated that a thousand years before Europeans landed on the shores of Belize, a million Maya lived within its modern borders. In fact, the Maya civilization in Belize dates back to as early as 1500 B.C., and reached its peak between 300 and 900 A.D. The Maya's contribution to both society as well as modern day Belize are countless 3 from incredibly designed and engineered buildings, to the creation of the modern calendar, and even to the development of the written language.

The sheer magnificence of Maya accomplishments can be viewed at any one of the many ceremonial sites and temples that dot the Belize landscape. Only a few of the sites have been restored; most of the thousands of ancient Maya sites have been left in much the same condition in which they were found. More areas are discovered each year, and it is not uncommon to find artifacts anywhere within the country.

Maya Sites in Belize

Among the most famous sites found in Belize are Caracol, Xunantunich, Altun Ha, La Milpa, and Lamanai. Each is unique unto itself, and each reveals another aspect of this mystical civilization.

The largest of Belize's Maya sites is Caracol (The Snail). Located in the rugged backcountry of Belize's Cayo District, it can be reached by car through a dramatic drive through the Chiquibul Rainforest. The largest pyramid in Caracol is "Caana" (Sky Place) which rises 140 feet from its base. It represents the tallest man-made structure in all of Belize and represents a major Maya ceremonial center. Caracol is currently undergoing excavation and renovation.

Xunantunich (Maiden of the Rock) is one of the most accessible ancient Maya sites in Belize. Once a major ceremonial center during the Classic Period, Xunantunich overlooks the Mopal River, is composed of six major plazas, and is surrounded by more than twenty-five temples and palaces. Today, visitors can climb nearly to the top of El Castillo (The Castle), which stands at 135-feet tall. Xunantunich is located across the river from the village of San Jose Succotz and overlooks the lush forests of Belize and neighboring Guatemala.

Altun Ha (Water of the Rock) consists of two main plazas surrounded by thirteen temples and residential structures. Once functioning as a coastal trade center, the ruins of Altun Ha are quite famous. It was here the Jade Head representing the Sun God, Kinich Ahua, was found. Almost 6 inches tall and weighing nearly 10 pounds, the Jade Head is both the largest carved jade object in the entire Maya area, as well as, the national symbol of Belize.

La Milpa, the third largest site in Belize, is a ceremonial center with more than 24 courtyards and over 85 structures. In this Maya site stands the Great Plaza, one of the largest public spaces in the Maya world. Recent archaeological finds have included major burials with many jade goods. La Milpa is located in the Rio Bravo Conservation Area in northwestern Belize.

Lamanai (Submerged Crocodile) is located on the New River Lagoon, a 950-acre archeological site and one of Belize's largest ceremonial centers. Lamanai has one of the longest occupation spans and is home to numerous crocodiles. More than seven hundred structures have been identified, many of which are still buried. Visitors can observe the remains of two Christian churches and a sugar mill. In addition to these structures, several groups of black howler monkeys have made Lamanai their home. Visitors can see these playful creatures peering down at through the branches as they explore this ancient Maya site.

Reproduced with permission from the Belize
Tourism Board (belizetravelinfo.com)