It’s been a long time coming ( over a year and a half since I visited Belize to investigate ‘Doomsday 2012’) but my article about spending a few days living amongst modern day Mayas in the village of San Jose in Punta Gorda is finally out:
Daily Mail, Travel.
More of my photos of the trip can be seen here.
The article only scratches the surface of what I got up to in Belize. There were also jungle treks, visiting ancient Mayan temples, caves, cacoa tours, river cruises and even a modern day Shaman predicting my future.
My exploration of the country began by visiting one of Belize’s largest Maya ceremonial centres Lamanai, a Mesoamerican archaeological site located on the banks of the New River Lagoon in the Orange Walk District in northern Belize.
The ruins are different from most Maya ruins as they are close to a body of water. This meant Lamanai managed to have the longest occupation span of any Maya site, spanning from the 16th century BC until the 17thcentury AD, long after the severe drought that led to the Mayan civilization decline around 900AD and slightly after the Spanish conquest.
The name Lamanai comes from the Yucatec Maya word Lam’an’ain, which means, ‘submerged crocodile’ apt as the New River Lagoon is full of crocodiles.
To get to Lamanai, you must take a scenic 26-mile boat ride up the New River lagoon departing from Orange Walk Town. Or you can stay at the Lamanai Outpost Lodge, which is just a 3-minute boat ride from the ruins. The Lodge offers a range of activities, including the Crocodile Encounter.
I travelled on an airboat into the surrounding floodplains and watched as one of the Lodge’s naturalists collected data to help their understanding of the endangered Morelet’s crocodile.
I even got the chance to hold a baby croc, which was a tense experience, before croc decided to break the ice by peeing on me.
After the Maya homestay described in my Daily Mail article, I stayed a few more nights in Punta Gorda, but this time in the luxury of Machaca Hill Lodge.
The highlight of the lodge was its amazing walk in shower with a huge window overlooking nothing but jungle, so that it was only the Howler monkeys and Toucans that could get a glimpse of me in the buff.
This southern region of Belize, known as Toledo, is virtually untouched and still in its natural pristine state.
Scattered throughout the region are dozens of Maya archaeological sites and the Machaca Hill Lodge is a great base to explore them from.
My next stop was the ancient Maya City of Lubaantun, dating back from the Maya Classic era – AD 730 to AD 890. It was mostly used as a market for product exchange – the only trade centre in Southern Belize.
The ancient name of the site is currently unknown, but ‘Lubaantun’ is a modern Maya name meaning ‘place of fallen stones’, based on the current state of many of its structures.
Lubaantun is also well known by the famous Crystal Skull, which was supposedly found there in 1924.
The next day it was back on a Tropic air flight to Belize Municipal airstrip to stay at the Lodge at Chaa Creek, an award winning rainforest eco lodge set along the banks of the Macal river.
Set up in 1981, owners Mick and Lucy Fleming ( from Tunbridge Wells) the lodge is now one of the Caribbean’s best examples of sustainable, green tourism and offers a range of adventure tours.
My first stop after unwinding at Chaa creek was meeting Rosario Panti, the ‘last Maya Shaman in Belize.’
I had imagined her in some sort of tribal outfit, semi naked with a feather headdress but there was no headdress, no bongo drums, and she was not scripted- wearing just jeans and white t shirt, she spoke quietly and plainly.
I asked her about 21.12.12 and the doomsday prophesies and she told me that it was actually December 23rd (not 21st) 2012 where ‘5 eclipses will happen in one day’, ‘earthquakes will destroy cities’, and ‘all technology will stop working.’ However, her prophecy is based on New Age shamanist beliefs and ‘supernatural communication; through a Sastun rock.
I sat in sceptical awe as she held the Sastun in her palm and started speaking. It wasn’t all doom and gloom, she told us that she was happy with how things are moving and how people were interested in their maya culture, but ‘ I am speaking English, but I should be speaking maya, I try to bring unity to our culture, ‘ she added.
She told us about herself and her path into becoming a shaman, ‘my mother was a midwife, wanted a boy but got me. Now I cure, I massage, I share Maya culture, I have a Sastun, not a crystal skull. In 8-10bc there were 13 Sastuns in the water and 8 crystal skulls that at work in unity, but now they are lost.’
She said the Sastun she was holding was male, and that things were already happening in the the Maya predicted in hieroglyphics and through the Sastun that there will be disaster, but there will also be renewal , we will move away from technology and reconnect with natural ways of doing things, like the Maya, as technology is starting to hurt us.’ But in a moment of irony, she was then then interrupted by her mobile phone ringing.
Rosario speaks for a few minutes and continues:’ I prefer to listen to the Sastun, prepare the village, its my guide, the ancient Maya calendar is based on the Sastun, we will have a 5 day eclipse, 1 day of nothing, then back to zero with renewal on the 23rd and a solar eclipse, we just have to suffer the eclipse.’
She then read my palm, but when taking my hand in hers, a look of wide eyed horror spread across her face. I felt nervous….., ‘ your hands are very dry’ she said, ‘ you need to bath them in holy water.’ ( hmmmm, I thought, that would be the climbing chalk. I more likely need to use some climb on balm) then she looked at the lines on my palm and told me I would be childless.
Fortunately, before I could learn any more about my fate, it was time for a gourmet dinner of Belize specialities at the Ka’ana resort. Joining us was Dr. Jaime Awe, Director of the Institute of Archaeology of Belize, one of the most respected archaeologists in the field, and one of the most knowledgeable about the Maya culture.
Dr Awe told us that 2012 would mean ‘the end of a cycle that will be no different than the end of a millennium… if the Maya civilization persisted, there would have been great celebrations, rituals, sacrifices, and blood letting’. All those acts are positive since the Mayas didn’t believe in death; they believed in afterlife and being sacrificed was a major honor.’
He then told us about some of his work, ‘ I guess the most enjoyable work was at ATM ( Actun Tunichil Muknal) cave. That certainly was one of my most memorable projects I have done.’
Fortunately, I was going there the next day…
ATM Caves is one of the most adventurous tours near San Ignacio in the Cayo District, and probably all of Belize. To get there we hiked for about 45 minutes, including three river crossings through the Tapir Mountain Nature Reserve, until we reached the ‘entrance to the undnerworld.’ Here you have to plunge into crystal blue water flowing out of the mouth of the cave and crawl through dark chambers and undulating tunnels.
ATM is one of the most preserved and protected Mayan sites in the world. Inside the caves, you can see over 1400 artefacts mostly pottery, that the ancient Mayas used in their rituals and offerings to their gods. There are also the human remains of 14 individuals, scattered throughout the great chamber known as The Cathedral, including the only full human skeleton of a Maya found to date inside a cave.
The caves are about three miles long, but only a mile is open for exploration. The deeper you go in, the more sacred it feels, the more intimate it gets, and the better you can understand the relationship the Mayas had with these caves.
The caves are ancient temples where the the Mayas went through when they entered the world of ‘Xibalba,’ the sacred realm of the underworld where the Mayas ceremoniously pleased their gods with offerings and sacrifices. Xibalba was both feared and revered. It was only for the select few who were worthy enough to enter and communicate with their gods.
Deep in the caves, the Mayans modified several cave formations. In some instances they created altars for the offerings, in other they created silhouettes of faces and animals, and in other they just created shadow projections into the cave walls.
About a mile in, we climb a big boulder to get out of the flowing water and into the most important chamber in the cave: The Cathedral. This is where most of the pottery and human remains can be seen.
There are several skeletal remains in this chamber, with the most notables being the two adult male skulls and scattered bones, and the young child skull. By the end of the chamber, the most precious skeletal remain becomes visible. It is The Crystal Maiden, the calcified skeleton of a teenage girl, sacrificed, and placed in a dancing-like position.
It is believed the Mayas considered being sacrificed an honour that would push them to the cosmos or heaven.
For me however, I was relieved to swim back out of the icy waters and to the shaded light of the jungle.
My final visit was to ancient Maya city of Xunantunich. Crossing the Macal river on the worlds last remaining hand-cranked ferries we reached the site and climbed 130 feet to the top of El Castillo and stood in awe at the 360 degree views of the surrounding mountains, valleys, rainforests and rivers.
Some travel details:
Transfers and tours in Punta Gorda by Tide Tours: 501-624-0310
Transfers and tours in Orange Walk district by Pacz Tours: 501-824-0536
Some words in MayanL
You come – ko’oten
Drink: uk’ul, uk’ik
Eat: hanal, hantik
Good, very good: uts, hatsutz
How much: buhuux