Centuries haven't dimmed power of Belize's Mayan sites

02:19 PM CDT on Friday, June 16, 2006

By JAKE BATSELL / The Dallas Morning News

XUNANTUNICH, Belize – From this panoramic perch atop a stone pyramid that looms over the Mopan River valley, you can see why ancient Mayan rulers stood here to feel closer to heaven.

The summit of El Castillo pyramid offers staggering views of Belize's lush, green jungles and hills. And surveying the plazas below, you can visualize crowds of Mayans watching their leaders perform god-appeasing rituals. Imagining scenes from more than 1,000 years ago is part of the intrigue while exploring the mesmerizing Mayan sites scattered throughout western Belize and eastern Guatemala.

Mayan culture flourished from 250 to 900 A.D., but its cities were abruptly abandoned, possibly because of a severe drought.

Today, the mysteries of Mayan society are sparking renewed interest from academia and popular culture. Discoveries by Southern Methodist University archaeologists, a recent Dallas Museum of Art exhibit and Mel Gibson's forthcoming movie, Apocalypto, all tap into the remnants of a fascinating civilization accessible to travelers who don't mind a little mud on their boots.

The Mayans divided their universe into three realms: heaven, earth and the underworld. Our trip in May, based at a jungle resort in western Belize's Cayo District, offered glimpses into each.

Heaven

The Mayans' grandest architectural feats were the stone temples that they believed brought them closer to the gods – literal stairways to heaven.

These temples, palaces and pyramids are impressively clustered at Guatemala's most famous Mayan city, Tikal, a popular day trip from western Belize.

Tikal's imposing gray towers, jutting above the ancient complex's rainforest canopy, look somehow familiar. Our guide, Ruben "Chino" Lopez, reveals why: Scenes from the original Star Wars were filmed here. (Tikal was the rebels' clandestine base in "Episode IV: A New Hope.")

Mr. Lopez has a thing for American movies. Explaining how the Mayans climbed the temples' formidable stairs to purify mind and spirit, he draws parallels to Rocky Balboa's ascent of the Philadelphia Museum of Art steps.

Mayans also used these structures to deepen their understanding of astronomy. The 360-degree platform atop the Great Pyramid of Tikal's Lost World was a vantage point for stargazing, 105 feet above the jungle floor.

With only five hours to visit Tikal, hiring a guide ensured we saw the highlights, including the incomparable Temple IV, the Lost World and the Gran Plaza, with its dual temples, ceremonial courtyard and sacrificial altars.

Mr. Lopez also led us on time-saving shortcuts through Tikal's rainforest, with a soundtrack of humming crickets and cicadas as well as sightings of a toucan, wild turkey, coatimundi (a raccoonlike animal) and howler monkeys.

Only about 20 percent of Tikal has been excavated. Hiking between temples, we constantly encountered massive mounds of pyramid-shaped earth covered with trees and foliage that mask even more Mayan mysteries.

A day later, we found ourselves standing on El Castillo above Xunantunich (shoo-NAHN-too-nitch), one of Belize's most significant Mayan sites. To reach Xunantunich, just outside of Benque Viejo del Carmen, a Belizean border town, you ride a hand-cranked ferry across the Mopan River.

At Xunantunich you see the Mayans' royal residences, their ball court and replica friezes on El Castillo that honor various gods. The replicas protect the original friezes underneath.

Most of Xunantunich's excavated portions are laid out on a hilltop, so it's easier to picture everyday life there than at Tikal, where the jungle continues to cover most of the ancient city.

Underworld

Western Belize also is home to a series of sacred caves, which Mayans saw as the gateway to the underworld, or Xibalba (shee-BAL-bah). Today, the caves still contain ancient Mayan pottery, sacrificial altars and even human skeletons.

We entered the underworld at Che Chem Ha, a lesser-known cave that our guide, William Morales, says he discovered as a teenager on his family's property. Mr. Morales leads small groups on half-hour jungle hikes that end at a rock wall with a waist-high cave entrance. There, visitors don headlamps and carry flashlights into the muddy darkness.

"Down we go into the underworld," Mr. Morales intones in a foreboding voice. "Down we go into Xibalba."

During a sometimes-slippery hike into the depths of a 700-foot cave, we climbed ladders and grasped ropes to view original Mayan pottery and, eventually, a ceremonial altar. According to Mr. Morales, the unadorned pots are as much as 2,500 years old and were used for storage and funereal purposes.

Che Chem Ha is by no means Belize's only cave of significance. Skulls and stalactites await at sites including the Actun Tunichil Muknal and Barton Creek caves, but be aware that getting there might involve swimming, tubing, canoeing or kayaking.

Earth

After ascending steep staircases toward the heavens or plunging into the underworld, there's plenty do to in western Belize on good old planet Earth.

The former British colony is an English-speaking country, although the farther you go on the Western Highway toward Guatemala, the more Spanish you'll encounter.

Several lodges, resorts and tour outfits arrange for daytime excursions such as kayaking, horseback riding, birding and jungle hikes. Other attractions include a butterfly farm and a Mennonite community.

You also can experience the small-town charms of San Ignacio, Santa Elena and Benque Viejo del Carmen, bartering with local artists for souvenirs or ducking into a surprisingly international array of restaurants.

It's a magical region, dripping with history while still retaining a pristine, unspoiled feel. No wonder yesterday's Mayan rulers felt heaven was within their reach.

E-mail jbatsell@dallasnews.com

When you go

GETTING THERE

American Airlines has direct flights to Belize City from Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport. Flying time is about 2 ½ hours. From Philip Goldson International Airport, it's a two-hour drive to western Belize. Many hotels offer pickup. Tour operators and domestic airlines also arrange trips to Mayan sites.

WHERE TO STAY

Mopan River Resort, in Benque Viejo del Carmen, Belize, is an all-inclusive resort that provides ground transportation (including airport transfers), guided excursions, meals, drinks, a swimming pool, on-site bird-watching and kayaking. Guests are responsible only for site admissions, border fees, departure taxes and hiring guides at Tikal. Rates start at $1,298 per person, double, for seven nights. Contact: 011-501-823-2047; www.mopanriverresort.com.

MAYAN SITES

Tikal National Park (Parque Nacional de Tikal) in Guatemala is a popular day trip for western Belize hotels, resorts and tour operators. Bring your passport; border-crossing fees are about $20 per person. Park admission is about $6. Hiring a guide is strongly recommended; the charge is usually $10 per person for groups of four or more.

Xunantunich is one mile from the Mopan River Resort and easily accessible from other western Belize lodgings. Admission is $5.

Che Chem Ha cave, a 30-minute ride from Mopan River Resort, is on land that William Morales' family has farmed for decades. The cave exploration, led by Mr. Morales, costs $20 per person.

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