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#453815 - 12/19/12 08:21 AM Off The Beaten Path In El Pilar, Belize  
Joined: Oct 1999
Posts: 57,808
Marty Offline
Marty  Offline

If you don't intend to get to El Pilar, you don't. The Maya site is separated from the highway by miles of ranches and teak plantations, not to mention a fair bit of forest. Even if someone were to wander up the road and onto the appropriate path, there is the off-chance that they might pass through the encroaching lianas and gumbo limbo trees without noticing the ruins peaking out from underneath the soil, which rises and falls in waves. This landscape is the counterpoint to the gleaming temples nearby, a humble place that raises fundamental questions about what exactly tourists in Belize, Guatemala and Mexico are seeing when they visit more popular Maya attractions.

"We need to be honest about the Maya and make sure people witness something with a level of veracity," said Dr. Anabel Ford, the University of Santa Barbara archeologist who discovered the ruins in 1983 and has maintained them amid what she calls a "forest garden" ever since. "I believe you can both show people something and have it be real. Besides, we have plenty of exposed temples already."

Though Dr. Ford is quick to say that El Pilar, on the Belize-Guatemala border, has been excavated -- the various tunnels into the mounds bear this out -- she is also plainly proud that the site hasn't been carved out of the forest like the stunning temples at nearby Caracol or Xinuntunich. She insists that leaving the ruins in a more natural state not only protects the basic limestone from the forest acids that stripped sculpted faces clean off the temples of Tikal but also gives visitors a more accurate account of what they might have looked like during Mayan times. Nothing at El Pilar has been reconstructed -- common practice elsewhere -- because such reconstruction relies on an unjustifiably absolute confidence in what Maya life was like.

Rather than being postcard pretty, the site has become Dr. Ford's answer to a question that has long confounded archeologists: How did the millions of Maya that once packed into this part of Central America manage to feed themselves?

"The Maya forest is a garden," explains Ford. "Ninety percent of the plants are useful as everything from spices to wood for construction to tanning material."

Dr. Ford's theory, a product of work with soil scientists, climate specialists and the Maya forest gardeners still living in this corner of Belize, is that rather than farming on a large scale like Europeans, Maya tended crops through long a cycle that included a stage of dense forest in order to vary their output. Over the millennia, this approach fundamentally changed the nature of the landscape, which was quite a bit less forested before the rise of the empire.

"People like to talk about how Native Americans were one with nature, but the reality is that nature was one with them," she explains.

Two Mayan phrases that have persisted to the modern day seem to indicate that the Maya had a different relationship with the natural landscape than the conquistadors. "Otochk'aax," meaning "The forest is my home," and "Kenan k'aax," meaning "Well-tended forest," reveal the native mindset. Tomas Lopez Medel, head of Spain's Yucatan government in the early 1500s, on the other hand, recorded his own order that the "the nativesÖ construct houses close to one anotherÖ And they should not sow any milpas [cyclically changing forest gardens] within the town, but it shall be very clean."

There are two problems with Ford's vision of Mayan agriculture. Firstly, it is seen as radical and misguided by many Meso-American archeologists. Secondly, it isn't terribly awe inspiring.

Whether or not the Maya could have fed themselves from the forest remains a bone of contention among some archeologists. According to Sherry Gibs, an anthropologist and osteologist at Galen University, a Belizean college, the remains of Maya seem to indicate a largely maize-based diet.

"The land was probably covered with farms," says Gibbs. "Though there are foods from the forest, it seems unlikely it could have fed that many people."

The vision of Maya life Gibbs envisions -- and Ford is quick to concede most Maya specialist seem to favor this idea -- features huge swathes of fields punctuated occasionally by untamed forests and imposing temple structures. This is rather neatly in line with the popular depictions of the Maya that boost the economy here. But if El Pilar might disappoint a traveler intent on seeing the postcard wonders of Chichen Itza or Teotihuacan, it would also provide a singular palate cleanser for those who have seen other more exposed sites.

The path meandering through the site pauses at lookouts offering panoramic views of the tropical lowland forest, which is ceaselessly circled by condors. Within the courtyards, where trees stand far enough apart to approximate an orchard, light shines through in beams and glints off rocks that may or may not be part of the ruins. The line between incidental and historical is blurred here by roots and dirt.

El Pilar is also a lonely place, meditative thanks to the complete lack of crowds. In San Ignacio, tourists either book tours to ritual caves or wait patiently for their Tikal trip with "Juice," the Cicero of local guides. Asked how many people visit the site a day, the man selling tickets quickly estimated: "One point something," he said. "I don't think we got 400 people last year."

What travelers are missing is the chance to visit the mystery of the Maya as well as their ruins. The truth is that much remains unknown about the periods during which the Maya prospered and that uncertainty is poorly represented by the absolutism of grand edifices. By declining to expose its temples, Dr. Ford has made El Pilar into apt metaphor for the whole region: The truth remains buried.

Source, click for a slideshow

#453828 - 12/19/12 09:46 AM Re: Off The Beaten Path In El Pilar, Belize [Re: Marty]  
Joined: Oct 2003
Posts: 2,434
Katie Valk Offline
Katie Valk  Offline
Wonderful site well worth visiting

Belize based travel specialist
#454035 - 12/22/12 04:37 PM Re: Off The Beaten Path In El Pilar, Belize [Re: Katie Valk]  
Joined: Oct 2010
Posts: 834
BeBelize Offline
BeBelize  Offline
Our day at El Pilar was one of the highlights of 2012! If you like solitude, peace and quiet, birds, or history, GO.

From our blog:

BeBelize in Bullet Tree Falls and El Pilar

Former Belize expat traveling the USA & Mexico
#454051 - 12/22/12 10:04 PM Re: Off The Beaten Path In El Pilar, Belize [Re: Marty]  
Joined: Oct 2000
Posts: 329
Tom Offline
Tom  Offline
I was just thiking about El Pilar the other day. It has been several years sincce I first learned of it's discovery. Always thought I would like to go there but have not made it as yet. I wanted to go work on the dig at one time but had children at home and my husband said that I could not be gone for at least 6 weeks or so.
Once I get to San Pedro and settled into our condo I really don't go very far. Hopefully I will get there one day.

#454054 - 12/22/12 10:27 PM Re: Off The Beaten Path In El Pilar, Belize [Re: Marty]  
Joined: Oct 2000
Posts: 329
Tom Offline
Tom  Offline
I was just thiking about El Pilar the other day. It has been several years sincce I first learned of it's discovery. Always thought I would like to go there but have not made it as yet. I wanted to go work on the dig at one time but had children at home and my husband said that I could not be gone for at least 6 weeks or so.
Once I get to San Pedro and settled into our condo I really don't go very far. Hopefully I will get there one day.

#511637 - 02/16/16 05:00 AM Re: Off The Beaten Path In El Pilar, Belize [Re: Marty]  
Joined: Oct 1999
Posts: 57,808
Marty Offline
Marty  Offline

Peering Inside El Pilar

Informe Especial El Pilar, la ciudad perdida

El Pilar is highlighted in this special. Dr. Anabel Ford explains El Pilar's significance in the Maya world.

#515973 - 07/14/16 04:34 AM Re: Off The Beaten Path In El Pilar, Belize [Re: Marty]  
Joined: Oct 1999
Posts: 57,808
Marty Offline
Marty  Offline

El Pilar 20th Celebration

They had a special celebration at El Pilar after the BAAS, at which there were multiple presentations on El Pilar. There were dancers and speakers during the event, which celebrated 20 years of El Pilar being an Archaeological Site.

Per the Guardian: "At this ceremony, under a big tent in the cool and beauty of the Belizean jungle, were diplomats, dignitaries, the Maya Survivors Marimba group, Garifuna drummers, the Panerifix Steel Band from Belmopan, BDF youth cadets, Friends of El Pilar and various media houses. Following the singing of the national anthem, prayer and welcome, Judge Courtney Abel spoke about the theme of the celebration, 'Archaeology for Peace.' He explained that El Pilar existed thousands of years before borders existed and that many archaeological sites and territories overlap modern day borders. He indicated that archaeology can be used for peace, because people from different sides of the border can unite and work together to develop a shared heritage, like El Pilar."

#515982 - 07/14/16 09:46 AM Re: Off The Beaten Path In El Pilar, Belize [Re: Marty]  
Joined: Oct 2003
Posts: 2,434
Katie Valk Offline
Katie Valk  Offline
Grt site, wonderful birding and well worth visiting

Belize based travel specialist
#517395 - 09/07/16 01:51 PM Re: Off The Beaten Path In El Pilar, Belize [Re: Marty]  
Joined: Oct 1999
Posts: 57,808
Marty Offline
Marty  Offline

"The Maya Legacy" Trailer

'El Pilar, Preserving the Maya Legacy' is a selection at the 2016 Catalina Film Festival. Great trailer.

"We are proud to present this film as an official selection to the 2016 Catalina Film Festival happening September 28th to October 2nd. See for tickets and more information

#517898 - 09/29/16 05:24 AM Re: Off The Beaten Path In El Pilar, Belize [Re: Marty]  
Joined: Oct 1999
Posts: 57,808
Marty Offline
Marty  Offline

Great article on Annabel Ford, and her study of El Pilar... with nice photos and videos...

Archaeology Under The Canopy

Indiana Jones has nothing on Anabel Ford. The daughter of a Hollywood actress and a world-renowned sociologist, Ford is the archaeological powerhouse who in 1983 rediscovered the ancient Maya city of El Pilar.

Once home to a thriving population of more than 20,000 people, El Pilar straddles the present-day border of Belize and Guatemala. Lying beneath the lush canopy of the Maya forest, the city reached its zenith around 700 A.D. It is now protected as El Pilar Archaeological Reserve for Maya Flora and Fauna, encompassing 5,000 acres and an ancient Maya center that includes 150 acres of temples, plazas and palaces.

Ford, who has been working in the Maya forest since 1972, came across the city site of El Pilar while doing survey work in the region. She spent the next three decades mapping, excavating and studying the site and its surroundings, and has made El Pilar a unique model of binational cooperation, community empowerment, conservation and preservation.

- See more at:

What you should know about El Pilar, Belize

Belize is widely known for its multitude of Mayan ruins, but we will oversee one of them in particular. We are talking about El Pilar, Belize which is an ancient Maya city found right near the border between Guatemala and Belize. The interesting thing to note about El Pilar is that it has a multitude of streams near its site as well as under the escarpment. This is a rare thing for any Mayan city, and that just adds to the uniqueness and beauty of this location also very popular for birds watching!

What is the origin of El Pilarís name?

The name of El Pilar means watering basin, which is quite understandable if you consider the location of this ancient city. If you want to pinpoint the exact location of this ancient Mayan city, itís safe to note that you can access it via San Ignacio as well as the Bullet Tree Falls. These are placed on the Belize River. Many underground streams are found here and thatís the reason why you will find an abundance of vegetation in this particular location. Again, this is understandable if you take into consideration the uniqueness of this place and the amazing benefits that it can deliver for any visitor.

When was El Pilar discovered?

Although El Pilar is an ancient Mayan city, its location kept it far away from prying eyes. It was safe for many years, in fact, it was the archaeologist named Anabel Ford that discovered it by accident in 1983. Simply put, she was doing the BRASS project, also known as the Belize River Archaeological survey.

The first reaction of the archeological community was impressive, especially if you take into consideration how few Mayan cities can be found nowadays, most of their ruins are gone by now. Seeing such ruins is interesting and unique for anyone, and you can imagine the array of emotions that went through the mind of those persons that first visited this place after a very long time.

According to the BRASS report written by Anabel Ford, it seems that the way these settlements are patterned might suggest that the community composition and its overall size might have been related to the nearby farms.

Since the overall region is humid, it offered the perfect way for people to sustain a farming lifestyle. Some might argue that this is the main reason why this location was chosen in the first place. There are multiple larger areas near El Pilarís location which suggest that this city was primarily a farming city, among many other types of ventures and experiences. An interesting side note here would come in the fact that the Belize River connects El Pilar to the Tikal center. This might show us why a lot of trading and transportation was performed via the river, but thereís no obvious relevant data that might suggest such a thing.

El Pilar history

Anabel Ford issued an archaeological field survey excavation that provided people with a close eye on El Pilar and its overall location. The team created a map that included all the monuments, and they discovered the fact that El Pilar had a unique causeway or underground tunnel system. This was linking it to some of the other cities in the western and the eastern side!

The excavations performed at that time allowed the team to dig deeper into the region and they uncovered a major temple that was around 2000 years old. Ford is still working in this particular area while trying to discover all the other relevant information that might help the expedition. Ford and the team are in Lidar and they seek to accurately map the region. Based on the expedition above, we know that the city grew quite a bit during the Middle Pre-classic period, which is sometime around 800 BC. This was showcased mostly by the smaller plazas and temples that were located near the Plaza Copal eastern temple. They continued to expand the civic area and, according to the expeditionís findings, the region reached its culminating point at around 1000 AD. Some state that, at this particular time, around 180000 people were living in the region.

The expedition has uncovered many temples, palaces and other buildings that comprised the civic area of El Pilar. Near those monuments, you could find the residence which was the heart and soul of the community. A particular elite Mayan house named Tzunuíun was mapped during the expedition, and it showed some unique, distinct features that gave us a distinct insight into how life was for the elite when compared to regular people at that time. In fact, this is the only archaeological house that you can visit at this time, with the others still being uncovered and investigated.

The house site has a forest garden, quite a peculiar find for sure but understandable, if you consider the location of this ancient city. It also shows that the Mayan people or at least their elite were focused on protecting the environment and nurturing the planet to the best of their capabilities.

How many findings are at El Pilar?

Although the region is known for its Mayan cities of a smaller amplitude, El Pilar is one of the largest findings for this area. And since continual work takes place from February to June each year, you can imagine that more and more ancient sites are found within El Pilar on a yearly basis.

The current findings amount to around 12 pyramids and 25 plazas. Some residential locations are kept under wraps for obvious purposes, but we can imagine that there are dozens of these units found within the forest.

Either way, this is more than triple the number of other pyramids and sites found in regions like Cahal Pech or Xunan. One of the reasons why this particular region might have been popular is its proximity to a water source and farming lands. As a result, it had all the thriving facilities and features needed to expand and better explore the region in all of its glory.

The site as a whole is a very impressive, distinct and unique historical location that will impress you right from the start. Since excavations are taking place all the time, we just get to know the region more and more as time progresses. But one thing is certain, new stuff gets uncovered all the time here, and archaeologist have just as much to learn as the tourists that come and visit this place. While the humidity in this area might bring in quite the challenge, you will be impressed with the sheer uniqueness of all findings and how well they hold. Thatís especially true if you consider how many years have passed since the region was deserted and left by its original inhabitants.

Should you visit the El Pilar site?

While there are quite a lot of interesting places to visit in Belize, El Pilar should be on your radar at all times. Not only is it a very interesting place to check out, but it does provide you with an immense attention to detail and a great focus on results. Itís a very distinct, unique experience and thatís the main reason why coming here is a nice idea. Not only do you have the opportunity to enjoy some quality hiking moments, but the experience will be second to none all the time and the location on its own is well worth visiting for that reason alone. If you are a fan of unique visuals and incredible locations, you will find El Pilar to be a breathtaking, one of a kind place that will immerse you into an ancient world.

In fact, visiting this place will make you feel like a part of that world to begin with. When compared to other sites in the region, El Pilar remains pretty much the same when compared to its discovery date. The reason is simple, most of the structures that you can find here are still undergoing excavation, so you get to explore a region thatís still being uncovered by archaeology professionals.

You can find five different trail systems in El Pilar at this time. 3 of them are restricted only for the archaeologists, whereas you have two others that are suitable for the public. The two trails are interesting because they give you a good way to explore the forests in the region. Furthermore, being so integrated within the surrounding nature, This Mayan Site is an outstanding place for hiking and birding and which makes El Pilar so unique. Belize is home to more than 500 species of birds including endangered species such as the Scarlet Macaw, the Solitary Eagle and Ocellated Turkey to name only a few. Whether you are a seasoned birder or a beginner you are definitely going to love your bird watching experience as this area makes it for the best birding in Belize.

Visiting El Pilar is a great hiking experience. With lots of vegetation and the fact that this region isnít that well-excavated does come with its set of challenges. However, if you visit El Pilar, you will be impressed with the beauty of this region and how impressive the entire location is in the first place. You should consider visiting this astounding, one of a kind place as it is one of the most impressive Mayan cities that you can find out there!

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