A visit to some Maya traders on North Ambergris

Mexico on the left, Belize on the right.

After living in San Pedro nearly ten years, one can't help but to be in sync with the Maya. Archaeologists tell us that Ambergris Caye was once a Maya trading post, and that 10,000 Mayas lived in the area between the Boca del Rio (the cut) and the area where the primary school is now located. We are continually reminded of the island's ancestors; excavating done in yards to repair septic tanks or to dig a house foundation yields burial sites and artifacts. History lies beneath the streets and much was uncovered when the water and sewer lines were recently installed. Gardeners will show you pot sherds in the rich black soil they have purchased for their flower beds, and Ambergris Stadium and the land surrounding it is rich with broken Maya pottery. Ambergris Caye doesn't have the major ceremonial temples that grace mainland Belize, it does however, offer several partially excavated sites that provide insight into island Maya village life.

On August 2 a group of eight boarded captain Daniel Nuñez' boat the Tanisha Too and headed up the leeward coast of Ambergris Caye to visit the once prosperous Maya trading sites of Santa Cruz, San Juan and Chac Balam (see map on page 3). Along with us was Dr. Herman Smith and his wife Pam. Herman Smith is an archaeologist who participated in the excavation of the sites. On our way to Santa Cruz we stopped at Bird's Isle, a rocky mangrove outcrop that is home to many nesting birds. Unfortunately, our visit was too late that morning to catch any of the small island's inhabitants at home. The mangrove lined coast on the leeward side is occasionally dotted with a few tall trees, gumbo limbo and red mangrove. Herman told us that the gumbo limbo tree was an accurate indicator of a previous Maya settlement, and that they are present at most of the sites on the island. The trees flourish in the rich composted soil that once was occupied by villagers.

The Santa Cruz site is located just west of a cove, a natural harbor. We climbed off the boat and waded through the crystal clear water to an opening in the bush. Stepping inside the mangroves a well cleared trail invited us to explore. The exterior buttonwood mangroves are about 15 to 20 feet high and are a buffer to the interior forest of red and yellow mangrove, sapodilla and gumbo limbo trees that form a canopy at least 40 feet and higher overhead. Sunlight filters down through the leaves, it is an outdoor cathedral. The only sounds are our feet stepping on fallen leaves and the mosquitos buzzing. The land rises rapidly and as we climb up the trail and mounds are revealed; the remnants of buildings are marked by upright stones which were the building's foundations. Several wells, in functioning condition remain. We trekked through the forest exploring the former plaza and burial sites. The trees are lush with orchids and epiphytes (air plants). At one point the dozens of large white fragrant blossoms littered the trail. We looked up and discovered a frangipani tree. The tree was nearly 40 feet in height. Its height is attributed to the need for sunlight. It had no lower vegetation (leaves) but its crown was in full bloom. Yucatan jays chattered among the high branches of the red mangrove. The area was abundant with medicinal plants and trees.

The structures and ceramics found at the site indicate a flourishing civilization existed in the Late and Terminal Classic periods. Unguarded and unpreserved, it has a number of looted tombs.

Our next stop was the San Juan site which is now the headquarters for the Bacalar Chico Marine Reserve. Bacalar Chico/San Juan has a spectacular location on a promontory overlooking the bay and Mexico. Pinkerton, the former owner of the land, used much of the stone from the ruins to create a breakwater. San Juan was an easily recognizable trading post and the ceramics and artifacts found at the site attest to trading with Mayas in the Yucatan, Campeche and the Peten region of Guatemala.

A Mayan well at Santa Cruz

After learning briefly about the activities and the structures that were present we set out beachcombing. What a delight! We were advised that removing sherds and artifacts was illegal and we set out exploring. The shoreline is covered with pot sherds, pieces of obsidian, human bones and old bottles. It was like being a child again gathering shells. Look at this! Here's a piece with a leg; this one has markings; mine has a ridge around it. We all picked up handfuls and examined the treasures closely and then set them aside and gathered more. Herman identified the various types of pottery we "discovered" and the pieces of flint and obsidian - parts of tools, spearheads, cooking pots, large utility pots. We enjoyed a show and tell session and then put our treasures back for the next explorers to find and enjoy. The story tellers, Herman and Daniel filled our minds with images of the past.

After enjoying lunch we set out for Chac Balam which is just around the corner (sort of) from San Juan. The site is located between San Juan and the Bacalar Chico channel. It had a man made harbor cleared in the dense mangroves. Today a narrow trail to the site exists and it is partially covered with water. After seeing the trail we would take, several of the adventurers decided to remain on board. The expedition party started out led by Daniel who advised us to walk exactly in his steps as there were some deep holes. With a pole in hand he led the way. After wading in the water through the mangrove we came to a muddy track. We liberally applied mosquito repellant. Nearing the sight the land was higher and drier. The rangers at Bacalar Chico have placed a signpost at the entrance to the site and along the trails at points of interest. The signposts also mark the flora including poison wood trees.

A large burial mound marks the entrance to the site. Travelling along the trail we viewed the plaza and the remains of various building around it. Limestone facades were discovered at Chac Balam which is similar to mainland architecture. The limestone facades fronted the foundations upon which would have been pole and thatch houses. The artifacts found indicate it too was a trading post.

Polychrome pottery sherds remain at the site. A large number of shallow burials were found at this site leading archaeologists to believe that it was the ancestral home of people who at the time lived elsewhere and returned to the site to bury their dead. The trails are extensive through the ruin, but unfortunately the current population of thousands of mosquitos cut short our visit. On the way back to the boat we were trying to imagine the stamina of the archaeologists during the excavation.

After we washed off the mud and layers of bug spray, we climbed back aboard the boat and headed east through the Bacalar Chico channel the Mayas dug years ago to establish the trade route. At some places one can touch the mangroves of Mexico and the mangroves of Belize by just stretching out the arms. We "fish watched" in the clear water and passed over caves that are home to large fish and blue holes in the sandy channel bottom. At the mouth of the channel was a most amazing site. In the middle of the sea, almost on the reef stands a house on stilts. Some say it's on the Belize Mexico border. What a location.

We cruised along the sparsely populated northern coastline until we arrived at Rocky Point where the reef meets the land. Captain Daniel took the boat through a cut in the reef and we braved the open sea until we arrived at the cut near Punta Azul. It was great to be back inside the calm water. Half an hour later we were back in San Pedro.

Visiting the sites of the Maya traders is a great day trip. The Tanisha Too is a roomy comfortable boat, complete with a canopy to ward off the hot sun. Daniel and Elodia are first rate tour guides. Be sure to take sunscreen, insect repellant and wear shoes that are sturdy. Don't forget cameras and binoculars, there's lots to see and photograph.

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