Maya 2012: Belize
There I was, chest-deep in the Maya underworld, the sounds of slapping water echoing through the cave. My headlamp washed through the crystal-clear underground river, revealing tiny fish trying to nibble at my knees. I was in Actun Tunichil Muknal, the “Cave of the Crystal Maiden” and one of the most mind-blowing adventures that anyone (older than 12 and in good shape) can experience.
I was there in good company, tromping into the earth with Belize’s top archaeologist, Dr. Jaime Awe, a Travel Channel film crew, and 17 porters and guides floating and lugging several 1,000 pounds of lights and batteries through the cave’s many turns. It felt like an expedition worthy of the site.
Finally, we emerged from the water, removed our shoes, and sock-padded up the clay, past hundreds—thousands—of potsherds and human skull fragments. As the film crew’s powerful lights clicked on in the cathedral room, I watched as everyone was stunned into silence—even Dr. Awe, who had been here many times before, but had never seen it lit up so beautifully.
He pointed to the bones of several infant sacrifices, then the crystal maiden herself, lying right where she had fallen as an offering to Chaac, the rain god. This was the evidence behind Dr. Awe’s latest work, which pointed to severe droughts that pushed the Maya to offer younger, more precious lives to the gods—and to do it deeper and deeper inside Xibalba, the sacred underworld.
Dr. Awe pointed to some ash on the ground and told me that where we were standing, over a thousand years ago, a group of Maya had tamped their torches against the cave wall. It looked like fresh cigar ash. I got the chills.
The cave felt delicate, but it was no accident or oversight that allowed tourists to trounce through such a rare preserve. It was, in fact, a strategy to preserve the site. Dr. Awe explained that training local tour guides gave them a stake in the business of showing the cave and its contents to visitors. They then become stewards and protectors of the place.
My trip to the Belizean underworld reflects the rest of my experience traveling in Belize: surprising, awe-inspiring, cool, and deep—at least up to your chest.
Evidence of pre-Maya Archaic peoples in northern Belize indicates habitation at least 10,000 years ago. Later Belize developed Preclassic and Classic societies, which were part of a loose empire of city-states extending into present-day Guatemala, Mexico, and Honduras.
One of its sites, Lamanai, remained occupied by Maya all the way up until contact with the Spanish. This happened relatively late in the 16th century, because the Spanish left the backwater of Belize alone for the most part.
After the Classic collapse around A.D. 900, it is unclear where many of Belize’s original Maya went. Eventually, different groups migrated back to Belize to escape persecution elsewhere. Many of Belize’s northern Maya came to escape the Yucatán Caste War, beginning around 1850. Thousands of Maya, mestizo, and Mexican refugees entered Belize to escape the widespread violence in Quintana Roo. These Yucatecans introduced Latin culture, Catholic religion, and agriculture into northern Belize, locally referred to as “Spanish tradition.”
But even with the recent resurgence of Maya pride, the Maya of Belize are still among the poorest, most politically marginalized people in the country, especially in the southern Toledo District, where rural poverty and government neglect among the predominantly Mopan and Qéqchi’ Maya villages is widespread. Most of these Maya are relatively recent immigrants as well. Escaping violence and repression in Guatemala over the last few generations, these informal, undocumented immigrants entered southern Belize and began working and living on the land.
© Josh Berman from Moon Maya 2012