Local Resident Visits Mayan Site on Last Calendar Day

By Owen A Nelson | Dec 30, 2012
Photo by: Owen Nelson posing on top of the royal residence at caracol

this story is published by owen nelson, a resident of lincolnville and chome horwat, a resident of merrittstown, pa.

last year, in an effort to boost tourism and promote the archaeologic history of belize, the National Institute of Culture and History (www.nichbelize.org) decided to promote the restored city of caracol as a destination for foreign visitors.  the remains of the ancient city of Caracol have been restored over the past 40 years so the principle buildings (temples and royal residences) are exposed once again to demonstrate the magnificent structures produced by these ancient peoples.  the main residential temple of the royal family, for example, remains to this day the tallest man made structure in the entire country.

to entice visitors to participate in this event, the institute arranged for the common grounds of the city to be made available for overnight camping on 4 specific dates in 2012 - the summer and winter solstices, and the spring and fall equinoxes.  naturally, these dates were chosen because of the importance of astronomy to the ancient mayans and of course because of the fact that the mayan calendar came to an end on dec 21, 2012.  the event was not an 'end of the world' event.  it was this year as it was every year during the reign of the mayans an end of a cycle and beginning of a new cycle.  while it is true that the mayan calendar came to an end, it is not because they were predicting the end of time.  in fact, when the mayan civilization was at it's peak of prominence around 1000AD, the end of the calendar was over a thousand years in the future.  there was just no reason to start to work on the new calendar at that point.  (what's the likelihood you could go to the mall and buy a calendar for the year 3012?)

in any case, the event was advertised over the internet, including facebook where it caught our eye and interest.  we purchased our tickets in april 2012 without any idea how we would accomplish attendance.  but it seemed to be a unique adventure so we made the commitment to attend.  coincidentally, we had planned to be in cancun, mexico that week and thought we could use that as a staging point to make the trip.  our original expectation was to fly from cancun to belize city and then drive to caracol for the event.  however, the reality is that there are no (zero, none, zip) flights from cancun to belize city.  we would have had to fly from cancun to miami and then back to belize city to make it there by air.  so we decided to rent a car in cancun and make the drive from there.  what we got with that decision was a 3 day trek covering nearly 1500km (940 miles) of driving.

beginning in early december, we were in communication with other attendees, many trying to figure out just how to get to caracol.  there is very limited public transportation into the interior of the country and very limited established tours.  so it was pretty much everybody for themselves to get there by what ever means possible. but in spite of the difficulties, there were people coming from all over the world to be there.  we ultimately made a connection with two australians (jamie and andy) who were flying into belize city and looking for a ride from there.  we agreed to rendezvous with them in the city and transport them to caracol.  following the overnight event, we took them back to the nearest currently populated city (san ignacio) where they went on to explore additional ruins in belize and guatemala.

our trip began with a mid-day departure from cancun driving south on mexico highway 307.  this is a relatively new and modern highway along the caribbean coast of mexico.  it is not a limited access 'freeway' in the sense of our interstate highways.  when it goes into a town, the speed limits drop to city speeds and the decrease in speed is enforced with enormous speed bumps.  drivers have to be particularly diligent to identify and negotiate these traffic control devices.  our route took us to the border city of chetumal where we crossed the border into belize.  as with many border crossings in not-so-affluent countries, this was a bit of an adventure all it's own.  there were protocols, and rules, and of course multiple friendly helpful locals who were more than happy to take us by the hand and lead us through the complexities of the system all for a 'small' monetary token of appreciation at the conclusion.  we ultimately made it through and found ourselves on the 'northern highway' of belize.  this road reminded me of a very narrow undivided two way paved roads that i experienced in very rural arizona in the 1950s.  there were no identifying road markers.  there were precious few road signs.  but there certainly were the suspension busting speed bumps all along the way.  we pulled into belize city (a notoriously crime ridden city) after dark.  maps of the area were non-existant (thankfully we had a google map of sufficient detail that we had a general idea of our destination).  we drove into the city and reconnoitered the destination zone until we found the hotel where we had reservations.  we were up early the next morning and met our traveling companions and then found our way to the 'western highway' which took us west into the mountain jungles at the border of belize and guatemala.  here, in san ignacio, we one again rendezvoused with additional travelers going to the event.  the final three hours of the journey were on a dirt road of very poor repair.  locals had suggested that we travel in a convoy on this road because of the poor condition of the road, the remote location, and the fact that one could never entirely feel safe from criminal invaders from neighboring guatemala.  but we did in fact, arrive safely at our destination at about noon on thursday dec 20th.

the ruins were magnificent.  one cannot help but be amazed by the industry of the mayans who build these amazing structures.  and the archaeologic effort to expose them is nothing short of herculean.  remember, these ruins are completely covered by the jungle with over one thousand years of earth, wind, fire, fauna, and flora conspiring to completely bury the buildings.  the excavation of the site took years of careful expert clearance of the all the debris from the man made structures.  after briefly admiring the buildings, we set up our tent on a grass covered field in front of one of the city temples.  we then had the great privilege of a guided tour of the entire complex by the lead archaeologist in charge of the excavation - Dr Jamie Awe, a local born belizean educated in canada and who held academic positions in the USA and canada prior to returning to belize to conduct this project.  we were given many insights into the structure, governance, day-to-day existence, religion, science, and calendrics of the original residents.  after the tour we had some free time to explore the site.  of course we had to ascend the pyramids to get the royal eagle's eye view.  later, there was a meal of traditional mayan and belizean foods (beans, corn, pork, fowl primarily with hand made flour and corn tortillas and local seasonings).  following dinner, Dr Awe continued to talk about the excavation and about mayan understanding of mathematics, astronomy, and calendrics.  they had very advanced understanding of astronomy (much more advanced than european societies of the same era) that allowed them to make a calendar that matched the orbit of the earth around the sun for a period of 5,200 years.  as i mentioned before, work on the new calendar was not initiated during this era because there would be no need for a new calendar for another 1000 years. following dinner, we retired to our tents to sleep under sparkling clear sky that was lit with moon and stars.  the following morning we arose at 4:00am in order to attend the sunrise ceremony - a representation of a very solemn ancient ceremony on a very important day - the winter solstice.  during the ceremony, the sun rose and the jungle came alive - principally howler monkeys making such a roar you would think that jaguars were lurking just beyond the clearing ready to pounce on us.   after the ceremony we were treated to another mayan meal while the belizean military made a morning sweep of the dirt road back to san ignacio.  when all was clear, we left caracol and took our traveling partners to san ignacio.  we then drove non-stop back cancun - another 10 hours of belizean paved roads, border crossing, mexican highway, speed bumps over miles and miles central america.  we arrived in cancun exhausted but thrilled by the adventure of the past 3 days.

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