Belize 2015 part 2: Exploring the land of ancient Maya...with kids
During our stay at Clarissa Falls, we visited two nearby ancient Maya sites - Xunantunich (Shoo-NAN-too-nick, or as Jose says, "Son-of-a-bitch") and Cahal Pech (CAY-hal PETCH). The other two major sites within traveling distance (Tikal - in Guatemala - and Caracol) involved all-day trips, which we weren't keen on with our easily-burnt-out boys. But Xunantunich was only 3 miles from us, you can even see it from the roads around Clarissa, so it was just a short drive with Jose into San Ignacio and across a fun two-car crank ferry.
Xunantunich commands the top of a hill, and most of the excavated buildings date to its peak period, around 600-700 A.D., though Mayans may have lived in the area as early as 1000 B.C. The site cost $10 BZ (roughly $5 US) per adult and included a small but interesting visitor center. Jose dropped us off and armed with granola bars, GoGo Squeeze applesauce and water bottles, we set off to explore.
I'm just going to go ahead and say that I have never been so terrified as a parent. While my boys scrambled like ninny goats up steep crumbling steps with rocky drop-offs, I had Mayan visions of falling bodies and crushed skulls. I was acutely aware, as I clutched Knox's sweaty, slippery baby hand, that Belizean trauma centers are extremely few and far between. Once we got to the top of these temples, it was no better, because then they wanted to run, and lean, and all sorts of dangerous things. But once we had them sitting firmly with butts to the ground, looking out over the complex, then, WOW!!!
Xunantunich means "Stone Woman" in Maya (combined Mopan and Yucatec) language. The site was named upon excavation in the 1890s when the ghost of a woman was seen entering El Castillo. The ancient Maya name for this city center is sadly lost. El Castillo is the second-tallest Mayan building in Belize, after the Caracol site.
The ancient Maya led a very spiritual existence, which centered on the Tree of Life extending from the Underworld in the earth to the Overworld in the heavens. Their sense of place was defined by east and west (with the rising and setting of the sun god) rather than north and south. Xunantunich has friezes on its east and west facing sides, dedicated to the sun and moon gods.
The Maya shaman view and breeze from the top was almost worth the risk getting there. Even Reis got scared on the top of this one! Luckily the last few steps are enclosed. I couldn't help thinking that a site like this in the States would be railing-ed and roped to death. Actually, people probably wouldn't be allowed to climb on it.
Despite being overcast and thunderstorms, we were all wilted and sweaty. The temperature was similar to NC in July, and the sun, being so much closer near the equator, was HOT on your skin. Jose returned us safely to Clarissa, where the kids had fun playing in the river with some progressive Mennonite kids who had come for lunch after church. Cooling off for me meant a cold shower and a (life-changing) pina colada in the breezy hammock, though.
The next morning after breakfast, Chena took us for a hike through the uncleared jungle part of Clarissa. She often takes student groups to teach them the different healing properties of the various plants in the jungle. Did I mention that Chena was a healer, too? She knew the name and purpose of every plant. Grind this for aspirin, crush this for energy (that last one kept me from passing out in the heat and exertion!) After four months of disuse, the jungle was beginning to take back the trail, so Henry went ahead with his machete.
Thanks to our all-natural bug spray (lemon oil, tree oil, eucalyptus), we got maybe 5 mosquito bites between us all in the four days we were at Clarissa Falls. We were all on an anti-malarial regimen too, which we started the day before we arrived. But based on the low risk (the State Department claimed a less than 1% chance of contracting malaria in under 30 days) we would have stopped it if the kids had any side effects. Thankfully we all had no problems. And all the jungle bugs that I worried about were nonexistent. No flies or mosquitos, even in the evening when we ate outside. I didn't see one enormous spider or beetle, unless you count the 4 inch centipede that Mark found in the dryer after our post-trip laundry...
Though we heard howler monkeys, It was late morning, so most of the animals were seeking the cool of underground burrows. I didn't blame them! We did see lots of leafcutter ants, their little green sails looking like mini-regattas across the trail. After humans, these species of ant have the most complex societies on earth. Their mounds, like the one above, can reach 98 ft. in diameter.
It was a good hour and a half hike, and the boys did awesome over the rough terrain. When we returned, Henry treated us to cut coconuts so the kids could try fresh coconut water. It was not a hit with them, but it is so refreshing! Nature's Gatorade.
In our last Clarissa installment, we visit Cahal Pech and the market in San Ignacio! Then, it's off to the beach! Thanks for reading!