After a wonderful week in Belize, my initial companions had returned to their (comparatively) boring lives in the States. I found myself alone and lacking specific plans for the next stage of my adventure (my plan all along has been to find people who’ve done more planning than I.)
Fortunately I’m familiar enough with adventure tropes to know that all I have to do to find a new party of travel companions is book a bed at the local inn, chill in the tavern, and knock back Panty Rippers((rum + fresh pineapple juice, $3-5)) until a motley band of adventurers asks me to accompany them to investigate some mysterious ruins outside town.
Which is exactly what happened.
At first light I set out from San Pedro in the company of a Devin- a Marine infantry officer, Nicole- a Texas realtor, and two sisters from Alabama: Ariella- a nurse, and Anna- a banker. On a previous trip Nicole had met a rancher near the Guatemalan border named Santiago who was willing to provide horses and guide visitors through the jungle to the Mayan ruins of Xunantunich.
Six hours by boat, bus, and van (bus schedules exist, but have no relation to reality) brought us to Santiago’s ranch outside the small town of San Ignacio. We rode a “chicken bus”- a repurposed American school bus that stops for anyone along the road and holds a maximum capacity of always one more. Our bus actually featured a TV at the front playing the 1994 sci-fi flick Time Chasers (2.3/10 on IMDB).
Santiago, it turned out, used to work as a UN official tackling food security throughout the developing world. Now he’s retired to his family’s ancestral ranch.
Santiago introduced our horses- Goldie, Justice, Jello, Chocolate, and Grey Goose (which are all, incidentally, very respectable stripper names). I mounted Grey Goose, spent 30 seconds acquainting myself with the English style of riding, and rode after Santiago and friends into the jungle.
We followed a trail along the Mopan River through some impressive flora and fauna. I saw iguanas, ibises, and the frattiest of all plants- the bromeliad. At one point the trail became a living carpet of leafcutter ants and we were forced to turn the horses to seek an alternate path (apparently horses get spooked if forced to walk across thousands of biting insects.)
We crossed the Mopan via a hand-cranked ferry, then rode uphill until we began passing archaeologists’ camps and fresh excavations. We dismounted and left Santiago to watch the horses, then ascended the rest of the hill on foot.
I was prepared to be underwhelmed. I’d already seen the Aztec pyramid at Epcot in Disney World, and that wasn’t terribly impressive. I wasn’t expecting the thrill of discovery when I turned a corner through the foliage and beheld a stone pyramid nearly as tall as the Statue of Liberty((the sandals to head-spikes part)).
The pyramid, named “El Castillo”, was literally monumental. In a jungle where the plants are in a constant state of flux, here was something immovably solid. I estimated if each cubic meter of dirt/limestone weighs about two tons, El Castillo weighs ~40m X 40m X 40m / 3 X 2 tons/m^3 = 40,000 tons- about the weight of the German superbattleship Bismarck((Someday there’ll be a naval warfare round in pub trivia, and it’ll be my time to shine…)).
If this were the United States, there would probably be rules against climbing all over millennia-old relics of bygone civilizations. Lucky for me, this is Belize. I approached the pyramid and took my first step.
The Classical era Mayans were a short people (mostly under 5′). Even for strapping, modern Westerner like myself the steps were unnaturally large and steep. An archaeologist informed me that the Mayans had ascended the steps in a zigzag pattern, reminiscent of the movements of the serpents they revered. I sprang up the steps in a bee-line.
The path to the top wrapped around some restored friezes, which I made sure to a photo in front of. I entered the pyramid’s chambers and climbed the final steps to the top.
The archaeologists estimate 200,000 people used to live here ca. 800 AD. Thanks to the presence of distributed natural water sources like the Mopan river, Xunantunich outlasted many of the other Mayan city-states during the Classic Mayan collapse. Now it’s jungle as far as the eye can see.
Why does a civilization of 19 million inhabitants suddenly abandon the cities and temples it’s spent thousands of years constructing? As I was contemplating this, a tortured, inhuman scream shattered the quiet and echoed across the stone temples. My party and I turned to each other with identical expressions of “what the fuck was that?”
There isn’t bandwidth in this country for video, so you’ll just have to use your imagination: you’re exploring an ancient city, whose inhabitants were forced to leave by sudden, mysterious catastrophe a thousand years ago. The jungle has been uninhabited since. Then you hear this:
“You do know what happened to the Maya, don’t you?” I said to Ariella.
She shook her head uneasily.
“It’s actually probably howler monkeys,” I said. “At least, I hope it’s howler monkeys.”
I’m told the clues to the truth of the Mayan collapse aren’t to be found atop pyramids, but deep underground- in the drowned, lightless caves of Actun Tunichil Muknal. That’s where I’m headed next- after I buy some water shoes.