story by joshua berman // Photos by demian solano
There I was, chest-deep in the Maya underworld, the sound of slapping water echoing through the cavern. My headlamp washed through the crystal-clear water of this underground river, revealing tiny fish trying to nibble at my knees. I was in Actun Tunichil Muknal—Cave of the Stone Sepulcher.I was in good company too, tromping inside the earth with Belize’s top archaeologist, Dr. Jaime Awe, a Travel Channel film crew, and a small mob of porters and guides floating and lugging several thousand pounds of lights and batteries. It felt like an expedition worthy of the site.Finally, we emerged from the water, removed our shoes to protect the cave’s precious contents, and sock-padded up the clay, past hundreds 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 a thousand times before, said he had never seen it lit up so beautifully.
After the cathedral, Dr. Awe led us to a side chamber where he pointed out the bones of several infant sacrifices. He then showed us some ash on the ground and said that, right where we were standing, over a thousand years ago, a group of Maya had tamped their torches against the cave wall. There was the black stain on the rock. The material on the ground looked like fresh cigar ash. I got the chills.
Finally, we climbed a ladder to the Crystal Maiden, lying right where she had fallen as an offering to Chaac—the rain god. We were looking at the evidence behind Dr. Awe’s latest work, which pointed to severe droughts, which pushed the Maya to offer younger, more precious lives to the gods—and to do it deeper and deeper inside Xibalba—the sacred underworld.
The cave felt delicate, but it was neither accident nor 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.
This trip to the Belizean underworld reflects the rest of my experiences traveling in Belize: surprising, awe-inspiring, cool, and deep; and in 2012—the Year of the Maya—you’ll have a chance to see what I mean.
December 21, 2012, is the final day of the Maya Long Count, a 5,125-year period, which began on August 11, 3114 B.C., a summer solstice, and will end on the winter solstice in 2012. The Maya used this calendar to record the ascension of kings and the deeds of dynasties, but with the collapse of the Classic Maya around A.D. 850, the Long Count disappeared for over a thousand years—until now.
Today, as archaeologists dig up discoveries and understand more of the ancient Maya writings, questions about 2012 persist: Will the cycle repeat? Will the Long Count click over (peacefully or otherwise) to begin a new era for all of humanity? Were the Maya trying to tell us something?
One thing is for certain: the end of the Long Count is a big deal and every country in the Mundo Maya, including Belize, is planning a year-long uplifting of Maya culture. The opportunity for interesting and immersive tourism is enormous.
Modern Mopan, Yucatec, and Q’eqchi’ Maya communities in Belize comprise about 10 percent of the country’s population, but many Belizeans, even non-Maya, feel a connection with Maya culture—especially when there’s a party involved, of which there are sure to be plenty in 2012.
In addition to sporting events, lectures, feasts, and ceremonies throughout the year, Belize will be issuing special 2012 passports—you’ll collect commemorative stamps as you visit each new archaeological site. There is also a huge range of 2012 packages being offered by many of Belize’s service providers, some of which are truly creative Maya-centered trips which feature a long list of tours, rituals, and celebrations. Some are being offered all year long, others only for the winter solstice.
My travel plans for 2012 include bringing my family to a rural Maya community in Belize. My choices include the Toledo District’s Q’eqchi’ villages, the Mopan Maya village of Red Bank where an annual aggregation of scarlet macaws draws birders from around the globe, and the community of Maya Center at the gateway to the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary. I’d love to see my 4-year-old daughter chasing butterflies with local children or splashing in a cool river as it emerges from yet another sacred cave. Supporting such grassroots tourism programs helps modern Maya to diversify their income and offers a chance to talk with living Maya to see what they think about 2012 and the Long Count cycle ending.
Despite what you’ve heard, there is little evidence of a Maya prophecy connecting 2012 to any foreseen event, whether cataclysmic or transcendent. Dr. Awe says that 2012 “represents the ending of one cosmological cycle, and the beginning of another. It’s very much the way most people would look at the end of one year and the beginning of another, but over a very, very long period of time. It is a time for reflection, and for considering future direction.”
In 2012, travelers should also visit the western highlands, the Cayo District, with its lush landscape of river valleys and its many Maya attractions, both ancient and living. San Ignacio is the best base for exploring this region, a riverside town with its own ancient Maya palace, Cahal Pech, at the highest point in town. Cayo also boasts the impressive archaeological sites of Xunantunich and Caracol. Caracol is an important Classic Period city beyond the Mountain Pine Ridge, which will host several sunrise solstice events in 2012.
Then, of course, there are the caves—Xibalba, the underworld—where you can feel Belize’s Mundo Maya nibbling at your knees and splashing against your chest.