I WOKE WITH STOMACH PAINS and wondered if this was going to be a bad day for a bus trip. My girlfriend and I were headed for the Belizean town of San Ignacio, near the border with Guatemala. A five-hour ride. Fortunately the cramps eased as we drove inland past the Maya Mountains which rose out of the dry corn fields in green, camelback humps. Once we arrived in town it was an easy matter to find a hostel, and the rest of the day was spent checking travel agencies. We decided to go with a guide named Sergio who claimed to have twenty years of experience. His tour included a visit to a cave as well as a swimming area, but the main attraction – and the reason we had come to San Ignacio – was Caracol, the largest Maya site in Belize.
The following morning we had an early breakfast, then waited for our guide to arrive. He showed up promptly at 7:30, a little breathless.
“I have some bad news and some good news,” he said. “The bad news is that I cannot go with you today. Family business. But the good news is you will have Selma as your guide! I have trained him and he knows as much as I do.”
At this he introduced us to his stand-in; a short, chubby man with bulging eyes who resembled Peter Lorre. Selma smiled broadly and ushered us into his Land Rover, which made disconcerting noises as we left town and headed into the hills. The pavement ended at the outskirts of the city and the road soon became lost amidst the potholes and rocks. Selma slowed for the more cavernous ruts, but otherwise urged his vehicle on with abandon.
After two hours of this we would have been happy to stop for a speech by Newt Gingrich. Instead, we pulled off the jungle path and stopped at Rio Frio cave: an enormous limestone cavern that offered a respite from the dust and heat. Selma took us inside the cave, walking along a ledge that overlooked the river which ran through it. There was little sound and at a bend in the passageway we could see the openings at both ends; ragged circles of light framed with hanging roots and ferns.
“Important place for Maya people,” Selma explained. Then he lead us back out of the cave.
An Army jeep was parked in the lot next to our vehicle when we returned. Soldiers were lounging in the seats with rifles slung carelessly over their shoulders or across their laps. They watched our approach without comment. Selma nodded to them and turned to us, making what I took to be an oblique reference to their presence:
“Tourism is very important to the Belizean economy,” he said.
We continued up the road for another thirty minutes, reaching Caracol in the late morning.
Caracol is not only the largest Maya site in Belize, it also figured prominently in the great Tikal-Calakmul rivalry of the Classic period. These three great cities came to prominence at around the same time in the Early Classic (ca. 250-600 CE). Tikal came to dominate the lowland region soon after an apparent takeover by forces from Teotihuacán in the Valley of Mexico in 378 CE, while Calakmul appears to have been built by the same dynasty that ruled El Mirador; the great Preclassic site that was abandoned by 150 CE. The two polities fought each other throughout the Classic with one and then the other experiencing periods of ascendancy. Caracol, which had formerly been Tikal’s ally, switched sides in 556 CE. Six years later Tikal fell to the Calakmul Alliance, which then maintained its position as the dominant power in the lowland region for over a hundred years.
At Caracol we were shown a stela – a carved stone with glyphic writing – that commemorated its victory over Tikal. It shows two captive Tikal lords who are bound and ready to be sacrificed. This stela lies in the main plaza, in the shadow of Caracol’s impressive Sky Palace, which rises 140 feet above the plaza. The plaza itself is flanked by numerous other pyramidal structures, many of them little more than mounds of earth. We climbed to the top of the Sky Palace and found three smaller temples at the top; a common feature in Maya architecture. As I looked down on the plaza I imagined a scene like a North African souk: a colorful, crowded, and noisy marketplace. Selma explained that the plaza, a square of manicured green, would have been paved in limestone in the days of the Maya. I shuddered to think of the heat that would have risen from such an expanse of white stucco, but for all we know the plaza floor might have been painted, or covered in woven mats.
From our vantage point atop the temple we beheld a rolling sea of green. Selma told us that there were possibly hundreds of undiscovered Maya sites out there.
“The population of Belize today is less than it was in Maya times, ” he said.
I gave him a dubious glance but he nodded his head vigorously.
“Yes, yes,” he said, his eyes bulging with sincerity. “Today we have around 300,000 people in Belize. In Maya times it was over one million!”
I looked again at the surrounding jungle. It was easy to imagine cities still lost under that lush canopy. There was also something very satisfying in the idea that there were still secrets in this world, whole cities in fact, waiting in the reeds to be rediscovered.
As with Lamanai, our tour ended too soon. Selma took us back to the entrance and served us lunch, including a few avocados he’d picked up at the site. At two o’clock a soldier came up to our table and said, “It’s fourteen-hundred. You should be leaving now.” I stuffed the last of my lunch in my bag and said to my girlfriend, “Never argue with a man with a gun.” We got in the Land Rover and started for the swimming hole. When we reached a short stretch of paved road Selma gunned it, accelerating despite the amplified rattle from the back end, until one of the rear wheels flew off into the jungle and we lurched sideways, scraping to a halt. The Belizean Army, however, was right behind us. They found the wheel and discovered that the bolts had all sheared off the hub, rendering the vehicle useless, so they offered to take us the rest of the way to the swimming hole on the River On. We climbed aboard their jeep and continued on our way. As we bounced along I noticed that one of the soldiers’ rifles was propped against the front seat with its barrel pointing at my head. My girlfriend laughed when she saw me leaning away from the animated weapon. Suddenly our guide gave a shout and the soldiers stopped the jeep. Selma leaped out of the vehicle and rushed ahead to pick something off the dusty track. It was an agouti, a large rodent-like animal, that had been killed trying to cross the road. He lifted it up, then started whacking it against the side of the jeep, apparently to make sure it was dead. He tossed the carcass at my feet, then jumped in.
“Good for barbecue!” he said happily.
The accommodating soldiers dropped us off at the Rio On pools, then drove away with a promise to call our travel company when they reached town. Selma showed us the path that would lead to the river, but he chose to stay by the road with his dead agouti. It was almost dark by the time Sergio arrived with a fresh vehicle. He didn’t say a word to us the entire trip back to San Ignacio, but once we pulled in front of the agency he spun around and blurted out:
“Well, you kids got an extra adventure today, eh? Ha, ha!”
Without waiting for a reply he hopped out of the vehicle and disappeared inside the office. Selma, who never lost his smile, shook our hands and received his tip with a formal little bow, then walked down the street swinging his dinner by the hind legs.