The area that makes up the country of Belize was part of the home of the Maya civilization which stretched from Central America to Southern Mexico. The Maya culture was established beginning in 2000B.C. and reached it’s highest state of development 250 A.D. to 900 A.D. One of the things that led to the rise of the of the Maya civilization was their strong farming skills and ability. Over-population, coupled with climate change and drought contributed to the rapid decline and disappearance of their civilization.
Frank and I decided that while in Belize we should visit a couple of the Maya ruins and learn more about the Maya civilization. We signed up for a tour of Lubaantun and Nim Li Punit both of which are located in the Toledo District of Belize. The excursion would take all day and included lunch. Departure day was beautiful and we were anxious to get started.
Our first stop was Nim Li Punit.
After touring the museum we ventured out to the ruins. Our tour guide, Rafael was a wealth of information, as he’s of direct Maya decent. He showed us the Ballcourt which consisted of two parallel structures that looked like bleachers – see below. He shared with us the traditional history of the game played there as passed down from generation to generation.
In the center there is a rock circle that acted as a starting point.
The game was played with two participants and a large hard rubber ball made from the sap of the rubber tree that grows in Belize. The heavy ball was used as a weapon to chuck back and forth between two players. Citizens came as spectators, sitting on stone bleachers, watching and cheering. Participants in the game were actually criminals who were found guilty of a crime. The punishment handed down would be their required participation in the Maya ball game, which was only played once every ten years. At the conclusion of the games, a winner was declared but unfortunately both of the participants had to die; however, there was a silver lining. As legend goes, the declared loser was beheaded. The declared winner’s heart was cut out but his family was honored and allowed to move into the city to live a life of comfort, never wanting for anything again. Fascinating to say the least.
We continued our tour of the ruins and came upon the below gravesite.
Tomb #1 (Structure 5) (paraphrased from ruin signage) – This tomb contained the remains of at least five people. Along with their bones, shells, pottery, jade, stingray spines and carved stone were found. These individuals were members of the royal family at Nim Li Punit. The tomb was excavated in 1986 by Richard Leventhal and dates to 700 – 800 A.D.
After we completed the tour of Nim Li Punit it was time for lunch. Rafael took us to a local restaurant named Coleman’s Cafe which was nothing more than a little house off the main road. Food was served out of crock pots, buffet style. The buffet line was inside a small screened off section of the room, with a screen door entrance and exit, very 1950’s atmosphere. Food choices were chicken, red beans and rice and salad. Hand made signs were posted on the wall above the food, “Don’t take more than you can eat.” I thought that was very good advice. Kudos to Rafael on lunch choice!
Next stop, the Mayan city of Lubaantun ruins, after a quick gas stop. Our transportation below.
The Lubaantun museum had a couple of small artifact display cases, one of which was empty. Rafael told us someone broke into the room and stole all the jade that was displayed inside the case, a loss that could never be recovered. There were photos, artifacts and bulletin boards hanging on the walls.
One bulletin board housed three or more articles about a Crystal Skull that was said to have been found at the Lubaantun ruins by a young girl named Anna on her 17th birthday, January 1, 1924. At the time, she was traveling on an expedition with her father, famous explorer and author , F.A. Mitchell-Hedges.
Rafael showed us the location where it is said the skull was found. He said Anna found the head first and then spotted the jaw, not too far from the skull. She tried the two pieces together and voila, it was a perfect fit. Needless to say, she was delighted. After deliberation of the facts and seeing the location where the skull and jaw were found we concluded that it is most likely a hoax. Possibly, Mr. Mitchell-Hedges planted the skull and jaw as a birthday surprise for his daughter. Whatever the circumstance of its finding it was fun visiting the site and taking a few minutes to ponder how it must have felt for Anna to make such a discovery on her 17th birthday.
Below, Frank and I on the steps of one of the ruins.
Below, our guide, Rafael demonstrates the way Mayans traditionally pose for a photo opt – hands on hips, sideways profile with feet together.
Rafael was an expert at identifying every tree and plant we passed along our hike through the brush and thicket in route to the ruins. Every plant had a medicinal purpose, which he shared with us, from the cure for indigestion to sweaty feet, information he said was passed down to him by his grandmother. She was a medicine woman.
Above is the trunk of a rubber tree. Rafael slashed the tree with his knife in a couple of places so we could see how freely the rubber flowed. He said when he was a young boy he and his cousins would seek out a large slender palm tree leaf to position under a puncture wound like above. They would leave the leaf overnight to fill up with sap, returning the next day to find the rubber dry. They would peel off the rubber and voila, they had self-made sling shot. Pretty genius!
As our tour came to a close Rafael informed us that he had to run by his house and pick up some fruit for the hotel. Believe it or not, this visit would be the highlight of my day. Rafael proudly shared some of his family history with us as we ventured off the beaten path, down gravel and dirt roads, towards his place. I hoped we wouldn’t get a flat tire or develop car trouble because it seemed we were out in the middle of nowhere. Fortunately, we arrived safe and sound. Rafael said his family lived on this property for many generations and that they owned 80 acres. The house had no indoor electricity but there was a solar panel to power the refrigerator, which was kept out front under a covered shed. The gardens were to the side and back of the house. Rafael graciously gave us the grand tour. This was not a perfectly plowed into rows or well-manicured garden but it was prolific. There was a plethora of vegetables, spices and fruits growing everywhere. It was quite impressive. As we walked from plant to plant Rafael gave us a lesson, asking us to try to identify a smell or a taste, from oregano, basil to mint.
He chopped open a banana and a plantain so we could taste the difference and we ate cacao off his cacao tree (chocolate to us). It was white and sort of slimy but delicious. I didn’t realize it but the Mayan’s have been making chocolate for thousands of years. Click here to read more about Maya cacao and Belize Chocolate http://www.belize.com/belize-chocolate .
The kitchen was located out back, separate from the main house, and was primitive and modern at the same time. When we walked into the room, I got the impression this was the hub. Rafael’s wife Velma was there puttering. She was a lovely lady and she and Rafael made a beautiful couple.
At the end of our visit I concluded that Rafael is a hard working happy man who loves his family very much and his ancestry with all his heart. Overall, Rafael is a wealthy man and I was delighted to have been given the opportunity to get to know him and learn more about his culture.
“Wealth consists not in having great possessions, but in having few wants.” ― Epictetus