Wet-weather 'wheeling-and winching-in the land of the Maya
Roughly the size of Massachusetts, the Caribbean nation of Belize has long been a popular destination for travelers seeking the lure of its white-sand beaches, marine reserves, and its famed barrier reef-the longest in the Americas. But as it turns out, there's another side to this small country, a world of pine-covered mountains, tropical rainforests, and ancient Maya settlements seldom seen by tourists. So when our friends at Land Rover asked us if we'd like to spend a couple of days exploring the Maya backcountry last summer, we jumped at the chance, and hopped on a plane to Belize City, where our adventure begins.
Flying into the interior on a small charter jet, we marvel at the change in the country's topography, as alluvial floodplain gives way to mile after mile of highland pine forest. From our seats we can see a maze of dirt tracks snaking their way through the mountains, and we begin to wonder what 'wheeling wonders are in store. A half hour later, we land at a dirt airstrip, where we're whisked away to our night's lodgings, a rustic cabin complex at Five Sisters in the Pine Ridge Forest Reserve. After a hearty dinner accompanied by cold bottles of Belikin-the local brew, and quite tasty-we wander off to our cabanas to be lulled to sleep by the chirping of crickets.
The day dawns cloudy and very, very humid. At the lodge's entrance we're greeted by a fleet of new Land Rovers, and by our support crew, which includes familiar faces such as Bill Burke, Daphne Greene, and Lee Magee-Camel Trophy veterans all. Some members of the Belize Defense Force, who'll be riding point for the duration of our trek in a diesel Landy 110, are also on hand. While the Camel crew's LR3s are equipped with Warn winches, roof racks, and recovery gear, our flotilla of press Rovers are completely unmodified-save the tires, each Rover sporting a set of aggressive 255/55R19 Goodyear Wrangler MTRs. Don't bother looking for them in the Goodyear catalog-they were made to order exclusively for our 10-vehicle convoy. Knowing what it costs to produce a new tire-the molds cost upwards of 50 grand each-we surmise that these are the priciest treads we've ever driven, and likely ever will.
Under increasingly menacing skies, we bid farewell to the Five Sisters, and after a leisurely hour-long meander on pavement, through winding mountain two-lanes, we arrive at the magnificent Maya city of Caracol.
Caracol was continuously inhabited for over a thousand years, from roughly 600 BC to nearly 900 AD, and its mysteries-like those of the Maya itself-are only now beginning to be answered. How did the Maya maintain this highland city (and many others) for so long without a permanent source of fresh water? And why did the Maya suddenly abandon this site in the 9th century AD, as they seem to have done at other settlements throughout their empire, after inhabiting it for centuries? Recent excavations have provided some answers-throughout Caracol, archaeologists have discovered huge cisterns dug into the ground, which were coated with limestone, then sealed with plaster; the Maya evidently used these as reservoirs for rain water, which they then used year-round. This system worked well-as long as annual rainfall was constant and reliable.
Caracol (Spanish for "snail"; the Maya called it Oxwitza, "Three-Hill Water") is the largest Maya city in Belize, and one of the largest Maya settlements in all of Central America; at its peak in the 6th century AD, an estimated population of 150,000 lived and labored in more than 30,000 structures here. Lost for nearly a millennium amid dense forest, the city was rediscovered in the 1930s, with earnest excavations beginning only in the mid-'80s. After 20 years of near-continuous digging, only the city center has yet been excavated-an estimated 10 percent of the total urban area-but what has been recovered to date sprawls over 23 square miles of former wilderness and includes some of the largest intact structures of the Maya period. Among the ruins are buildings once used for administrative offices, imposing religious temples, dwellings for the temple priests and royalty, observatories and schools, a ball court, and various tombs and sepulchres. Upright stone stele-some as high as 10 feet-depicting important dates or events in Maya history are scattered throughout the site, though most are reproductions, the originals having been removed for safekeeping (see sidebar on page 75).
Besides being skilled architects and engineers, the Maya were sophisticated astronomers, and the 365-day calendar they codified millennia ago-we don't know exactly when, though the Maya "long count" calendar marks the start of time at 3114 BC-is virtually as accurate as the calendar we use today. Many Maya communities didn't practice irrigation-employing slash-and-burn agriculture instead-and as such had to know the exact dates to start planting their crops and to anticipate the coming of the annual rainy and dry seasons. They were also, contrary to popular belief, a highly competitive civilization, and rival tribes waged frequent wars against each other. And herein lie possible clues to the Maya's downfall. Recent dendrological discoveries suggest a prolonged drought throughout Central America in the 8th century-the severity of which the Maya had never experienced-and archaeologists now posit that this lengthy period of climate change, combined with decades of population growth, unsustainable agricultural practices, excessive demands on food supplies, and internecine wars waged over increasingly scarce resources all contributed to the Maya's rapid decline around 900 AD. Walking amid these towering ruins, though, it's humbling to ponder that this ancient people-once thought by Western scholars to be savages-had developed a complex and thriving culture many centuries before the grand cathedrals and palaces of medieval Europe were conceived.