I’m a sucker for ancient pyramids, ruins, or anything that will make me feel like Indiana Jones for a bit (even that one that was better suited to History Channel’s “Ancient Aliens”). So when the opportunity to explore an old Mayan city in Belize came up on the list of the many shore excursions on our cruise, the choice was too easy. I didn’t notice or care what the other available activities were. I didn’t care if the cruise offered rafting in rivers of Guinness or a sumo wrestler taking on Sarah Palin in a giant bowl of Lucky Charms. I’m choosing the archaeology stuff.
Belize City didn’t have a port deep enough for the ship to dock, so we had to anchor off shore, so the ship provided several liberty boats to ferry us all into the port area. Just a bit of background first. Belize is the only country in Latin America where the official language is English. That’s because it used to be called British Honduras before gaining its independence and was a former British colony. Since Belize is in the Caribbean, everyone there sounds like they’re from Jamaica.
I thought I was hearing Miss Cleo everywhere.
April and I didn’t have much time to explore the shops around the port area because our bus to Altun Ha was departing soon. Altun Ha is the name of the Mayan city we would be exploring. Yes, we went with a group on a bus to Altun Ha instead of hacking away at the jungle with a machete, a weed whacker, and testosterone to reach it. I’ll take what I can get. Besides, how many Mayan cities have you been to?
The biggest difference I noticed between Belize and Costa Rica was that Belize is quite flat. Driving around Costa Rica you’ll notice how hilly and mountainous it can get. Not so in Belize. Just flat terrain covered in jungle. And not that many roads. I saw more roads in Bahrain.
Once we got out of Belize City the “highway” became a narrow strip of tarmac. There was no shoulder, guardrails, and barely any dividing lines. The edges of the tarmac weren’t straight either, but curvy and snake-like. I’m thinking that the road workers were drinking absinthe and window cleaner when they built it. It was still a fun bus ride. Don’t get me wrong. The Belizan roads give an exciting quality to the trip as you’re dodging the local traffic of SUVs and donkeys pulling dead pick-ups, while swerving around crater-sized potholes.
I think I may have even seen a repelling team with a couple of base jumpers preparing to enter one of those potholes.
After a couple of hours we reached the Mayan city of Altun Ha. In Belize it is also one of their protected sites and in a national park. There was a small ranger station as well as a visitor’s center and a bar. Yep, you read that right. Just outside one of their national monuments, Belize set up a bar. Isn’t that awesome? I wonder how many people got drunk before deciding to climb the ruins.
The group of us from the ship entered the city, standing before several stepped pyramid buildings. One of them was in a larger state of decay than the others. The park guide explained that that one hadn’t yet been excavated because archaeologists feared that due its eroded state, excavation could severely damage it. The other pyramids and buildings had been excavated and it some places, restored. However, the steps up the side of this pyramid were solid enough to take us to the top and we were told we could go on top, just stay on the sides and not the front or back.
So I did.
As part of the tour, the guides gave us a bit of Mayan history. They explained that the priests ruled the people by, essentially, trickery and lies. You see, the Mayan priests were master astronomers. They were able to predict solar and lunar eclipses with great accuracy. Per the guides, the priests told the people that if they didn’t do as they were told and also pay them tribute, they would make sure the gods blotted out the sun. The people laughed at the priests of course. But they stopped laughing and started paying tribute as soon as the eclipse happened. The priests then told the people that due to their being subservient, they had the gods return the sun. The eclipse ended and the people were none the wiser.
It makes me think this is how most, if not all, religions got started. Except for the Jedi religion. What other religion gives you a light saber? Suck it, Mormons.
After the brief presentation and history lesson on the city, we were allowed to explore and wander to our hearts content. One of the other pyramids to the rear of the city that was in pretty good shape was also available for climbing. The guides explained that there was stairs the Mayans had built going up the backside, but no one had to climb up if they didn’t want to. It was a long way up and you had to be in decent shape. Completely optional.
Myself and April didn’t hesitate to climb up the larger pyramid. In fact, so did most of the tour group. So much so that there was a queue to begin climbing. The first rule of lines is that the sloths will always get in front some how. The ancient staircase was narrow, so we couldn’t walk around. We just had to wait about thirty seconds, take a couple of steps up, wait thirty seconds, another few steps, repeat.
About half way up the pyramid, there was a rather large woman loudly complaining. We got into earshot and could make out what she was saying.
“Couldn’t they put an escalator or something on this thing?” the bovine tourist panted and heaved. “I mean, what are we on these stairs for? Is it part of the tour? We shouldn’t have to go up.”
People around us who could hear her didn’t say anything, but the looks they gave her said what we were all thinking. You didn’t have to ascend the stairs. The guides said it was completely optional, a long way up, and recommended you be in good shape to make the climb. And why would they ruin ancient structures like this by putting in an escalator just for you? Might as well open a Burger King at the top.
As she continued to bleat and whine, I noticed she was wobbling a bit. April and I were standing a little ways below her on the stairs at this point, so I got flash backs of “Raiders of the Lost Ark”. I like feeling like Indiana Jones, but if she began to roll down the stairs with the mass of people on them, it wouldn’t be a pretty sight.
At last, we reached the top. I must say it was quite an awesome view (thankfully no Burger Kings). Pictures will be scattered about this post. You can even see the tops of the jungle. It reminded me of the scene towards the end of “Star Wars” where all the rebel fighters take off from their base. That scene was actually shot at the Mayan city of Tikal in neighboring Guatemala. Next time this question comes up in a pub quiz, you’ll thank me.
We took several pictures, explored more, and had a fun time. On the way out, we stopped by the bar for a couple of Belikans (local Belize beer, not berry-flavored pelicans). After sampling the local tasty brew we hopped on the bus for the return trip to Belize City. Visiting the Mayan city of Altun Ha was an awesome experience for me. It was a good conclusion to our week-long Central American cruise.
I only hope that when I one day visit another Mayan city in the jungle I can arrive in an X-Wing.