What had once been the thriving urban centre of an ancient trade capital was eerily quiet now, except for the occasional squawk of birds hidden high in the treetops.
The view from the top of the main pyramid was impressive. Below me stretched an entire ancient city that had been sleeping here for centuries, undisturbed beneath the sheltering green canopy of jungle that covers all of central Belize.
The steep stone steps of the pyramid’s central stairway made getting to the top a tiring, sweaty challenge, but I did it. And now, despite the rising tropical heat and the lack of any breeze at all, I was determined to enjoy the stunning view for as long as possible.
I’d made it to the peak of one of the most important Mayan sites in Belize: the place where gods and rulers had once stood above the lost city of Altun Ha.
A View Into the Past
Below, the central plaza was bordered on all sides by stone temples and smaller pyramids. In the distance I could also see a number of still-un-excavated burial mounds. What had once been the thriving urban centre of an ancient trade capital was eerily quiet now, except for the occasional squawk of birds hidden high in the treetops.
The plaza’s central axis ran several hundred yards out into the distance, and all of it was acoustically perfect. It would have been the main public square for thousands of people. It was where they lived, worked, and worshipped, and where they came together to hear their leaders speak during rituals, sporting events, and colourful annual festivals.
This particular pyramid is still an important touchstone for the people of Belize today, too. It has become one of the country’s most popular and well-known symbols. And if you choose to quench your thirst with a sip of the national beer, Belikin—or “Be Likin,” as it’s known locally—you’ll see an iconic image of the pyramid printed onto its green bottles as the beer’s logo.
I felt exhilarated perched atop it all on a man-made mountain more than 16 metres high. Nothing else pierced the treetops for as far the eye could see, which was the whole point of building such an immense structure in the middle of the jungle in the first place.
Clearly its designers understood the idea of literally being above it all, and they built the huge steps I’d just climbed so that they alone could be. They lived, prospered and died here. This was their stage, palace, and tomb all rolled into one. It was where their dynasty had preached, performed, ruled, and been laid to rest for generations in the ancient past.
Having such a grand view made me wonder: people created this city with little more than hand tools, perhaps more than 1,000 years ago. How had they done it, and why?
An Important Legacy
Perhaps all of us want to leave behind some lasting record of our accomplishments, and the Maya were no different. Among their many other achievements, they also left behind the brilliant stonework of their cities.
Mayan lands cut across a wide swath of mountains, highlands, and tropical lowlands, and once covered most of present day Central America. This pyramid is only one among hundreds of similar sites, most of which remain unexplored.
I learned that the Maya had not been conquered, but instead had essentially self-destructed at the height of their power. So when the bloody Spanish conquest began in 1507, the Maya were already mostly a memory.
Today their descendants live on, primarily in rural Guatemala, quietly going about their business again after the blitz of media hype over the so called “Mayan End of Days” that some had predicted in 2012.
As for Altun Ha, it came to the attention of modern scientific inquiry almost by accident, and much more recently than sites like Tikal (Guatemala), Copan (Honduras), and Chichen Itza (Mexico).
A Secret Revealed
It was as if Altun Ha had been quietly sleeping for centuries, just waiting for the right moment to re-awaken.
According to one origin tale, a local man was overheard bragging one night in the early 1960s about how he’d found a number of valuable pieces of jade and obsidian scattered nearby, and how the discovery was going to make him rich.
After hearing this tale, visiting researchers asked where he’d found the stones. He was more than willing to re-tell his story in exchange for the price of his bar tab. He then led them to the vine-covered mounds where Canadian archeologist David Pendergast would eventually dig up the city of Altun Ha in 1964.
The monuments around the city’s main plaza date from around 600 A.D., including the tallest structure, known as the Temple of the Masonry Altars because of its presumed role in religious activities.
Inside the temple, a tomb was discovered, along with remains and grave goods believed to be from important early leaders and high priests. Also discovered was a priceless piece of history and art—the jade head of the Mayan Sun God Kinich Ahau, now a national treasure.
Eventually, I retraced my steps back to the bottom of the pyramid to explore the rest of the ancient capital. And before long, it was time to return to Belize City.
I don’t know if I’ll ever have the chance to visit Altun Ha again, but I’m sure that my memories of it will never leave me. I smile when I find my mind drifting back to the view from the top of the main pyramid. No matter where I am at the time, in my mind’s eye I can still gaze out at the green jungle of the ancient Mayan world that was wrapped all around me there. And then in a flash, I’m once again standing with the gods.
Bruce Blake is a global travel writer, speaker, and media freedom advocate based in Boston, Massachusetts.