Sunday, February 9, 2014

Belize: Altun Ha

Altun Ha was a Mayan city close to the coast, and important as a stop on ancient trade routes. It's important today as a tourist destination, being the closest Mayan ruin to Belize City.

Belize City is deeply dependent on the cruise ships that stop three to four days a week. I got there on a Monday when no ship had been present for four days. The hunger was palpable. I was constantly bombarded by requests for "a dallah to feed my five kids", and then was latched onto by a man who chatted me up with bizarre lies about being an out of work professor who normally charges $100 an hour to the University. His version of Belize history was colorful to say the least. I couldn't shake him and finally gave him a couple dollars to go away. He was happy with that much reduced "salary".

All the guide books say don't do any of the attractions near Belize City on a cruise ship day, and it is good advice. The tourism bureau has a phone number to call to find out when the big ships will be parked five miles from shore, where they offload tourists by the thousands.

The day we went to Altun Ha we drove in the van that came with our rented house. I can't help but make comparisons to Mexico. The roads in Belize are the worst I've ever seen. But the sidewalks are great, if there is one. The Old Northern Highway shouldn't even bear the name highway. All that is left of the paved road is a jagged strip of asphalt in the middle of a path cleared in the jungle. On both sides are graveled ruts, wet or dry depending on the weather. Heaven help both cars that meet from opposite directions.

Signage is another Belizean problem. There aren't many. And the few that exist are low to the ground, and almost unreadable. We hadn't yet seen a sign to Altun Ha, so we stopped to ask a fellow who was sitting on his porch. In something more like Jamaican English, he indicated it was further down the road. The simple Altun Ha sign was only two feet tall. A kid standing in front of it could have blocked it entirely. Fortunately there were giant tour buses off down a dirt road, we knew we'd arrived.

The site has been well reconstructed and was crawling with Americans and Canadians. They began to clear out after a while and we could climb all over the ruins. Most were in good shape, only one had not been reconstructed. Its fallen blocks had been recycled to build the nearby village of Rockstone Pond.

As Mayan sites go, it isn't big or impressive. But it did have a long path through the jungle, perhaps following an old causeway over a swamp, that led to the "housing" section. That part was unexcavated but visible as large mounds with trees growing out the top. On the left of the path was a large reservoir, the rainwater storage that allowed them to grow to a city of many thousands and survive there almost two thousand years. It also serves the local village today.

Altun Ha was occupied for a very long time. The earliest signs of occupation date to 900 B.C. It was abandoned rather early for Mayan sites, at 1000 A.D. The area is in a "dry" jungle. It is swampy with water seeping from underground but does not receive as much rainfall as other parts of Belize.

The largest pyramid is called the Temple of Masonry Altars. A tomb there revealed jade, shell, and other non-perishable objects including the famous jade head of Kinich Ahau (the sun god), now on loan to an American museum but usually housed in the Museum of Belize.

Unfortunately there was no signage or explanation of the site. There was no museum either. We purchased a booklet and read what the various temples were called and what they'd been used for. It was a great half day trip and introduction to Belizean Mayan ruins.

Trees grow out of the pyramid mounds

Detail of the stonework

Plaza for ceremonies, that had great acoustics.
Temple mounds. The sacred objects would have been
in small thatched buildings on the top platform.

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