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Belize : Rainforest Walk

Into the Rainforest

Sunday 28th July Into the Rainforest

We again woke super early (Steve insisted the noisy gecko bug-hunting in our ceiling had kept him awake, but personally I was pleased he was eating the biting bugs). We sat outside with our binoculars and telephoto lenses to capture the forest waking up. I watched the Keel-billed Toucan in the tall tree eating nuts. Then some doves and a sharp-nosed bird (Jacamar). A cheeky jay came right down to us and proceeded to preen him/her self, unbothered by us. Then, the other side, a flash of crimson, and we had the more glorious view of a Crimson Tanager. We did not rush to breakfast, but again had it outside with lovely papaya and mango. A little Rufous-tailed hummingbird came to say good morning, followed by a larger iridescent green hummingbird, a bit more nervous. Several butterflies came to join us, particularly a large Eueides Isabella. When we got back an ant column was busy seeing if our cabana was comfortable, but by the time management had looked they’d decided against it and moved on.

We had asked if we could have a guided forest walk in the morning, so Issi came to find us and
off we set on the high trail. As we walked along the track to enter the forest a caterpillar on the end of a silk thread came wriggling down from a tree, saw us and went up again. A Belize pigeon watched it. As we entered the forest, Issi pointed out some of the different palm types and their local uses, such as the Maya Broom Palm (obvious use) or the two types of huge Roof Palm (traditionally used as a roof due their huge size and good waterproof qualities). The Give-and- Take Palm was an interesting one- the needles had a +tive and a –ative. On the minus side they were so sharp they would rip you, but on the plus side they could be made into very effective needles (for clothes and skin- Issi had a scar he had mended using one of these). The Palm’s bark could even be used to make thread and an anaesthetic!
We saw the All-Spice tree/bush (I had no idea it was a bush- I’d always assumed all-spice was a mix of lots of spices!!) and the smell was gorgeous. The huge Ceibo (also the Cotton or Sabre) Tree is the Maya Tree of Life. A somewhat unassuming Mint wine tree (nice smell) was used by the Maya in their rituals, as its sap is psychotropic. Issi said, as he was Maya, he remembers his grandmother still performing some rituals. At the top of the track we found some Maya pottery and definite Maya ruins. The local area was extensively settled by Maya peoples and there is a lot still to find. We know of at least one lost Maya city (i.e. It is in historical texts, but can’t be found) and this mound (not natural, but Maya-made) looks like quite a substantial settlement, though probably not a city. Pooks Hill itself is built round an excavated Maya villa (more on that later).
Issi pointed out some tracks just as we turned onto Caracalla track. Two tapirs had been along in the night. He was quite sure it was a sow and her piglet first, then a boar later. These would be Belize’s national animal, Baird’s Tapir. Later on Kat showed me the pictures from the infrared motion-detecting camera and Issi was right, except it was 2 boars later. We followed their track until they turned across the road and the track was lost. We saw a star apple tree with its purple fruit (can be eaten as a sweet, the leaves as tea treat diabetes and rheumatism, the bark for stimulant and cough medicine).
Baird’s Tapir is the largest mammal in Central America. It has an elongated flexible upper lip, almost like an elephant, and is almost a living fossil, having hardly changed in 35 million years.
Close by, next to some amazing fungi, we saw a bright coloured, almost luminescent, caterpillar. Then down towards a more open track with higher banks where we saw all the holes dug in the banks by the Mot-mot birds, who like to nest in them. Steve saw a flash of red and we followed it to a small hole in the bank, wherein was curled a Coral Snake (red on yellow OK fellow), very beautiful.
Central American Coral Snake (Micrurus nigrocinctus) has a strong neurotoxin (unlike Fer-de-lance which is haemotoxic). It does not strike with fangs (unlike Fer de Lance) but bites and chews the venom in.
On returning towards the lodge we saw a Tourist Tree, so nicknamed as its bark peels just like a sunburnt tourist! When we got back at lunchtime we chatted about Bush medicine (and we added what we’d learnt in Amazonian Peru). Issi said he’d prefer bush medicine to conventional any time and that both his son and daughter had been bitten by snakes (Fer-de-Lance and Maya Coral) and he’d cured them using natural ingredients. Just as we were talking a Basilisk Lizard came to say hello. She (Issi thought) came walking right in front of us, then did that basilisk thing of whizzing off on two back legs at speed.
We had a relax after lunch just sitting and reading in the sun, until mid afternoon, when we decided on a leisurely walk around the reserve. We took our cozzies with us and headed down to the river where there were rock pools and water chattering over stones. The river is not deep, although you can swim in the rock pools, so it was a freshening experience. A cute bird sat outside our cabana as we got back.
It was late afternoon and someone had asked if we could have a tour of the Maya ruins. Ray was very happy to oblige, and fetched his book of excavation photos. The ruins were of a Late Classic Maya villa (in the same sense as a Roman villa). There were living quarters, a typical Maya plaza and a particularly fine early example of a sweathouse. A very nice ocarina had been found in the excavation, but the Lodge had not been allowed to keep it (sadly). As it got dark we headed to dinner, then spent a pleasant evening chatting and playing games. We were warned to make an early get away the next morning as, the earlier we left, the longer we’d have at Tikal. A friendly American from West Point decided to join us.
Early Preclassic +2000-1000 BC
Middle Preclassic 1000-400 BC
Late Preclassic 400 BC- 100 AD
Terminal Preclassic 100-250 AD
Preclassic Collapse c 250 AD
Early Classic 250- 600 AD
Late Classic 600-850 AD
Terminal Classic 850-1000 AD
Post Classic 900-1500 AD
1. Early Preclassic (Formative)-
The earliest distinctly Maya settlements date to c2000/1800 BC. However, the Maya settlement, which included stone buildings, at Cuello, Belize, has been dated to 2,600 BC, so possibly the culture is older than previously thought. The Maya Calendar begins on 11/8/3114 BC (but is based on the Olmec Meso American Long Count, so may not be so useful an indicator). The scattered farms began to settle more into small villages and practise agriculture (mainly corn, beans, squash, cassava) and start to produce ceramics. These people were probably already speaking an early form of Maya. The first undisputedly Maya settlement is Soconusco (Pacific), but the Olmec Culture was clearly a great influence on the early Maya.
2. Middle Preclassic- Maya farms/ villages began to expand into larger settlements, some with plaza and earth platforms and into new areas (the central American highlands). We begin to see early trade in prestige goods, such as obsidian and jade ornaments, c1000 BC. That agriculture was developing is evidenced by early canal, reservoir and irrigation systems. Masonry was increasingly used and carved stela (depictions of nobles/ lords but no writing yet) began to appear. Evidence of warfare is shown in the stelae, weapon caches, mass graves and mutilated (usually decapitated) skeletons. The early La Blanca polity (heavily influenced by the first Mesoamerican civilization- the Olmecs) rose and fell 900-600 BC. It was replaced by El Ujuxte and Chalchuapa, but the power house of this period was the city of Kaminaliuyu (now under Guatemala City, so hard to excavate). Kaminaliuyu clearly had an administrative structure in place and a trade network (mainly in obsidian to make arrowheads, knives, mirrors, etc), The stelae show rulers engaged in war and dominating the Guatemalan highland Maya. As the Maya expanded north the cities of El Mirador, Tikal, Nakbe (first ballcourts and sacbeob), Calakmul and Tavasal were occupied. The city of El Mirador, c.800 BC, was dominant during the later part of the Preclassic. This period was the zenith of the Olmec culture (capital La Venta), after which they began to decline. Olmec-style stone heads are known at several Maya sites and they influenced the Maya in their jaguar worship and many words, particularly the word ajaw (lord/ ruler).
3. Late Preclassic- This period saw the addition of glyphs to stelae, 250 BC, and the move into the lowlands. In other areas we see the rise of non- Maya civilizations- Zapotec, Teotihuacan, Aztec. The Maya cities show increasingly monumental building of pyramid- temples. The main city of this period is El Mirador (still VERY difficult to reach)- a huge city that makes Tikal look small! El Mirador dominated the lowlands 400 BC- 100 AD, when it began to decline. By 300 AD the city had been abandoned. It’s probable that its rulers became the Kaan (Snake) dynasty at the city of Calakmul (great rivals with Tikal).
4. Terminal Preclassic/ Preclassic Collapse- Around 100 AD the great Preclassic cities collapse; both Kaminaliuyu and El Mirador were abandoned. There is no obvious reason as to the cause.
5. Early Classic- The period we think of as Maya really begins at this time- some 40 Maya cities, including Tikal, Xunantunich, Calakmul, Naranjo, Caracol, have their roots here. At its peak, Maya civilisation may have reached 2 million. We now see typical Maya buildings: pyramid-temples, plaza, palaces, ballcourts, stelae (called tetun or tree stones), altars etc.
6. Collapse- Maya civilization in the late 8th/ early 9th century underwent a collapse- cities in the lowlands were abandoned (but in the highlands continued). There is no stand-out cause. Environmental changes, endemic warfare, drought have all been postulated (or maybe all three). Perhaps the large numbers of people supported in a favourable climatic period (Tikal for instance relied on rainwater) was an issue during a prolonged drought, leading to revolts and warfare over resources. At one point disease/ plague was suggested; but evidence does not bear this out.
7. Post Classic 900-1500 AD – In the Yucatan highlands Maya civilisation did not collapse. The cities of Chichen Itza, Uxmal and the dominant Mayapan (which probably gave the Maya their Spanish name) were still flourishing when the Spanish arrived. The three remaining Maya books (Madrid, Dresden and Paris codices) date to this period.

Maya Religion- Maya belief was probably primarily one of nature and seasons. Their calendar was important to tell them when to do what. Like Celtic religion this meant that God/desses were not “good” or “evil”, but had characteristics that could be interpreted differently according to the time. Like the Green Knight, it was dependant on the seasonal needs. Hindu mythology is very similar in this outlook. They believed in a 3-plane of existence (Heavens, Earth, Underworld). The heavens were “ruled” by the Sun God Kinich Ahau (yes, lots of rulers incorporated this in their names) with Itzamna, the elder Sky God. The Underworld (linked with caves, hence the pottery and sacrifices in Barton Creek, Chechem Ha and other) was in the control of the gods of death and decay, including one still called God L (name unknown). A corn god, usually a young man, was a central part of their religion, unsurprisingly given their reliance on the crop. In addition there was a profusion of greater or lesser gods, as well as deities more specifically linked to your city. The Diving God, for instance controls the movements of the sun over buildings (linked to equinoxes) or a Jaguar god looked after Caracol. The Maya did practise human sacrifice, both as a willing sacrifice (see Barton Creek entry) or unwilling (a priest would cut you open and remove your heart).

Posted by PetersF 19:06 Archived in Belize Tagged animals birds snake belize butterfly maya

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