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Belize : Chechem Ha, Xunantunich, Cahal Pech

More Mayan ruins

Friday 2nd August Chechem Ha, Xunantunich and Cahal Pech

We had a private trip booked to a less common place (Chechem Ha Cave), combined with Xunantunich and Cahal Pech. This was a very reasonable £170 for 2 including transport, entrance fees, lunch and guide.
We assumed they would not be too bothered about when we arrived, so we had a lovely breakfast outside by the pool again (why does everyone else always eat indoors?). Someone was dealing with the hummingbird feeders, so I said hello and he came to have a chat with us (and turned out to be the owner- he was very nice and very informative).
We went to order our lunches (this was a funny experience- american English is so not real English. Apparently jelly is jam and they think jam and ham is a sandwich choice! Anyway we managed to find some chicken curry wraps that looked good and tasted nice). Then Freddy came and off we set. He was really surprised that we’d chatted to the owner- apparently he normally steers clear of talking to guests. Freddy said he had tried to find a phone number for the cave, unsuccessfully, but was sure it was OK. We went past a Crafts School and Freddy said it was a government initiative to teach less academic children a craft or trade to help them earn money. Very sensible, we agreed. Not all people are academic and some actually LIKE making things (wish ours understood this). We drove back down Pine Ridge, We were talking about the different villages/ towns names and different groups of Maya and Freddy said it was interesting that there are groups of names e.g. Some have surnames similar to Chinese like Ho or Chin, whilst others are more Spanish influenced like Rodriguez and another group have old Maya names. We got to Benque Veijo before turning left off the main road and out into the quieter part of town. Surprisingly the road was well tarmaced which, when I asked, turned out to be because it led to a huge dam and massive hydroelectric plant. Until the plant was built the Belize Government had had to buy Mexican electricity and they were uncomfortable with this. They had made a commitment to produce as much of their own electricity as possible and were now up to 80%. We carried on for quite while up the road, asking various people (cutting grass at the roadside, in a farm we turned into) for directions. Freddy said it was not a popular cave, nor well signed. However, eventually we saw a little seen-better-days sign, turned left up a steep hill and parked by a rusted van that clearly hadn’t moved for many a year.
We met William, the cave discoverer, owner and guide. There was an empty restaurant/ café but it wasn’t working. W gave us all a stout stick and called his dogs- 1 mum (nearly blind, but you really wouldn’t know) and her 4 puppies (1 girl, 3 boys).
And off we set down a steep path towards the creek. On the way we had to step over several parts of a line of Army Ants- William told us to be careful not to bother them because they can get very bellicose and give painful bites. A couple of wild huge Blue Morphos flitted in front of us as we walked over the creek and started up the steep hill the other side. Half way up we saw the most ENORMOUS tarantula- way bigger than the one in Tikal. William said it was a female. At the top of the hill (a good 45 min walk) was a stopping area and the small cave entrance with a grill across it. W unlocked it and told the dogs to wait at the entrance.

Chechem Ha Cave- some 40 minutes from San Ignacio is a little known cave still owned by the Morales family. It is a Maya cave used for ritual ceremonies as well as a grain storehouse. The pottery is particularly fine, including some looking very similar to high quality Samian ware and some decorated with paint or raised pictures. William pointed out a fine raised figure on one.
The cave is in several levels and William has set it out perfectly. He told us that he, as a young man, had been hunting gibnuts (an animal despite its name) on his parents’ property when he noticed one disappearing into the side of a hill. When he looked he saw it had gone down deep, so decided to bring a torch to investigate. When he did so he found this amazing Maya cave. As he found it and it is on his land (now given to him by his parents) he is in charge of it. He is very protective of it and extremely proud which made him an excellent guide. The first level descends quickly in a fairly high, wide chamber, leading down to the next level, which was filled, with really sticky, slippery pale mud. The ceiling became lower as we went with our torches leaving daylight and jungle noise behind. One of the best things about this cave is the Maya pottery all around- unlooted. W has left it all in situ, just centimetres from us. We went up the ladders he had put around the walls to see the complete pots in wall niches and ledges. William showed us this huge long-legged spider called a Scorpion Spider (which Steve held, but I didn’t).
Down to the lower levels was via two slippery ladders to the end chamber- a large cavern (50 foot wide, nearly 75 foot high), which contained a central altar. Around the altar was a circle of stones with evidence of fires (burnt wood and smoke-blackened ceiling). Freddy, our guide, thought it one of the best Maya caves he’d ever seen (better than ATM which pleased us as we’d decided ATM was too commercial and busy) and thanked us for finding it and asking to come. He took a load of pictures and said he wanted to put it on HVI’s regular itinerary. He started talking commercials to W (e.g. website, email address, an advertised telephone number). Personally, I thought the nicest things about the cave were: -
1. The total lack of anyone else
2. The Maya pottery and altar all around
3. The authentic feel
4. The very genuine guiding
Steve was too large, but I could go round the back of the cave where stone curtains divided it. Huge curtains of stalactites hung down and we disturbed a couple of vampire bats. W shone his torch in the chamber to show how a particular stone had been slightly worked by the Maya to create a goddess shadow on the opposite wall.
We were slightly surprised when we got up to find the dogs inside the cave, then saw why. It was raining. We headed back at quite a lick- I followed W as closely as I could, assuming he would chose the best route back. We managed in about 30 mins! We were so muddy when we left the cave, but washed fairly clean by the time we got back!
It was late morning so we said goodbye and set off back to the main road. I saw a flash of orange and with my binoculars found a rare
Orange-Breasted Falcon. Then we saw a tree covered with birds, so stopped and looked. There were woodpeckers and jays. I asked Freddy if he knew birds and he explained that guides in Belize have to pass exams and regularly relicense. You could choose an Archaeology Guide, Birding Guide or
both licenses. He had both! Once we knew this we asked him to point out birds en route and he obliges, so we saw a Smoky-brown Woodpecker and a Olivaceous Woodcreeper.

At Benque Veijo we went back towards the Mopan and stopped at the Maya village San Jose Succotz, just 1km from the Guatemalan border. This was the Hand-winched car ferry over to Xunantunich. We got out of the car and waited for it to be driven onto the ferry, then we joined it. The operator winched us over and Freddy drove off, then we got back on and drove to Xunantunich. As it was raining we decided to eat lunch first (Freddy had chosen the same as us and it was good).
Xunantunich means “Stone Maiden” for which there are several colourful legends- the most common is that a Maya lady in traditional costume and headdress, haunts the place or a Maya lady with a white dress and flaming eyes. Both have her disappearing into the temple. Like most Maya sites, it is not its original name- that is unknown.
We went in through the gates (Freddy was surprised I knew how to pronounce Xunantunich) and up the path. The site itself had quite a short history, about 700-1000 AD and seems to have been occupied after Caracol/ Naranjo were abandoned (maybe by the same people). It is divided into 4 sections- A,B,C,D. We went through the main Plaza (Group A) towards the largest Temple-pyramid, El Castillo (Structure A6), which at 130 feet tall is the second tallest in Belize.
xunantunich-belize_31149860212_o.jpg The Main Plaza (A1) is bisected by Late Classic (800AD) structure A1 that also lies on top of the original ball court. The site is much smaller than Caracol (in total 21⁄2 km2) and so it is easier to see how the whole site works. There are six plazas, surrounded by more than 26 temples and palaces. The most impressive thing here are the amazing stone and stuccoed glyph friezes on the eastern and western sides of El Castillo- the most complete left in the whole Maya world. It was very easy to imagine these pictures painted in their original colours and what a Mayan temple would have looked like in its heyday. There were less well preserved ones on the other sides. The friezes have frames of plaited cloth or cord (celestial paths). They depict the birth of a god (naturally one associated with the ruling family), the Creation Gods and the Tree of Life (linking heaven, earth, underworld).
xunantunich-belize_30925870090_o.jpgView from El Castillo, preceding El Castillo
El Castillo is the axis mundi- on the intersection of cardinal lines. The pyramid is situated for cosmological reasons. It was built in two phases, the first in the Samal Phase c650AD as structure A62nd (3 doors), then around 800AD Tsak Phase a second structure on top as structure A61st (North & south doors).
We went, carefully, round and up El Castillo, being careful with the stone steps, which had no safety rails and were not in a brilliant state. At the top it was a great sight. Behind we could see a large troupe of Howler Monkeys, and in front the whole site of Xunantunich and beyond towards Guatemala; of course 1000 years ago this would have been various Maya polities- all with a unifying similar language but all in a shifting set of competition and alliances.
We went down the front, past the ball court, Structure A11 and to the other end of the site. At the opposite end of the site was the Royal/ Lords palace area. A British chap accosted us as we left to ask for directions. Before we left Freddy said we should visit the site museum- a good choice as it had some interesting stelae.
Stela 1 AD 8849 a ruler with a quetzal feather headdress, holding a K’awil (Serpent god) sceptre and standing on a captive.
Stela 8 AD 820 – a ruler dressed for war with a shield and spear. A Naranjo glyph is included.
Inscriptions- the writing on stelae uses glyphs (a logo syllabic combination of phonetics/syllabic and logograms). There are over 1000 known glyphs, but some were used more regularly than others. The earliest Maya script is c250 BC.
Settlement Phases-
1. Preclassic Period- the site was occupied in this period, but not as an important settlement
2. Samal Phase 600-670AD- Xunantunich began to expand
3. Hats Chaak Phase 670-750AD- Xunantunich allied with polity of Naranjo
4. Abandonment and Resettlement- a (probably violent) event in 750AD led to the abandonment of Xunantunich and it was not resettled until 780AD
5. Tsak Phase 780-890AD- as Naranjo declined, Xunantunich was resettled. The earliest stela at Xunantunich, Stela 8, dates to the last at Naranjo
The architecture of Xunantunich’s main site looks very similar to Naranjo Group B and combined with the stelae evidence, it seems probable that there was a move by the elite from Naranjo to Xunantunich. Now, it seems odd that at a time when the Maya civilisation in Belize was crumbling, Xunantunich was not only still active, but expanding. It lasted nearly 100 years longer than Caracol and Naranjo, and superseded the polity of Buenavista. Perhaps Xunantunich, a more easily defensible site, was rechosen due to lowland warfare.

We left for our last Maya site- Cahal Pech. To get back to the highway we had to take the ferry again, and the man let Steve do the cranking this time. It was a short 3-mile drive back to San Ignacio, then up the hill (Cahal Pech overlooks the town). The site has a real car park (unlike the others). Up the steps to the museum (the only one we paid for and a bit pricier), which was interesting but not specifically linked to the site; more an overview of Maya life. The site has a purpose built path to it and is still very much in the process of excavation. It was probably a royal acropolis/palace during the Classic Period. We went through the “Labyrinth” section (a good name for the palaces passages). This took us to the earliest part- a Plaza with a small pyramid (77 foot and the tallest on the site) with a Throne for the Lord/Lady (we sat there and imagined surveying our land or people). The site is unusual as, despite its small size, it has seven plazas. There is even evidence of the original paintwork inside some rooms. We went around the back to the inevitable ball court before leaving.
Cahal Pech is a very early Maya site (for Belize), occupied from the Late Pre- Classic (300 BC- 250 AD) to the Middle Classic (500-700 AD) when it was abandoned (9th century). The later temples were built almost directly on top of the previous ones. The site is residential with 34 structures, seven plazas, a ball court, two stela, an altar and two dance(?) platforms (round). The tallest building is a temple 25 metres high in the central acropolis. Its current name means “Place of the Ticks” in Yucatec Maya. Its size means it was probably an elite/lordly rather than royal residence. Though most of the construction work at Cahal Pech dates to the Classic Period, the site has evidence of continuous occupation from 1200 BC (the Early Middle Preclassic/Formative Period), which means it is one of the oldest definitely Maya sites in Belize. It has one of the earliest carved stela in Maya lowlands. The settlers were probably Maya settlers from Highland Guatemala (see section on Mayan history). The site was an excellent choice on a hill top overlooking the meeting point of the Macal and Mopan rivers. As the site grew (1000-600 BC) Cahal Pech obtained increasing numbers of high status artefacts (jade & obsidian from Guatemala, shells from the Caribbean). As with other early sites, there are hints of connections to the earlier Olmec culture (figurines, pottery). It is likely that it shared the same beliefs as is common across the Central American area.

When we got back to the Inn (approx 25 miles), Freddy went to talk about Chechem Ha to the owner, who later said F was very excited about adding it and they were now keen to develop it along with William. So, that was a nice idea for us to think we’d helped. A nice swim and dinner to finish the day! I found an interesting book that guests could fill in to record sightings of rare birds.

Posted by PetersF 19:40 Archived in Belize

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