The six ruins that I’ve described in the previous posts are the ones that I’ve seen. But my list doesn’t include the other fifteen-plus ruins that are mentioned in the guidebooks or on the internet. And those twenty-something sites are just the ones that are tourist-ready – they’ve been discovered, excavated, mapped (at least partially), and named. There are countless others in the country, known only to locals or historians, unexcavated and unexplored, except by adventurous locals or looters. And there may be tens, or hundreds, more, lost in the jungle, undiscovered, unnamed, and untouched.
One site that falls into the second category is located in northern Belize, on a rough track that links the tiny Creole village of Bomba to the Mennonite community of Little Belize. Bomba (which has no running water or electricity) is several kilometres from Maskall, a slightly larger village located on the Old Northern Highway, a slowly deteriorating strip of concrete which used to be the main artery between Belize City and the north, and which now sees very little traffic. But at least the old highway is paved – the road from Maskall to Bomba is unpaved (and riddled with potholes and detritus), and the track from Bomba to Little Belize is simply undriveable without four-wheel-drive. Although it’s shown on Google Maps, it’s not a road – it’s a dirt track, a series of interconnected mud-filled craters that makes every other road in the country feel like it’s paved in velvet.
After walking through the jungle for a few minutes with my guide William (a Bomba villager), we come across the first ruins. At first glance it looks like a few small hills surrounding a mosquito-infested swamp. The mounds are unremarkable – just piles of earth and stone covered in trees and vegetation. But on the side of one of them, there’s a large hole hacked into it – at some point in the past, looters dug into the mound, possibly looking for a treasure-filled tomb. Shining my torch into the pyramid, I can see the outline of a small room, with stone block walls supporting a stone ceiling. Archaeologists excavating Maya ruins in Belize have found everything from jade objects to jars of liquid mercury to amputated human fingers (!), but there’s nothing left here now.
Climbing to the top of the mound is a surprisingly difficult task, seeing as it’s covered in loose dirt and I’m wearing nothing more sturdy on my feet than a pair of Crocs. But after scrambling up the side with the gentlest incline, grabbing on to tree branches, clutching handfuls of earth, and finally heaving myself up on all fours, we’re at the top. From here, I can see the other unexcavated pyramids – the mounds are all too regular and symmetrical to be natural, and they’re all evenly spaced around the aguada, the water supply for the village (which is now the aforementioned malarial swamp).
Despite the lack of obvious sights (it certainly isn’t Caracol or Lamanai!), it’s still an incredible feeling just to be here. Belize’s main ruins are visited by thousands of tourists every year, disgorged by the busload and boatload to clamber over them like ants over a chocolate bar – taking their photos, enjoying the views, studying the architecture, and buying the T-Shirts, before being packed back onto the bus or boat. As amazing as Caracol and Lamanai are, I’m but one of many who’ve been impressed by them over the years. But here it feels completely ‘untouristy’ and much more ‘Indiana Jones’ (no crystal skulls though). The complete absence of any tourist infrastructure, the thick jungle everywhere, and the numerous chirping insects and tropical birds, all combine with the enigmatic ruins to create an impression of timelessness. This unnamed place probably looks the same as when the first Spanish sailors or British loggers rediscovered it hundreds of years ago. William tells me that the only people that know about this place are local farmers, and that the last foreigner he took here came several years ago. He also tells me that there are unexcavated sites like this all over the country – with a maximum population of over a million, Maya-era Belize contained three times as many people as the country does today. And with just twenty-odd sites discovered and named (and together they probably account for no more than half of that million-strong population), there must be many more out there, most of them looking just like grassy hills or jungle-covered ridges.
I would never have identified these nondescript mounds in the forest as anything special. But my day out in the jungle shows that, in Belize, special places are everywhere.