Maya Ruins and Missing Keys

As I mentioned in my last post, as pretty and quiet and relaxing as the progressive Mennonite village of Blue Creek is, there isn’t very much to do there (to be honest, there isn’t really anything to do there).  But there is a large Maya ruin south-west of the village at La Milpa, and that’s where my travelling companion Maki and I ended up on Sunday afternoon.  I promised I’d post the details of that day (and some of you may already know that it didn’t go entirely to plan); and here they are.

Belize has many Maya ruins – some big (like Caracol and Lamanai), some small, some excavated (and even a little refurbished), and some unrestored and unnamed.  And there are an untold number of archaeological sites still undiscovered, perhaps known only to locals, or completely unknown, buried under the earth somewhere in the middle of the jungle.

One site that falls into the discovered-and-named-but-not-restored category is La Milpa.  It’s the third-largest Maya site in Belize (after Caracol and Lamanai), yet I’d never heard of it until a few weeks ago.  One of the reasons for my ignorance is that it’s not very well-known (it barely gets a mention in my guidebooks, as opposed to the entire sections devoted to other ruins).  And another reason is that it’s in the middle of nowhere, so it’s not exactly heavily-touristed (you won’t see any day-tripping cruise ship tourists crawling all over it, like at Altun Ha).  There’s one fancy (and quite expensive) jungle lodge nearby, and that’s it.  The only other place to stay whereby you could feasibly visit La Milpa is Blue Creek.  So, having nothing to do in Blue Creek, a spare afternoon, and a car, Maki and I take a trip into the most remote part of Belize that I’ve yet been to.

From Blue Creek, it’s a 15-minute drive along the paved road towards the very un-Belizean-sounding village of Neustadt (another Mennonite community, hence the German-sounding name).  Then it’s off-roading time again – I’m glad I hired a jeep, although I’m starting to worry about the punishment that the vehicle is taking, as it rattles along the dirt road (everything inside the vehicle is loudly shaking – the windows, the dashboard, the back door, and the occupants).

After about 30 minutes, we arrive at La Milpa lodge.  It’s not just one of the country’s swankiest ecolodges, it’s also a field station and research centre for the staff of Programme for Belize, a non-profit NGO that administers the vast Rio Bravo Conservation Area.  Rio Bravo covers over 1000 sq km of jungle, and PfB conducts research on forest conservation (there are hundreds of species of plants and animals here, including all of Belize’s big cats), sustainable harvesting (its remoteness means that it’s one of the few places in Belize where the British didn’t chop down all the valuable trees), and archaeology (La Milpa is just one of 60 unrestored Maya ruins).  To the south is the privately-owned (and mostly protected) land of Gallon Jug, to the north are the forested areas of southern Campeche state in Mexico, and to the west is the enormous (and mostly empty) jungle of Guatemala’s Peten department; so once you enter Rio Bravo, you’re in one of the largest areas of wild tropical jungle in Central America.

La Milpa ruin was first described to me by Dr and Mrs Mclendon, an American-based husband-and-wife ophthalmological team who spend part of every year working for the BCVI, seeing patients and performing surgeries.  And they’re staying at La Milpa lodge this weekend too (and like Maki and I at the Hillside B & B in Blue Creek, the Mclendons are the only guests).  So it’s just the four of us, and Melvis the guide.

While Melvis is getting ready, the Mclendons give us a guided tour of the lodge and its grounds.  As you’d expect from an environmental organisation that’s branched out (if you’ll forgive the bad pun) into ecotourism, its green credentials are all genuine and not just PR fluff, with naturally-composting toilets, rainwater showers, and solar power throughout.  The cabanas are built from local woods and thatched with palm leaves, and have hot-water showers and (most importantly) plenty of hammocks.  There’s also a dormitory for the archaeologists who come here every year to work at the Maya site.

On the grounds is a small lagoon (with a slightly worrying sign saying ‘BEWARE CROCODILE’), a garden, and various nature trails.  Rio Bravo is one of Belize’s (and Central America’s) biodiversity ‘hotspots’, with hundreds of species of trees, mammals, and birds (including one of the highest concentrations of jaguars in Central America).  And as we walk back to the lodge, hummingbirds dart through the trees and a grey fox casually trots between buildings.  Belize is popular destination for birdwatchers, and Rio Bravo probably has more avian diversity than anywhere else in the country.  Looking through the list of birds that’ve been spotted on the grounds takes several minutes, and reads like a Lewis Carroll book or Edward Lear poem – fly-catchers, guans, mannekins, orioles, redstarts, tanagers, trogons…

Melvis is now ready, armed with a huge pair of binoculars and a telescope that wouldn’t look out of place in an observatory (it comes with its own tripod, which he’s also carrying).  We pile into the Mclendons’ truck and drive out of the lodge grounds and down a dirt track that would probably be the death of the rental car (normally, when I’m a passenger in the back of a truck, as I sometimes am in Belize, I can happily perch myself on the edge of the pan; but after being nearly thrown out several times, I elect to sit on the floor, bouncing around as we drive through streams and over fallen branches).

After about 30 minutes, we arrive at La Milpa.  The first thing I notice, as we walk into the site, is how dark it is – it’s early afternoon, but it could be dusk, as the forest canopy is so thick it blocks out most of the bright tropical sun.  La Milpa may be one the largest Maya sites in Belize (and one of the largest in the Maya world), and it may have had thousands of people living there at its height in the 9th century; but hundreds of years of abandonment have allowed nature to completely reclaim it.

And it is huge – the suburbs of the city spread out 5 km from the centre, and the city covered an area of 80 sq km at its height.  And that’s just what archaeologists have found so far.  The centre itself is enormous, with at least 20 courtyards, including the Grand Plaza (flanked by four huge pyramid-shaped temples), one of the largest public spaces in the Maya world.  Not that you’d know what the buildings are now, as all the structures are overgrown with jungle and inhabited by monkeys and birds.

La Milpa was discovered in the 1930s by chicleros (collectors of chicle, a sweet gum obtained from the sapodilla tree, which was chewed by the Maya and later used by companies like Wrigley in early commercial chewing gum).  Word got out to the archaeologists, and they’ve been coming here, on-and-off, ever since.  Even though looters have had a good poke around over the years, archaeologists have discovered numerous artefacts here, from jade beads to pottery to the skeleton of a middle-aged man with no teeth who apparently died playing football.  In addition to giving us the history of La Milpa, Melvis sheds light on the functions of the different structures, and points out various moss-covered stelae, which the archaeologists have deciphered over the years to piece together the history of the site.  And like all great guides, he has an infectious enthusiasm and a genuine happiness to share this place with us (I’ve listened to the bored drones of tour guides who’ve said the same spiel so many times that they know it by heart, and it just makes me want to go off on my own with a guidebook).

And he certainly has better eyesight than I do.  While the rest of us are wandering around looking aimlessly into the trees, or staring at the ground (and trying not to trip over rocks, branches, our own feet, etc.), he spots a bright green lizard stuck to a tree.  As a reaction to our continued attention, the lizard slowly changes colour, from vivid green to dull brown, camouflaging itself perfectly against the bark.  A short while later, he spies a bird in a tree that’s such a distance away it takes me several minutes to see it; and even then, it looks like nothing more than a bent twig.  But out comes the high-powered telescope, and sure enough, it’s a bird – a keel-billed toucan, the colourful-beaked national bird of Belize (and erstwhile Guinness mascot).  He also sees a troop of spider monkeys up in the trees, who come closer to check out the large, hairless primates staring at them (but fortunately they don’t throw their poop at us).  And on the way back to the truck, he finds a fer-de-lance snake coiled up on a log.  After cheerfully informing us of how dangerous these creatures are (its venom contains both a necrotising agent and an anti-coagulant, so it rots your flesh and causes massive internal bleeding at the same time), he proceeds to pick it up with a stick, so everyone can get a good look at one of the most venomous snakes in Belize (I look from a distance).  The dangerous animals, the ever-increasing darkness, and the nearby zombie-like roar of howler monkeys make me realise that, as beautiful and exotic as the tropical jungle is, I wouldn’t want to be stuck in the middle of it overnight on my own.

By the time we get back to the lodge, it’s dusk.  And after a delicious meal, it’s completely dark.  La Milpa’s gate closes at 8 pm, so it’s time to leave.  I’m fully confident in the knowledge that the rental car keys are still in the ignition of the rental car (I left them there because there’s no one else around to steal it).  So you can imagine my surprise when I feel that they’re not there.  After looking all over the inside of the car, the keys aren’t there either.  And they’re not on my person.  Shit.  And while desperately searching my multi-pocketed shorts, I feel a hole in one of the front pockets.  Double Shit.  Obviously, I took the keys out of the ignition.  Did I put them in my shorts?  Or did I leave them somewhere in the lodge?  After a search of the Mclendons’ bungalow, the restaurant, the bar, and the bathroom, it’s clear that the keys aren’t in those places.  Triple shit.  So I probably did put them in my pocket, and then forgot – in which case maybe they fell out via the hole (although it is a small hole, and I’m sure I would’ve noticed them drop down my leg [at least, that’s what I keep telling myself]).  Or maybe they fell out when I jumped in to and out of the Mclendons’ truck – in which case, they’re either in the very close vicinity, or several miles away in the jungle.  After scanning the ground with torches (and enlisting all the staff to help me look), there’s still no sign of them.  I’ve now checked my pockets countless times, each time feeling that I should just give it one more try, and each time thinking that maybe this time the keys will be in there, perhaps hidden in a fold.  But each time, the keys aren’t there.  I’m starting to feel like one of those pigeons that psychologists use in experiments into conditioned behaviour, pecking away at a button for food that will never come.  Maybe I’ll check the car again…

After who-knows-how-long, someone sensible (so not me, then) suggests we leave it for tonight and look again tomorrow.  The Mclendons offer to drive us back to Blue Creek and call us in the morning (they’ve already taken us trekking and bought us dinner, and all we’ve done for them in return is lose the keys; so they’re probably glad to see the back of us).  So it’s back into the truck and back to Blue Creek.

That night, I have a none-too-sound sleep, imagining all the places in the jungle that the keys could’ve disappeared into, and imagining just how much money the car hire company would charge me to come all the way out here with another set of keys.  The next morning, over a hearty Mennonite breakfast, the guesthouse owners suggest a local mechanic who can hot-wire the car (they suggest this after they’ve stopped laughing and shaking their heads).  Although it means that I still have to get back to Belize City without stalling the vehicle, and we still have the problem of the missing keys.  But then we get good news from the Mclendons – the sharp-eyed Melvis has found the keys (apparently they were buried in the earth right next to the truck, so what probably happened is that they fell out of my pocket while I was clambering into the back of the truck, and were then driven over by the truck).  And not only that, Dr M is driving the car to Blue Creek while Mrs M drives the truck, so all I have to do is finish my breakfast and wait, while quietly thanking the heavens for sharp-eyed guides and generous colleagues.

Apart from the missing keys snafu, La Milpa is an incredible place to visit – not so much for the ruins (there’s very little man-made stuff to see, as it’s all still buried under the jungle), but for the location and the ambience.  The thick tropical jungle is heavy with humidity, and alive with buzzing insects, squawking birds, and shrieking monkeys.  It feels wild and primeval – I wouldn’t have been surprised to see a dinosaur walk out of the forest.  Apart from some cleared land around the ruins, it looks pretty much how it would have to the first people who came here, giving visitors a chance to play Indiana Jones for a few hours (if you come here during spring, you can even observe the archaeologists in action [if ‘action’ is the right word for archaeology]).  And Programme for Belize is a fine organisation to support, doing a great job in conservation and environmental education – not to mention having life-saving guides ;-).


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