Xunantunich and Cahal Pech

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WEDNESDAY, DECEMBER 27, 2000. Next morning, as we gathered for breakfast, the mist hung so low we could not see the next hill. Our plans had been rearranged. Two days of rain had made the road to Caracol completely impassable. Two vehicles were apparently stuck in the mud, possibly permanently. One of our major targets would have to wait for a more favorable time.

After a leisurely breakfast (which we had not intended to be so leisurely), we hopped in our bus and headed back toward the Guatemalan border to visit Xunantunich. In January, I had asked Chris Jones, the Penn archaeologist who had worked so long at Tikal, how to find Xunantunich, since I had heard it was not well marked. It was exactly as he had described. We parked and took the ferry across the small river. From the ferry, we could see a huge iguana with a brilliant orange comb sunning himself on a palm tree branch that overhung the river. From there , we walked the mile or so on a gravel road up to the site. Xunantunich was not far from Barton Ramie, where Willy discovered a new style of polichrome ceramic that he identified as “Floral Park”.

Kathryn explained that the early populations in the peninsula were probably Yucatec Maya, but that around 150 A.D. (or perhaps a bit earlier), a new culture with more marked social stratification and new iconography seemed to move into the area. A Proto-Cholan language was introduced. Some of this population moved into Highland Chiapas, where the Proto-Cholan language became Tzotzil.

Xunantunich was quite lovely. Elaborate stucco sky-band friezes decorate the tallest pyramid structure. We were able to pick out symbols for the sun, the moon, and Venus. Climbing onto the top of the structure, we could see all around for miles and miles. The long blue-green range of the Maya Mountains commanded the southern horizon. The border with Guatemala was off to the west. The rolling agricultural and pastoral countryside of Belize lay to the north and east. Below us were temple and palace structures and large green plazas.

Descending, we walked back through a ritual ballcourt to a large palace compound with lovely views of the high pyramid, with another temple in the foreground. There was a nice small site museum with two of the major stelae. In another building, there was a good contextual presentation and a scale model of the site. We all bought souvenirs. Kathryn found a terrific bull mask that she modeled for us. Then we hiked back down to the ferry. The bright boy who had pointed out the iguana to me on the trip over sold me a small woven piece that I will use as a bookmark. I was sorry I didn’t have more time to hear his story. I’m sure he has one.

We had lunch at an outdoor restaurant at the edge of town. After lunch, we dropped off the ladies at the hotel, and Nick, Al, Greg, Bea, and I – the “hard core Mayanistas”, went on to the small site of Cahal Pech, ominously known as “the place of the ticks”. We sprayed seriously before entering. It was a compact site, with a couple nice mounds. One residential complex had a bewildering maze of passages and different levels. Back toward the entrance, there was a particularly nice reconstructed ballcourt.

While we had been in the site, Kathryn and Marco Antonio had gone off with our bus driver to check out alternate lodging facilities. One that had caught their eye was the Windy Hill Inn – partly because Kathryn and Nick live on Windy Hill Drive in Tallahassee. While they were exploring the details with the owner, the similarity in names came up. The inn owner surprised them by showing them a street sign that someone had brought him from Tallahassee, Florida – from their street! The world certainly is small!

That evening for dinner, we walked down the hill to downtown San Ignacio to Martha’s Kitchen and had some wonderful pizza on a second-story terrace overlooking the bustling street.

The architecture and the entire feel of the country of Belize are quite different from Guatemala. I suspect the two-story painted frame structures are similar to what you saw when you first arrived in Panama. Nearly everything is built up onto poles, well above the ground. But the configuration of the town layouts is more of a grid pattern, with wider streets, than we typically see in Guatemala. Buildings aren’t quite so bunched together. The agricultural development seems more orderly and has probably had the benefit of more capital investment. Though greener, it reminded me very much of Central Florida near you around Ocala and the rolling orange grove areas west of Orlando.