Photo Tour from Western Belize – El Pilar Maya Monuments

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**ALL WORDS & INFORMATION BELOW COPIED FROM SIGNS POSTED AT PARK**

Known timeline at El Pilar:

1000 B.C. – First Established occupation across the Maya forest

700 B.C. (Early  Pre-Classic) – First public monuments established at El Pilar

  • First constructions at Xikna
  • Earliest occupation of Tzunu’un household
  • First occupation of Tikal – 30 miles west

250 B.C. (Pre-Classic) – Public monuments at  Tikal constructed

  • Plaza Copal designed and completed at El Pilar
  • Xikna expanded at El Pilar
  • Development of Plaza Axcanan at El Pilar
  • Major occupation of the El Pillar area

250 A.D. (Early Classic) – Tikal emerges as regional power center in Maya forest

  • Maintenance and stability at El Pilar
  • Construction at Plaza Jobo at El Pilar

600 A.D. (Late-Classic)

  • Major construction on Xikna at El Pilar
  • Tikal re-assumes regional power in Maya forest

800 A.D. (Terminal Classic)

  • 869 A.D. – Last dated construction at Tikal
  • Continued construction at El Pilar until 1000 A.D.

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One of the defining features of El Pilar is how the site blends the archaeological monuments of yesterday with the Maya forest of today. This philosophy is easily visible in the main plazas where you can walk beneath the canopy.

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Plaza Copal was established in a major phase of development during the Late Pre-Classic period (250 BC – 250 AD). This represents an incredible focus of work and effort, demonstrating the power and importance of El Pilar as a regional center.The buildings around the plaza were repeatedly remodeled over nearly 2 millenia and reached their final appearance in the Late Classic Maya period (600 – 900 AD)

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Plazas are an integral part of sites throughout Mesoamerica. These open, easily accessible plazas were important public areas, and served as ceremonial centers and meeting places. Other more enclosed plazas, such as Axcanan, represent exclusive areas within centers of power. Plazas have often been cleared to provide a full view of the monuments.

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The majestic temples of the Maya still rule over the forest, a thousand years after they were abandoned. Archaeological research has focused on these ceremonial centers, but where were the living places of the Maya populace? At El Pilar, there is an example of both the power elite and the domestic household. Maya temples were designed and built, they redesigned and rebuilt, over and over again in many phases of construction, creating layers, much like an onion. For example, Xikna was remodeled over 1700 years. Temples are grouped around plazas and usually face the cardinal directions: North, East, South, and West.

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Wooden staircase to Maya temple view

Although many of the monuments at El Pilar have been excavated, most of them remain covered by the forest. When archaeologists expose monuments at El Pilar, they use selective restoration  a method that requires less maintenance that complete reconstruction. All exposed monuments must endure the heat and moisture of the tropics, which deteriorate the limestone once it has been exposed. When the Maya inhabited the site, the monuments were plastered and maintained by a fleet of civil servants who would repair the stucco, paint the surfaces, and clean the grounds. Today, El Pilar must rely on the work of a few park rangers to care for all of the structures.

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Grave wall at Xikna – El Pilar

In 1983 before restoration a Maya milpa (or farm) existed in Plaza Copal, which was full of corn and clear of trees. Today stands 30 years of jungle rejuvenation.

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Plaza Copal at El Pilar

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Old School Railing design circa 1000 B.C. Maya

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Basket Tie-Tie Rope lashing securing the natural wood railings

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Don’t be another Maya sacrifice, watch your step down!

The trees of Plaza Copal range from 8-20 meters and provide an excellent habitat for the many diverse species of birds who live here. Furthermore  as you can feel, the shade provided by these trees makes El Pilar a cool respite in the hot, humid tropics. Encouraging the forest canopy at El Pilar makes the reserve more enjoyable for tourists and inviting for wildlife.

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Basket Tie Tie Maya designed bench – natural fibers straight from the jungle vine!

Approximately 800 meters to the west of Plaza Copal is the plaza complex of Pilar Poniente.The western area of El Pilar lies in what is now Guatemala. The two sides of El Pilar were joined by a causeway that runs almost due west and was plastered over in much in the same way of the plazas. The causeway is still visible but covered by thick jungle and and unguarded border crossing!

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Wildlife Photos of El Pilar – Lizard on a tree

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Orchids in the Canopy

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Young Strangler Fig Tree / Vine

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Looters Trench in Maya Monument

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Looters trench and tree vines – El Pilar

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Sotzna Tunnel – El Pilar Archaeological Reserve

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Enterance to Maya tunnel at El Pilar Maya Settlement in Cayo District, Belize

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Stepping inside a dark Maya tunnel without a torch!

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Excavated and reconstructed Maya tunnel between temples

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Plaza Jobo – El Pilar Maya Tour in Western Belize

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Royal Residence – El Pilar Maya Site

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Reconstructed Maya limestone wall

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Arched doorway unique to Maya elite residence

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Stone bench inside Maya elite room

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View from the top of Kin structure, looking down into elite structure

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Arched doorway from inside the Maya room

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Kin Maya Temple – El Pilar, Belize

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Lookout view of Guatemala from Kin Structure at El Pilar Belize Maya Monument

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Birds Without Borders Birding hike at El Pilar, Belize

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Maya tour signs are available for self-guided tours

The Maya houses were grouped around plazas or patios where daytime events took place.  Each structure faced onto the patio, was built to suit specific needs of the family, and serve domestic purposes. The family compound had an eastern shrine that served their local spiritual needs. The large southern building was suited for receptions. The northern spacious structure would be comfortable for privacy, relaxation, and sleeping. Other buildings are imagined to be fore other household needs like kitchen and storage.

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Tzunu’un Maya thatch house with choune tree leaf and tie tie rope

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Tzunu’un Maya stone house structure at El Pilar

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The Maya Forest Garden at El Pilar

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Diagram of the Maya Forest Garden Polyculture Theory by Dr. Anabel Ford

The Maya lived on the same land for thousands of years supporting a population far greater than current density. The Maya Garden at El Pilar demonstrates how the ancient Maya may have worked the land.

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Maya Garden Flower

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Maya tree identification signs

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Maya tree in the forest garden – “Pacaya”

For more information on El Pilar and the archaeology seen there visit the BRASS website.

http://www.marc.ucsb.edu/elpilar/

 

 

 

 

 

Cheap Vacation in Belize – AdventureTravel by Bus from Caye Caulker to Western Belize

Belize Local Bus to Belize City

Belize Local Bus to Belize City

For tourists looking to travel affordable in Central America, Belize is often surprisingly expensive. Occasionally there are vacation deals from Canada or the U.S. offered through Delta, United, or American Airlines into Belize City International Airport. Most often European travelers will find Cancun to be the cheapest and most direct option. The “Mundo Maya” travel route also helps to avoid visa conflicts with America. Regional airfare is quite expensive to Belize. Connections from Flores, Guatemala (Tropic Air) and San Salvador, El Salvador (Taca) often run in the hundreds of dollars.

Tropic Air in Belize

Tropic Air in Belize

Therefore if you plan on a cheap tropical vacation, its best to first try flying into Cancun. Also, Chetumal on the Mexico/Belize border, has airport that occasionally runs airfare deals from Toronto, Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary, Montreal, and Ottawa, Canada. From Cancun, Playa, and Tulum, Mexico it is possible to travel to Belize City directly by overnight bus.

ADO Ticket Stand at Cancun Airport

ADO Ticket Stand at Cancun Airport

The ADO bus service from downtown Cancun, Playa del Carmen, and Tulum has become very popular and occasionally sells out. It is possible to travel to Chetumal regularly from Playa or Cancun if you do not catch the late night bus (10pm Cancun first stop). Buy your overnight bus ticket at the Cancun airport up to 3 days in advance to secure your seat. ADO does not offer refunds on tickets for missed buses so make sure you plan enough time to board.

ADO Bus from Cancun Terminal direct to Belize City

ADO Bus from Cancun Terminal direct to Belize City

We have a story bout the overnight ADO bus ride to Belize City from Cancun here.

Cancun Bus Terminal

Cancun Bus Terminal

If you are traveling straight to the Belizean cayes from Mexico it is possible to connect to a water taxi from Chetumal. Here is a link to how this is done. It is also possible to by pass mainland Belize entirely by catching the San Juan or The Línea Dorada / Mundo Maya bus from the Swing bridge water taxi terminal in Belize City. This bus goes right to Flores, but then you end up missing the wild nature of Western Belize. NOT SUGGESTED !

Baby toucan at Lower Dover Belize Jungle Hostel

Baby toucan at Lower Dover Belize Jungle Hostel

Wild Tapir at Lower Dover!

Wild Tapir at Lower Dover Belize Jungle Lodge in Little Barton Creek!

It is really a shame many tourists only see San Pedro or Caye Caulker when visiting Belize. The country has much to offer beyond the constant party on the cayes. There is something for everyone, and taking public transportation is easy enough in Belize.

Bus back to Belize from the Benque Border Crossing in Belize.

Bus back to Belize from the Benque Border Crossing in Belize.

Renting a car makes sense 75% of the time if traveling to Belize on a family vacation. Remember that Crystal Auto Rentals at the Belize International Airport is the only company that will rent a car traveling across the western border into Guatemala to visit Tikal.

Crystal Auto Rental- Belize

Crystal Auto Rental- Belize

Backpacking is easy in Belize because of the public transportation, but also because many pickup trucks make hitchhiking possible, especially if traveling alone or with one other person. It is not uncommon to see locals standing at speed bumps hoping to catch a ride before they pay the already cheap bus fare. Rides from Belize City to Belmopan on the express bus (to Dangriga, Belmopan, or Benque) cost $5BZE per person and take about an hour. Express service to Belmopan happens at least every hour, often every half hour or even less during the early morning “rush” hour.

Road map of Belize

Road map of Belize

Once in Belmopan it is possible to find multiple banks with international ATM machines. It is also possible to eat cheap and good local Belizean food at the market. The market happens on Friday and is worth visiting if traveling through. Internet cafes and photo services are all readily available, along with passport services at many countries foreign embassies.

Belize immigration is located on the road immediately across from the Department of Archaeology if you are trying to extend your tourist visa for another 30 days. The cost for a visa extension is $50BZE for the first 6 months and $100 BZE after, should you decide to stay!

Lower Dover is Located only 1/2 Mile from Mile 59 on the Western Highway

Lower Dover is Located only 1/2 Mile from Mile 59 on the Western Highway

When looking for a place to stay, Lower Dover Field Station and Jungle Lodge in Unitedville offers affordable private cabanas and hostel bunks on 100 acres of jungle, farm, and unexcavated Maya monuments. It is possible to reach us by local bus because we are only a 5 minute walk to the highway. Make sure you are not on an express bus to Benque and let the bus porter know you want to get off at Lower Dover sign in Unitedville.

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Guests looking to experience the top tour in western Belize, ATM Cave, would be advised to stay at Lower Dover because tours depart a full hour later from here than many lodges near San Ignacio, the drop off is also an hour earlier…less time in the tour van and more time in the jungle.

Mayan Skull in ATM Cave - Cayo, District - Belize

Mayan Skull in ATM Cave – Cayo, District – Belize

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Swimming into ATM CAVE Belize Adventure

Swimming into ATM CAVE Belize Adventure

ATM Cave Entrance in Western Belize

ATM Cave Entrance in Western Belize

Guests looking to just relax and enjoy nature will enjoy our multiple hiking trails linking the Maya ruins to the Belize River and our medicinal plant loop.  Every paid guest to Lower Dover gets a free 2 hour guided tour of the plants and known Maya history at the site and surrounding area.  Bring your camera because you never know what you will see! Or sit back on a hammock with a Belikin and let the birds come to you!

Iguana seen hiking on jungle trails at Lower Dover Jungle Lodge

Iguana seen hiking on jungle trails at Lower Dover Jungle Lodge

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Jungle pictures from Belize nature hike - Christy Brinnehl

Jungle pictures from Belize nature hike – Christy Brinnehl

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Male and Female Collared Aracari

Male and Female Collared Aracari on Papaya at Lower Dover Belize Jungle Lodge

 

A walk through the Jungle.

Jungle trails at Lower Dover

Lower Dover boats over 1.5 miles of seasoned trails in protected Belizean Jungle. Guests that have the opportunity to stay at Lower Dover marvel at the flora and fauna that this diverse ecosystem has to offer. It’s a great place for amateur and professional photographers to test their skills.  We are always amazed at how each walk through the jungle is unique and how different things can catch different eyes.

Here are some photos from a recent walk on the medicinal nature trails at Lower Dover.

Jungle trails at Lower Dover.

Cohune Palm at Lower Dover

Plantain Tree at Lower Dover

Wild Pineapple at Lower Dover

Strangler Fig at Lower Dover

Waterfall at Lower Dover

Huge tree at Lower Dover.

Guanacaste Tree at Lower Dover.

Kiskadee- The bird in our logo, they’re always around at Lower Dover.

Mayflowers at Lower Dover.

Corozo aka Cohune Palm – Multi-Purpose Maya Tree

Cohune Palm
ARECACEAE, Attalea cohune

One of the most prevalent trees found on Lower Dover Jungle Lodge’s 100 acre property is the Cohune Palm. Local Maya researchers observed that Cohunes are abundant where Maya ruins are found. Many believe the Maya had many practical uses for the tree (oil, roofing material, and even salt). Local guides go a step further and describe Maya shamans using the palms as proof of their spirit connections. When the wind would blow through the palms located around their settlement, shamans would say…”I told you the Gods were listening!” Visit the Maya site at Lower Dover for proof of this phenomenon.

Maya Ruins at Lower Dover with Cohune Palms with dead leaves (left) and new growth (right).

Cohune Palms found at Maya site of Xunantunich (Right Front)

Another reason Cohune Palms are found in abundance is that the tree trunk is resistant to the common slash and burn agriculture practice used throughout Belize. On your trip to Belize, you will likely see many Cohune Palms still standing in farm pastures for that reason. When hiking the trails at Lower Dover Jungle Lodge, it is possible to see all the Cohune’s stages of growth, from seed bunches to well established trees. Along the Maya ruins of Lower Dover, the remains of past Cohune stumps are long gone, but perfectly round stump holes remain.

100's of Cohune Palms in all stages of growth can be seen at Lower Dover

Young Corozo Palms on medicinal plant trail at Lower Dover Belize Jungle Lodge

“Heart of Palm” or “Palmito” is a rare but well known local delicacy that is delicious in salads and commonly enjoyed over the Easter holiday.  Unfortunately, to obtain the palm heart, the tree must be cut down, which is why they are so rare and usually carry a high cost.

Corozo Palm trunk growing mushrooms after palmito harvest

The nut is a favorite food of the gibnut, and is also eaten by people, despite the difficulty in cracking the shell. Cohune has a high oil content, yet it requires extensive extraction processing, so it’s not very economically viable for biofuels.  Many have tried to mechanize the process, but the Maya version of cracking the outer shell on stones, mashing the nuts by hand tool, and boiling the oil out in water remains the most effective way of extraction.

Cohune Palm Seed Cluster. Uniform in size and shape.

Cahoon Palm nuts scattered on the ground. Gibnuts love to eat them!

The British used the nut shell during World War I for charcoal filters in gas masks. Today, it’s not as commonly used, as the nut can explode once the fire reaches the internal oily sections! The Brits used the Cohune nuts because the mature nut is uniform size, perfect for mass production.

Quash on Cohunn Palm Leaf at Lower Dover Belize Jungle Lodge

Today, the durable nut shells are polished & made into lovely brown jewelry. Rings, earrings, and bracelets are found throughout Belize made from the Cohune nuts. Purchase one of these lovely gifts for your friends from one of the many traditional Maya artisans outside of Xunantunich or in San Ignacio.

Lastly, much is being discovered about the actual benefits of palm oil. For the longest time consumers were misinformed about the many positives this oil provides. One such study is ongoing that shows the remarkable strides made in Alzheimer’s Disease patients when they consume a regular intake of palm oil versus taking prescription drugs. Learn more about this fascinating discovery here.

Ixcanan aka Polly Red Head : Medicinal Jungle Plant

Poly Red Head
RUBIACEAE – Hamelia patens
Common names: Red Head (E), Sanalo-todo (S), Ix-canan, Sac-te-much, Klaush-pim (M)

The Maya named this plant after the Goddess of the Forest and Healing, Ix-canan, likely due to the abundant anti-bacterial and anti-fungal properties used in treating a large variety of skin ailments. Everything from sores, ulcers, fungus, rashes, burns, insect bites, burns, and bee stings can be treated effectively with this natural plant remedy.

Polly Red Head - Part of the Medicinal Plant Trail at Lower Dover Belize Jungle Lodge

Treatment for most skin rashes and fungus use 3 ingredients:  common table salt, lime juice and young, mashed Poly Red Head leaves.

First the problem skin is scrubbed with a mixture of whole leaves, lime juice, and salt for 2-3 minutes.  Then the freshly picked Poly Red Head leaves are smashed and rubbed into the newly scrubbed skin and left to dry.  The procedure is repeated 2 or 3 times a day and within a day or two, the skin problem is usually cured.

Don’t be alarmed if your skin becomes temporarily darkened as some people’s skin changes color when in contact with lime juice.

Lower Dover’s watchman and resident bush healer Dan Rivera would say, “a little salt and lime and everything is fine.” You might have to ask him to say it 3 times though because his creole is a little tough to understand ;)

Flowers of Ixcanan Plant - Belize Natural Plant Remedies

Ixcanan (Polly Red Head) is a favorite flower for the many hummingbirds that call Lower Dover Jungle Lodge home. The plant grows everywhere there is sun, almost like a weed. Great news for those with sensitive skin and a camera!

Finally, if you are trying to be a Maya MacGyver, it is apparently possible to make household “iodine” from the stems of the Ixcanan plant. According to Rainforest Remedies by Dr. Rosita Arvigo, three 25 cm long stems are boiled in 3 cups of water for 10 minutes; a rusty nail is then added for 15 minutes; this mixture is then strained and bottled.

Who would have thought?!? We did not know the Mayans had nails! This could help to explain their awesome construction abilities seen throughout Belize and in Lower Dover’s own backyard!