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Sprawled across the top of a hill near San Ignacio, in the Cayo District, is the crumbling Mayan ceremonial center of Cahal Pech, which translates to “Place of the Ticks.” Its name reflects its history: it was named in the 1950s when archaeological digs were just beginning in the region and the area was a pasture.

From San Ignacio it is a 15 to 20 minute walk uphill to the ruins. The visitors’ center plays an entertaining and educational video about the excavation of Cahal Pech and the lifestyle of the ancient Maya. Also in the visitors’ center are Mayan artifacts and models of what the center looked like in its heyday.

Immediately outside the visitors’ center, Cahal Pech stretches across the landscape with well-manicured lawns, plants in shades of pinks, yellows and every type of green imaginable. Geckos dart up and down large leaved bromeliads and birds chirp and sing in the trees. Pyramid temples, ball courts, palaces, and carved stelae (monuments) show evidence of some of the earliest Mayan settlements in Belize.

Most likely, these sprawling structures and their inhabitants arrived 3,000 to 3,200 years ago, with continued occupation running through the Classic period. Around 1,200 years ago, the center was depopulated—earlier than other centers in Belize—but nobody knows why. Excavation of the site began in the 1950s, but there are still large mounds yet to be uncovered. Observing these sections in passing, it’s interesting to try and imagine what still lies buried under the ever-growing jungle.

Unfortunately, in the 1970s and 80s the site suffered from chronic plundering, and while some looters were caught and prosecuted, many were not. In 1988, archaeological work resumed at the site, ending the pilfering.

Walking around the quiet grounds, it’s easy to imagine rituals and ceremonies taking place here. The average Mayan probably lived nearby in a thatch-roofed hut in the jungle, traveling to Cahal Pech for community occasions.

There are several caves upriver where archaeologists have found evidence of important rituals including the remains of corn, cacao and anato seeds. Skeletal remains of infants and adults indicate human sacrifices, probably to the gods of rain and agriculture. Mosses cover some of the stone, making for a slippery walk in sections, and ferns sprout from old walls.

Compared to nearby Tikal, few people visit these ruins, so visitors often have the place to themselves, free to duck through short archways and peer into sleeping centers in relative solitude. Fortunately, ticks are not a problem for the tourist at Cahal Pech and quiet time to explore and reflect on the past is guaranteed.

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