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The Maya Culture of Belize


For more than 4,500 years, the Maya people have lived in Belize. Although their origins are lost to the mists of history, the great Maya civilization that emerged around the year 250 AD stretched from Mexico all the way down to El Salvador. Long before the arrival of the Europeans, the Maya built an advanced civilization, creating complex calendars, building enormous stone cities in the jungle, and building a society with millions of citizens.

The Classic Period of the Maya civilization lasted until around the year 1000 AD. After that, the civilization fell into decline for reasons that are still unclear. Some archeologists believe that climate change led to crop failures, flooding, or other natural disorders. What is known is that most of their biggest cities had been abandoned by the time the Spanish arrived in the 16th century, although the remaining Maya offered stiff resistance to colonization.

In Belize, there are more ancient Maya sites than anywhere else on the planet. Belize served as the heart of the ancient Maya trade network where vast quantities of copper, jade, obsidian, shells, and quetzal feathers traveled for thousands of miles up and down Central America. Many of the Maya cities that had been abandoned before the arrival of the Europeans were lost to the jungle, only rediscovered in the 20th century, including now famous tourist destinations like Xunantunich, Caracol, and the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Tikal just across the border in Guatemala.

Today, the descendants of the Maya are an integral part of modern Belizean culture. The Yucatac Maya who live in the northern Belizean districts of Orange Walk and Corozal arrived in the early 19th century following civil wars in neighboring Mexico. The Mopan Maya who inhabit the southern Toledo District of Belize are largely from the eastern jungles of the Peten region of Guatemala. And the third group of Maya in Belize, the Kekchi (spelled variously as Q'eqchi), have proudly preserved their ancient language, culture, foods, and tradition.

The three different Maya groups all speak unique dialects of their language, but the Maya all still continue to live traditional lifestyles in villages, growing ancient staples like corn, cacao (the main ingredient of chocolate), and pork. The Maya collectively make up about 11% of modern Belize's population. Traditional Maya dishes include locally ground tortillas, a soup called caldo (with meat, cilantro, and annatto), tamales, chocolate drinks (with honey and pepper), and cochinita pibil, a roasted pork dish flavored with sour oranges and garlic.

Many Maya continue to wear traditional clothing, including hand woven designs that feature colorfully embroidered geometric designs. The Maya have also preserved a lot of traditional lore about the healing and medicinal properties of indigenous plants, and their remedies can often be found for sale in local markets. Herbalists known as pulia are still relied upon to cure illnesses and spiritually cleanse people using a combination of plants, alcohol, and prayers.

Many Maya are bilingual in Spanish and/or English, the official language of Belize, but continue to speak their ancient tongue at home.

To learn more about touring the ancient Maya cities of Belize or the Maya people, contact Caves Branch Jungle Lodge today!

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