As countries go, although Belize is not that large, flying in a Cessna Caravan between each cardinal point on the compass the bucolic landscape seemed to stretch endlessly in all directions. From my viewpoint at an altitude of 3,000 feet, the scenery was an ongoing mixture of pastoral farmland and tidy patchwork swathes of contained forest. It is hard to believe that over 1,000 years ago some one million people inhabited an area now occupied by barely one third of that sum. The Mayans built great cities and places of worship and extended commerce for several hundred thousand square miles throughout what we now call Central America, covering parts of Mexico and enveloping Guatemala and Belize.
The prevailing theory for the kingdom’s demise continues to be a matter of debate but appears to be, in large part, due to unsustainable human societal practices. As each part of the kingdom competitively built more and more impressive, imposing structures, natural resources were harvested and commoditized for building materials. An insatiable appetite for forest byproducts including wood and ash denuded the entire realm to such an extent that the regional climate changed, denying rain to the burgeoning populace. With an absolute dependency on a host of deities for most consumables, a drought placed tremendous pressure on the Mayan rain gods at the time. Of course, the trickle down effect of rain, or no rain, meant no crops and so on, impacting other divinities, such as the-then fairly popular spiritual position of corn god. Consequently, many gods found themselves in a bind, worshiping day after day, relentlessly, but to no avail. No rain, no water, no crops, no food. The gods turned desperately to bloodletting and significantly stepped up human sacrificing but still the rain did not come. And so the empire dissolved, as one million people in the area now known as Belize scattered across the continent, leaving the Mayan megacities to fall into disrepair and ruin.
In addition to the Mayan cities of Laminai, Chichen Itza, and Tulum, I have visited and poked around the ruins of many great empires that have come and gone over the past few millennia such as pre-Mayan Teotihuacan, the Khmer, and Inca treasures including Machu Picchu. Some causes of decline are easier to grasp and understand, such as regional warfare or the ultimate decimation of the Inca civilization by Spanish conquerors. But the erosion of Maya for the want of plaster and other building supplies seems somewhat random and implausible today. Especially when we look at subsequent custodians and residents of these once-vast empires. I’ve caught myself using the expression “history repeats itself,” which causes me to ruminate on the fragility of our fairly young civilization and the number of major reboots we’ve endured in just a few millennia, since many scientists today suggest that over-harvesting fossil fuels, marine life, and other un-throttled consumptive behavior is impacting our climate on a global scale.
As many folks do, on our first family trip to Belize, we started to form an opinion of the country by drawing and discussing comparisons. We traveled by boat, small aircraft and SUV to various parts of the country including the reef areas around San Pedro and Ambergris Caye, Belize City and to various locations in the interior including San Ignacio and Orange Walk.
On San Pedro, where we stayed, it appeared to have the lawlessness and anarchism that you might expect to find in Cancun at spring break, although, for the most part, it was relaxed and laid back like Saipan. The traffic was as disobedient as you might endure during any daylight hour in Hanoi, Vietnam, albeit on a much smaller scale. We generally agreed that it was hot, sweaty and noisy resembling what you may encounter in a mid-sized beach town in Thailand. At night it could be as dark as Australia’s Fitzroy Island’s black sky canvas draped across the Great Barrier Reef.
One of the many highlights was a spelunking expedition through miles of underground caverns to see Mayan skeletal remains and other ancient treasures. A National Geographic-endorsed tour, this one worked every muscle in your body and every fear in your mind. We endured crawling through cramped spaces, squeezing through rock fissures, swimming through the darkest of underground streams, and clambering over and under jagged rocks, stalagmites and stalactites. That tour would not be available in the good old USA.
Not quite as colonial as Zimbabwe and not as grimy as Manila, within a few short days we grew to appreciate all that Belize and San Pedro had to offer. Even though Belize City could be as expensive as New Zealand, as dodgy as a favela in Rio, as hustling and gritty as a small-scale Mexico City, and as disorganized as New Delhi’s Indira Gandhi International Airport, we can see why many folks fall in love with Belize.