Queen of the Jungle
Exploring Mayan Pyramids in Belize

I'm standing on top of Caana Pyramid in the ancient Mayan city of Caracol overlooking the lush green jungle canopy as far as I can see. A slight breeze lifts my hair, cooling me off just a bit on this otherwise hot, muggy day.

My friend Jenifer and I have this amazing archaeological site near the Belize-Gautemala border almost to ourselves. We endured a long, bumpy drive over dirt roads, plus an unplanned layover at a dusty village while our taxi driver had car troubles, to get to this fairly remote spot at the end of the road. Caracol sits atop a 1,500-foot-high plateau at the edge of the Maya Mountains, surrounded by miles of jungle inhabited by jaguars, monkeys, and a myriad of other exotic creatures.

While walking along a self-guided tour through the rain forest to excavated and unexcavated structures, we pass truly exotic flora--huge ceiba trees with spoke-like arms splaying out of the trunk, gargantuan palms, and flowers with scalloped green leaves the size of elephant ears. I feel like I'm on the set of a movie, and remember that a Hollywood film crew indeed filmed that Harrison Ford movie, Mosquito Coast, near here.

Initially, I can't resist clamoring up the steep stone steps of several pyramids, but by the time we reach the Big One - Caana, the tallest man-made structure in Belize - the heat has zapped my energy. Jenifer starts up the steps, and I have to force myself to shake off my torpor and drag myself after her.

As we reach the third set of stairs and arrive at the pyramid summit, which was most likely a royal family compound, a deep grumbling reverberates through the jungle--howler monkeys. As if heralding the arrival of the queen (would that be me or Jenifer?), they whoop and bark and howl unseen in the surrounding jungle. It's eerie and magical.

I want to stay up here above it all where the breeze moves over the forest. I want to camp out and watch the sunset, the stars in the inky black night, see the sunrise, and commune with the ghosts of the ancient Mayans.   I try to imagine when this place was inhabited by as many as 100,000 people-farmers, craftsman, scientists, and royalty. If I close my eyes and listen, I can almost see it all.

~Jill Irwin

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