Nearly 30,000 people live in the Toledo District today, and 64% of those claim Mayan heritage. The modern Maya of Toledo identify as either Kekchi or Mopan. They are scattered amongst approximately 30 small villages, including Santa Anna, San Felipe, San Pedro Columbia, and Crique Sarco. However, the original Maya occupants of Toledo were called Manche Chol Maya and were concentrated in the Mayan cities of Lubaantun, Nim Li Punit, Pusilha, and Uxbenka.
These cities thrived in the Classic period of Maya civilization, from 250 - 900AD, and their ruins are still fascinating sites to visit. Ancient Mayan culture is credited with developing complex mathematics systems, creating a calendar that is more accurate than what we use today, amassing highly detailed information on astronomical movements, and many other achievements. The visitors' centers at Lubaantun and Nim Li Punit house many interesting artifacts and examples of ancient Mayan art and craftsmanship.
For reasons that are still being debated, the city states of the Mayan civilization began to fall apart after 900AD. The Manche Chol Maya remained in Toledo, resisting rule by the Spanish, though many converted to Catholicism. Eventually the British colonists forced the Chols out of Toledo and into the highlands of Guatemala in the 18th and 19th centuries.
In the late 19th and the 20th centuries, Kekchi and Mopan Maya families began migrating back to Belize. Many of the modern day Maya live in traditional thatch homes and practice the same subsistence farming techniques that their ancestors did, though outside influences will inevitably change life here. There has been a recent and positively received push to teach Mayan heritage and culture in schools, and to celebrate it through local festivals.
The Mayan ruins of Lubaantun lie 1.3 miles northwest of the village of San Pedro Columbia. The city flourished in the Maya Classic era, from the AD 730 to 860, and archaeologists believe that it was an administrative and ceremonial center. Now the site is a beautiful spot to explore, with a serene jungle setting and few other tourists around.
Lubaantun is the largest Maya site of southern Belize, composed of eleven large structures, five main plazas, and three ball courts. The structures of Lubaantun are built with limestone blocks and rounded corners. An unusual method of mortarless construction was used here, with stone blocks cut to interlock with each other like puzzle pieces.
In the early 1900s Dr. Thomas Gann, an amateur archaeologist, began minor excavations at the site and named it Lubaantun (Place of the Fallen Stones' in a modern Mayan dialect).The ancient name of Lubaantun is unknown. Some say the current name might have come from Gann's unfortunate habit of dynamiting the tops of pyramids and temples. Since the 1970s, more professional excavation and restoration work has been completed at this site, and much information is available at the visitor's center at the entrance to the ruins.
The Legend of the Mitchell-Hedges Crystal Skull
A fairly controversial story details the discovery of a crystal skull at Lubaantun ruins.Allegedly, in 1924 British adventurer Frederick Mitchell-Hedges and his adopted daughter, Anna, accompanied Gann to the site. While exploring the excavations, Anna reportedly found a perfectly proportioned human skull that was carved from pure quartz crystal. No records exist of this discovery from the 1920s, but Anna began touring with the skull years later.While many doubt the veracity of this story, to some the skull is considered a supernatural object of the highest importance, possibly containing the key to secrets of the ancient Maya world.
The Maya Ruins of Nim Li Punit are situated on a beautiful hilltop site near the village of Indian Creek, affording views of Belize, Guatemala, and the Caribbean. This site was only fairly recently discovered by oil prospectors in 1976, and has been well cleared and excavated to offer tourists beautiful grounds with a small, informative visitor's center.
Nim Li Punit was inhabited from sometime in the middle Classic Period (AD 400 700) until around 900, and probably supported a population of around 6,000 at its peak. It is best known for the 26 stone stelae that were found there. Each stelae was carved with hieroglyphics and used to record important information such as alliances, wars and battles, and family trees. One stela depicts a ruler wearing a large headdress. This inspired the name Nim Li Punit, which means big hat in the Kekchi Maya language. Some of the best preserved stelae are set up in the visitor's center with explanations. Others are still erect in a circular pattern in the Plaza of the Stelae'.
A ball court connects the Plaza of the Stelae with temples on the eastern part of the site. Archaeologists are still determining the exact rules of the ancient ball game, but they do know that players had to pass a heavy rubber ball through a ring without touching it with their hands. Additional structures of interest at Nim Li Punit include three opened tombs in which several members of the royal family were buried. Artifacts from the tombs are on display in the visitor's center.
These remote Mayan ruins are just a few miles from the Guatemalan border, and archaeologists believe they were occupied during the Classic period from 150 to 1000 AD. The ruins were originally found in the 1920s, partially excavated, and then abandoned. The site features several stelae in a main plaza, and an unusual stone bridge, but most of the mounds and artifacts are still buried under corn fields.
A strenuous hike is required to reach these ruins, and getting to Pusil Ha is part of the adventure. This trip is only recommended for more physically active guests.