El Pilar – Mayan Historic site

Looking to get off the tourist beaten track in Belize, I’ve had my sight set on checking out some of the more out of the way sites. Talking to Judy, we agreed on the nearby El Pilar destination: a mere 12km from San Ignacio, heading up a new direction through Bullet Tree Falls. As dedicated DYIers, we took the local bus from the main square to Bullet Tree Falls, and hopped off at the local bus stop. From here, hoping to rent bikes, or hitch a ride from a contact identified in the Lonely Planet guidebook as a possible tour guide. We walked through town along roads, asking for directions along the way, and got to our destination: Parrot Nest Jungle Lodge. Though the owner not able to take us on a guided trip, he called some friends, and we hung around till the guide and vehicle arrived.

Hopping into the vehicle, we make a short but very slow and bumpy ride up the ‘road’ that took us to El Pilar. Was definitely a 4WD experience, and a few spots along the way in the deep jungle were a bit sketchy with mud deep in spots. The road also runs parallel to the Guatemalan boarder that can be as close as 500m through the dense jungle – and our guide indicated he would not be stopping for any pedestrians along the way: it’s a spot where muggings have taken place. Great local advice! Getting to the El Pilar Archeological Reserve, we paid the entrance fee to the lonely guard (we are the only visitors today), and started the trek with our local guide.

First mapped out in 1983, and initial excavation of this site only begun in 1993 this has a true lost world experience. Historically, this site started around 800BC, and was abandon at around 1000AD. The surveys indicated there are around 25 plazas and hundreds of building under the jungle hillsides covering an area of 50ha, with only a few fragments excavated – and very little restoration efforts have been started. It’s a true Indiana Jones experience. Being on the boarder of Guatemala, there’s a military/police presence here to prevent looters to keep the site protected and intact: there is a mind boggling amount of work to complete at this single site itself!

Weaving our way through the paths, our guide took us to some of the excavated locations throughout the site. The jungle has claimed all the features and sites: though there are signposts throughout labeling the Ballcourts, Plazas, and Pyramids that are buried under the rich canopy. With some small clearings in the area as well, our guide is also able to find birds along the canopy: both parrots and the always entertaining toucans. After touring through Plaza Axcanan, Plaza Copal, we get a short briefing on restoration efforts by the park rangers: with portions excavated and some selective restoration completed – which requires less maintenance than a complete reconstruction. We’re also told that the local farmers use these sites themselves for harvest festivals! Keeping the site buried is the most effective way on maintaining the historic site!

One of the recovered and restored sites is vaulted tunnel into a pyramid, with paintings and carvings on the interior stones still visible. Climbing up to a the summit of a covered pyramid, we go to take brief view of the surrounding jungle: and our guide reminds us that 500M out is the unpatrolled ‘boarder’ of Guatemala.

Wrapping up our trip, we take a break at some of the huts used by the rangers to maintain and protect the site. There are a few clearings about, and always some interesting jungles forests maintained. Oddly enough, we had few problems with mosquitoes, though we can also say that there were ants and beetles scurrying over almost everything, so watch where you sit – the jungle is alive! Back in the car-park, we reamined the only vehicle here today. We thanked our guide for the excellent tour, and made our way back along the 4WD roadway. We did see a car pulled off to the side, though as the driver did not recognize the vehicle (he knows everyone in Three Bullet Falls), we opted not to slow down and keep heading to town!

Dropped off in Three Bullet Falls at the bus stop, our lift came almost right away – and we paid the $2BZ fair each to get back to San Ignacio on the local bus. With Sam still feeling under the weather, we decided that we would take a well deserved break and recap at one of the town restaurants along the main square – along with a bucket of Belkin’s for the thirsty explorers.

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