Dense bush and ubiquitous palms hover around silent, massive stones. The humming sound rising from the jungle comes from dragonflies, not cameras or cars. Flashes of color come from parrots and flowers, not arriving tour buses. Here the modern world vanishes. In the slowly developing country of Belize, the tallest man-made structure remains a Mayan ruin.
In troubled Central America, peaceful Belize offers a new route for exploring the ancient Mayan culture. Offering a quiet view of its own Mayan ruins in secluded jungle settings, Belize also provides a direct route to the dramatic ruins of northeastern Guatemala.
Most visitors to Belize, formerly British Honduras, are divers and fishermen who come to enjoy the world's second largest barrier reef and the hundreds of small islands that hug Belize's coast. Yet the mainland of this English-speaking country has Mayan ruins that in the past decade have rewritten Mayan scholarship almost every time a shovel hit the ground.
Belize is a microcosm of Mayan history. Archeologists have excavated the oldest known Maya artifacts at Cuello, and the largest jade carving -- the Maya's sacred stone -- at Altun Ha. Currently, a major center that the Maya occupied continuously for more than 3,000 years is being uncovered at Lamanai. When the government builds the national museum planned for its newly constructed capital, Belmopan, the spectacular artifacts will attract world attention.
Belize, which gained its independence from Britain in 1981, is located on the East Coast of Central America, east of Guatemala and south of Mexico's Yucata'n. This New Hampshire-sized nation has a multi-racial population of 150,000, and while the official language is English, much of the country also speaks Spanish.
Coastal Belize has a black, English-speaking West Indian culture, with an African ancestry and a casual pace of life. In the country's interior, the mountainous jungle and bush are home to the Spanish-speaking mestizo, as well as the indigenous Indian populations who are direct descendants of the Maya.
The ancient Maya thrived in the jungle region that is now Mexico's Yucata'n Peninsula, northeastern Guatemala and Belize. While Europe muddled through the Dark Ages, the Maya devised a complex and accurate calendar, and measured the solar year. Their genius was astronomy; their greatest art was pyramid building.
For most travelers the center of the Mayan world is Mexico's Yucata'n, where good roads now connect major ruins. Club Mediteranee hotels -- not Club Med villages, but Villas Arqueologicas run by the club for the Mexican government -- provide comfort at Uxmal, Coba' and Chiche'n Itza', and Chiche'n has other hotels, including the spacious Mayaland.
In contrast, Belize's ruins are smaller and less excavated. The roads are mostly unpaved, and rivers often must be crossed by hand-cranked wooden ferries. There are no deluxe hotels -- the best are adequate. This is frontier country, and tourism is a fledgling industry.
And yet, Belize offers solitude. Few visitors break the stillness.
Belize City is the starting point for travelers flying into the country. Here you can arrange tours, hire drivers or rent Land Rovers for Belize's unpredictable roads. Hurricanes help explain this coastal city's battered, unpainted look. Houses are built on stilts, and open sewers run along the streets. For all its ramshackle ways, one-third of the population lives in Belize City, braving hurricanes and refusing to move inland to Belmopan -- which was planned and built after Hurricane Hattie leveled Belize City in 1961.
Belize's island ambiance prompts the tourist board to promote Belize as "the new Caribbean nation." But despite a Caribbean flavor on its coast and islands, Belize's heritage is undeniably Central American, and the Maya constitute a large part of that heritage. They settled in Belize as early as 2500 B.C. and remained there through the Spanish Conquest in the 16th century.
Just 35 miles north of Belize City, Altun Ha is the most accessible Mayan site. It lies on the best road in the country, and Belize City hotels can arrange transportation to the site. The main temples are cleared of bush, while more than 400 mounds dot the 2 1/2-square-mile area set in the jungle.
Altun Ha was once the religious center for more than 10,000 Mayas during the centuries known as the Classic Period, from 200 to 900 A.D. An elaborate jade carving of the Mayan sun god, Kinich Ahau, was unearthed there in 1968. The Sun God's six-inch-high head weighs almost 10 pounds, making it the largest Mayan jade carving ever discovered. However, the statue is no longer there. Looting is a serious problem, and so Kinich Ahau sits in a Belize City bank.
Altun Ha is the most excavated site in Belize, but the jungle always threatens to reclaim it. This unrelenting green surrounds the tombs once filled with jade for the priests buried there. Fewer than 40 steps lead to the top of the main temple, which housed the jade Sun God, but this is high enough to view the jungle panorama.
For travelers who come to Belize for diving and fishing on the islands, Altun Ha is an easy side trip from Belize City. The road to the ruins of Xunantunich, on the other hand, takes travelers across country to Belize's western border. Although Xunantunich is farther from Belize City -- about a two-hour drive -- most Belizeans recommend it as the most dramatic Mayan site in the country.
Along the way to Xunantunich is Belize's new capital. Belmopan is a concrete and treeless city that resembles a small junior college campus. To date the government has convinced only 4,000 people to move there.
Belmopan may not be the center of action, but its parking lot is almost at the intersection of two of Belize's three highways. Buses roll in to pick up commuters, and vendors sell Coke and steaming tamales. The lot hops with in-transit Belizeans who listen to rock and reggae on transistor radios.
Continuing west, as you near the ruins of Xunantunich and the town of San Ignacio, the cultural terrain changes from Caribbean to mestizo and Indian. Creole, Belize's lingua franca, still spices the conversations of both Spanish and English.
Residing in the San Ignacio area are many of the 1,700 British troops stationed in Belize. The soldiers are here to guard against military action by Guatemala, which claims Belize as its "lost province." The British tanks rumbling down San Ignacio's streets and the occasional helicopter or Harrier jet flying overhead are startling reminders that this is a border town beside a nation that has threatened invasion on several occasions.
Ten miles from San Ignacio, the ruins at Xunantunich nearly dissolve these modern realities. The main temple, more than 1,000 years old, rises to 130 feet and is Belize's tallest building. Known as El Castillo, its summit offers a view of the jungle that Belize shares with Guatemala. On its south side a stucco frieze reveals the moon god and the Maya's love for the stars.
Beneath El Castillo's tenacious vegetation lie several temples, one built on top of the next. The Maya were loath to destroy old places of worship, so instead they usually added on. As El Castillo reaches into the sky, the Maya's ingenuity is apparent. The wheel was unknown to them. How were bone-crushing blocks of limestone hoisted upward? Although protecting jungle vines conceal many of these ruins, you can feel the generations of energy put into building Xunantunich.
The remaining mounds are smaller temples, residences and a ball court (used for game-playing) for the Maya who lived there. Since lack of funding prevents archeologists from excavating systematically, these mounds retain their secrets.
The few visitors -- Xunantunich averages five a day during the high season -- can contemplate the Maya's greatest mystery. After 700 years of living at Xunantunich, the Indians suddenly abandoned it in 900 A.D. At the height of the Mayan civilization, its people left their homes and temples in Guatemala and Belize, and in certain sections of the Yucata'n, spreading out into the surrounding areas. They never reactivated the major classical ceremonial centers.
The Maya's mass vanishing act remains unsolved. It is an especially intriguing puzzle since some of the centers they abandoned rival ancient Egyptian architecture in artistic genius. One of their greatest cities, Tikal in Guatemala, is only 70 miles by road from Xunantunich. In contrast, travelers from Guatemala City must either fly to Tikal or drive 470 zigzagging miles to reach these jungle ruins.
Although Belize and Guatemala are not on good diplomatic terms, the border is open and Tikal's legend lures the adventurous. Guides to Tikal can be hired in the San Ignacio area, and taxis from Belize will sometimes make the trip.
The road to Tikal is pocked with potholes, though that isn't what makes visitors uncomfortable. It's the army sandbags, the camouflage paint, the soldiers who still look adolescent despite their rifles. The Guatemalan border is an armed camp, and as the road winds its way past border headquarters an army training camp looms into sight. Machine guns on towers point into the road and a sign proclaims in Spanish, "Here trains the fiercest army in all the Americas."
Further along the road, Indian women replace the sullen soldiers. Their brightly embroidered dresses are soothing. Most of them carry on their heads green- or rose-striped water jugs. These large pots look oppressively heavy until you learn they are made of plastic.
Lake Pete'n Itza' cuts into these jungle hills, a bright blue jewel surrounded by undulating green. The island town of Flores sits serenely upon it. Flores, today the chief city of northern Guatemala, was founded by the Maya before their final losing battle with the Spaniards. The road is now paved, and Tikal is less than an hour away.
More than 200 square miles of rain forest form Tikal National Park. Shrines, temples and palaces are part of the 3,000 separate structures that have been unearthed. The major ruins lie in several clusters that are a leisurely 20-minute walk apart.
Tikal has six grand pyramids. These giants rise up to 220 feet, white limestone shining against dark, endless jungle. Royal palms and giant ceiba trees shade the spacious plazas. These towering trees and vines add a surreal touch, both hiding and framing the ruins.
The Great Plaza is the heart of Tikal. At each end of the rectangular lawn sits a pyramid. The Temple of the Giant Jaguar and the Temple of the Masks face each other and are flanked by the long, low ruins of the palaces. Large stone murals, known as stelae, show the faint outlines of Mayan lords and rulers.
Narrow steps climb steeply to the tops of all the temples, where climbers can view the panorama. From here you can see distant ruins rising from the jungle. The shrieks of monkeys and calls of birds echo and seem more orchestrated from the height of a pyramid. A spirituality seems to linger in these empty plazas. The ceremonies are forgotten and the gods are dead, but Tikal's grandeur still awes its visitors.
When the Maya abandoned Guatemala and Belize they did not completely disappear from the area: They remained at Lamanai on Belize's New River Lagoon in the northern part of the country. Today no one lives there except diligent scientists and the crocodiles who gave Lamanai its Mayan name, "submerged crocodile." These reptiles were revered here, as the Maya believed the world rested on the back of a crocodile floating in a lily pond.
Lamanai is unique because the Maya lived here without interruption for 3,000 years. In this one spot, archeologists can study the Maya's life span from 1500 B.C. through the Spanish assault in 1600 A.D. Lamanai is reshaping scholarship as well as yielding priceless artwork and artifacts.
All these Mayan sites are accessible, but in this part of the world travel is dictated by the jungle. Roads require Land Rovers or trucks for peace of mind, although you will see 20-year-old Chevys thriving as tourist taxis. While visitors can travel overland to Altun Ha, Xunantunich and Tikal, Lamanai is accessible by boat from Orange Walk Town or by seaplane from Belize City.
Belize's remaining Mayan centers are more off the beaten trail. In northern Belize, the Cerros ruin has 7-foot-tall stone masks, but they are usually covered up to prevent erosion.
The Cuello ruin near Orange Walk Town is the most ancient Mayan settlement discovered to date. It is the site of a rum distillery, and so visitors must obtain the owner's permission to look around. Although visually disappointing, it is historically vital because it revealed that Maya were trading and producing fine pottery as early as 1500 B.C.
The small sites of Lubaantun and Nim Li Punit are isolated in southern Belize by bad roads. These ruins are only nine miles apart, and the government keeps the trails leading to the sites free of bush.
In Belize the road to the Maya is seemingly everywhere. Thousands of mounds -- ruins of smaller dwellings -- are scattered through the country. Many farmers have small Mayan artifacts dug up from their own land. Ceremonial sites are virtually untouched and decidedly unspoiled by commercialism. As a road to Guatemala's Tikal, Belize offers a direct route. By itself, Belize is a dusty road back through time. Shiela Reaves is a lecturer in the School of Journalism at the University of Wisconsin -- Madison.