The El Pilar Mayan ruins in Belize are at the end of a seven-mile access road riddled with deep potholes, slippery mud, and dark narrow stretches that disappear into the throat of the rainforest. Brian and I abandoned our rental car a half mile in and slipped on our running shoes. We packed our running vests with water, snacks, bug spray, headlamps and money for the nominal park entrance fee. The sun was sinking toward the horizon over Guatemala. Our intent was to arrive at the ruins by sunset.
Beads of sweat immediately seeped out of our pores soaking our shorts and tanks and dripping into our eyes. The air was too saturated to allow cooling by evaporation; we labored in the heat. Grackles and butterflies flew about as we slogged up and down hills through rocky and muddy terrain. We heard howler monkeys in the distance ahead of us; we looked at each other with eyes wide and gleaming, excited to be close to them in their habitat.
The road was devoid of traffic except a half-dozen pickup trucks bouncing and jostling their passengers as they headed toward San Ignacio. Young men stood in the truck beds looking forward over the top of the cab. Small children peered out the windows at us with curiosity. Drivers passed with caution and everyone waved and smiled.
When we arrived at El Pilar the park ranger, Daniel, approached us from a cabin a short distance away up the hill from the gate. A teenage boy sat on the porch smiling with amusement; we were soaked with sweat and without a car. Daniel pointed to his wrist and said, “Do you still want to see the ruins? I was just about to close the gate!” I spotted an SUV parked nearby and no visitors were in sight. Only a few hundred tourists per year venture up the road to El Pilar as it is outshined by the excavated ruins closer to San Ignacio. We logged in, paid our fee, and followed Daniel to the map board for a quick orientation.
He gave us directions Belizean style with wild animated arm motions and vague descriptions of landmarks and distances, “a few minutes up the road, onto the trail, through the plaza, up the stairs to the viewpoint where you can reach out and touch Guatemala, back to the road and up a little bit to the second group.” As he rambled on I hoped Brian was taking it all in because I was lost from the beginning and it sounded like a lot to see in our short time left of daylight.
Daniel assured us that the howler monkeys were mellow and the spider monkeys “usually” leave visitors alone; he recommended flashlights to illuminate the interior of certain structures. We walked through the gate and had the park with all its creature inhabitants to ourselves.
American archeologist, Anabel Ford discovered El Pilar in 1983. Geophysical surveys of the area indicate at its peak, before 1000 AD, El Pilar had a population of around 180,000. Though the surveys show over 25 plazas and hundreds of buildings on the site, excavation of the area has been minimal. The Maya used stucco and plaster protect the limestone from the elements; today only a few caretakers maintain the site. The rainforest canopy helps to protect the ruins by providing shade and breaking the force of heavy downpours.
El Pilar has had over a thousand years to be engulfed by the rainforest. Most structures are still under mounds of earth, sprouting trees and lush vegetation. As we went deeper into the park we found stonework forming rooms with windows, tunnels into dome-shaped mounds, corbelled arch doorways and stairs. Typical of Mayan community design, structures were oriented in cardinal directions around ballcourts and plazas.
The Maya remodeled their structures either by calendar events or at the whim of their rulers; platforms and extensions were layered on to the original design. Ballcourts with stepped stone seating and plazas for social gatherings were numerous. Shrines were situated on top of pyramids but tombs have rarely been found inside.
As daylight waned the spider and howler monkeys created a stir in the canopy. I hoped the howlers would not roar up close to us in the dark; next to the African lion they are the loudest mammals on Earth. A sudden screech above and behind me followed by a cracking sound and thud on the ground startled me off the ground. Brian laughed “you should have seen the look on your face!” It was the third branch that had fallen on the ground close to us since we arrived and I suspected mischievous monkeys were at work.
In the dark, we found our way back to the gate where Daniel stood watching for us to exit the park. Belizeans love conversation and Daniel was no exception. He wanted to chat for a while before we left, believing we had run to the park from a nearby campground. I found myself adapting the Belizean method of wild arm motions to describe where we left our car, but Daniel couldn’t fathom anyone coming so far by foot late in the day to see El Pilar.
I felt the telltale itch of a mosquito on my arm; standing still in the jungle made me a feeding station for all kinds of blood thirsty insects. We had six and a half miles left to run and were getting hungry, so we bid Daniel farewell and eased back into our run. Colors and forms of the jungle vegetation had faded into the night; songs of the cicadas drowned out the rustling in the forest. I appreciated the light of our headlamps on the mud and loose rocks under our feet but found it unsettling when it reflected off the eyes of small animals that watched us from the side of the road.
Fatigue and the monotonous rhythm of our footfall lulled me into a trance. My mind wandered to our Airbnb hut on Bullet Tree Falls road where our groceries, purchased at the farmer’s market earlier in the day, lay waiting for us to prepare dinner: fresh pineapple, curry powder, coconut milk, potatoes, cauliflower, peppers, onions, cashews, ginger, and garlic. By the time we reached our car my stomach was growling.
In the dim light of the single bulb in our hut, we devoured our curried vegetables and pored over the map planning our next day’s run. The highlight would be a set Mayan ruins, Cahal Pech, which rest near San Ignacio high above the confluence of the Mipal and Mopan rivers. The map showed a bridge on our route crossing the Mopan river. But what we discovered at this crossing was not what we expected – and that is part of another story.