My, Oh Maya! Romantic Adventure Amid Belize's Ancient Ruins

by  Donna Heiderstadt | Mar 28, 2012
Mayan Ruins, Belize
Mayan Ruins, Belize / SimonDannhauer/iStock

Maya 2012, or the “Year of the Maya,” may already be one-quarter over, but there’s still plenty of time to join in the celebration of this pivotal year before the Mayan long-form calendar, or 13th Baktun, ends on the Winter Solstice, December 21, 2012. I just returned from Belize, where I joined in the first overnight camp out during the Spring Equinox (the first of four planned events) on the grounds of the incredible ancient city of Caracol, located two hours by dirt road from San Ignacio in the Cayo district and home to the Ca’ana temple (shown at left), which at 140 feet is the tallest structure in Belize and means “sky place.” Tickets (limited to just 100 people per event) are being snatched up for the remaining three Solstice and Equinox celebrations on June 20-21, September 20-21, and December 20-21, but are still available. Read on to learn how you can participate (from pitching your own tent, to sleeping in luxury, to spending a week immersed in Mayan lore) and how the Mayans remain one of the world’s most complex and enigmatic civilizations.

Caracol Jaime Awe / Donna Heiderstadt

Equinox/Solstice Camping Event: I haven’t camped in a decade (covering romantic getaways for a living inevitably lands me in more luxurious digs), but I gladly pitched a tent and tossed and turned atop a sleeping bag to experience what fewer than 500 people will have a chance to do in 2012: Overnight at Caracol, where more than 1,400 years ago, the ancient Mayans built hundreds of structures, mapped the stars, and played in massive ball courts (where the leader of the losing team was sacrificed). It may not sound romantic, but it actually is. Belize’s National Institute of Culture & History organized a fabulous event, which began with a pre-sunset tour of the ruins by the country’s most esteemed archeologist, Dr. Jaime Awe (shown at right), who led the excavation and restoration of Caracol in the 1980s and is the director of the country’s Institute of Archaeology.

Donna on Caana / Donna Heiderstadt

Returning to camp, we enjoyed glasses of wine by lamplight as Dr. Awe presented a slideshow detailing his grueling excavation work, and then a traditional Mayan dinner of chaya soup, pork and chicken pibil wrapped in corn tortillas, tamales (including the yummy corn ducunu), bread pudding, and sweet potato pone. Bring bug spray and a really good flashlight (the nearest bathrooms are thatched port-a-potties, but there are modern facilities about a 10-minute walk away) and you can also opt for a post-dinner climb up the almost 100 massive stone steps to the very top of Ca’ana. It was a moonless night and so inky black that I decided to not chance a misstep on the descent and wait for the group after just a dozen steps (that’s me at left), where I admired the ancient ingenuity all around me and the sky full of millions of stars up above. Thankfully, my reverie was not ruined by a visit from a resident tarantula or other creepy crawly.

Caracol Equinox Sunrise Fire Ceremony / Donna Heiderstadt

Snug in my tent, I set my alarm for 4am so I wouldn’t miss the sunrise Mayan fire ceremony performed by a local shaman. Instead, I was uncannily awakened a few minutes before 4 by a howler monkey alarm! The noise these two-foot-tall simians make while camouflaged by the surrounding jungle sounds like a combination of gorilla grunts and jaguar roars – and there’s no way you can sleep through it! Rise and shine, it was time to join the shaman and greet the springtime. Standing in a circle around a blazing fire in front of the Temple of the Wooden Lintel (shown at right), we took turns tossing handfuls of crushed minerals and small wax candles into the fire, pacing back and forth nine times as instructed and sharing some of the warmest group hugs you can ever imagine as the impending sunrise turned the sky from pitch black to sapphire blue and spring was sprung.

Caracol View After Sunrise / Donna Heiderstadt

Wanting to get to the top of Ca’ana before anyone else, I headed there and started to climb. The steps are quite high and steep, requiring almost everyone to ascend in a kind of butt in the air, hands first crawling position. But my reward was spectacular: Not only the sweeping view (shown at left), but also an up-close look at a dozen colorful toucans flitting from tree to tree. Mayan magic! Tickets for the June, September, and December Caracol events cost $150 per person and are available on a limited, first-come basis. Check the Belize Tourism Board website for details and email to secure a spot.

Kaana Caracol Overnight / Ka'ana Boutique Resort

Caracol Overnight Experience: If you have a generous budget, you can participate in the same Caracol solstice or equinox camping event – but with an actual bed, turndown service, private guide, and personal butler. Stay one night at Ka’ana Boutique Resort, a 17-room luxury property in San Ignacio, and on the second night your entire room (bed, chairs, table, etc.) will be transported and re-assembled under a private tent (shown at right). As I zipped up my scrawny two-person pop-up, I was jealous – but alas Ka’ana does not transport a super-chic toilet. Tag along on Dr. Awe’s informative tour, then return to your campsite to enjoy leisurely cocktails and dining at your own private, candle-lit, butler-serviced table. Your personal guide will then escort you on a nighttime climb up Ca’ana, where two chairs and wine and cheese await, to be enjoyed while stargazing. Wake up to a breakfast of fresh corn tortillas, eggs, and hand-ground Mayan coffee as well as more guided touring before your return to Ka’ana. The cost is $1,380 per person and availability is extremely limited.

Chaa Creek Cottage / The Lodge at Chaa Creek

Belize Maya Heartland 2012 Packages: The Lodge at Chaa Creek, a 23-room luxury property (shown at left) set on 365 stunning acres along the Macal River outside of San Ignacio (Britain’s Prince Harry stayed here during his recent visit to Belize), is offering six- and seven-night Belize Maya Heartland 2012 packages focused on Mayan culture and Belize’s rich natural resources. The packages include accommodations for six or seven nights (note: cottages do not have air-conditioning), all meals, round-trip airport transfers, a choice of two full-day tours (choose from touring the ruins at Caracol, Xunantunich, or Tikal in nearby Guatemala or exploring Actun Tunichil Muknal, an impressive but physically challenging cave featuring Mayan artifacts and skeletons), one spa treatment, a snorkel excursion, and unlimited onsite activities (swimming, horseback riding, canoeing, mountain biking, and more). Packages start at $3,070 per person. Book to arrive December 15, 16, or 17 and you’ll also enjoy special onsite cultural, medicinal healing, and food-oriented activities and workshops in a commemorative Mayan Village to celebrate the Maya Winter Solstice and the beginning of a new Mayan era. Packages start at $3,563 per person.

See our Belize destination guide for more trip-planning information, then use our Travel Search price comparison tool to find the lowest rate on flights, hotels, packages and more travel deals.

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