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Thursday, October 6, 2022

The mysterious past and unique architecture of Cahal Pech

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Carlos Rosado van der Gracht
Carlos Rosado van der Gracht
Born in Mérida, Carlos Rosado van der Gracht is a Mexican/Canadian blogger, photographer and adventure expedition leader. He holds degrees in multimedia, philosophy and translation from universities in Mexico, Canada and Norway. Sign up for the Yucatán Roundup, a free newsletter, which delivers the week's top headlines every Monday.
Cahal Pech is often overshadowed by larger sites in the region including Xunantunich and Caracol but is truly grand in its own right. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Sitting atop a natural hill high above the banks on the confluence of the Macal and Mopan rivers lay the ruins of one of Belize’s most ancient and unique archaeological sites. 

One of the many labyrinthian passageways inside Cahal Pech’s central ceremonial complex. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

The name Cahal Pech, meaning “Place of the Ticks” in the Yucatec-Maya language, was given to the site in the 1950s, though its original name has been lost to time. 

The lack of readable hieroglyphic text at Cahal Pech is likely due to natural factors such as erosion, as well as looting, and vandalism. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Archaeological evidence of construction at Cahal Pech dates all the way back to the 9th century BCE, far back into what archaeologists usually refer to as the archaic period. 

Human habitation at Cahal Pech dates back all the way to roughly 1200 BCE, making it one of the Mayan sites with the longest period of occupation in Mesoamerica. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Aside from its antiquity, Cahal Pech is also notable for being one of the most compact archaeological sites in Mesoamerica. 

One of the most notable features of Cahal Pech is its many tight passageways featuring Corbel arched halls and multi-leveled staircases. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

That being said, it is likely that what we see of Cahal Pech today is but a small percentage of the city’s extent during antiquity. Evidence of construction in the area immediately surrounding the ceremonial center has been found in and around the contemporary town of San Igancio, which today surrounds the ancient city.

Though Cahal Pech has undergone several archaeological reconstruction efforts, a handful of its temples remain virtually untouched. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

For example, a recently excavated architectural complex known as the Zopilote group bears evidence of large-scale construction for both ceremonial and residential use.

Though relatively small in size, Cahal Pech packs quite a punch with 34 classical-era structures, some of which reach over 25 meters in height. 

The area upon which Cahal Pech was landscaped before large-scale construction began, with the hill itself setting the boundaries for the size of the ceremonial center. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

After making your way up the hill on which the city sits, you will immediately be greeted by several large constructions including pyramids and a large elevated ceremonial platform.

Entering Cahal Pech’s ceremonial center sure makes an impression, not just because of the size of its constructions, but also its beauty and many unique elements. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Despite a large number of Corbel arches and passageways found in Cahal Pech, the entrance to the main ceremonial center does not adhere to this style. 

Though there is little surviving direct evidence to this effect, it is likely that this entrance was adorned in the style of a monster of the earth entryway, or some similar variation, perhaps representing the sky god Itzamná. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Once inside the core of the site, visitors will notice that the complex is made up of several interconnected plazas which are just large enough to be self-contained, but still feel a little claustrophobic.

The highly compartmentalized approach taken on by the builders of Cahal Pech, in some ways resembles similar complexes in the far away Teotihuacan and to a lesser extent, Palenque. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

The often cramped passageways between different sections of the core of the site required ingenious architectural solutions, some of which are truly unique.

This extremely compact multi-tiered stairway found within Cahal Pech’s principal ceremonial complex is unique to anything else across the Maya world. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Access points to several temples within the complex emulate the style of the entrance to the core of the site, with extra-wide, thick, and flat lintels. 

As the Maya of the classical age seldom left any surface undecorated, it is unlikely that these entryways were not lavishly adorned with brightly colored stucco. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Like virtually all Maya sites, Cahal Pech has a ceremonial ballcourt within its center, though all of its markers appear to have been removed.

Aside from the ballcourt inside the ceremonial center, it is likely that others existed in the area immediately surrounding the core of the site. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Given its strategic location at the confluence of the Mopan and Macal rivers, the elites of Cahal Pech were likely collecting a good amount of tribute from merchant vessels and traders. 

Given its proximity to ample sources of water and rich soil, Cahal Pech was also likely able to maintain an agricultural surplus which allowed it to grow and prosper. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Located atop the aforementioned steep natural hill and enclosed by walls, it has been postulated that Cahal Pech’s ceremonial center served a double purpose. On one hand, it would have been the site of both civic and religious ceremonies, but could also serve as a citadel of sorts during times of conflict. 

Given its proximity to Xunantunich, it is likely that these two city-states were in continuous communication, though the specifics of their relationship to one another is hard to discern given a lack of inscriptions at the site. 

Like just about everywhere in Belize, you are likely to see a great variety of birds if you keep your eyes peeled and senses alert. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

What little is known about the role of Cahal Pech in the region and its dynastic line is gleaned by contextual evidence and a handful of references possibly relating to it found at other sites. 

Also in the region is the famed city of Caracol, which given its comparable antiquity and influence over the region likely exerted a good deal of influence over Cahal Pech and other city-states. 

If you go

Getting to Cahal Pech is quite easy, as it sits within the city limits of the town of San Ignacio in Belize, near the Guatemalan border.

A map shows the location of Cahal Pech in Belize, Central America. Image: Google Maps

Accommodations in San Ignacio are plentiful, as are other amenities such as restaurants and tour operators. 

The charming Belizean town of San Ignacio is a popular jumping-off point to several archaeological sites in western Central America. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

San Ignacio is easily reached by land from both Mexico via Chetumal and Belize City, as well as the town of Flores in Guatemala, though sections of the road can be rough, and the buses and vans tend to not be particularly comfortable. 

The town of San Ignacio is quite interesting and bears the legacy of the British empire in the form of its famous bridge built back when the country of Belize was known as British Honduras. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht
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