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.
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.
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.
Aside from its antiquity, Cahal Pech is also notable for being one of the most compact archaeological sites in Mesoamerica.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 often cramped passageways between different sections of the core of the site required ingenious architectural solutions, some of which are truly unique.
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.
Like virtually all Maya sites, Cahal Pech has a ceremonial ballcourt within its center, though all of its markers appear to have been removed.
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.
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.
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.
Accommodations in San Ignacio are plentiful, as are other amenities such as restaurants and tour operators.
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.