“I’ve lived in Florida for 10 years so I’ll be fine,” I said, full of karma-inducing overconfidence. My friend’s warnings about the heat were well-founded.
Sure enough, two weeks later, the burning equatorial humidity slammed into me as I stepped off the plane in Belize. I was on the verge of coughing at first and, for the first 48 hours, I thought I was going to die.
The airport was informal, and though Belize isn’t an island, the laid-back island mentality was in full swing. We picked up our rental car, and took off, weaving along a road, deep into the jungles of Central America.
I’d arrived under a simple premise: pyramids are cool and I want to see them. I left feeling deeply moved and educated on the origins of civilization.
Getting to the pyramids was a trek
The US dollar is very strong in Belize. What amazed me wasn’t just that I was only paying $30 a day, but that they only charged me $30, despite the absolute beating that was required of my car.
Rocks shot out from under the vehicle as it violently shook, as I white-knuckled the steering wheel. Driving was like this for most of the trip. Belize is underdeveloped and most of the nation’s snaking roads are dirt and full of rocks.
The infrastructure was haphazard at times, with wires dangling and weaving awkwardly through trees to buildings. Mules and other beasts of burden toiled away in fields that were made hazy against the pressing humidity.
Jungles aren’t quite what you see on TV
On the first morning, I rolled over with the sheets attached to me like I was a soft taco. It had been a long night with a laughably-broken air conditioner. But I rallied and got some coffee.
A van picked us up at our small hotel. A handful of other tourists were on the van already. We chatted for the whole drive. All were American and by the sense of it, upper income and educated. One was the CEO of Napster, believe it or not. I’ve forgotten his name. I also still wonder how that company makes money.
We arrived at an insignificant opening to the jungle, just off the side of a remote road. Our trail immediately led into the thick brush. There was no ‘easing into the jungle’. It was more like flipping a switch.
Most people think of jungles and have this sense of Amazon Rainforests, where everything is emerald green, it's raining, and brightly colored bugs are dangling from branches.
There is some truth to this but it’s also off. As we began our trek through the jungle, it was quickly apparent that jungles are more rugged and chaotic. They get muddy and full of organic debris. It’s not comfortable and relaxing like a rainforest white noise you might listen to.
We were crouching below branches, getting caught on myriad obstacles. There were bugs everywhere. In the distance, we heard howler monkeys. They’re indigenous to the region and, as their name implies, they howl. It sounded like deep hoots coming from various locations in all directions. They were proclamations of territory and provided a full 360 sense of the situation.
The pyramids revealed themselves
After hours of hiking, the tour guide turned to us and prepped us for the reveal. It was far better than I could have anticipated.
We’d been surrounded by thick, suffocating plant life, feeling lost in the wilderness. Then, the massive city revealed itself:
I was in awe. It was glowing and spectacular, almost like a painting.
As we went through it, the tour guide explained all of the different aspects of Mayan culture: what they did all day, how they ate, what they believed in.
Hours earlier, I’d asked a very touristy question, “Have you seen Apocalypto?” It was a 2006 suspense movie by Mel Gibson about Mayan culture. The tour guide smiled and replied, “God. I hate that movie.” He explained how it misrepresented Mayan people as complete savages.
I don’t doubt his opinion or facts on the matter. However, hours later, by what he explained about this city, the movie wasn’t entirely false.
They played life or death ball games
Directly across from the main pyramid, was a huge courtyard with cracked walls around it. In this courtyard, during ritual holidays, they held life-or-death games.¹ It was either a punishment for prisoners and lawbreakers, or part of a religious ceremony.
They don’t know the exact rules of the games, but by the layout of the pitch, and their subsequent research, they know the competition often led to the ceremonial death for the losers. As I stood on the grass, it was about the size of a soccer field, with a mini-pyramid on one side, and huge rectangular walls enclosing it, along with seating for spectators.
The scene was utterly gladiatorial.
They kept pets and harvested honey
It is known, through archaeological excavations, and through pottery findings, that various pets were kept:
They had dogs, monkeys, and even predatory cats under their care. Many were often kept on leashes and had religious importance in their lives. The coolest fact I learned was about their pet bees. They were stingless. Mayans harvested their honey and didn’t have to deal with the level of aggression that you see in traditional bees.
It was clear that there was a bustling society through these parts, with various tribes and cultures converging at major metropolitan areas like the one I was standing in.
The takeaway for me
Though I learned countless amazing facts about the Mayan culture, nothing beats the experience of blending that information with seeing the objects. Time stared back at me through these artifacts.
The pyramids were the pinnacle of the trip. I felt chills go down my arm as I stood at the top of the sacrificial altar. It was spiritual. It felt like I’d arrived at one of the birthplaces of modern civilization. Their art, architecture, were all on full display, and fully tangible:
Here was a society that began 3000 years ago, had its own mathematic systems, agriculture, and incredibly, had developed a near perfectly accurate calendar (13 seconds off on a 365-day calendar) without the aid of any modern technology.²
To the overly confident people of the world, if you think you are smart, just remember there were people who invented complex systems as a mere means to assist their own thinking. They discovered and understood planetary motion, thousands of years before digital technology.
We live in a fast-moving world and we tend to see things through this very ‘me, now’ prism. We forget how deep our history goes, how entrenched we are in the cultural evolutions of the past.
The sun will rise. Our time will wane. Eventually, we’ll all become one with this incredible, deeply complicated, but ultimately beautiful narrative our people have carved.
 Petrus, Monica (2014) The Brutal and Bloody History of the Mesoamerican Ball Game
 Coe, Michael (1987) The Maya