Introducing El Pilar
The Maya ruins of El Pilar straddle the Belize/Guatemalan border. Including more than 25 plazas and approximately 120 acres, it is the largest set of ruins in the Belize River area. Twelve miles northwest of the town of San Ignacio, Belize, and 19 miles north of the town of Melchor de Mencos, Guatemala, El Pilar is easily accessible by road. Its network of five marked trails through the virgin forest makes it a favorite spot for birders.
The reserve is open to the public and has a series of trails providing access throughout the site which is currently being excavated by the University of California.
It is known that monumental constructions at El Pilar began around 800 BC, and by 250 BC there were major public works and an extensive population, as high as 20,000 people at its peak. It is believed that the site was occupied continuously and that monumental construction continued until about 1000 AD after which the monuments were neglected. The name “El Pilar” is Spanish for “watering basin,” reflecting the abundance of water in the area, a rarity for the Maya world.
There were large areas of fertile soil scattered about the area, where it is believed that nearby residents grew cash crops, such as cacao, tobacco and cotton. Others supplemented farming with production of stone tools, pottery and other basic household items.
The archeological site is part of The El Pilar Archeological Reserve for Maya Flora and Fauna. It was declared a cultural monument both in Guatemala and Belize, and covers 5,000 acres, half in each country, and it is jointly managed by the two countries. El Pilar is the largest site in the Belize River area with over 25 plazas and hundreds of other buildings, covering about 120 acres.
An archeological excavation project has been underway since 1993; however, most of the buildings are not exposed. This is a style of presentation known as “Archeology Under the Canopy” that leaves the monuments protected by forest foliage. The only fully exposed monument at the reserve is a house site called Tzunu’un. El Pilar also features a Maya forest garden to demonstrate traditional agricultural practices.
Archaeologists and biologists work at the site from February to June and are happy to chat with visitors and display their latest discoveries.
The El Pilar website: http://alishaw.sscf.ucsb.edu/~ford/index.html
Thus far, 12 pyramids and 25 plazas have been found at El Pilar, in addition to elite household compounds; however, there are no large-scale clearings. There are, however, significant consolidated structures open for the public including an underground corbeled tunnel, a standing temple and examples of elite architecture. El Pilar remains largely the same today as when it was discovered, as most structures are in the earliest stages of excavation or have been left intentionally uncleared to help preserve them. So, the visitor should expect to walk on a trail through the jungle and view buildings or parts of buildings covered by vegetation.
A number of buildings at El Pilar reach 50 to 70 feet in height, and the central plaza consists of temples, palaces, and housing for the elite. Large water reservoirs and ball courts are located within the center of the complex. A causeway (sacbe) extends from the eastern part of the ruins across the country border into Guatemala.
Included among the series of trails are two nature walks with the possibility of encounter with wildlife, since they are close to water sources. There are also three trails through the primary archaeological centers. There have been sightings of Scarlet Macaws, parrots and toucans, as well as armadillo, sloth, deer, tapir and jaguar.
How to Get There
Take the Bullet Tree Road north from San Ignacio. After crossing the Mopan River, follow the El Pilar signs. This all-weather road takes you the last seven miles to the site, but is recommended only for the experienced, as the road is steep.
The caretakers live by the road near the site. They can give you an over-all trail map, and are happy to show people around. Also, tours are readily available from San Ignacio costing about US$25 for a half-day trip. Taxi service to the site is also available.