Cerros Maya - Mayan Hill in English - is a sprawling Mayan ruin on a small peninsula just east of the mouth of the New River. Its location in the southern Corozal Bay was key to trade between Lamanai, Santa Rita (the original Chetumal), Ambergris, and the rest of the Yucatan to the north. Back in the days of course when the population far exceeded the current 300 or so thousand for all of Belize.
Knocked to the ground by a healthy swat, the mostly yellow “Doctor Fly” as they were called here, fell to the deck. Before it could regain its senses, I gave it another thump for good measure. That was the only way to deal with these biters - the proverbial “double tap”. Silent fliers, they would inject a short-lived anesthetic so you normally don’t feel the bite until they pull out. By that time of course you’re bit and there’s aught to do but kill the perpetrator with extreme prejudice. I am one of the fortunates - the bite was no worse than a healthy mosquito would do. You could tell the sensitive ones by the Preparation H they carried in their bags. It seemed the only topical relief for the painful swelling and itching that lasted for hours. It was as a good reminder for me to liberally apply some “Eau de Belize” before wading to the ruins. The mosquitoes were often think as flies in this area and DEET on all exposed skin was the best prevention available.
Startling the manatees when I hopped overboard, they swam off while I waded to shore over a mixture of crumbled rocks, silty mud, and sea grass. Grabbing a convenient mangrove branch, I kept my balance and carefully climbed to dry ground. A path, well worn by the local guide and tourists, wound along the waterfront and led me to the ruin I wanted most to see - the one easily visible from the water that had always attracted my attention. My bare feet dried quickly in the dust and soon only drops of water falling from my clothes on the dry ground marked my passage.
Approaching the worn temple built around 50BC, I wondered of the original name for this village cum trading city. History is written by the victors and, in the case of Mayan excavations, the names we hear today were more often picked by the archaeologists. Take Cahal Pech in the western Cayo district for example. Who would name their home “City of Ticks” so named for the pests in the cows pastures and not, certainly by the Mayans themselves. Cerros Maya wasn’t a terribly clever name, I thought. Why not “Hunahpu” (the planet Venus, also the Morning and Evening Star) or “K’in” (the sun) both of which figured prominently in Mayan tradition and indeed often in the orientation of their architecture. Why not a name after one of their gods, I wondered. There’s Itsamnaaj, God of Creation, or Chaak, God of Human Sacrifice who together killed the Maize Goddess or so the story goes.
Having made my way over worn and sometimes crumbling rock to the top, I looked not to the jungle but to the west. Sailors are a funny sort. When at sea, we look to shore, where danger lurks and stability reigns. When ashore, we look to sea where the weather can be sensed and adventure beckons. As I looked over the still waters from the temple I could just make out the tip of a now underwater pier. It’s angle seemed off, just slightly east of north and correlating to nothing terrestrial or celestial I could imagine. But it seemed at least as old as these ruins and was one of many unanswered questions about this ancient place and people.
Wandering about the area I wondered why some of the mounds had not been excavated. Perhaps by their position or size they were of no interest to the archaeologists. I walked the two ball courts where heavily padded players vied for the honor of relieving the watching crowds of their jewels or simply to avoid losing and being sacrificed. The children, I was sure, played simply for the joy of running and moving a hard rubber ball from one end of the court to the other. I wandered along the Mayan-built canals used to irrigate the raised fields. The “typical triad” of maize, beans, and squash were grown here as well as nance, palm, ziricote, and huano trees. They raised dogs for food and hunted the local deer, peccary, gibnut, and even the occasional puma.
It’s said the inhabitants of Cerros Maya traded with nearby cities. Lamanai to the south on the lagoon that is the source of the New River. Across the bay with the city now known as Santa Rita but was once Chactemaal or “Place of the Red Wood”. Also Oxtankha in Mexico on the northern part of the bay near the small town of Calderitas, Tulum on the Caribbean shores halfway to Cancun, and smaller outposts along the way.
The night falls quickly in this part of the world and the few mosquitoes hardy enough to brave the now sweat-weakened DEET were calling in reinforcements. Although the almost full moon was radiant and lit my path, I opted to return to the sea and swim around the peninsula to my floating home.
Unlike the wooden fishing boats of Sarteneja, CALLISTE is a 22-foot fiberglass, keel and centerboard sloop rigged for single-handed sailing. Pulling the aft ladder down, I made my way aboard avoiding the aft stay and the attached, shock-absorbing traveler. A Philip Rhodes design, CALLISTE is a comfortable boat made all the more so by an eight-foot cockpit. Striping off my wet trunks and t-shirt, I entered the galley area to fix a squash and brandy.
Belize is awash in citrus and two local companies make concentrated juices of pineapple, grapefruit, orange, tamarind, and more. Tonight it was orange. Despite the potential danger on a moving boat, I prefer glass to plastic and enjoyed the sound of the cubes mixing in the concoction as I returned to the cockpit.
The light of the moon marked each ripple on the water and I enjoyed the simple, childish pleasure of rocking the boat a bit to make a few more ripples. What a gorgeous night I thought to myself, as I now lounged at peace with the world. Settling onto big cushion I debated my next destination. To the north lay the Mexican city of Chetumal at the mouth of the Rio Hondo and Sarteneja to the nor’east. But the annual Easter Regatta in Sarteneja wasn’t until next week so there was no rush to head that way. West lay Corozal, capitol of the district by the same name that I had left just the day before. Recalling the emotions of visiting the ancient city of Cerros, I opted for a trip up the Rio Nuevo, the New River, and the Mayan city of Lamanai.
As I mentally reviewed the route, I remembered the bridges at Orange Walk as well as the toll crossing (for the cars) on the Northern Highway. That meant I had to unstep the mast and, if I wanted to be able to raise the cabin hatch, stepping, what I called, the “River Mast”. The river mast was a short, six-foot length of aluminum mast I had procured from fellow sailor and good friend, Brad. His damaged Catalina sailboat was tucked away in a garden of exotic plants providing shade during the hot Belizean days for his two dogs. I hoped to see see him and his wife Christina in Sarteneja.
Then the lassitude of life in the tropics hit me. Was it really worth the effort, I thought to myself. CALLISTE had 9 stays. One forward, the jib stay, three on either side, and two aft stays. Redundancy to the extreme but safe as can be as proved during a storm when only three remained attached between boat and mast. The builders had designed a clever system of pulleys to drop the mast and by experience I knew this was but a 45-minute evolution. Sipping my orange-brandy, I knew I could bide my time and gird myself to the task.
The mosquitoes had neither followed nor found me and by now were back to wherever mosquitoes go at night. A few lonely cicadas were making their shrill rising-falling noise and I could hear the occasional rustle in the bush of some small nocturnal animal looking for food. By the light of the moon, I could make out individual trees along the shore, the pier, this one above water, and the small outbuildings of the visitors’ center, while all beyond that was but a black outline on the night sky.
And I slept.