Just a wee bit off the beaten path, unheralded, but unrivaled in their diversity, are the wetlands of Northern Belize: the swamps, marshes, shallow bays, and estuaries – lagoon country. A birdwatcher’s and naturalist’s paradise, the lagoons, Crooked Tree, Ketz, Progresso, and Shipstern represent low places between ridges of an earlier geologic time. They provide an excellent feeding ground for water birds: egrets, herons ibis, storks, spoonbills, and others that represent a good cross-section of the nation’s wildlife.
Further north, new archaeological discoveries from the pre-classic, classic, and modern Maya periods are even now being uncovered. At Lamanai, Orange Walk District, the entire range of pre- Classic to modern features of the Maya civilization have been excavated. Nearby at Indian Church, the remains of a church built by Spanish missionaries of the 16th-century stand amid the dust of time, and an English. colonial sugar mill, with its flywheels intact, gives testimony to the crude industrialization of the past century. At San Antonio on the Albion island, ridged field systems bear evidence of ancient Mayan agricultural expertise and El Pozito, between Guinea Grass Village and August Pine Ridge, depicts a pre-classic (300 B.C.) building found beneath the plaza of a Classic (600-900 A.D.) Maya construction. Across the bay from Corozal Town about 3 miles (5 kilometers) along the coast are Los Cerros with large Mayan mounds,- some of which have not yet been excavated.
Two Mennonite communities are located in Northern Belize – Blue Creek and Shipyard in the Orange Walk District. The Mennonites, originally German farmers, were given refuge in Belize after facing difficult times in other lands. They are a self-contained community engaging in agriculture, manufacturing, and sawmilling. With their unique customs, their traditional dress, and their language – a low German patois – the Mennonites add variety to the Belizean scene.
There are hundreds of caves, mostly unexplored in the limestone hills between the Maya Mountains and the plain. The role of caves in Maya culture is principally ritual, although they have also been used as places of refuge, storage, clay quarries, and as a source for both ritual and drinking water. Believed to be the entrance to the underworld, the ancient Maya preferred those with difficult access for their ritual descent down to Xibalba, the abode for the dead.
The Popul Vuh, a Quiche Maya document from the Guatemala highlands, makes reference to the Maya’s origin in caves. Since many caves in that area are vertical and completely inaccessible, it is argued that underworld mythology developed in the lowland area where caves are more easily entered. Vuh also mentions the Hero Twins who journeyed the hazardous path to the underworld. Their trials in the “House of Darkness” may reflect actual rites wherein the young elite Maya duplicates the legendary journey.
Often restrictions such as stalagmites, if not natural, were placed at the mouth of the cave or at the opening to an inner chamber within the cave. Stalagmites resembling the sacred ceiba tree have been depicted in the Dresden Codex, one of the four surviving Maya books. Ceiba supports the heavens at the center of the Maya universe and represents the fifth up-and-down direction of the Maya conception of space which divided space into four quadrants corresponding to the Cardinal directions.
There are nine levels in the Maya underworld, each represented by a deity. In the Long Count Calendar, the lords make up a perpetual cycle each serving as a current lord of the night, influencing daily events. The Jaguar; god of the number seven and lord of the underworld, was most revered. The death god, a human skeleton figure often depicted with saurian characteristics, is also a prominent figure.
The interpretation of caves as access to the underworld is enforced by evidence of snail shells, which had death symbolism, strewn along paths inside many caves. Rites often include the burning of copal incense in censers to honor ancestors. Offerings of ground cocoa and sacrifices of birds, dogs, or children were often made to the gods, especially to Chac, the rain god. Other archaeological material includes stingray spines, an item used to draw blood. Finally, caves were also used to collect “Zuhuy ha” or “remote water.” Jars (ollas) were placed as receptacles for water dripping from stalactites and used for a variety of ceremonial purposes. Individual pot shards were often placed in wet crevices which kept the “virgin” water from touching the ground. It is interesting to note that ceramic vessels found in graves at Lamanai usually lacked one fragment suggesting that a single shard was retained for ceremonial purposes. The demands for Zuhuy ha were probably great and the olla jars and fancy polychrome wares were very likely smashed at the semi-annual renewal rites. Caves may have been the receptacle for these broken vessels explaining the large number of pot shards often heaped or strewn in them.