Many people think that the culture which built all of the pyramids, palaces, and colossal stone cities in Belize and other areas of Central America are long gone. But there are more than six million Maya people living in Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, El Salvador, and Honduras, and they have preserved much of their heritage.
Today, the largest concentration of Maya people are in Mexico’s southern Yucatan Peninsula and southern Belize. Indeed, there are three different distinct groups of Maya in Belize known by their dialect, called the Yucatec, Kekchi, and Mopan. The Yucatec Maya emigrated from Mexico in the 19th century while the Mopan and Kekchi are the original inhabitants of Belize. And while most Maya in the region speak Spanish, most of the Maya in Belize are fluent in Spanish and English as well as their native tongue.
It’s often presumed that the collapse of the Maya civilization occurred as the result of the Spanish invading and conquering Central America. In reality, something occurred around the year 900 AD, long before the arrival of any Europeans in the area, and the Maya civilization self-destructed, the majority of cities becoming abandoned and left to the jungle. No one is quite sure why this occurred, but the latest research speculates that a combination of climate change and civil war was to blame.
The ancient Maya civilization was never ruled by one king or emperor. Instead, it was a loose confederation of independent kingdoms that were often at war with one another. The Maya civilization was, however, quite tight-knit, bound by a vast trade network, common language, and common religious beliefs. Many legends still abound about the Maya because their ancient hieroglyphic writing was undecipherable until recently. Today, archeologists are slowly piecing together a much more comprehensive history of the ancient Maya including titanic battles between legendary rulers in places like Xunantunich, Caracol, and Tikal (the latter is located just across the border in Guatemala).
And while the early Europeans did their best to “civilize” the Maya and eradicate their ancient culture, many Maya were living in remote, rural areas and thus escaped the wrath of the Spanish. As such, the Maya have preserved ancient dances like the Dance of the Deer, traditional foods like chocolate and corn, and textile skills.
If you’re interested in visiting ancient Maya sites or learning more about Maya culture, one of the best places to stay is Chabil Mar. Located in southern Belize, Chabil Mar is an award-winning luxury resort that offers cultural tours to learn more about the people, music, food, and cultures in Belize.