Belize Maya

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The Living Maya Experience at Big Falls in Toledo, Belize

The Maya are an ethnolinguistic group of indigenous peoples of Mesoamerica. They have ancient roots in modern-day Belize, parts of Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, and five Mexican states.

Related: Top Mayan Temples in Belize and Top 10 Maya Caves in Belize

The earliest record known of the Maya in Belize dates back to around 2000 B.C., which is when the Maya Preclassic Period (2000 B.C. to 200 A.D.) begins. During this time, the ancient Maya inhabited the area now known as Cuello in northern Belize.

Ancient Maya Civilization

El Castillo is the tallest temple at Xunantunich

During the Golden Age of the Ancient Maya Empire, which extended from about 250 to 900 AD (the Classic Period), Belize’s Maya territory supported a population of 1 to 2 million people, with large and notable cities like Xunantunich, Caracol, and Lamanai. Interestingly, Cuello in Belize is recognized as the earliest settled community in the Maya world, through ceramic and stratigraphic sequence dating back to at least 2000 B.C./2500 B.C.

During the Classic Period, the Maya built impressive cities and created a sophisticated society with a highly developed system of writing, art, mathematics, and astronomy. Shortly after this, around 900 to 1000 AD, Maya societies gradually declined due to factors such as environmental changes, warfare, and political instability. This led to the eventual abandonment of many ancient Maya cities.

Maya People of Belize

Maya woman in Belize

Comprising about eleven percent of Belize’s population, the Maya live in spaciously laid-out villages, some near the ceremonial sites of ancient Maya settlements. Names like Altun Ha, Xunantunich, Cuello, Lubaantun, Caracol and Lamanai are some of the sites still maintained as tourist attractions, and as reminders of the magnificent past of the Maya. There are presently three groups of Maya living in Belize: the Yucatec, Kekchi and Mopan Maya.

Yucatec Maya

Belize’s Yucatec Maya have their origins in the Yucatán Peninsula in Mexico. They migrated to Belize in the 19th century as refugees, escaping the Guerra de Castes (Caste War of Yucatan). They primarily reside in Northern Belize, in Corozal and Orange Walk, and have merged with the Mestizo population. Although many of them speak Yucatec Mayan, Spanish is often their primary language.

Kekchi Maya

Originally from the Verapaz region of Guatemala, the Kekchi Maya are the most populous Mayan group in Belize. Arriving in Belize in the 19th century, they settled in Southern Belize, creating many small isolated villages throughout the Toledo District. Due to their isolation, the Kekchi are self-reliant, they practice subsistence agriculture and maintain their cultural traditions.

Mopan Maya

Escaping conflict and oppression and seeking abundant natural resources, the Mopan Maya came to Belize in the 19th century from the Peten region of Guatemala. They settled in San Antonio, Toledo and Western Belize, mostly occupying the village of San Jose Succotz in the Cayo District. Belize’s Mopan Maya are a mix of Peten and Yucatecan stock.

Maya Languages

The Maya in Belize speak Yucateco, Mopanero and Kekchi. The Maya in the north of Belize speak Yucateco, and those in the Cayo and Toledo Districts speak Mopanero and Kekchi. Many modern Belizean Maya speak English along with their mother tongue, and Spanish too, mainly due to the long contact with people from Mexico and Guatemala.

Maya Food

The whole life of the Maya centers around agriculture, and their most common food is corn, although beans, pork and fish are also eaten.

Corn is the staple dish of the Kekchi Maya, which is served in a variety of ways. From corn they make masa, which first has to be cooked with white lime. Once soft, it is allowed to cool and then washed in a special calabash with holes, drained and transferred to a corn mill or a traditional grinding stone where it is ground and converted to masa.

Masa is used to make tortillas, tamales, pouchu and korech. Most often tortilla is served with a dish of hot caldo (soup). This soup usually contains chicken, fish or game meat with added ingredients such as peppers, annatto, cilantro, culantro, salt, cooking fat and water.

Maya Clothing

The Kekchi Mayan women wear embroidered clothing which they weave themselves. They decorate their blouses and skirts with colourful embroidery in geometric designs.

Maya Beliefs

In some communities, there is some belief in magic and sorcerers, but many healers have become herbalists. Sorcerers are called pulia and the duties they perform include dedications of new houses, lending prayer for divine help, curing illness, and black magic. Sorcerers do not normally perform unless they are under the influence of alcohol, which is accepted as ceremonial drinking.

Destinations in Belize with a lot of Maya

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