Lubaantun means “place of the fallen stones” and there are a lot of those lying about. What differentiates the piles of stones at Lubaantun, a pre-Columbian Mayan city that dates back to 730 AD, from those at every other Mayan archaeological site is that many of the stones used at Lubaantun were actually cut to fit. That’s a fact. What may not be a fact is the legend of the Crystal Skull of Lubaantun as we learned when we traveled to the site.
The main plaza at Lubaantun archaeological site in Belize.
According to Frederick A. Mitchell-Hedges–adventurer, self-made archaeologist (with a disturbing propensity for dynamiting sites) and one of the first excavators of Lubaantun–an intact, anatomically correct skull carved out of a solid piece of crystal was allegedly found under a fallen altar at Lubaantun by his adopted daughter Ana on her 17th birthday. This is incredible, and perhaps even in the strict Websters definition of the word.
Numerous intense and detailed investigations of the skull have lead many scientists to believe that the skull was machine made in the 1800s before being purchased by Mitchell-Hedges in London in the early 1900s. Particularly damning evidence is given in a report printed in the journal Archaeology (published by the Archaeological Institute of America) in 2010.
The remains of a temple at Lubaantun archaeological site in Belize.
Authentic or not, the Belize government has asked for the Crystal Skull back on numerous occasions but Ana has never given up the most famous paperweight in the world. She’s dead now and some dude named Bill Hollman now has the skull which he has dubbed the Skull of Love and has taken “on tour” through the US and Europe. He also says he’s writing a book, in counsel with Native Americans and Mayans, about what the Skull of Love can teach us about the meaning of the mysterious end of the Mayan calendar on December 21, 2012. You be the judge.
Lubaantun archaeological site in Belize.
An elegantly collapsed wall at Lubaantun archaeological site in Belize.
The remains of a pyramid at Lubaantun archaeological site in Belize.
Lubaantun architecture is unique in that buildings were constructed using stones that were cut to fit.
Nim Li Punit: stunning stelae
Nim Li Punit means “big hat” in the Kekchi Mayan language and is thought to have been inspired by the enormous head dresses worn by figures carved into some of the stelae found here. Stelae–giant stones carved with historical information and details of important events–are the main draw at this tiny site. An incredible 26 stelae were found at Nim Li Punit (weirdly, none were found at nearby Lubaantun), many of them in excellent condition.
One of the 26 intricately-carved stelae that were found at the Nim Li Punit archaeological site in Belize.
Four stelae are on display in a modest museum near the entrance to the site which oil prospectors stumbled upon in 1976.
A detail of one of the 26 intricately-carved stelae that were found at the Nim Li Punit archaeological site in Belize. Each of those square images is a Mayan glyph representing a word or date or other important piece of historical information.
Nim Li Punit archaeological site in Belize.
The ball court at Nim Li Punit archaeological site in Belize.
UPDATE August 2012: Since our visit to Ballum Na Lodge and the other resorts operated by Belize Lodge & Excursions a disturbing series of events has taken place which has resulted in the death by starvation of one of the jaguars we speak about in this post (the spotted one) and the near starvation of his all-black brother. The surviving jaguar has been relocated to the Belize Zoo for rehabilitation. Ballum Na Lodge has been burned to the ground by unknown persons. Former employees are claiming they have not been fully paid.The website for Belize Lodge & Excursions (BLE) has also been suspended. We are obviously horrified that any animal should starve to death in captivity, let alone rare jaguars, and if workers have been mistreated or underpaid that’s unacceptable as well. We saw no evidence of either problem when we were at Ballum Na or during any of our conversations with now beleaguered BLE managing director Ken Karas.
Our original post is below. It contains information and images that were accurate and verified at the time of our visit. Things have obviously deteriorated horribly since then.
No TVs. No phones. No Wi-Fi. Just jungle. That’s Ballum Na just north of Punta Gorda off the Southern Highway. The lodge has plenty of roomy porches and a lovely rooftop escape with chairs and views but odds are you will spend most of your time looking down.
As the lodge’s name implies, this is the Jaguar House (Ballum Na means house of the jaguar in Mayan) and the real stars of the lodge are a pair of jaguar brothers (one a rare black jaguar) which were inherited from a breeding program run by Xcaret in Mexico.
You can experience the closest thing to sleeping with jaguars at Ballum Na Lodge, part of Belize Lodge & Excursions.
To accommodate the big cats, Ballum Na was built around an enormous zoo-quality enclosure. You enter the lodge via a walkway that sweeps around and above the enclosure and one of the lodge’s four rooms has a wall of windows that looks down on the jaguars. The cats spend the night in a cage directly under this room and when we slept there we could feel and hear their rumblings off and on all night. When they took a break the silence was deafening.
During the day the jaguars roam and posture in their roomy fenced in habita and the view of them from our room made us feel like we were in Caesar’s box at the Coliseum, minus the gladiators. To say this room is unique is an understatement.
A rare black jaguar named Bosch (a Mayan word for black), at home at Ballum Na Lodge in Belize.
A wild female jaguar comes around the enclosure on a regular basis to check out the boys behind bars. Maybe that’s why the brothers don’t get along, as their multiple scars attest.
Mopan, one of two resident jaguars at Ballum Na, looking right up into our room.
Check out our brief video, shot from our bedroom, to see (and hear) the jaguars at Ballum Na Lodge.
Road-free-zone: Jungle Camp
Ballum Na is literally the end of the road so transferring from Ballum Na to Jungle Camp requires a two hour boat trip along the Golden Stream (no jokes) which winds through acres and acres of untouched jungle. The ride is incredibly peaceful–both because of the natural silence and the scenery and because Belize Lodge & Excursions uses nearly silent, non-polluting electric engines for its boats.
The area is wildlife rich, especially the river which is a magnet for everything living in the jungle. We were hoping to finally see a tapir (the national animal of Belize). The strange pig-meets-anteater creatures are plentiful here. We saw lots of tapir tracks down to the water’s edge, but no tapirs.
We did see a troop of howler monkeys, lots of birds and a big boa constrictor warming itself up on the riverbank–the first boa we’ve ever seen though, surely, not the first one that’s seen us.
With no roads, the commute between Ballum Na Lodge and Jungle Camp is done in a boat along the wildlife-filled Golden Stream. The two hour trip was so relaxing we didn’t want it to end.
Believe it or not, there’s a six foot long boa constrictor wrapped around these tree roots in the river bank. We spotted it during our boat ride from Ballum Na Lodge to Jungle Camp in Belize.
The riverbank was also home to a crazy flower called a Aristolochia grandiflora–but you can call it a Pelican Flower. It grows on a vine, often along riverbanks, and the blooms we saw were nearly a foot long with a four foot tail coming off it.
The thing has a smell that humans hate, but bugs love the stench until they realize they’re trapped inside the flower. From there there’s only one way out, a route which forces the insects to help pollinate the flower. Very Little Shop of Horrors.
We saw dozens of these foot long Aristolochia grandiflora (aka Pelican Flower) blooms during our river commute from Ballulm Na Lodge to Jungle Camp in Belize.
Around a bend in the river, Jungle Camp suddenly appeared like a mirage. It’s got more than a little bit of the look and feel of African jungle lodges with a huge and welcoming common room and 10 thatch-roof bungalows strung out like jewels along a raised walkway that’s high enough off the ground to stay out of the way of high water. It’s not fancy, but it is very well done and the quality of the food was a delicious surprise.
Welcome to Jungle Camp where great food and an awesome bird watching platform await.
In another attempt to see tapirs we got back on Golden Stream at dusk for a night tour. The water was so calm it was like velvet or mercury. Despite our best spotting efforts we still got back to the lodge with no tapir sighting which shocked the excellent guides who said they see tapir all the time–along with all of the cats in the jungle including jaguars.
The next morning we were up before dawn with other visual prey in mind: birds. Bird watching at Jungle Camp is no passive stroll through the jungle, neck craned to the tree tops, hands clutching binoculars. Here, you enter the bird’s world via a unique aluminum platform 100 feet up in a ceiba tree. Mayans consider the ceiba to be a sacred link to the underworld. In this case, it was our link to the canopy.
Using techniques developed by wildlife film makers to craft perches from which to observe and film wildlife, the lightweight platform is rigged to a section of branches and trunk without ever penetrating the bark of the tree. As the tree grows the platform, which completely encircles the trunk, raises higher into the air right along with it.
This is the only way up to or down from a fantastic bird watching platform ingeniously rigged 100 feet (30 meters) up in a ceiba tree at Jungle Camp in Belize.
The only way up to or down from the platform is in a seat-like harness which the guides hoist up using a rope pulley system. This ensures you are fully awake by the time you reach the platform. With weather rolling in the birds were laying low the morning we made the journey up the tree, but it was still spectacular to be in the canopy. Truly one of the best bird watching locations we’ve ever seen.
Karen as that look on her face because she’s about to…
…get lowered 100 feet (30 meters) back down to the ground.
Check out our video, below, for a 360 degree, birds-eye view from the amazing platform 100 feet (30 meters) up in a sacred ceiba tree.
Just you and the iguanas: Moho Cay private island
A restaurant and collection of 10 bungalows take up practically every inch of tiny Moho Cay, part of the Port Honduras Marine Reserve. BLE bought the island from the previous private owner and was granted the right to continue operating the lodge here even though it falls within the protected area.
The atmospheric bungalows on Mayo Cay are built using room-size soft-sided tents erected under thatch roofs.
The result is absolute serenity. Karen spent almost an entire day napping which, it’s fair to say, almost never happens. Bungalows employ an innovative mix of room-size soft-sided tents with a thatch roof over them and breezy porches built off the front practically over the gently lapping water.
The view from our bungalow on tiny Mayo Cay, Belize.
The warm shallows around Moho Cay are full of red starfish and small stingrays and snorkeling gear is available as are fishing excursions–though those activities would require getting up from your nap.
Iguanas FAR outnumber humans on Mayo Cay in Belize.
Iguanas FAR outnumber humans on Mayo Cay in Belize.
As impressive as jaguars and private islands and ceiba tree bird watching platforms are, the innovative environmental work of BLE owner Ken Karas, an enthusiastic realist with Theodore Roosevelt hair, is even more ambitious and noteworthy.
Ken, an accomplished wildlife film maker who has worked on projects around the world for National Geographic, PBS and others, has amassed (and protected) hundreds of thousands of acres of land. His goal is to create vast wildlife corridors–essential to healthy migration and breeding patterns for dozens of species, including jaguars–ultimately traversing the entire country.
His string of lodges exists on a corridor that connects the last stretch of lowland broadleaf habitat (at Ballam Na) in the interior with the coastal habitat and the sea (at Moho Cay, via Jungle Camp). When we met him Ken he was in the process of acquiring 20,000 new acres of land which would provide the only connection between two inland “islands” of land in the north.
How does he work on such a large scale? He makes the land pay for its own protection. By having his land carbon certified it literally pays to keep the jungle pristine. Simply put, Ken is able to calculate the value of all that healthy jungle exhaling out all that clean air, then sell those carbon credits to corporations required to offset their pollution. Make a profit. Buy more land. Repeat.
There have been big changes since Eric’s first trip to Placencia, Belize back in 1993–though we were happy to see that the tiny (but expanding) landing strip still exists in the midst of a giant curve in the road, sometimes requiring drivers to stop and wait for planes to clear the asphalt on their way into or out of the airport.
Unlike in 1993, the road to Placencia is paved all the way and construction of fancy homes and condo buildings is going on everywhere you look, giving the place a kind of Caribbean Hamptons 30 years ago feel. Out a long peninsula, the area has one road. In places, the sea laps up on both sides mere feet from from the pavement. One of the two thoroughfares through Placencia town, at the very tip of the peninsula, is a sidewalk which, according to the Guinness Book of World Records, is the narrowest main street in the world at 4,071 feet (1,240 meters) long and just four feet (1.2 meters) wide.
A very purple house along the world’s narrowest main street in Placencia, Belize.
The biggest change in Placencia is being spearheaded by Royal Caribbean Cruise Line which is pushing hard to build a cruise ship dock in town. When we were in Placencia this was pretty much all anyone was talking about. The locals have had numerous meetings with Royal Caribbean execs and their fancy presentations about why a massive cruise ship dock and disembarking hoards would be good for Placencia and its population of less than 1,000 people.
Tourism business owners and regular locals, however, have almost universally adopted a position against cruise ship arrivals and we can tell you one thing: we wouldn’t want to be on the other side of the argument. These are some determined people who love where they live. They’ve also developed a healthy dose of cruise ship skepticism after watching the months-long, petty and very public fight between Carnival Cruise Lines and local boatmen in Belize City over the cost of tendering passengers from ship to shore.
A view of the coastline in Placencia, Belize from Chabil Mar Villas.
For now, no cruise ships sully the lovely, lazy coastline in Placencia which has a strange but appealing mix of florid Caribbean shacks and florid (in a different way) McMansions.
Honestly, this tiny place with very limited infrastructure seems to be maxed out in terms of tourist facilities even without the cruise ship throngs. There are dozens of cottages, guesthouses, hotels and small locally-owned resorts (no chains yet) in most every price point.
Want a cheapie? Check the quaint options in town. Want a condo? Chabil Mar Villas has 18 of them to choose from with multiple bedrooms, laundry and full kitchens plus a bank of three wonderful outdoor gas grills which no one seems to use for some reason. Want a world-class boutique hotel chic? Head to Francis Ford Coppola’s Turtle Inn where they’ve just renovated Sophia Coppola’s Beach House, a modern, two unit, loft-like haven, and now you can sleep there too (when she’s not there, of course).
One of two swimming pools at Francis Ford Coppola’s Turtle Inn in Placencia, Belize.
A casita at Francis Ford Coppola’s Turtle Inn in Placencia, Belize.
A triangular pool (the shape is a recurring theme at all three of at Francis Ford Coppola’s resorts) at Turtle Inn in Placencia, Belize.
Earlier this year, Placencia pioneers and creators of the Inn at Robert’s Grove, Robert and Risa Frackman, sold the resort they opened back in 1997 to the same team that recently re-created the Singing Sands Inn.
Nothing new at Rumfish y Vino, but that’s the way you want it. Pamela and John Solomon opened this stylish, breezy bar and gastro pub in November of 2008, mere months after honeymooning in Placencia and falling in love with the place. Timid, they are not. Nor is their eatery. Imported wine, gourmet fish tacos, inventive red curry risotto, rich shrimp bisque in a homemade bread bowl. All delicious and made more so as Aretha Franklin serenades and a stylish gang mingles.
Turtle Inn, Placencia Belize.
Can’t afford Turtle Inn? Check out the more affordable Starfish Cottage. Located on a chunk of beachfront land completely surrounded by Turtle Inn, guests at Starfish Cottage get full access to Turtle Inn’s facilities.