After more than an hour spent building the fire, the shamans lit the fire and prepared to explain each object's symbolism, as well as the meaning of the ceremony itself.
Though the road from the town of San Ignacio to the Caracol Maya site is just 35 miles long, the trip takes nearly two hours due to the rocky, rutted conditions. It is recommended that visitors drive in a caravan accompanied by Belize Defense Forces; the BDF makes one trip to and from the Maya site each day.
Caracol was a large “city” that settled around 600 BC and continued for more than 1,000 years. Archaeologist Dr. Jaime Awe estimates that there were thousands of buildings on this site; “we've only found 1/1000th of them so far,” he says.
When archaeologist Dr. Jaime Awe began working on the Caracol site in the 1970s, its plazas and structures were not the clean expanses visitors see today. Getting to Caracol took two days—not two hours—and Awe and his team had to improve the road and the site so it could eventually become accessible to the public.
Archaeologists frequently make difficult decisions when doing site excavations: Do they alter structures so that some of their features become accessible to the public, or do they adhere strictly to a “make no changes” principle? Archaeologist Dr. Jaime Awe believes that the former is often important, and in the case of this significant carving, Awe and his team had to remove part of a structure to make the carving visible.
Campers were well-fed by Maya cooks who made a traditional Maya meal of pit-roasted pibil, tamales, bollos, tortillas, and chaya (chayote) soup.
At 2:30 AM, the shamans made their way to the site to prepare the fire for a traditional ceremony, the first ever to be held at Caracol. Each item placed in the fire was a symbol of Maya cosmology; among the items were cacao beans, corn, cinnamon sticks, herbs, and candles of various colors. The entire fire was ringed by flower bouquets.
The presiding shaman invited the campers to gather in a circle around the fire while he spoke about the importance of preserving Maya culture by upholding these types of traditions. He criticized authorities for instituting policies that prevent the Maya from carrying out these ceremonies unless they ask for permission, and he called upon the Maya to hold their heads high and honor their culture.
After his speech, the presiding shaman invited campers to participate in a healing ritual, embracing smoke and adding candles and incense to the fire. The ceremony continued until the sun rose over the site.
A fire and pit-roasted pork celebrated the beginning of spring in Belize.