Mayan Equinox Celebrations Mark the Beginning of Spring

Sixty people from Belize, Canada, and the United States traveled over rutted dirt roads to a Mayan site in Belize for the opportunity to camp overnight in the shadow of the centuries-old structures that were first discovered by loggers in the 1930s.

The events at Caracol were held to celebrate the beginning of spring, or the spring equinox, a time when the Earth's axis is tilted neither toward or away from the sun because the center of the sun is in the same plane as the equator. As a result, night and day are of equal length.

As the Maya developed their calendar around solar cycles, the observation of the equinox, with special rites and rituals, has long been part of their cultural traditions.

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At Caracol, hikers were met by Belize's preeminent archaeologist, Dr. Jaime Awe, who first began working on this particular site in the 1970s. Awe gave visitors a thorough tour of Caracol, as toucans and oro pendulas flew overhead.

For the staff of Belize's Institute of Archaeology, a department within the National Institute of Culture and History (NICH), it is important that Maya sites not be exploited for commercial gain. Rather, says research assistant Antonio Beardall, archaeologists hope that the country's Maya 2012 events can serve as a point of encounter where people with an interest in Mayan culture—not just entertainment—can experience the sites in an intimate and unprecedented way.

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As the sun slipped behind the site's structures, campers gathered under a tent to enjoy traditional Belizean food, including pit-roasted pork pibil, tamales, ducunu, and tortillas.

Then, it was off to bed before the sound of drums roused them at 2:30 a.m., as Mayan shamans from Guatemala, the Yucatán, and Belize gathered to begin preparing for a traditional fire ceremony, which lasted until the sun came up.

Similar events are planned for the remaining equinox and solstices of 2012.

Julie Schwietert Collazo is a freelance writer based in New York City.

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