CARACOL, BELIZE — In 2012, a major 5,000-year-old cycle of the Maya Long Count calendar came to completion. The entire Maya region — southern Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, parts of Honduras and El Salvador — marked the event with a year full of festivities, celebration, and ceremony. This story was originally published on the National Geographic Intelligent travel blog.
I’m lying on my back atop Caana, or Sky Temple, one of the largest, most impressive pyramids in the Maya world — on one of the most important dates in Maya history: 13 b’aktun.
Tonight, one era ends and another begins. The most complex, far-reaching of the various calendars that the Maya created is the Long Count, developed at least 1500 years ago by the Maya and, probably, by their Olmec ancestors. On this day, an important cycle of the Long Count — 13 b’aktuns, which is equal to 1,872,000 days, or 5,125 years — is coming to completion.
That’s why the Belize Institute of Archaeology decided, for the first time ever, to issue special camping permits and off-hours access to visitors. Earlier in the day, a light, positive mood was present as several hundred people set up their tents on the lawns of the ancient plazas. There were Belizeans, foreign travelers, and Maya people, living vestiges of what was once one of the most advanced civilizations on the planet.
The stones below me were laid ages ago; the structures designed by ancient architects who drew inspiration from the same beautiful star-scape above me. After a thousand years, the temple remains the tallest man-made structure in all of Belize.
Sleeping under the stars on top of a Maya temple in the middle of one of Central America’s largest tropical forests is the stuff of dreams. Especially in this day and age, when most major Maya sites are off limits outside daylight hours.
But tonight is different.
Another shooting star! The forest canopy rustling in the night breeze below sounds like rain, but, amazingly, the December sky is clear.
Sometime around 3:30 a.m., a drum begins to beat. Maya elders are leading a procession through the trees to perform the solstice ceremony. I know I should go (I don’t want to miss anything!), but I also don’t want to miss the show above me. So I remain in my sleeping bag, glued to the sky.
That, after all, is where it all began. The sky.
Dr. Jaime Awe, who organized this event and who has excavated and studied the city of Caracol for four decades, told me that the Maya were among the world’s first astronomers. “They recorded the cycles of the sun, Venus, the Milky Way, the moon, and certainly recorded the solstices and equinoxes,” Awe said.
There are other celebrations and ceremonies going on tonight throughout the neighboring Maya regions of Guatemala, southern Mexico, and western Honduras. Some are massive concerts with international rock stars, bright lights, loud music, and enormous crowds of revelers.
But the scene at Caracol is quiet and subdued, and I cannot think of any place I’d rather be.
Once more, I think about getting up and following the music and fire light down the steep steps and through the trees, but the cool, pre-dawn air stops me. Besides, I reason, I was there for the opening ceremony that took place on this pyramid six hours ago as the sun dipped into the Chiquibul Forest Reserve, which extends into the Petén wilderness of nearby Guatemala.
As I stood snapping photos of the sunset, a group of Maya elders wearing a mix of Maya textiles and Western garb appeared below, and, without fanfare, climbed the sacred temple carrying candles and copal incense. In ancient times, only religious leaders and rulers were allowed to enter, but today the space has been opened to priests and pilgrims.
Though I didn’t understand the Q’eqchi Mayan being spoken, I felt the power of the moment as they lit candles, crossed themselves, said their prayers, and made their offering.
As I looked around, I realized everyone there felt the power of the moment in some way. One woman put down her camera and wiped tears from her eyes.
At first, nobody translated or explained what was happening. Then Tim Mesh, an anthropologist from the University of Florida, spoke up.
“They are asking permission from their ancestors.” He explained that this is done before entering any sacred site to allow the ancient spirits to join us. Then, later, in the morning, they will perform a closing ceremony to send the spirits back to their realm.
Later, I found a small patch of stone, once a sacred chamber for Maya royalty, and rolled out my sleeping bag. The half moon began its descent, chasing the sun into the trees and leaving one of the clearest, most humbling skies I had ever seen.
They lit the candles and incense and invited us to light ours and place them on the stone. As the sky darkened and the candles burned, a man played a beautiful Native American melody on a wooden flute, adding to the dusky jungle cadence of birds and insects. Eventually, everyone descended — except me.
My vigil carries on as I drift in and out of sleep. As morning approaches, I awake to the throaty grunts of howler monkeys, carrying across the canopy from several directions.
The prospect of seeing the sun rise urges me to my feet. I stand up, stretch the hard rocks out of my back, and watch.
A narrow band of yellow appears between forest and firmament. Pink streaks, like an aurora, beam upward as the final star disappears.
As I stand there watching another day break over the horizon, I am reminded of something Dr. Awe told the assembled crowd last night: “Nothing is ending. It’s a new beginning for all cultures under the sun.”
Joshua Berman is the author of Maya 2012: A Guide to Celebrations in Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, and Honduras. Learn more about his work on his website, JoshuaBerman.net.