While the Cayo District is better known and more widely promoted — home to Xunantunich, Cahal Pech and Caracol — Belize’s deep southern Toledo District is rife with Mayan archaeological sites that are of great importance. One of these is Uxbenka, an ancient Maya city located in present-day Santa Cruz village, approximately 15 kilometers east of the Guatemalan border.
Meaning “Old Place” in Mopan Maya (Uchben’kaj), Uxbenka is the oldest Maya site in southern Belize, dating back over 2,000 years to the Classic Period. Initially set up as a farming community, it was continuously inhabited by the Maya for nearly 1,000 years.
I’ve come to rediscover Uxbenka with Bruno Kuppinger, a veteran tour guide who’s spent more years exploring these remote parts of Belize than any other expat-turned-local I know.
We’re standing on the top of a driveway, waiting for our host to step out of his home, standing over turkeys and chickens grazing around us while the dog’s barking echoes across the village’s green hills and thatched roofs.
Looking out to the highway below, I spot two women in blue and green, A-line knee-length dresses emerge from the bush, on the opposite end of the road. They’re carrying what look like baskets; my telephoto lens reveals they’re actually buckets — adding to the remote, traditional feel of this Mopan Maya community.
Santa Cruz is the only village in Belize boasting the highest percentage of traditional, thatched Maya homes — approximately 80 percent. Other villages have added cement buildings to their landscape.
But as I was about to find out, tradition in Santa Cruz goes well beyond the outside.
The Uxbenka Museum and Visitor Center
When Jose Mes steps out of his home, he rushes past the turkeys and fruit trees to reach us. After shaking our hands, he guides us to cross the road — almost directly opposite lies the formal entrance to Uxbenka Archaeological Site.
A new visitor center is being built and officially opening in a couple of days.
While we’re walking, Jose doesn’t waste time telling me about his village.
“Santa Cruz is a Mopan community. We now have maybe three percent Q’eqchi’ Maya because intermarriage is happening. It’s a very small community with 540 people, and we grow our own food.”
Mes is actually the community chairperson for Santa Cruz, and he’s credited for uniting his village over the past couple of years, and helping get the site going again.
“We have two leaders; there’s the alcalde, who operates under a local magistrate.”
We’ve reached the pretty new entrance sign to Uxbenka, visible from the highway. Bruno and I take turns posing, while Mes obliges with our respective phones.
It was in 2001, after Hurricane Iris hit the area, that the community and its leaders first realized they needed to do more to preserve the site. In 2004, a body was elected to oversee Uxbenka and the surrounding caves — including Yok Balum — stretching over 2,000 acres of land.
We walk a few steps up another steep, makeshift driveway and Jose welcomes us to walk into the newly built Uxbenka Visitor Center and Museum. On display, at arms’ length, are thousands of years-old stelae.
There’s no glass case, no boundary between us and these archaeological treasures made by Belize’s first inhabitants.
“These are all originals,” Jose says, as if reading my mind.
Workers are still painting the walls around us and the monuments as we examine the museum. Carvings on the stelae, excavated back in the 1990s, revealed several important clues. The figure of a jaguar on Stelae 11, for instance, meant that Uxbenka likely had ties with Tikal.
The community has been working hand in hand with Belize’s National Institute for Culture and History in setting up the center and came to an agreement that Santa Cruz’s community would be responsible for their monuments.
“It’s been four years since archaeologists have worked on this site. But two and half years ago, when I became the leader for Santa Cruz, I said let’s not just sit and wait. We need to get active and see what we can do. We called the government, and then the community has been voluntarily protecting the site for years. So I decided to find funding for a separate building for the monuments. It was also approved by court that all of this is communal land — we fought for our land rights.”
“Only two villages own their lands,” Bruno adds. Santa Cruz and Conejo.
As it turns out, not all the Maya villages in Belize legally own their ancestral lands. It’s a difficult concept for me to grasp.
“I’m very proud of us; it’s a first time to manage
a project this way.”
I’m feeling proud for Jose as well, now sitting in front of me in the museum. What Jose is too humble to share and Bruno prodded out, is that he was part of the excavation team over 10 years ago when the research on Uxbenka began, and he also went on to become a tour guide.
As a community leader, he’s constantly looking for ways to improve the village’s quality of life. Another recent win is the addition of a health center for the village’s women, particularly those who are pregnant.
“We can see the changes; people are happy.”
These days are a long cry from the controversy that hit the village back in June 2015, when a non-villager —an Afro-Belizean man who’d moved to Santa Cruz Village to live with his common law Maya wife — decided to build a house in the community without consulting the leaders. In doing so, he entered sacred lands and destroyed one of the archaeological mounds.
“It wasn’t about racism at all; it was about respecting the community and the site. Doing things without permission without following the rules of the community isn’t going to work here. Our alcalde instructed our police to detain him (after several eviction notices) because the man had threatened to return to the village with his gun. He was released eventually within hours after no police showed up. Still the next day, at 4 am in the morning, 13 men from our village were arrested, including Maya land rights leader Cristina Coc, accused of having illegally detained this guy.”
“That’s why we’re not having the opening tomorrow the 13… just kidding. ” Jose breaks up the tense story, and we all laugh.
The court eventually dropped all charges against the Santa Cruz members, finding no ill intent from a community that simply sought to protect their patrimony. The tragedy remains nothing more but a dark spot and a lesson for the village in the promising, united future of Santa Cruz.
Uxbenka: A virgin site
We begin hiking two minutes uphill from the Visitor Center towards the actual archaeological site of Uxbenka. Once at its feet, we climb steep, sloping sides to reach the main plaza.
Mes points to a dug out in the southern part of the site, a shallow pit where Dr. Richard Leventhal excavated a seven-inch jade spoon in 1992. A tomb was also found here; part of its capstone remains here.
In total, 26 stelae were discovered at Uxbenka, nine of which are carved, surrounded with six structures. The north structure is the tallest at 29 feet.
“There was a time when we could assure visitors that they’d have the site to themselves,” Bruno remembers. Indeed, it’s a far cry from Cayo’s archaeological sights.
Maya village life and tradition in Santa Cruz
After our hike, we head back down and across the street back to Jose Mes’ home, where he’s kindly invited us in to show me how he and his family live. It’s obviously not my first time in a traditional Maya home, but it always serves me as a healthy reminder that life and happiness aren’t about things.
I take seat at the wooden dining table, pushed against the wall by the entrance, five steps across from the kitchen. I unload my camera to begin to cool off from the humidity.
The rooster is still crying out in the yard.
“The Mayan people don’t believe in education. My mom and dad never went to school. “
Jose continues to tell me about his earliest memories of life in Santa Cruz, while I relish this authentic exchange. “When I was six years old boy, I cried to go to school. My dad was strictly into farming. So I had to beg and cry to go. Imagine, he never wanted me to go and complete my primary.”
When Mes had one more year left to complete primary school, his dad pulled him out. Enough wasting of time, he said, let’s go farming. It was a familiar tale in the rural places I’d explored, in the Caribbean and in Africa.
“I cried, I still remember it. It’s a sad feeling but then I realized that he did good for me because he kept me in my community, and I learned to farm and get my own home.”
“Fresh lime juice from the tree!” he interrupts, as his wife serves me a welcome, refreshing blue cup.
Jose goes on to share his experiences, from arranged marriages — his has lasted 19 years — to educational changes taking place in the community.
“It’s very challenging when you want to travel to other places and you don’t speak English. Things are changing now, because of education which is good. But the elders still think young ones are getting lazy because of education. My dad used to say, ‘Jose why are you spending all that money sending your kids to school? What are they doing, what are they learning?’ But I know I did it the hard way. So I gave my children the opportunity to go to school and I’m also teaching them during vacation time and keeping them busy at the farm.”
Jose owns four acres of cacao, and four of corn. He sends his kids to the farms when they’re on vacation. Like most youth, they grumble occasionally, but he makes sure they understand why it’s important to learn about farming for their future.
And it’s clear Jose and his family don’t want for much when it comes to food. They grow rice, beans, chickens, turkeys, pigs… it’s hard work but they’re not running to the supermarket. Everything is fresh from the farm. He points to the bowl on the kitchen floor, filled with young pumpkin and cho cho. In the jungle fields, there’s acaya, corn cabbage and cohune.
“Even snake bites, we have remedies for that. Fevers, headaches, stomach problems, we have our own medicines for that.”
What there isn’t in Santa Cruz, is electricity or power lines. About 10 percent of the community can afford to buy solar panels. Jose admits that when the time came for his son to study in secondary school, using local kerosene lamps meant his kid got ill inhaling the fumes because he had to bring his head close to the light to read. That’s when he and his wife decided to invest in a solar panel; it took six months of work, but eventually the kids could easily study.
I recalled my dad’s childhood stories; his father had also wanted him to herd the goats and be a farmer, while my dad yearned to escape to a corner of the house to read. Determined, my dad eventually made it out of rural Ethiopia, albeit not without numerous hurdles. How hard it is for many of us to imagine not having any electricity to study, or not being allowed to study, period!
After a full tour of his family kitchen, I wander out into the yard, surrounded by the family’s farm animals and the fresh country air.
Santa Cruz: A complete, green destination
I’d come to Santa Cruz to see the new museum, but what I experienced was a day filled with much more than that. During those hours in remote southern Belize, I realized that this traditional Maya village is quite the niche destination, clinging to its authenticity and identity in a country that’s evolving fast.
There are caves to explore, including Yok Balum and Okebal, there’s the chance to have an authentic Maya experience and meal in the home of Jose Mes, and nearby are the Rio Blanco National Park‘s stunning falls and pools — where we stopped on the way out to see the park’s latest upgrades.
You can even refresh yourself at the San Antonio Falls, while making your way to Uxbenka.
From Belizean history and culture to nature, extreme adventure and community tourism, Santa Cruz has it all — and there’s never been a better time to visit.
Tour guides are available from the Santa Cruz community, which means all your travel dollars go directly to supporting this village and help preserve its indigenous heritage. Uxbenka Museum and Visitor Center hours are from 9am-4pm daily, for a suggested entrance fee of US$5 per person.
For information on arranging caving tours, as well as a Maya cultural experience in Santa Cruz, pick up a copy of Moon Belize 2019 when it releases in September. You can also get in touch directly with the Uchben’kaj Kin Ajaw Association (UKAA).