El Pilar, Belize

Off the Grid March/April 2018

(Courtesy Anabel Ford)

El Pilar, an ancient Maya city that straddles the border between modern-day Belize and Guatemala, boasts more than 25 plazas and numerous houses, temples, and grand monumental structures. Archaeologist Anabel Ford, who first recorded the site in 1983, works with local Maya people, in cooperation with both governments, to run El Pilar Archaeological Reserve for Maya Flora and Fauna. Much as it may have been some 2,300 years ago when first settled, the city remains nestled in the forest, one with the natural environment. This distinguishes El Pilar from other, perhaps better-known, Maya sites throughout Mexico and Central America, where trees are often removed and lawns manicured to accommodate tourists.

El Pilar, a major urban center at its height between A.D. 500 and 1000, featured large forest gardens, relying on swidden, or slash-and-burn, agriculture. Ford has worked for decades with the native Maya community to preserve indigenous agricultural and gardening practices. At El Pilar, as a result, visitors can explore the remains of the ancient city by following nature trails leading them through plazas, and can discover Maya ruins as some of the first archaeologists to encounter them did in the nineteenth century. “This is how I would like the site to be viewed,” Ford says, “through the roots and the trees and vines, so you really feel like you’re coming upon it for the first time.”


While the reserve is accessible from Guatemala, most visitors will likely arrive from Belize. El Pilar can be reached from the village of Bullet Tree Falls, just outside the town of San Ignacio. A Belize Institute of Archaeology sign in Bullet Tree Falls marks an all-weather dirt road that leads to the site. Local tour companies offer excursions, and visitors can arrive by taxi, rental car, mountain bike, or horse, or they can hike the roughly seven-mile road. Guests are encouraged to explore on their own, but site caretakers and local tour guides are a helpful resource for any interested traveler.


Belize’s Cayo District is home to a wealth of Maya historical sites. Begin your journey at El Pilar in the morning when it is coolest and then travel back to San Ignacio to have lunch and visit the nearby Cahal Pech, believed to have been an acropolis-palace for an elite Maya family during the Classic period, between A.D. 250 and 900.