The name Cahal Pech is a combination of Yucatecan and Mopan Maya meaning “Place of Ticks,” a name that was given to it in the 1950s due to the surrounding area being used at that time for the grazing of cattle.
Located near the town of San Ignacio in the Cayo district of Belize, Cahal Pech was first settled around 1200 BC where it was to become, during the Late Preclassic period (300 BC – 300 AD), one of the most important centres in the Belize River Valley region.
It continued to grow during the Classic period (300 – 900 AD) and it is believed that during the Late Classic period between 10,000 – 15,000 people lived in the city and its vicinity with the Valley being quite densely populated at that time. It is known that Cahal Pech's economy was based on trading and its location at the confluence of the Macal and Mopan Rivers and the other nearby centres made this ideal.
The date of its discovery is unknown but excavation first took place in 1988 and was essentially completed in 2000. However, some archaeological excavations are still being carried out and the site has been declared an archaeological reserve. Recent excavations have suggested that Cahal Pech, which was most likely settled by Maya from Guatemala, is one of the earliest Maya settlements in Belize.
It is believed that Cahal Pech was the home of an elite Maya family and it includes 34 structures, in an area of just over 2 acres. The structures are located around 7 courtyards with interconnecting passages that link enclosed courtyard groups with the larger plazas. It also includes several residential-type buildings and Temple pyramids, with the tallest pyramid being 77 feet high. The site also contains 2 ball courts, 5 plain stelae, and an altar.
The palace areas used by the elite were for both residential and administrative purposes and had restricted access. The buildings are constructed from cut limestone blocks obtained from nearby quarries and bonded together by the use of lime plaster. Many of the structures have vaulted/corbelled roofs, which only allow narrow widths to be spanned, thus producing rooms that are long and narrow. A good example of the sleeping arrangement with the stone beds used by the Maya can be seen in a number of the rooms.
Cahal Pech was abandoned around 800 - 900 AD during the collapse of the southern Maya lowlands, along with many of their other cities. This resulted in the people moving to new areas such as the coastal regions of Belize, Highland Guatemala, and throughout the northern Yucatan Peninsula. However, following the apparent abandonment, some people appeared to continue to live around one of the plazas or to visit it periodically.
The site is particularly important for the information it has provided on the earliest Maya settlers of western Belize and a large number of hand-moulded ceramic figurines have been found at the site. During the 1970’s the site experience problems with the looting of artifacts and a great deal of information may have been lost due to this.
To see more photographs and take a virtual tour of the site click on the photoshow below.
All Photographs were taken by and are copyright of Ron Gatepain