El Pilar Mayan Ruins
El Pilar gets its name from the unusual abundance of water in the area; El Pilar is the Spanish word for watering basin. Researchers believe construction began around 800 BC, and by 250 BC there was a thriving community. During its peak, El Pilar could’ve been home to as many as 20,000 people. One of the most interesting features of El Pilar is a 3- to 5-foot (1- to 1.5-meter) high wall that runs west from the site into Guatemala. At least one ball court has been discovered, and the tallest structure stands about 70 feet (21 meters) above the plaza.
As the site is not very well excavated yet, tours to El Pilar tend to focus on the important vegetative areas that were key in Mayan history. (Visitors hoping for fully excavated, towering ruins should consider tours to other sites like Xunantunich or Caracol.) El Pilar Archaeological Reserve for Maya Flora and Fauna extends into Guatemala and is a declared cultural monument. The area has been under threat by looters and was placed on the 1996 World Monuments Fund’s list of the 100 Most Endangered Sites in the World (the list is now known as the World Monuments Watch).
Things to know before you go
- Birding enthusiasts will enjoy the abundant bird life here; travelers interested in birding should bring their own binoculars.
- Bring sunblock and insect repellent as you will be hiking through the jungle.
- Wear loose, lightweight clothing that covers your legs and arms.
- Be aware that most structures are still covered and the only visible elements may be a door jamb or room.
How to get there
El Pilar is approximately 12 miles (19 kilometers) north of San Ignacio and about 20 miles (32 kilometers) from Melchor de Mencos. Take Bullet Tree Road north from San Ignacio. After crossing the Mopan River, follow the signs to El Pilar. The last seven miles to the site are steep; the road is suitable for experienced drivers only. Guided tours from San Ignacio typically include round-trip transportation.
When to get there
Since El Pilar isn’t as well excavated as other popular ruins, it’s not visited as much as sites like Xunantunich and Caracol. You probably won’t encounter big crowds even during Belize’s high season. Weather wise, plan your trip during the dry season, from early December to April, for outdoor exploring.
Belize’s Largest Archeological Site
Also located near the Guatemalan border but further south than El Pilar, Caracol is Belize’s largest archeological site, covering about 65 square miles (168 square kilometers) and with more than 35,000 structures. See excellent examples of Mayan architecture, including the Caana Pyramid, which rises 140 feet (420 meters). The site is about a 2.5-hour drive from San Ignacio.
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