Journey to Belize: Dos Hombres

This post continues the story of my recent time in Belize: performing archaeological field work and learning about jaguar conservation. Entering “Journey to Belize” in the search bar to the right will help you get caught up.

The width and steepness of this trail is about the same as the one we took down the escarpment (read below for details). It is far less jungley, however. Secret Magical Place by Robert Lennon. CC BY 2.0

I awoke at 4 am on May 24, feeling excited to be heading into the field. This would be my first time hiking in a subtropical forest, and I was eager to start. So I hurriedly prepared for the day and made my way to breakfast. While there, one of my supervisors told me that I should bring at least five liters of water with me – maybe even six. I scoffed at this, thinking the number was excessive. Being no stranger to hot weather, I figured four liters would be plenty. Time would tell if that was true.

But for now, the priority was to get to Dos Hombres: an impressive archaeological site located near our own. The Program for Belize Archaeological Project (PfBAP) is structured as follows. There are two sessions per summer, and students from several different schools partake in each one. Each school has its own priorities and field sites; located in various parts of the Rio Bravo Conservation and Management Area. To facilitate learning, we occasionally toured other schools’ sites. Today the Humboldt crew and I would be visiting Dos Hombres, which is where Elon University was working. So we piled into the back of an aging pickup truck and headed for the location.

Once there, we hopped off the truck and began the walk to Dos Hombres. As I mentioned in the previous post, northwest Belize contains a few large escarpments that were formed by the slumping of the Yucatan Platform. The road was located on top of one of these escarpments, whereas Elon’s and Humboldt’s field sites were located at the bottom. The first leg of our trail thus consisted of a long descent. Our path was not particularly steep, but wet leaves made it slippery. We had to carefully watch our feet to avoid tripping on the many rocks and roots, and our heavy packs did not help anything. This became doubly true once we reached the bottom of the escarpment, where the trail narrowed considerably.

After walking for entirely too long, we reached Dos Hombres. Dr. Rissa Trachman was Elon’s project supervisor, and she proceeded to give us the tour.*

When Dr. Trachman began speaking, we were standing in a flat space that was surrounded by triangular hills. To me these hills looked natural, since they were covered with native vegetation. Therefore I was stunned to learn that they were actually overgrown temples, and that we were standing in the middle of an ancient plaza. Dr. Trachman told us that Dos Hombres offered a wealth of information: far more than she initially realized. Dr. Trachman began working there as a PhD candidate many years ago, hoping to quickly examine the architecture and move on. However, the first structure she opened turned out to be a temple that was full of artifacts. She has consequently been returning to Dos Hombres ever since.

Some of the artifacts found at Dos Hombres were made of a volcanic glass called obsidian. Obsidian by James St. John. CC BY 2.0

Dr. Trachman also talked about how excavate Mayan temples. The first step is to locate the main stairway, and to follow that to the primary opening. This allows one to know exactly where they are on the structure, which is a crucial element of scientific archaeology.

Dos Hombres was comprised of multiple sections, and we spent about two hours exploring it. One memorable feature was a chultun, which is a storage cave dug into the limestone bedrock. These caves can contain valuable information, but they are dangerous to enter without respirators. The air within them can destroy human lungs, because of a fungus that grows on bat guano (droppings). A man associated with the PfBAP once entered the chultun at Dos Hombres, and as he did so the fungi released their spores. His lungs became horribly infected as a result, and he was bedridden for weeks.

As we finished our tour in the late morning, it was already clear that today would be unusually hot for northwestern Belize. This will feature prominently in the next part of this series.

 *Looting is a serious problem in Belize. For this reason, the Program for Belize asks participants to avoid sharing photographs of active excavations on social media. Hence the lack of original photos in this post.

24 Thoughts

  1. Josh,
    Awesome post! It looks like the University of Austin has a really unique connection with this conservation in Belize. So you’ve traveled there a few times it looks like…how do you decide when to go and collect data? Is it just whenever funds are available, or is it more like when the main professor gives you the go-ahead?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Jess! UT Austin is the main university involved in the archaeology field school, because they’re the ones who started it. But there are many schools who participate: Humboldt State University (my school), Elon University, Western State University, the University of Puerto Rico, and more.

      I’ve actually only travelled to Belize once, but it was for an extended period of time. The field school is organized as follows. There are two sessions each summer, with the first one being three weeks long and the second one 2-ish. I was there for the first session this summer, which extended from May 21 – June 15. During that time we lived at a campsite in the jungle, and we journeyed to our field sites to collect data six days a week. That might be why it looks like I travelled there multiple times: there were mini-trips almost every day.

      As for when we decide to collect data, for Humboldt State this field school is an annual study abroad program. So it happens every year, and we pay tuition to help keep it going.

      I hope that answers your questions! I’m not thinking straight at the moment (out way too late last night), so please let me know if you need any more clarification.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. No paro de aprender con tus posts! Hoy aprendí que son los chultún :P Muy copado! Y super interesante también el tema del hongo. El problema con él son las esporas que larga?
    No quiero spoilear, pero me parece que vas a tener problemas con la cantidad de agua que llevaste.. jajaja. Bienvenido al trópico Josh!
    Un beso grande :)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hola Ani! Me pone muy feliz que estás aprendiendo de mis posts! No estoy seguro porque los hongos son tan peligrosos por nuestros pulmones, solo se que pueden hacernos muy enfermo. Así no explore chultuns sin respiradores!

      Sobre la cantidad de agua…tienes que esperar y ver!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Sii! Muy buena información estás dando Josh :) Gracias por tomarte tu tiempo en contarnos todo!
        Ohhh :( jajajaja yo quería saber, me pasa por curiosa :P

        Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Jacques! Looters put themselves in a lot of danger, and some of them die. It’s not just airborne diseases they have to worry about, but also collapsing passages. Looters typically dig haphazard tunnels into structures without any thought of safety, and they have been known to get buried alive. There will be more about that in a future post.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Finally we have come to the archeological site!! Tell me exactly how it felt to be standing in front of those pristine structures. Did you think about the people that once walked into them?
    Pictures would have been great but your naration made up for it.
    I saw your mom comment, she must be very proud!☺☺

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Honestly, at first I didn’t realize I was surrounded by ancient temples. The structures were largely unexcavated, so they looked like natural hills. When professional archaeologists finish digging in a site, they cover it back up to preserve it. But once I found out what the “hills” around me were I was blown away!

      I didn’t think a whole lot about the people who once lived at Dos Hombres while I was there, because I was mostly focusing on Dr. Trachman’s talk. But now that I’ve been back home for a while I think about it a lot. I wonder what the area looked like during the height of the Maya settlements, and what it was like for the average Mayan person during that time? Could they have had any idea that they would leave such a legacy for future generations from all over the world?

      I do wish I was able to take more pictures. If I ever do anything like this again, I’m going to talk to people before hand to see if I can arrange to be able to share more photos. But the most important thing is to keep the sites safe from looters, so I won’t be too pushy.


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