El Pilar

El Pilar Mayan Ruins

El Pilar is the name given the ancient Maya city center that is accessed from the Cayo District, Belize, but located on the Belize-Guatemala border 12 miles (19 km) north-west of the town of San Ignacio. The El Pilar Archaeological Reserve for Maya Flora and Fauna, which covers 5,000 acres (2,000 ha), is managed by the Belize Institute of Archaeology (IoA) and the Guatemala Institute of Anthropology and History (IDAEH). El Pilar is the largest site in the Belize River area with over 25 plazas, hundreds of other buildings, and covering about 50 hectares (120 acres). There has been a major archaeological project at the site ongoing since 1993. In 1997 El Pilar was listed on World Monument Fund's 100 Most Endangered Sites in the World.

The sign at the Belize entrance of the El Pilar Archaeological Reserve for Maya Flora and Fauna

Based on ceramic analyses, it is known that monumental constructions at El Pilar began in the Middle Pre-classic around 800 BCE. By 250 BCE there were major public works and extensive occupation in the El Pilar area. At its height, El Pilar housed more than 20,000 people. Monumental construction continued with the last major remodeling in the Terminal Classic (1000 CE), after which the monuments were neglected.

The name “El Pilar” is Spanish for “watering basin,” reflecting the abundance of water in the area, which is rare for the Maya world. The reserve is open to the public and has a series of trails providing access throughout the site. It has been extensively excavated, however, for conservation purposes most monuments are not exposed. The objective is to selectively and partially expose strategic areas. Today one can see door jambs, walls, and rooms along the wooded trails. This is a style of presentation known as Archaeology Under the Canopy that leaves the monuments protected by forest foliage. The only fully exposed monument at the reserve is a house site called Tzunu’un, bringing attention to El Pilar’s unique focus on Maya houses and life ways. El Pilar also features a Maya forest garden to demonstrate traditional agricultural practices.

There is an active initiative to make El Pilar of Belize and Guatemala the first archaeological peace park in the world.