For those looking for a genuine Maya forest experience that is off the beaten track, few places can compare to El Pilar, just a short drive North of San Ignacio, Belize. The site is the largest Maya city in the Belize River area, and is home to over 70 major structures and 25 plazas. El Pilar recreates the experience of the first archaeologists who uncovered and mapped the site. For the most part, the monuments have been left covered, and trees have been allowed to grow in the main plazas, providing a nice cool refuge in an otherwise hot and sunny environment. This emphasis on the ecosystem creates a magical atmosphere of a lost city in the jungle, full of exotic flora and fauna that are fast becoming scarce.
One of the first stops on any tour of El Pilar is the Tzunu’un House Site and Forest Garden, a restoration of an original Late Classic era Maya home. Take the time to explore the many plants in the nearby house garden and view the thatched-roofed sleeping areas that offer a glimpse of the Maya life that once existed outside of the world of temples and palaces. From here, there are three archaeological trails and two forest trails that will lead you all over nearly 2000 acres through El Pilar’s numerous plazas and verdant wildlife areas, home to some of the best bird watching in Central America. The hikes along the wilderness trails present the traveler with an abundance of scenic streams and waterfalls, which give El Pilar its name (El Pilar is Spanish for “the place of water basins”).