Four miles west of Orange Walk on Yo Creek, on the property of a Caribbean rum warehouse, are the minor ruins of Cuello. Check in at the gate office (tel. 501/322-2141, 8:30 a.m.–4:30 p.m. daily), then investigate these relatively undisturbed ruins, consisting of a large plaza with seven structures in a long horizontal mound.
There are three temples; see if you can find the uncovered ones. These structures (as in Cahal Pech) have a different look than most Maya sites. They are covered with a layer of white stucco, as they were in the days of the Maya.
The ruins of Cuello were studied in the 1970s by a Cambridge University archaeology team led by Norman Hammond. A small ceremonial center, a proto-Classic temple, has been excavated. Lying directly in front is a large excavation trench, partially backfilled, where the archaeologists gathered the historical information that revolutionized previous concepts of the antiquity of the ancient Maya.
Artifacts indicate that the Maya traded with people hundreds of miles away. Among the archaeologists’ out-of-the-ordinary findings were bits of wood that proved, after carbon testing, that Cuello had been occupied as early as 2600 B.C., much earlier than ever believed. Archaeologists now find, however, that these tests may have been incorrect, and the age is in dispute.
Also found was an unusual style of pottery—apparently in some burials, clay urns were placed over the heads of the deceased. It’s also speculated that it was here over a long period that the primitive strain of corn seen in early years was refined and developed into the higher-producing plant of the Classic Period. Continuous occupation for approximately 4,000 years was surmised, with repeated layers of structures all the way into the Classic Period.
As the road meanders west from Cuello, numerous small villages dot the border region. Occasionally you see a soft drink sign attached to a building, but there’s not much in the way of facilities between Orange Walk and Blue Creek. Heading west from San Felipe, you soon find flat, open farmland, with Mennonite accoutrements, dominating the landscape. Low, open rice paddies provide great bird-watching opportunities as well as placid scenery.
Soon, however, you hit the foothills of the Maya highlands near Blue Creek village. Climbing up into the foothills you can see the flatlands of the Río Hondo and New River drainages to the east. The small village to the right is La Union, on the other side of the Mexico border. This part of Orange Walk District is much hillier and has an increasingly wild feel to it.
In the village of Blue Creek, The Hillside Bed & Breakfast (tel. 501/323-0155, bchillsideb_b [at] yahoo [dot] com, US$50) is an incredibly unique and peaceful place to stay, about 30 miles west of Orange Walk, on the left coming up the hill. Experience Belizean Mennonite hospitality and life on a working farm. Rate includes breakfast in the kitchen, and the rooms have all basic amenities, including air-conditioning. As far as I know, this is the only tourist accommodation offered in a Mennonite community in Belize.
At the top of the hill is the Linda Vista Credit Union and a gas station/general store. Fill the tank if you’re driving on to Río Bravo or Chan Chich, as this is the last gas station until you come back this way.
As you continue farther west, the area becomes progressively more forested until you reach the dramatic boundary of the Programme for Belize Río Bravo Conservation Area. Here, the cleared pastureland runs smack-dab into a wall of jungle, and there is a gate at the border. If you aren’t expected, the guard won’t let you pass. Once inside the gate, you’ve entered the Río Bravo Conservation Area.
© Joshua Berman and Avalon Travel from Moon Belize, 9th Edition