I have always been attracted to creepy stories and strange occurrences found in books. I can remember so vividly being a little child, and well into my teen years, reading Goosebumps storybooks. While the stories of zombies, Egyptian mummies and the scarecrow that came to life were all scary to a child, to some degree they felt far and distant, so I felt safe. That changed, however, and I can thank my mom for that, as she is such a storyteller! While sitting on the porch at night enjoying the cool night breeze, she would tell us all kinds of haunting stories that happened in the mountains of Belize, now abandoned logging camps. She would also share myths of all sorts of evil spirts that wandered all over. But we do not need to go too far to find haunting places since many of them are right in this magical town.
The Enchanting Macal River
The Macal River, a slow-moving river in Western Belize, has many tales to tell. The ancient maya used the river for fishing or as a trade route to the coast. Centuries later, as more people settled in western Belize as a result of the logging, cattle ranching and chicle industries, the only way to the west was by river boats as there was no highway. There are many spirits that haunt the river area that lure men to their demise. The most famous story in the region is that of La Llorona, the weeping woman. Another such story is that of a young man at a dance that saw a beautiful woman dressed in white at the “Blue Angel’s Night Club” in downtown San Ignacio. The young woman was not dancing; she was just standing there alone. She promptly left the nightclub alone in the wee hours of the morning and the man decided to follow her to ask her name, but he was unable to keep up with her. He had seen her heading in the direction of the Hawkesworth Bridge that crosses over the Macal River. When he was on the bridge, he got a glimpse of her white dress in dark river bank below. Something told him not to go down, but he was so drawn to her beauty that he made his way to her. When he approached her, he tapped her on the shoulder, alerting her to his presence. She turned around and her face was skinless, an eyeless skull. When he saw this, he ran away and make it to his house where he told his family what had happened. He could not remove the image from his mind, he came down with a fever and by sunrise he was dead.
Burns Avenue: “What Lies Beneath”
It is amazing to live in a place where you can find evidence all around you that someone was there before you. In many cases, what was found was a fragment of something greater and it belonged to someone hundreds or even a thousand years ago. While working in my own yard I have found ceramic shards which I imagine were part of some kind of water vessel. There is a creek nearby that has led me to that conclusion. The artisan who created it did not only make a pot, but careful thought was given to the vessel to include designs that make it unique and pretty. In 2012, while contractors were digging a trench to install a storm drain below the street of Burns Avenue in the heart of San Ignacio Town, they also found ceramic vessels. Work came to a halt and the Institute of Archaeology was brought in to investigate. There the archaeologists found several ceramic vessels, a stone building and buried within were human remains. They also found the bones of wild animals like deer, peccary and creek snail shells that were likely hunted for food. In a statement, the archaeologists mentioned that the remains dated to 600 BC and they added that other houses like the one that was discovered were likely in the area. It leaves an unsettling feeling as we go about our daily lives walking on Burns Avenue, not knowing what lies beneath, as those houses would likely also have human remains buried in them.
The San Ignacio House of Culture.
The San Ignacio House of culture is one of those places that, at first glance, gives you that eerie feeling. It once served as the town’s hospital and was recently renovated to become the House of Culture. There is more to this place than just the memories of going there as a child when I was injured or to get my shots, but it has many interesting stories to tell. My aunt was once a nurse at the San Ignacio Hospital many years ago, and she told us that there was a nurse’s quarters which was a small room with shelves where they kept their personal belongings. In the room was a small single bed on which the nurses working the night shift could take turns to rest. When she did get a night shift, she realized that none of the nurses rested on the bed but rather dosed off seated or on a bench. When she asked why nobody rested there, they told her that they were fine and that she should rest on it. So, she lay on the bed and slowly dosed off. Shortly thereafter she dreamt someone was chasing after her. She jumped and woke up. She wondered what that was all about, but decided to fall asleep again. She promptly fell into another dream where someone had their hands around her neck and was choking her. She jumped out of bed and out of the room and never rested on that bed again. Other nurses who later came to work at the hospital had similar experiences. It’s unknown how many deaths occurred at the old hospital and how many of those souls may still linger around. There is, however, another dark story relating to this place. The property where the San Ignacio House of Culture now sits was the first cemetery in San Ignacio Town and has burials dating to the early 1900s. It is interesting to note that the remains where never removed but were simply covered and the construction was erected over them. Some of the tombstones can still be viewed under the building.
Nothing is more haunting than an abandoned ancient city. As you walk the path of the ruler, through the courtyards, climbing the stairs of its buildings and entering the royal rooms, you feel the energy as if you become the ruler. This special ancient city was the palace where a royal family once lived. The common people also came to trade on market days, to pray and to conduct ceremonies at the temples. We know that the ancient Maya buried their dead within the stone bases of their houses or within the core of their temples, but certainly not limited to just those areas. The archaeologists have found human remains everywhere, buried within stairs, plazas and benches, some just inches below the surface. At times they have found just one individual and at other times these people have been buried with several others. In the temple building Structure B1 in the large Plaza B, archaeologists have excavated up to 13 burials, three of which had features identifying those individuals buried as persons possessing elite status. Cahal Pech is our number 1 pick of most haunting locations in San Ignacio because of its vast random burials but it gets more graphic and macabre. The ancient Maya had certain practices that today would be considered morbid and gruesome. The Maya priests sacrificed people in caves, adults and children. Sacrifice rituals were done to please their corn or rain gods. It is unknown if they did these rituals of human sacrifices on site but there is evidence to suggest that they did grave robbing, where they entered a tomb to take the skull and some other bones to be used in other rituals.
Gateway into our Homes
Celebrated widely in Central America and in Belize are All Saints Day and All Souls Day. People in these countries celebrate in their own way, whether by going to the church to pray for their deceased loved ones or making elaborate altars at the cemetery and at their homes. The altars are laid out differently but all have similar patterns of items used. Photographs of family members that have passed and other items like a crucifix, water, salt and traditional foods are key components of these altars. Some people might know that their grandfather enjoyed a drink of rum or whisky in life and that too would be added to the altar. Homemade beeswax candles are also used in this ritual to attract spirits lost in the darkness. To fortify its potency, four candles can be used to attract spirits from further away and the number of candles represents the cardinal points. Some altars take a very cultural form and borrow ancient Maya aspects, like having 3 levels. Items are placed on all levels representing the 3 dimensions: the upper world, then underworld and the middle or the earth world of the living. This activity is condemned by the Catholic Church since this ritual opens a portal or a doorway into the spiritual realm. Many times, because of tradition, we don’t know what or why we are doing something but simply do it. In our innocence, we contact our deceased family members to come though such a portal but we leave the door open for malevolent beings to come through and remain trapped in our houses to torment us.
So, the next time you take a walk through the charming town of San Ignacio, think about those places that you never thought would hold such history and be so haunting at the same time. As you swim on the Macal River or simply drive over on one of the bridges, think of La Llorona. As you walk through Burns Avenue, visit the House of Culture or Cahal Pech Archaeological Site, think of the many persons whose remains have been buried there for many years. Most importantly, as you visit any home or enter your own, ask yourself if there may be a portal that was left open and is inviting spirits to that place. Maybe, just maybe, it may make your stroll through the town a little more interesting.