The ancient Maya ruins of El Pilar are some of the most magnificent in the country. Spread out across 120 acres (48 hectares), El Pilar lies just east of the border with Guatemala, situated some seven miles (12 km) north of San Ignacio.
The original name of El Pilar is unknown and the current name comes from the Spanish term for "watering basin" due to the large number of streams in the area, a feature rarely found in large Maya cities.
Today, visitors can explore more than 25 plazas that are home to hundreds of major buildings. The city is now part of the El Pilar Archeological Reserve for Maya Flora and Fauna that covers more than 5,000 acres (2,020 ha) in both Belize and Guatemala. The Reserve is jointly managed by both Belize and Guatemala.
The top attractions in El Pilar are the 12 large pyramids. The central plazas are also home to temples, water reservoirs, ball courts, and the remains of corbeled tunnels. Many of the buildings in Pilar are up to 70 feet (21 meters) high, including temples and special residences built for the Maya elite.
In an effort to preserve the monuments in El Pilar, much of the area has been left unexcavated. To reach some of the monuments, visitors must follow narrow jails through jungle habitat. The majority of the buildings in El Pilar remain partially or fully covered by vegetation. The only significant building that has been fully cleared is a house called Tzunu'un.
Many visitors explore the trails to learn more about the abundance of wildlife in the Reserve, and there have been frequent sightings of scarlet macaws, toucans, howler monkeys, parrots, armadillo, sloths, tapirs, deer, and even jaguars.
It is believed that El Pilar was founded approximately 2,800 years ago. At its greatest height, it is believed that some 20,000 people lived in El Pilar. Unlike other major Maya sites in Belize, El Pilar shows signs of continued monumental construction following the widespread collapse of Maya civilization in the year 900 AD. Despite this, it is believed that El Pilar was abandoned around the year 1000 AD.
If you'd like to visit El Pilar, Cahal Pech Village Resort organizes tours to this ancient Maya site as well as other top Maya destinations in the area such as Xunantunich, Caracol, Cahal Pech, and Tikal (in Guatemala).