El Pilar is located 15 kilometers (10 miles) north of San Ignacio, Belize, astride the Belize-Guatemala border. The ridge land escarpment north of the Belize River valley, where El Pilar is prominently situated, extends from Guatemala's Petén into Belize. Coming up from the valley, traveling north on the Pilar Road, you climb over 340 meters (900 feet) before dropping down to El Pilar at 265 meters (c. 760 feet).
The area has long been called El Pilar. The origin of this name is obscure, but the numerous natural water sources found around the site suggest the old Spanish word for watering basin, or pila, whose collective would be translated as El Pilar. Two local streams have their origins at El Pilar: El Pilar Creek to the east, and El Manantial (the spring) to the west. About 2.3 km (1.2 miles) east is Chorro, a small, delicate waterfall.
Map of Belize with El Pilar
The abundance of water around El Pilar is rare in the Maya area; the venerable ancient city of Tikal had no natural water sources at all. The population around Tikal relied entirely on constructed reservoirs, or aguadas in Spanish. El Pilar is situated at the edge of the interior ridge lands centered at Tikal, 50 kilometers to the west. At the point where El Pilar is perched, the ridges overlook the eastern flat lands that run into the Caribbean Sea. This location provides a natural outlet for water and may explain its abundance.
El Pilar plazas and temples are extensive, ranking it equal to other major centers of the Maya lowland region. It is the largest center in the Belize River area, and more than three times the size of other well-known centers such as Baking Pot or Xunantunich. The mapped areas of the site are divided into three primary sectors: Xaman (North) Pilar, Nohol (South) Pilar, and Pilar Poniente (West). As the surveys continue, other complexes are discovered and their connections explored. Other discoveries include Kum to the northwest and Chorro to the east.
Pilar Poniente and Nohol Pilar are connected by a causeway system that joins the two sectors. We believe that there are more causeway connections among the monuments and have developed a project dedicated to explore this subject. Surveys and excavations have initially concentrated in the eastern side of El Pilar within the Belizean park. Western sectors of the reserve, Pilar Poniente and Kum, are located in Guatemala. Their size and quality are magnificent and will be the subject of greater attention in the future. Several other complexes have been sketched and a full survey is currently underway.
Drawing upon the expertise of diverse disciplines, the research at El Pilar has integrated social, environmental, and even political issues to approach the planning of the reserve. The El Pilar approach to cultural conservation is guided by the ICOMOS Venice Charter of 1964. This charter maintains that exposure and consolidation of ancient monuments are not the sole realm of research, but part of a greater context that includes the relationship to other cultural resources, including flora, fauna, and the surrounding landscape. As an ancient monument, El Pilar today cannot look as it did in the past. Cultural resources, such as those at El Pilar are only vestiges of their original character. We can interpret these remains as we encounter them and, at El Pilar, we have the opportunity to create an entirely new way of viewing ancient Maya monuments from beneath the canopy of the Maya forest.