Belize Mayan Ruins
Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula gets plenty of publicity, but if you want to see the most impressive ancient Maya sites, skip Mexico and head to Belize, once home to more than two million Mayans. Eclectic Belize ruins represent every permutation of Mayan architecture; palaces, pyramids, temples and monuments. While archaeologists don’t know the exact circumstances leading to the disappearance of the Maya peoples, they do know that huge populations thrived for more than 2,000 years in a region between Belize’s tropical lowlands and northern Guatemala. Left behind are many beautiful, complex ruins, so plan to see as many as time allows.
1. Cahal Pech. Travel to a majestic hill overlooking Santa Elena and San Ignacio to glimpse Cahal Pech, and then trek down and through pastureland to this archaeological site. Cahal is a fairly new discovery; the ten mounds comprising the complex weren’t unearthed until 1988, but by the time excavation crews were done, 34 structures, ball courts, temple pyramids, an altar and five stelae were revealed. Each was built by Mayans living at this location continuously between 1000 B.C. and 800 A.D.
2. Xunantunich. To reach this remote ceremonial ruin located on 300 square meters of land, take the ferry from San Jose Succotz. See the highest central ruin in Belize when you arrive; A 133-foot tall structure embellished with sun god masks. The main palace features a dramatic frieze of astronomical symbols. This Classic Period hub boasts six major plazas and more than 25 palaces and temples. Government officials have poured over half a million dollars into this site and the ferry won’t cost you a cent.
3. El Pilar. The governments of Belize and Guatemala had the forethought to preserve El Pilar for future generations by declaring all 5,000 acres an archaeological reserve, but the Instituto de Antropologia a Historia actually oversees the 150 acres that include 15 plazas, a ball court and multi-purpose structures. While only “strategic portions” of this ruin are open to visitors, you will still learn plenty about this community of Mayans who practiced advanced farming and agricultural techniques. Designated the largest Maya site of the Classic Period (circa 800 B.C. to 250 B.C.), El Pilar was home to over 20,000 people before they vanished.
4. Caracol. Occupying space on the western edge of the Maya Mountains, Caracol is situated in the Chiquibul Forest Reserve on a plateau that’s 500m above sea level. It’s been an active archaeological excavation site since 1938 when a local logger seeking mahogany stumbled upon ruins overgrown with vegetation. Belize’s Archaeological Commissioner visited the site, bestowed the name Caracol (Spanish for shell) and set about having the area reclaimed. Though it remains a difficult Maya community to reach, it’s worth the effort to see the largest-known Maya Center and world-famous 140-foot pyramid known as Canaa or Sky Place.
5. Altun Ha. Pair your curiosity about Belize wildlife with your desire to see Maya ruins at Altun Ha by traveling 31 miles north of Belize City to this former trade and ceremonial center, built during the Classic Period. On the road to the preserve, spot white-tail deer, foxes and indigenous paca, coati and tyra. Turn your gaze upward to spot 200 species of birds—hopefully, not all at once! This is a premier birdwatching spot, but the animals you might remember best are huge crocodiles swimming in the Maya-built water reservoir. Don’t leave Altun Ha without seeing the “Jade Head,” depicting Kinich Ahua, the Mayan Sun God. It’s the largest jade carving unearthed at any Maya site in Belize.
6. Lamanai. If you were impressed by the wildlife at Altun Ha, travel to Lamanai next. Visitors reach Lamanai from San Felipe by vehicle or boat since it’s situated on the banks of the New River Lagoon. Taking the aquatic route offers opportunities to see rare and exotic plants, birds and, of course, crocodiles. As one of the only sites in Belize to keep its original name, Lamanai is the longest-occupied Maya city in the nation; it was a thriving metropolis for more than 200 years. There are 719 structures to see at Lamanai, including churches and a sugar mill, but the most unique aspect of Lamanai is that visitors can see several eras of Maya history and society—Classic and Post Classic—within this single reserve.
7. Lubaantun. Lubaantun is perhaps the most urban Maya ruin of all. Due to its proximity to San Pedro Colombia, you can use public transportation to get there. Lubaantun is a prime example of Late Classic Mayan architecture. In its glory days, it was a ceremonial center, but the architectural history of this ruin is just as fascinating: Lubaantun buildings, temples and pyramids were shaped of stone blocks but no mortar was used to seal junctures. That’s why Lubaantun’s translation is “Place of Fallen Stones”! Further, organic materials used to top structures were made of perishable materials. Were it not for the efforts of archaeologists trained in soil sample analysis, the world might not know about the organic “roofing” material used at Lubaantun.
8. Nim Li Punit. The Maya Kekchi translation of Nim Li Punit is “big hat,” but it’s the 26 magnificent stelae carvings (one wears a headdress) that draws tourists to this Maya site overlooking the Toledo coastal plains. Travel through a lush rainforest to see few remaining buildings: one pyramid, one ball court and nondescript residences. But this is a manageable ruin for visitors who would rather not trek through lots of acreage searching for answers to Mayan history. If you’ve only time to see two stelae in Nim Li Punit, make it the tallest one and the longest one—you won’t have a problem identifying both. Given the site’s emphasis on effigies rather than settlement, archaeologists believe that Nim Li Punit was a sacred site most likely used for rituals and worship.
9. Cerros. Cerros has one dramatic, unique feature that sets it apart from others: it’s partially underwater. Once a coastal trading hub—circa 400 B.C. to 100 A.D.–Cerros is located on a peninsula jutting into the Bay of Chetumal and can be reached by boat or road. Experts believe the once-thriving port fell victim to changes in trade routes, but when it was operational, it was an important salt distribution center and stopover for jade and obsidian importers. This beautiful ruin earns plenty of superlatives from travelers thanks to five temple ruins, one of which is 72-feet high. Comprised of 52 acres, Cerros flourished during the late Pre-classic Period and remains popular for tourists eager to see pyramids and plazas in addition to an impressive canal system.
Look closer at these sites and you’ll discover each is unique, so don’t limit yourself to just a few. Stay in Belize long enough to talk with archaeologists and historians and ask for more site recommendations based on your interests. Of course, if you’re not traveling alone, it’s important to compromise when making site selections so you return archaeologically sated and on good terms with your travel partner!