Seven Maya Sites to Visit in Belize
Today, the Maya still farm the same lands and travel the same rivers as their ancestors did from north in the Yucatan down to Honduras. Belize is home to a number of pre-Hispanic Maya sites that form an integral part of the country’s cultural heritage.
In the Orange Walk district, in Northern Belize, lies one of the largest Maya ruins in the country: Lamanai. It is accessible by road but I arrived after a one-hour boat ride up the New River. The name “Lamanai” is roughly translated as “Submerged Crocodile.” Apparently, there was once a thriving population. The ruins may date back to 700 B.C. and estimates put the number of structures, which are part of the ruins, at around 700 buildings; however, less than 5% has actually been excavated. Thick jungle, filled with howler monkeys, birds and jaguars, conceal the remaining structures. The walk through the jungle from the landing dock is certainly evocative. Tall palm trees form a dense ceiling and thick underbrush conceals everything around the path, still littered with pottery shards and artifacts because excavation is still ongoing. The Mask Temple has the most well preserved details but the view from the top of N10-43 (or High Temple) is thrilling. I don’t recommend it for those who are afraid of heights because the climb down is steep and challenging. If you can make it, it’s worth every moment of struggle. I am no expert judge, but I would revisit Lamanai again in a heartbeat; of all the Maya historical places I have been, it was the most interesting and complete in terms of narrative and historical detail. A museum toward the entrance to the complex could easily take an entire afternoon to get through because of the volume of information it houses.
The ruins of Lubaantun, a Maya city that thrived from around AD 700 to 900 but was abandoned soon after, are somewhat unusual in a country where Maya ruins are almost common. Black slate is the primary building material. There’s a noticeable lack of mortar and a large collection of miniature ceramic objects has been found over the years. It is the largest Maya site in Southern Belize and has become well known for its strange style of construction. Lubaantun is also where the controversial crystal skull was supposedly discovered by Anna Mitchell-Hedges (though that’s since been almost entirely disproved). Visitors are free to wander the site, where there is a small visitor center and an admission fee of $10.
Western Highway San Ignacio town, San Ignacio, Belize
On a hill just above the town of San Ignacio, on a site that only covers about two acres, lie the Maya ruins of Cahal Pech. Like so many of the Maya sites around Belize, steps have been taken to ensure that what remains is preserved and that visitors are able to explore structures at their leisure. The name apparently means “place of ticks” and was chosen because the area around the ruins was used as land for grazing animals. Cahal Pech, settled in 1000 BC and no longer inhabited by 800 AD, was a royal palace for a ruling Maya family, and the site consists of seven plazas plus structures that include temples, a ball court, homes and an altar. Not all of the ruins are in excellent shape but climb to the top for wonderful views of the surrounding river valley. There is also a visitor center and museum on site.
Chiquibil Forest Reserve, Belize
The massive ruins of Caracol were once a major Maya metropolis in prehispanic Belize, during the Classic Period. The majority of the site is yet to be reclaimed from the forest, but the structures that have been uncovered are truly impressive. The main structure is still the tallest building in all of Belize and places you “on top of the world.” The jungle surrounding the site is teaming with wildlife, and a pair of binoculars come in handy. The ruins are located south of San Ignacio along the rough Mountain Pine Ridge Road. There are several worthwhile stops on the way, such as Rio Frio Cave and Rio On Falls, but the best stop is a cool libation at the Blancaneaux Lodge Bar.
Xunantunich Rd, Belize
The Cayo District is home to many of Belize’s ancient Maya sites, including one of the largest, Xunantunich. Located atop a ridge near the Mopan River and the Guatemala border, Xunantunich’s “El Castillo,” the main pyramid, is certainly the most impressive. Visitors who brave the steep steps to the top are rewarded with unsurpassed views into Guatemala and neighboring areas of Belize. While the climb up can be pretty steep and rough, there are other routes to get down along the backside that make the descent a little easier. It took me multiple visits to finally gather the courage to climb to the top, but I’m grateful I did, as the views were absolutely worth it! Organized tours to Xunantunich often combine with other activities like zip-lining, cave tubing, or even trips to the Belize Zoo. Travelers who wish to explore all of Xunantunich’s six plazas, which contain more than 26 temples and palaces, should plan to book a private tour or visit on their own.
Just 45-minutes north of Belize City, Altun Ha is a complex of Mayan ruins dating back hundreds of years. Once the “treasury” for the Mayan people, Altun Ha is one of the most important Mayan sites in the country. Go on a tour of the place with Foolish Dreamzzz, a locally owned operator that will take your group at any size (and the price per person doesn’t change, whether you’re in a group of one or ten). Ask for Kendis Ferguson, the owner and a former history and social studies teacher. He and his company go above and beyond to make sure guests have all their questions answered, and he’ll even make sure you get to climb to the top of the ruins—something not a lot of tour guides in the area make the time to do. The views from there, of course, are amazing.