Known as the epicenter of the ancient Maya world, Belize once was home to more than 2 million Mayas. Sacred temples, pyramids, advanced science, agriculture, mathematics, palaces, and awesome structures are their legacy. Without the use of iron or the wheel, the civilization reached its zenith at the time when Europe was in the Dark Ages.
This advanced civilization – supported by vast agricultural farmlands and trading centers, held sway for well over 2,000 years. The Maya Empire evolved around 350 B.C. in the tropical lowlands Belize and northern Guatemala and reached its apogee from 250 A.D. to 900 A.D. The arrival of the Spanish conquistadors in the 16th century spelled the beginning of the end of the Maya civilization that had already began a decline with many of its great cities and monuments abandoned perhaps due to war, famine or break down of government structure.
The Maya civilization has permanently marked the landscape, as these top ten Belize Maya Sites show.
Xunantunich means “maiden of the rock” or “stone woman” in Maya, and is situated on the Western Highway across the river from the village of San Jose Succotz. It can be reached by ferry daily between 8 am and 5 pm. This site is less than one mile from some lovely rapids of the Mopan River and provides an impressive view of the entire river valley. Xunantunich is a Classic Period ceremonial center. The site core occupies only 300 square meters but the periphery covers several square kilometers On the main palace building is an astronomical carved frieze.
The highest ruin is 133 feet tall, the second tallest ruin in all of Belize. Well-preserved sun god masks decorate one side of the structure. Six major plazas, more than 25 temples and palaces and a new museum are just some of the reasons why Xunantunich is one of the most visited sites. The Belize Tourism Development Project has invested over half a million dollars to fully excavate the site and make it more visitor-friendly.
Take the Western highway for approximately 70 miles, until you reach Santa Elena town. Take the road that leads to Succotz village which is just before reaching Benque Viejo del Carmen. At this point you should see a ferry on the right hand side of the road and a sign for the Maya temple. You cross the ferry free of charge and Xunantunich is a three minute drive from there. Check out our full article devoted to Xunantunich Maya Ruin.
2. Altun Ha
Altun Ha is located 31 miles north of Belize City on the Old Northern Highway. A two-mile dirt road connects the main road to the site. The area around the Altun Ha is rich in wildlife including armadillos, bats, squirrels, agouti, paca, foxes, raccoons, coati, tyra, tapir and the white-tailed deer. Two hundred species of birds have been recorded and there are large crocodiles that inhabit the Maya-made water reservoir. Altun Ha, a major ceremonial and vital trade center during the Classic Period, has two principal plazas. The most significant find of Altun Ha is the “Jade Head”, which represents the Mayan Sun God, Kinich Ahua; it is the largest object carved of jade in the Maya civilization.
From Belize City, take the Northern Highway for about ½ hour just after passing Sandhill Village. Take the Old Northern Highway on your right for 14 miles. On your left, take the Rockstone Pond Road towards the reserve for 2 miles.
Located on the western edge of the Maya Mountains within the Chiquibul Forest Reserve, Caracol lies on a high plateau of 500m above sea level that drops into a deep valley to the northwest and rises into hilly terrain to the southwest. The site was discovered in 1938 by Rosa Mai, a logger looking for mahogany. That same year the Archaeological Commissioner, A.H. Anderson, visited the site and named it ‘Caracol’ (Spanish for ‘shell’).
Caracol – Although one of the most challenging Belize ruins to reach, the trip to Caracol is also one of the most scenic drives. It is the largest known Maya center within the country and holds “Canaa” (Sky Place), the largest pyramid or man made structure in Belize at 140 feet tall. A large part of Caracol is largely being discovered, but numerous carved monuments populate the area, and the main reservoir is an engineering masterpiece.
Caracol is a 2-½ hour drive from San Ignacio town. Take the Cristo Rey Road and drive towards Mountain Pine Ridge until you reach Douglas D’Silva Forest Station. From there drive another 45 minutes until you reach the Caracol Archaeological Reserve.
4. Cahal Pech
Cahal Pech is located on an imposing hill that overlooks the twin towns of San Ignacio and Santa Elena. The name of the site means “Place of Ticks” in the Yucatecan Maya language. This name was coined in the 1950’s when the area around the site was used for pasture.
Research in 1988 found ten mounds. Excavations show that Cahal Pech was inhabited from 1000 B.C. to around 800 A.D. The central part of the ruins provides a beautiful panoramic view of the surrounding area. Thirty- four structures, including temple pyramids, two ball courts, an alter and five plain stelae fill the 2 acre area.
Take the Western highway for approximately 70 miles, until you reach Santa Elena town. Take the road that leads to the San Ignacio Hotel, until you reach a “Y” intersection with a stadium on the left. At this point you should see the sign for Cahal Pech Village Resort and Cahal Pech Maya ruins. Proceed up the road, Cahal Pech Archaeological Reserve is on your left.
5. Santa Rita
A Mayan ruin in northern Belize that dates from 2000 B.C., Santa Rita is what remains of Chactemal (modern-day Chetumal, Quintana Roo Mexico) an ancient Mayan city that is the genesis of the Mestizo people after the first European contact in the region. Santa Rita controlled trade routes within the boundaries of today’s Mexico and Guatemala. Excavations have revealed fishing net sinkers and other objects, which point to Santa Rita’s coastal importance. Remains of rulers with jade and mica ornamentation, as well as others with gold ear decorations, show that the Mayan city had a commanding role for trade in the Yucatan Peninsula and surrounding areas. Santa Rita is located on the outskirts of Corozal Town and is bordered on the east by the Caribbean Sea.
This site of Santa Rita was first settled by Maya farmers around 1000 BC. Evidence for this early phase of occupation is provided by Swasey style pottery that represents some of the earliest ceramics discovered in the Maya lowlands. In the late Preclassic period, from 300 BC to A.D. 300 the settlement expanded but continued to be based primarily on agriculture.
The modern town of Corozal was founded in the mid 1800s and encircles the ancient city of Santa Rita. At its height this site extended from present day Paraiso in the north to the south end of Corozal. This site, bordered on the east by the sea, is situated on a limestone plateu typical of northern Belize which supports a low forest where game abounds. Just north of the center is the Rio Hondo. Along its banks there are large areas of swampland where the Maya created raised fields. These supported the cacao plantations for which the province was famous. The seacoast gave this site access to a wide variety of marine resources. Santa Rita is located on the outskirts of Corozal just off the main road leading to the Mexican border. Frequent buses between Belize City and Corozal pass by this site. There are several flights from Belize City. Accommodations are available in Corozal Town.
From Corozal Town take the road that leads to the border with Mexico. At the northern exit to Corozal Town continue straight up the road intersection that leads to the town hospital. From there Santa Rita is a short distance further on your right just before reaching the Coca Cola distribution depot.
Lamanai is the Maya word for “submerged crocodile.” The site’s name – “Lamanay” or “Lamayna” was recorded by Franciscan missionaries in the seventeenth century. It is one of the only sites retaining its original name and is among one of the largest Maya ceremonial centers. Most folks visit Lamanai by road through San Felipe, Orange Walk, rather than by boat. A “jungle cruise”, the road trip is an excellent chance to see birds, exotic plants and crocodiles. The site itself is even more spectacular; situated on a major trade route, Lamanai is one of the longest occupied Mayan cities and was inhabited for over two millennia. Lamanai has more than 719 mapped structures, including two 16th century Christian churches as well as an intact 19th century sugar mill. Due to the extraordinary length of time that Lamanai was occupied, one can explore several periods of Maya construction techniques, from the Classic Period to the Post Classic. Lamanai was the Maya Temple featured in the 7th episode of ABC’s The Bachelor in February 2012.
Lamanai is on the banks of the New River Lagoon and the most interesting way to travel to the site is by means of water taxi up the river. The trip by river is also a nature-lover’s heaven for numerous species of water birds live along this rich and diverse waterway. You may even be lucky enough to view iguanas and crocodiles as they sun bathe on the river banks. There are also many species of flora and fauna to be seen at the Lamanai reserve.
Another route to Lamanai is via the all weather dirt road (approximately 28 miles) which runs from Orange Walk through several villages including San Felipe and Shipyard. The site is located in the village of Indian Church.
7. Cerro Maya
From 400 B.C. to 100 A.D., Cerros, or Cerro Maya, was a pivotal coastal trading center. With a Spanish name that translates to “Maya Hill”, Cerro Maya is located on a peninsula across from the town of Corozal and in the Bay of Chetumal. Archaeologists believe Cerros must not have survived long because of a shift in trade routes. At the height of its day, the city distributed salt from mining communities and traded chert tools. Today, Cerros is partially underwater, but what remains is stunning – including five temples (one that is 72 feet high) and related plazas, a large canal system and a beautiful panoramic viewed from the top of the temples.
Cerros was occupied in the late Preclassic period and underwent several modifications in the Classic period. For much of its history the site was an important trading center probably based on this sea-borne import of jade and obsidian. Its early decline was possibly few to the general shift of trade routes connecting the highlands and lowlands in the early classic.
This Cerro Maya (Maya Hill) archaeological reserve comprises 52 acres and includes 3 large architectural complexes dominating several plazas flanked by pyramidal structures. Tombs and ball courts have been excavated and artifacts found within them attest to the importance of the site between 400 BC and A.D. 100. This site’s proximity to the sea has resulted in the erosion of two large structures. One of these mounds, structure 5C-nd, contains large stucco masks that have now been replicated to the Institute of Archaeology.
Thomas Gann was among the first to recognize the existence of Cerros, but it was not until 1969 that keep their Peter Schmidt and Joseph Palacio visited the site and registered it with the Institute of Archaeology. The land on which the site is located was originally acquired by a Dallas-based company, Metroplex Properties. They subsequently established a nonprofit organization known as the Cerro Maya foundation whose purpose was to excavate the ceremonial center as a tourist attraction. Thankfully the foundation went bankrupt and the large-scale development of the site never materialized. Cerros was eventually surveyed, excavated and partially consolidated from 1973 to 1979 by David Freidel of Southern Methodist University. Freidel focused on the ceremonial center, and on the importance of trade at Cerro Maya. More recently the Belize Institute of Archaeology has conserved the Preclassic masks exposed my Freidel in the 1970s.
Cerros can be reached by a short boat ride from Corozal Town. Boats can be hired in town from your hotel guest services. But you can drive to Cerros by road crossing the ferry at the south side of the town and from there passing such picturesque, lagoon side, villages as Chunox, Progresso and Copper Bank. This site is located within an area of extensive wetlands, therefore, it is advisable to use insect repellent and, if possible, long sleeve shirts and trousers
8. Barton Creek Cave
Barton Creek is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the Cayo District. In addition to its natural beauty, the site contains a wide range of cultural remains that were left within the cave as offerings by the ancient Maya. Artifacts, hearths, modified cave formations, and human remains were deposited on ledges above the river indicating that the cave was of great ritual importance to the ancient settlers of the region.
Barton Creek is an hour’s drive from San Ignacio Town. Take the Georgville exit and drive about 10 minutes or approximately 3 miles to the Cool Shade exit. Drive another 35 minutes until you reach the Barton Creek Orthodox Mennonite Community. The site is located just outside the village
9. Nim Li Punit
The name Nim Li Punit is derived from a carving on one of the site’s twenty six stelae, which depicts a figure wearing a large headdress. In the Maya Kekchi language, Nim li Punit means “the big hat.” The monument on which this carving appears is the longest stela in Belize (Stela 14), originally located in an area called Plaza of the Stelae. These ruins over look the Toledo coastal plain, milpas and rain forest. Having only one main plaza, one pyramid, one ball court and a few moderately sized buildings, Nim Li Punit fall is smaller compared to masterpieces found in other areas. But it has a large number of stelae; twenty-five large, often huge, stone slabs and pillars, eight of them carved, populate this small area. In fact, one of the stela is the tallest carved example in Belize. Due to this curiosity, Nim Li Punit is believed to have served as its dynasty’s worshiping place.
From the City Of Belmopan, take the Hummingbird Highway for 45 miles until you reach the Southern Highway Exit. Turn right onto the Southern Highway and travel an additional 50 miles (about 1 ½ hours) until you reach Indian Creek Village. Exit to the right on the gravel road and continue for about half a mile until you reach the reserve.
“Place of the Fallen Stones”. This Late Classic ceremonial center is noted for its unusual style of construction distinctive of southern Belize. The large pyramids and residences are made of dressed stone blocks with no mortar binding them together. The buildings on top of the pyramids were made from perishable materials rather than masonry and hence do not remain. The name is Maya for “Place of Fallen Stones. Lubaantun is located north of the Colombia River, one mile past the village of San Pedro Colombia, in the Toledo District.
Lubaantun is north of the Colombia River, one mile past the village of San Pedro Colombia, Toledo District and is accessible by public transportation. From the City Of Belmopan, take the Hummingbird Highway for 45 miles to the junction of the Southern Highway Exit. Turn right unto the Southern Highway and travel an additional 70 miles (2 hours) until you reach the Silver Creek cut off. Travel through the villages of San Miguel and San Pedro Columbia. Exit right on the all weather gravel road and continue for about 1 1/2 miles until you reach the reserve.