When I thought of the great ruins of the Maya empire, I never gave Belize a second thought.
Sure, I knew Central America was the heart of the Maya empire, but I didn’t really know much more. Although I’m certainly no expert on the Maya, I knew of the famous ruins of Chichen Itza, Palenque, and Calakmul in Mexico and the great city of Tikal in Guatemala. But Belize? What ruins were there? And were they even worth visiting?
But as we began planning for our trip to Belize this summer, I began to learn so many interesting things about this country that I never knew before — including the important role it played in the Maya empire. Much to my surprise, I learned Belize contains the greatest concentration of Maya sites in the entire region (supposedly more than 1,400!). Unfortunately, most of these sites remained covered in dense jungle and have not been excavated.
Nonetheless, Belize has several partially excavated Maya sites that are well worth taking the time to visit. They impress not only because of the architectural prowess of the Maya, but also because of their spectacular settings along rivers and nestled deep in seemingly impenetrable jungle. Because they’re less well-known than sites like Tikal and Chichen Itza, they’re also less crowded, offering a much more serene environment in which to immerse yourself in the life of the Maya.
†If you’re planning a trip to Belize, here are five ruins you’ll want to take time to explore:
The ruins at Altun Ha are some of the most visited in Belize due to their easy accessibility from Belize City. These small ruins include two central plazas with several pyramids. Like most Maya sites throughout Central America, only a small portion of the structures at Altun Ha have been excavated. The site served as an important trading center between coastal and inland Maya communities.
Although this is one of the smaller Maya ruins in Belize, it is certainly worth visiting. It’s close proximity to San Ignacio and location along the road toward Tikal in Guatemala make it a convenient and popular stop for travelers. It’s name is Mayan for “stone woman.” The city was most active and thriving from 600-900 AD. It’s largest structure is El Castillo, and fortunately for adventurous travelers, it can be climbed. This building features a restored frieze on its side which is fascinating to view. To reach the site, you can take a cab or a bus from San Ignacio, and then you will take a small ferry across the river where you can either take a van to the park entrance or walk (like we did!).
Caracol, located in the Cayo District just across the border from Guatemala, is the largest known Maya site in Belize and probably its most impressive, just for its shear scale. Accessing the site is also quite the adventure as you travel for several hours along a bumpy jungle road. The ruins are estimated to only be 6% excavated, so in the future, if funding allows, there could be much more to explore of this site. The site’s main attraction is the Sky Palace, or the Canaa, which stands 136 ft. tall and is the tallest Maya structure in Belize. Day trips can be arranged to Caracol from San Ignacio.
The ruins at Cahal Pech are easy to overlook. They’re not touted as Belize’s most impressive, but we enjoyed this small site more than any of the other ruins, except for maybe Caracol. They are located on the top of the hill overlooking San Ignacio, close to the Guatemala border. Although we chose to walk there (which takes less than 30 minutes), you could also hire a cab. The site has a small, but informative museum, which is worth taking a glance through before continuing on to the site itself. We were there during late summer, when teams of archaeologists were uncovering ruins below the ground from older periods in Maya history. There were also teams restoring large ruins that have yet to be fully uncovered. We only passed one other tourist the entire time we were at the site, which gave it a more authentic, undiscovered feel. The ruins are surrounded by beautiful trees, as opposed to large open courtyards like most of the other ruins. This site is definitely worth spending a morning or afternoon visiting during your stop over in San Ignacio.
Lamanai, located in Northern Belize, derives its name from the Maya word meaning “submerged crocodile,” and for good reason. To visit these ruins, you must travel by boat along the New River through the Belizian jungle, where yes, there are crocodiles! Lamanai is estimated to have been inhabited from 500 BC through 1675 AD, making it one of the longest continually inhabited Maya cities, as their location along the river helped facilitate trade with the community.
Lamanai is one of the more popular ruins to visit in Belize, not just because of its picturesque ruins, but also because of the excitement of taking the river to get there. The site features three large pyramids, one with quite the steep climb, several residential areas, and a Maya ball court (where the winner was sacrificed and the loser was shamed!).†
Looking for even more insight into Maya life and culture? Check out Actun Tunichil Muknal, a ceremonial cave used by the Maya to offer sacrifices to their gods, or head into Guatemala to check out the steep and stunning pyramids at Tikal or head north along the Belizian coast into Mexico to experience a different style of community (with a fantastic view!) at Tulum and Chichen Itza.
Feature image Photo Credit