Think of the Central American nation of Belize, and chances are that images of the hemisphere's largest ocean reef and gorgeous beaches on its offshore islands shall prevail. But inland, where the serrated peaks of the Maya Mountains rise sheer from the coastal plains, Mayan archaeological sites transfix culture-hungry visitors with their grace and monumental size. Awe-inspiring pyramids, caves and palaces remain enshrouded by pulsating jungle where boisterous howler monkeys hold court in the treetops, parrots screech and reptiles hustle to create an electrifying crescendo of color and sound.
Just 45 miles north from Belize City, Orange Walk District harbors picture-perfect Mayan temples, without the crowds and without clichéd preconceptions. Some 70 miles from Belize City, laid-back San Ignacio is the quintessential traveler’s hub, the launch pad for exhilarating adventures in the remote Cayo District, a wild place where ancient mysticism and incredible biodiversity coalesce to provide a sensual and cerebral adventure of epic proportions.
What Xunantunich may lack in scale, it makes up for in its supreme location, crowning a limestone ridge that affords panoramic views of the Cayo District and the patchwork terraces of neighboring Guatemala. Some 8 miles from San Ignacio, accessed by a convenient ferry service, Xunantunich was rediscovered in the late 19th century and is comprised of 25 structures whose formidable stature belies a stately grace. Radiating from the site’s ceremonial axis -- the pyramid of El Castillo -- are a series of residences built for the city’s elite denizens, in addition to a ball court, all which date from the Classic Period, circa A.D. 200 to 900. Rising from the jungle to a vertigo-inducing 135 feet, El Castillo features restored stucco reliefs that during the city’s heyday would have adorned the perimeter of the entire pyramid. Despite being one of the most heavily touristed of Belize’s Maya ruins, in part due to its accessibility, a supernatural aura holds sway. The name, Xunantunich, translated as “Stone Woman,” dates to the late 19th century when, so myth and legend has it, a female figure dressed in white ascended the stairs of El Castillo before vanishing into the temple’s stone walls. The city reached its zenith around A.D. 750 before an earthquake, interpreted by the Maya as the wrath of God, precipitated its demise.
When it comes to the panoply of Central America’s Mayan ruins, Caracol stands tall as the first among equals. The site’s striking centerpiece is Caana, a 140-foot-high platform that ranks as the highest man-made edifice in Belize. Caracol’s pivotal success in times of war and peace was garnered by an egalitarian social system and shared sense of identity -- artifacts such as precious jade, tools and polychrome pots were widely shared. According to archaeologists Arlen and Diane Chase -- University of Florida professors who have devoted their careers to excavating the site since the early 1980s -- Caracol’s hieroglyphic record indicates that during its successful middle history (around A.D. 650), Caracol conquered neighboring Tikal to become the largest of Belize’s Maya cities. A thriving trade system provided the catalyst for unprecedented growth. With a community of around 100,000 residents, Caracol's population exceeded that of the Yucatán’s more well documented site, Chichén Itzá. Many of the palaces and residences that make up the site --up to 36,000 according to the Chases -- have yet to be fully excavated, restored and tourist proofed.
Actun Tunichil Muknal
Ranked by "National Geographic" as one of the world's most sacred caves, Actun Tunichil Muknal is not for the faint hearted. This ethereal series of grotto-like burial chambers forms one of the most memorable, and challenging, close encounters with Belize’s archaeological treasures and provides an intimacy that is lacking at other Mayan sites. Translated as “Caves of the Crystal Maiden,” a trip this far, deep into the untamed forests of the Cayo District, requires commitment and a fair bit of pluck. After a lengthy hike that involves fording three rivers, visitors must swim into the cave’s ghoulish bowels before ascending a limestone cave wall to reach the labyrinthine inner chamber. The Maya referred to this macabre underworld as Xibalba, or “place of fear.” You need to be nimble in mind and body to sidestep the scattered remains that provide visceral evidence of the Maya’s ritualistic proclivities. Beyond the jumble of crystallized bones and shards of pottery, the site culminates with the arresting vision of the eponymous Crystal Maiden, a calcified full female skeleton.
At the heart of a lost world of dense jungles, crystalline lagoons and fetid marshlands, the sublime Mayan ruin of Lamanai defies hyperbole. Located in northern Belize, 24 miles from Orange Walk town, the most apropos means of reaching the site is to embark on a languid river ride that meanders through swathes of jungle and past Mennonite villages. As the river empties into the New River Lagoon, a vision of the ancient site majestically poised on the ridge of a limestone cliff comes into view. With artifacts spanning from as early as 1300 B.C. to the arrival of the Spanish, the site's structures are replete with allusions to the crocodiles which populate the lagoon and for which the site is named Lamanai translates as “submerged crocodile” in Maya. Of the triumvirate of Lamanai’s pyramids, a climb to the pinnacle of the High Temple affords a jaw-dropping panorama of the surrounding area, which has been designated a wildlife reserve for its incredible diversity of fauna and flora. The awe-inspiring Mask Temple features masks, or faces, with recognizable Olmec features -- wide noses and lips upturned -- improbably chiseled from limestone. Each mask bears a headdress that symbolizes a crocodile.
While it may not have the transcendent aura of Lamanai or Caracol, Altun Ha -- meaning Rockstone Pond in Mayan -- is etched eternally in the Belizian popular consciousness. The site’s remarkable archaeological treasure -- an exquisite jade mask that weighs in at almost 10 pounds -- graces Belize’s national currency, while the Temple of the Masonry Altars where it was discovered features on the label of one of the country’s leading beer brands, Belikin. Belize’s unquestioned crown jewel, the jade sculpture was carved between A.D 600 and 650. It is now housed in Belize’s Central Bank vault, making rare and fleeting appearances at archaeological exhibitions worldwide. Altun Ha packs a lot into a small but satisfying area. Located 30 miles north of Belize City, the majority of Altun Ha’s 500 structures were built during the Classic Period; it is believed that the site was occupied as early as 200 B.C. A revolt against the city’s elite around A.D 900 precipitated the downfall of the center as the population diminished and architectural accomplishment reached its nadir.