Mayan Ruins Belize
For more than 1,000 years, upwards of 2 million Maya lived, prayed, and worked in the area that is now the modern nation of Belize. Strategically located along several key trade routes, the Ancient Maya civilization built hundreds of stone cities, making Belize today home to more Maya ruins than anywhere else. While nobody knows quite what led to the collapse of the Mayan Empire around the year 1200 A.D., today visitors can explore a rich legacy of palaces, temples, monuments, and pyramids.
Below are the most amazing Mayan ruins you should visit in Belize:
Located in northern Belize, Altun Ha is just a short drive from Belize City. This small but beautifully preserved site has two large plazas, capped off with pyramids and mounds that tourists can climb. Today, archeologists have revealed just a few of the hundreds of temples, tombs, and buildings that are still buried in the jungle. Thousands of pieces of valuable jade, pearl, and obsidian have been discovered here, including a large sculpture of Kinich Ahau, the sun god of the Mayan pantheon.
Easy to get to from Cayo District and western Belize, a short distance from San Ignacio, the site at Xunantunich is one of the best excavated and accessible Mayan sites in the country. During the Classic Period of the Mayan Empire, Xunantunich was a major city, and tourists can now view the huge central pyramid, as well as many carved stelae that use hieroglyphs to tell the story of this once-great metropolis. Visitors eager to explore Xunantunich will have to cross the Mopan river at the village of San Jose Succotz, using a hand-cranked ferry to traverse to the other side.
Located in northern Belize, Lamanai has been well-preserved, and the site features three big pyramids, a residential quarter, and a ball court for the popular Mayan sport. Situated on the banks of the New River Lagoon, Lamanai was one of the few Mayan cities still occupied when the Spanish arrived during the conquistador period, and thus is one of the only Mayan sites to still bear its original name.
Measuring over 100 acres in size, El Pilar is one of the largest Mayan cities ever discovered. El Pilar is easily accessible from Cayo District and western Belize. Archeologists have revealed more than 25 plazas or central squares. Straddling the modern border between Guatemala and Belize, archeological excavation is still ongoing, with many more treasures expected to be revealed in the near future.
Probably the most famous Mayan city, Tikal is located just across the border from southern Belize in Guatemala. With several impressive pyramids, visitors to Tikal can marvel at the huge temples that still dominate the rainforest canopy. Now populated by parrots and monkeys, archeologists estimate that the complete city measures over 25 square miles, and was once home to a population of over 100,000 people. (Editor’s note: Tikal is not located in Belize however many travelers to the country do a full day trip to Tikal in Guatemala.)
Probably the most famous Mayan site in Belize, Caracol is easily accessible from Cayo District and western Belize. Situated in today’s Chiquibil Forest Reserve, archeologists are only just now beginning to uncover the full extent of the city. The central pyramid of Caana, called the “Sky Palace” by locals, towers over 41 meters (136 feet) above the plaza, making it still the tallest man-made structure anywhere in the country.
The Mayan name for this city translates to “big hat” because over two dozen beautifully carved stelae feature Mayan traditional headdresses. Located near Toledo, visitors to Nim Li Punit must travel through an unspoiled rainforest to reach the site. Believed to have once been an important center for religious rituals, Nim Li Punit also contains a ball court and a pyramid.
Visitors to the modern towns of Santa Elena and San Ignacio who climb the nearby hill can catch a glimpse of the majesty of Cahal Pech. First uncovered by archeologists in 1988, today the site has revealed more than 34 impressive buildings, including pyramids, stelae, a sacrificial altar, and ball courts. Soil analysis has revealed that the Mayan used a special system of organic material to provide “green” roofs for their buildings at this site.
Close to the city of San Pedro Colombia, visitors to Lubaantun can access the site via public transportation. During its heyday, the site was an important ceremonial center, featuring temples, pyramids, and other buildings made out of huge stone blocks, fitted together without using mortar.
Today, Cerros is partly underwater, built on a peninsula on the Bay of Chetumal. Visitors can access the site either by boat or by road to explore five temples, including one that towers an impressive 72 feet above the plaza. Believed to have been important center for harvesting salt, Cerros was also focused on farming, using an intricate series of canals to irrigate crops.
Santa Rita is a unique ancient Maya site because it survived the collapse of Maya society into the Late Post Classic Period and the early days of the Spanish incursion into the region. Today, it is believed that the ruins known as Santa Rita were once the ancient city of Chetumal. The modern day town of Corozal in Belize was built on the abandoned ruins of Santa Rita.
Cuello is an ancient Maya site located in Belize’s northern Orange Walk District. One of the oldest Maya sites ever discovered, archeologists believe that the site was first settled more than 4,000 years ago.
Excavations beginning in the 1970s revealed a unique style of pottery called Swasey” after a river in Belize. It is believed that the Swasey pottery styles have no clear parallels. Cuello is believed to have been a relatively unimportant town during the Pre Classic era but served as a regional trade hub as precious items like jade and obsidian have been discovered at the site.
History of the Maya in Belize
The history of the Maya is integral to the history of Belize. Belize is located in one of the most important strongholds of this ancient civilization. That legacy can be seen today in the many well-preserved Maya ruins that are present in Belize. The best-known are those at Xunantunich, Cahal Pech, Caracol, and Lamanai.
Who Were the Maya?
The Maya civilization began around 2600 BC and lasted almost 2000 years. The Maya established numerous city-states in what we now call Mesoamerica, most of Guatemala and Belize, and parts of El Salvador and Honduras.
The Maya were the most advanced civilization of their time. Even today, people who explore Maya ruins are astonished at the construction and engineering skills they used to build their temples, pyramids, and cities. Maya architecture was far more complex and developed than that of the ancient Egyptians. Visiting these ruins today gives you a small glimpse into the detailed mathematical and engineering knowledge that they had.
Maya temples and palaces were built in ways that allowed them to view and study the constellation. They were fascinated by astronomy and show an advanced knowledge of it in their writing and architecture.
Mathematicians, Engineers and Farmers
Architecture and astronomy were not the only areas where the Maya excelled. Their language is considered the most sophisticated and advanced language in all of early America. The Maya improved the mathematical and calendar systems that were in place at the time. They invented the concept of “zero,” which allowed for more advanced mathematical calculations.
The Maya used advanced farming techniques, including underground water storage, irrigation canals, raised plots and terracing. The Maya grew corn, cacao, maize, squash, beans, cassava, and other crops.
They developed strong economies based on trading partnerships with other cultures and tribes in the region. Their social and economic structure was varied and it included the nobility, priests, merchants, skilled craftsmen, and laborers. However, the Maya did not use money, but they often used jade, seashells and copper bells as trading items.
The Maya believed in many different gods. Religion was an important part of their lives. They also believed that every living thing was imbued with a sacred essence.
To the Maya, caves were the most spiritual places because they were portals to the underworld which they called “Xibalba”. The Maya used caves to bury their dead and conduct their most sacred rituals. Today, explorers and archeologists in Mesoamerica are still finding important artifacts in these caves.
The End of the Maya Empire
The powerful city-states of the Maya empire began to fail sometime around 900 AD. The reasons for this are unclear, but many historians believe that a combination of prolonged draught, deforestation and wars was to blame. When the Europeans conquered the region, they did their best to wipe out all traces of the Maya civilization. However, many of them retreated to the highlands of Guatemala, Mexico, and Belize.
The Maya Today
The powerful empire may have faded into history, but the Maya have survived. Today, thousands of people in countries like Mexico, Guatemala, and Belize speak one of the many Mayan languages.
The Maya People of Belize
Although they left behind an impressive collection of causeways, pyramids, palaces, and irrigation networks, much about the ancient Maya remains a mystery. Beginning in the centuries before the Common Era, the Maya civilization soon spread across Central America, encompassing more than a million inhabitants at its peak. With a vast territory ranging from Central Mexico down south to what is now El Salvador, the Maya built a network of trading posts, stone cities, and farms.
The heart of the ancient Maya empire is in modern-day Belize, and three distinct groups of Maya continue to call the small Central American country home. The Maya of Belize are grouped by their dialect, known as the Yucatec, Kekchi, and Mopan Maya people. While many of their customs and traditions are similar, each sub-group speaks their own uniquely distinct dialect. The arrival of European settlers in the area was long after the bulk of the ancient Maya civilization had already collapsed. Today, the descendants of the original Maya are largely distinguishable by their skin tone, short and stocky stature, and straight, black hair.
At the heyday of their empire, the Maya were organized in a loose confederation of independent city states. Each separate kingdom was highly organized with a rigid bureaucracy and top-down administrative structure. Europeans living in the New World originally painted a number of romantic myths about the Maya civilization, drawing erroneous conclusions from the enormous stone structures and cities that had been abandoned to the jungle. After intensive work, archeologists and linguists managed to decipher the Maya’s unique system of hieroglyphic writing, unlocking a partial tale of a people highly skilled in warfare who offered up stiff resistance to the original Spanish conquerors in the region.
Although the Maya clashed repeatedly with Spanish forces in other parts of Central America, the heavily rural areas of Belize were largely untouched. Half-hearted attempts by the Spanish to convert the Maya to Catholicism and submit to the yoke were largely ineffectual in Belize, clearing the way for isolated bands of Maya living in the jungle to preserve their language, beliefs, music, and traditional ways. In later centuries, the arrival of the British along with large numbers of enslaved Africans radically changed the make-up of the country. Historical records in the British archives repeatedly refer to hostile “Indians” who would raid towns and villages before disappearing into the forest.
Of the surviving Maya population in Belize, the Mopan and Kekchi are the most numerous. The Yucatec Maya in Belize arrived in northern districts of the country such as Corozal and Orange Walk during the 19th century to escape the violence of the Caste Way in neighboring Mexico. Their descendants quickly intermarried and were absorbed by the larger culture, and few Maya today are able to trace their ancestry to Yucatac emigrants. Despite the fact that the Maya compose only a small portion of modern Belize’s population, their status as the original inhabitants of the region is respected and recognized. The legacy of the ancient Maya continues to contribute to the overall cultural richness and diversity of the country, and the Maya remain one of the most significant components of the melting pot that forms the modern nation of Belize.
Maya Masks And The Dance Of The Deer
Mayan culture has been around for thousands of years and is still alive and well today. Traditions such as elaborately costumed dances with carved, wooden masks are still performed at festivals and special events. One of these, the Dance of the Deer, is unique to Belize.
The “soundtrack” to the Dance of the Deer is a played on a 3-person marimba. They play more than two dozen distinct melodies. The dance portrays how the marimba called all the animals from the woods and mountains. Dancers with deer masks and clad in brilliantly colored costumes come forward as the marimba plays. Other dancers portray monkeys and jaguars.
As the story progresses, the Spaniards appear. Their costumes are typically adorned with lots of mirrors, which some say reflects the resistance of the Mayan people to the invading forces. Towards the finale of the dance, the performers act out how the Spaniards shot all the deer, which doesn’t end well for the Spaniards. The story holds the message of respecting animals and nature and about how nature may retaliate.
All of the dancers wear the traditional, carved masks. These masks are believed to have great power and they are not handled lightly. Only certain people are allowed to touch the masks. The costumes, too, are handled reverently.
While today the dance is about the Spanish Conquistadors’ disrespect for nature, many believe that the dance dates much further back. The characters of the Spaniards may have been substituted for a generalized “bad person” who would harm nature and kill animals indiscriminately.
This dance has been revived in many areas to highlight and preserve the Mayan culture. Children learn important aspects of their heritage through these ritualized dances. The Dance of the Deer is often performed as part of multi-day celebrations that include feasting and other activities. If you’re lucky enough to visit Belize during a cultural celebration, be sure to check out the dances and be immersed in the rich Mayan culture.