The Best Mayan Ruins to Visit in 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.