The Best Maya Ruins in Belize
With a sumptuous coastline, adventure sports galore, and rain forests teeming with animal and plant life, it’s no wonder Belize tops many must travel lists. But one of the most compelling reasons to travel to Belize isn’t something new at all: in fact, you could devote large swaths of time to wandering through the country’s ancient Mayan ruins. Whether you’ve got weeks to spend or just a few days, here are our top 5 must-see picks.
Caracol – Spanish for “snail” – may not be the most well-excavated Maya ruins, but they are one of the biggest, not just in Belize but in the entire Maya world, covering an area larger and more expansive than Belize City. At Caracol’s height, it was home to 150,000 Maya and boasted as many as 30,000 structures, including the pyramid called El Caana, the tallest structure both in ancient Maya culture and in modern Belize. Fascinating hieroglyphics abound here. Given that Caracol sat untouched for nearly 1,000 years before its discovery in 1937, this is still a very active archaeological site, so chances are high some new discovery will be made during the course of your visit.
Caracol is located in the Chiquibil Forest Reserve, located about 2.5 hours south of San Ignacio. Most nearby resorts offer tours, or you can rent a car and go on your own. Just make sure to gas up beforehand, as there won’t be any chances along the 50-mile entrance road!
2. Altun Ha
If you’re looking for a quick jaunt from Belize City, Altun Ha is just the site for you. Though the ruins are far less expansive than those at Carcol, they’re extremely well-preserved, with both rebuilt pyramids and plazas to explore and foliage-encased temples and tombs. The city, which was home to 10,000 at its height, was likely an important trading hub, as many artifacts from Mexico, Guatemala and Panama have been found within the site. One of the biggest draws here is a sculpture of the Mayan Sun God, Kinich Ahau, which also happens to be the largest carved piece of jade from the Maya era. Beer enthusiasts will also want to make sure to check out the Temple of the Masonry Altars, which is featured on Belize’s very own Belikin beer.
Altun Ha is located just 34 miles from Belize City, so hopping on to a local tour or driving there yourself is easy to do.
While most of Belize’s Mayan ruins feature temples, few can match those of Lamanai. Mask Temple, High Temple and Jaguar Temple are all popular sites, offering stunning views and facial carvings cut from limestone. The Lamanai ruins also feature residential areas, plazas and even a ball court, so you can really imagine how the ancient Mayans lived. The name Lamanai is commonly translated as “submerged crocodile,” but thankfully you won’t find nearly as many here as the explorers who found good reason to dub it accordingly.
Lamanai is located on the shore of the New Lagoon River. Though you can reach it by road, taking a boat up the river is a great excuse to go wild life spotting along the way.
Cerros, just like Caracol, is notable for its striking location as well as its long state of abandonment. Situated on narrow peninsula in the Bay of Chetumal, Cerros grew rapidly from a fishing village into a small city around 50 BC as an important stop on the New River trade route. However, this boom town quickly went bust presumably as trade routes moved overland. The city’s former inhabitants left behind plazas, temples, ball courts and a canal system, along with distinctive E-Group structures – possible astronomical observatories unique to the Maya.
Cerros is accessible by boat from Corozal Town, located just across the bay. During the dry season, there is also road access from Chunox, Progresso and Copper Bank.
Both easy to get to and incredibly impressive, the ceremonial center of Xunatunich is a can’t-miss stop. The site boasts 25 temples and palaces as well as striking views into Guatemala from the tops of each. And because it’s an active archaeological site, you’ll be able to see what the city looked like through the various periods of its construction. Also notable: the glimpses into the site’s socioeconomic strata, as you can see residences of the wealthy, middle class and poor. Stucco reliefs abound, making the city just as much an artistic exploration as an ancient one.
Xunantunich is easily accessible from the highway as well as on the Xunantunich Ferry, which crosses the Mopan River. Just make sure to get there early to beat the crowds.
Whether you’re fascinated by Mayan culture or you’re just looking for something fun to do while in Belize, the Maya ruins are sure to fascinate. So, choose the ones that are right for you and start planning that itinerary! And before any big trek, consider flight insurance before you go!