The Maya were a powerful civilization that originated in the Yucatan around 2600 BC and came to full power around AD 250. They lived in an area that stretched from Central Mexico to El Salvador and included Belize. Some believe that the region may have been home to more than 2 million Mayas during the peak of their dynasty. The ancient Maya were known for their advanced knowledge of astronomy and for constructing large cities containing pyramids and other structures. Sadly, their civilization came to a mysterious end around AD 900, but the remains of the once grand Mayan ruins can be found scattered throughout Belize.
These Mayan ruins in Belize are located on the border of Belize and Guatemala in the El Pilar Archaeological Reserve for Maya Flora and Fauna. Work on this site is still ongoing and, in fact, much of El Pilar still remains in the early stages of excavation. So this site is actually an excellent example of what Maya sites look like before they are unearthed and restored. Its mostly un-excavated condition will also give you an idea of how easily these Mayan ruins can blend in with the surrounding jungle. Another plus? It is fairly remote and still does not attract many tourists. So it’s highly likely that you’ll be able to enjoy El Pilar with very few other visitors around. Tours are not always available to this site, so some travelers will hike in or rent an ATV or 4×4 so they can explore it.
Cerros, which was once a major trading center, is the only Maya ruins in Belize that is located on the coast. Some of this site’s ruins are actually underwater now, while many others have not yet been excavated. Fortunately, though, there are several structures and ball courts that you can explore if you do decide to visit this somewhat remote site. Though Cerros is small, its location on the coast is beautiful and peaceful. Cerros can be reached via a quick boat ride across the bay from the town of Corozal. It can also be reached by car during the dry season. But be forewarned, the drive is approximately three hours long on an unpaved road.
Barton Creek Cave is one of the more unusual Mayan sites that you can visit while in Belize. It is a wet cave that was used by the Maya as early as AD 200 to 600 for ceremonial purposes. Archaeologists have discovered thousands of artifacts, including many ceramic fragments, on ledges within Barton Creek Cave, as well as the remains of at least 28 humans. Although researchers are not certain, it is believed that at least some of these humans may have been sacrificed to the rain god Chac. The cave is also filled with beautiful stalactites, stalagmites and bats. If you want to explore Barton Creek Cave, get ready to do some paddling. The only way to get to and explore this cave is via canoe.
Lubaantun, which is the largest Maya site in southern Belize, is known for the unusual construction of its buildings. Instead of limestone, which was typically used in the region, the buildings at Lubaantun were constructed from black slate. In addition, no mortar was used in between the blocks, and the corners of the structures were rounded. Lubaantun is also known for the large collection of small ceramic objects that were discovered during its excavation. There is also a famous and controversial crystal skull that was allegedly discovered at Lubaantun, but some researchers dispute that it actually came from these ruins. Currently, Lubaantun does not attract a lot of visitors, so there is a good chance that you might be able to explore these Maya ruins accompanied only by the sounds of the surrounding jungle.
Cahal Pech is located on top of a steep hill, overlooking the Macal River, and is just a short distance from the town of San Ignacio. It was first settled around 1200 B.C. and abandoned around 800 to 900 AD. From this site, archaeologists have discovered important facts and information about the earliest Maya settlers. In comparison to some of Belize’s other more well-known ruins, Cahal Pech is small. But it is worth visiting, especially if you will be in the San Ignacio area. It contains several ruins that you can climb or enter and explore. You will also find a small, but very informative museum about Mayan history at Cahal Pech.
The trek to this site requires a bit of an adventurous spirit as you will have to hike, wade through water — possibly swim — and rock scramble to reach its remote location. Actun Tunichil Muknal — also known as ATM — is, however, worth the effort as it is one of Belize’s more fascinating Maya sites. It is a cave that contains many Maya artifacts and the skeletal remains of a number of sacrifice victims. The most famous of these was an 18-year-old girl, dubbed the Crystal Maiden, whose bones are now covered in glittering calcite. Locals called this cave Xibalba, which was the Mayan underworld, and some believed that it was the entrance to hell. If you want to visit this fascinating cave, you must have a guide or be on an official tour.
Although Altun Ha is not a big site, it contains some of the best restored Mayan ruins in Belize, which has made it very popular with visitors. Surprisingly, this site was only recently “discovered” by archaeologists in 1963 and was first excavated between 1965 and 1970. It was during that first excavation that one of Belize’s most famous artifacts was discovered — the Jade Head. It was a carving of the Maya sun god “Kinich Ahau,” and is the largest carved jade object from the Maya civilization every discovered. Altun Ha also contains a man-made lagoon, which you can still see today. If you are an animal lover, make sure to keep your eyes open for the prolific wildlife, including tapir, armadillos, foxes and birds, that live in the area.
The Maya archaeological site Xunantunich is located on the Mopan River in southern Belize, very close to Guatemala. While it is not a big site, Xunantunich does contain some interesting ruins, including El Castillo, which at 40 meters (130 feet), is the second tallest structure in Belize. Xunantunich, which was a Maya ceremonial center, was at its height between 600 and 890 AD. And even though excavation work first began in the 1800s on this site, researchers studying the site are still making new discoveries. For example, in 2016, one of the largest royal tombs — if not the largest — in Belize was discovered in Xunantunich. Remarkably, it still contained the remains of an adult male as well as numerous artifacts.
Because Lamanai is located on the banks of the New River Lagoon, some travelers visit the site via a “jungle” cruise through the rainforest. This method of transportation will give you a chance to see local wildlife, including monkeys, crocodiles and iguanas. Once at Lamanai, you’ll find a well-excavated and beautiful site. Lamanai was once a major city and was also one of the longest occupied Mayan cities. The main attractions at this site are three pyramids, the Jaguar Temple, the High Temple and Mask Temple. The Jaguar Temple gets its name because part of it was constructed to look like the head of the big cat. The mask temple boasts huge faces carved into the structure. Looking for a little exercise? Then climb up the High Temple, where you can enjoy a view of the surrounding jungle.
Caracol, which dates back to 1200 BC, is the largest Mayan site in Belize. It is, in fact, larger than Belize City and was home to approximately 15,000 people, though as many as 115,000 may have lived in its “suburbs.” Because Caracol is situated in a remote location in the Chiquibul Forest Reserve, you should prepare yourself for a long, bumpy drive. But once you reach Caracol, you’ll find a site worth the effort. Here, you’ll find Caana, which is still the tallest man-made structure in Belize, standing 43 meters (141 feet) tall. Inside Caana are three temples and four palaces. Caracol also contains many other structures, including reservoirs, an astronomic observatory and ball courts. However, it is important to note that a majority of this site is still being excavated and restored.