Modern Maya archeology emerged from the expeditions of John Stephens and Frederick Catherwood between 1839 and 1842. Their discovery of ruined cities in the jungles of Mesoamerica caught the imagination of the academic world and began the search to unlock the mystery of the Maya. Belize forms part of the Mundo Maya, which stretches from southern Mexico down through Central America. The country’s ounce large Mayan population (estimated at over 1 million), along with findings like Caracol’s military victory over the mighty city of Tikal in Guatemala, have led archeologists to conclude that Belize was a major political power in the Mayan world. Ounce part of large ceremonial and trading centers, temples now lay silent surrounded by dense jungle. As you walk through the plazas you will learn of a culture rooted in gods, war and sacrifice; while climbing the taller temples yields spectacular views. It is helpful to visualize what they would have looked like at the peak of Mayan civilization (Classic Period 250-900 AD). Imagine replacing the surrounding jungle with wide open areas of farmland, roads and public plazas, with the temples plastered and painted in various colors. Many are part of natural reserves as well, harboring lush vegetation, birds and wildlife.
At the end of the Classic Period, the Maya abandoned their great cities leaving them exposed to the corroding elements of nature. Theories abound, but no one really knows for sure what halted the progress of their civilization. The Cayo district has many ruins. Caracol is Belize’s largest site which toppled the mighty city of Tikal in neighboring Guatemala, shutting it down for 130 years. Xunantunich lays on top of a limestone ridge overlooking the Mopan River Valley and Guatemala’s Peten forests. Its tallest temple, El Castillo, is 135 feet and features a hieroglyphic frieze. Tikal, in neighboring Guatemala, can also be visited from here. It is one of the most impressive ruins of the Maya world, with 3,000 excavated structures and 250 mapped stelae. Lamanai lays in the Orange Walk district, nestled beside the New River Lagoon. Its High Temple is the largest Pre Classic structure of the entire Mayan world. Unlike other sites, it was still occupied when the Spanish arrived, as evidenced by 2 Christian church ruins. North of Belize City lays Altun Ha, the most well excavated site in the country. It was here that the solid jade head of the sun god Kinich Ahau was excavated. Lubaantun lays in Punta Gorda and features a unique architecture with terraces and rounded corners. The mysterious crystal skull was excavated here.
Many of Belize’s Mayan ruins remain unexcavated and archeologists continue their research. For example, only a small part of the 177 square kilometers that make up Caracol has been mapped, identifying 5,000 of an estimated 36,000 structures. According to John Morris, an archeologist with Belize’s Institute of Archeology, a lifetime of exploration remains to be done on this site alone. La Milpa, in the Orange Walk district, is mostly unexcavated and covered in jungle. It is the third largest site in the country and believed to have rivaled the mighty city of Tikal in neighboring Guatemala in size and power. Archeologists mapping the site have identified 24 plazas, about 85 major structures and many stelae. Funding and planning for archeology is a lengthy process, one which looters use to their advantage. Tunnels left on temples are often found, dug by looters in search of artifacts to sell in the Pre-Colombian black market. As new findings are made, the history of the Maya develops new depth. Archeologists, ethnologists, art historians and linguists continue to unravel the ongoing mystery with constant new discoveries of temples and artifacts, each with a story to tell.
In this video we talked to Jaime Awe, Minister of Archeology for Belize, to get his views on the Mayan civilization. Visiting one of Belize’s Maya ruins and learning about their civilization is an experience that should not be missed! Watch Video >>>
Where to Go
There are several ruins scattered throughout the country. Some are larger and well excavated while other are smaller and covered by jungle, but all have a story to tell. Most are easily accessed from several destinations. Below is a brief description of the archeology in these different destinations that should help you in choosing where to go.
San Ignacio: Caracol lays west of Mountain Pine Ridge in the Chiquibul Forest Reserve and is the largest site in Belize. Its Canaa temple is the tallest in the country at 136 feet. Xunantunich lays west of San Ignacio Town. Its El Castillo temple is the second tallest at 135 feet with spectacular views of the Mopan River Valley and Guatemala’s Peten Forests. Cahal Pech is a smaller ruin but with nice views and lush jungle. El Pilar is seldom visited; it’s a very large site but mostly unexcavated. You can also cross the Guatemalan border to visit Tikal.
Orange Walk: Lamanai is one of the largest and most impressive ruins in Belize, nestled beside the New River Lagoon. Its largest temple, the High Temple, offers spectacular views of the lagoon and jungle canopy from the top. It is also the oldest Pre Classic structure in the entire Maya world. Tours usually include a boat ride along the scenic New River. In the Program for Belize conservation area, lays La Milpa. It is Belize’s third largest ruin, but it’s mostly unexcavated. Cuello is a small site but important for being one of the oldest (2500 BC).
Punta Gorda: Lubaantun features architecture very different from the rest of the Maya world. Most of the structures are terraced with rounded corners, and it was built without mortar! The mysterious crystal skull was also found here. Nim Li Punit is known for its 30-foot stelae, the largest found in Belize and among the tallest in the Maya world. Uxbenka is a small site noted for its more than 20 stelae. However, the primary appeal of Punta Gorda is the dozens of traditional Maya villages, with direct descendants of the original Mayas.
Placencia: The nearest ruins are the small Mayflower ruins within the Mayflower Bocawina National Park, west of Dangriga Town. However, the park is primarily visited for its waterfalls and wildlife. They consist of 3 sites: Mayflower, Maintzunun and Tau Witz, all of which are still being excavated. Day trips are offered to the larger Maya ruins in the Cayo district such as Xunantunich and Cahal Pech. Some tour operators also offer day trips south to Punta Gorda to visit Lubaantun and Nim Li Punit.
Dangriga: The nearest ruins are the small Mayflower ruins within the Mayflower Bocawina National Park, west of Dangriga Town. However, the park is primarily visited for its waterfalls and wildlife. They consist of 3 sites: Mayflower, Maintzunun and Tau Witz, all of which are still being excavated. Day trips are offered to the larger Maya ruins in the Cayo district such as Xunantunich and Cahal Pech. Some tour operators also offer day trips south to Punta Gorda to visit Lubaantun and Nim Li Punit.
Belmopan: Day trips to the Maya ruins around San Ignacio Town are available with just a short drive west along the Western Highway. The Maya ruins of Xunantunich are easily accessible and the tour usually includes a stop at Cahal Pech and San Ignacio Town as well. You can also head across the Guatemalan border to explore the mighty ruins of Tikal.
Belize City: The city’s central location offers access to several Maya ruins. Just a few miles north is Altun Ha and a visit to this site can be combined with stops at the Belize Zoo or the Baboon Sanctuary. Lamanai in Orange Walk is also available and includes a boat ride up the scenic New River. Or you can head west to visit the ruins of the Cayo district such as Xunantunich. Stops at the Belize Zoo can be included on this tour.
Ambergris Caye: Marco Gonzales is located about 8 miles south of San Pedro Town. It is a small site that has not really been developed for visitors. It traded extensively with other Maya sites. There are several other sites on the island and in the surrounding islands. The larger ruins on the mainland, such as Altun Ha and Lamanai are available on day tours and are quite popular. The Lamanai tour includes a boat ride up the scenic New River. The Altun Ha tour includes a stop at Maruba Jungle Spa and boat ride up the Belize River.
Caye Caulker: The larger ruins on the mainland, such as Altun Ha (north of Belize City) and Lamanai (Orange Walk district) are available on day tours and are quite popular. The Lamanai tour includes a boat ride up the scenic New River. The Altun Ha tour includes a stop at Maruba Jungle Spa and boat ride up the Belize River.