Belize Mayan Ruins
Travel and adventure in the home of the Maya
Belize Mayan Ruins
Travel and adventure in the home of the Maya
In addition to the restored ruins currently found in Belize such as Caracol, Xunantunich, Altun Ha, and Lamanai, many other large sites exist still hidden away in the remote jungles all across the country. Many of these are known, but many undoubtedly remain undiscovered. Archaeology expeditions continue every year in search of new finds. The caves of Belize are also renowned for the Mayan treasures that have been found deep inside their chambers. Caves were sacred sites for the Mayans, and many found in Belize contain ceremonial artifacts, numerous carvings, and skeletons of sacrificial victims of religious rites.
The descendents of the Maya live in Belize to this day. Large groups of ethnic Mayans are found in western and southern Belize, where they have lived since their ancestors ruled the Yucatan. They still retain their Mayan languages and many colorful customs, and tend to prefer to live in communities composed primarily of their own ethnic groups.
Altun Ha is the closest Mayan ruin to Belize City, located 34 miles north of the city and 5 miles from the sea. Altun Ha was occupied for around 1200 years until the Classic Maya collapse around 900 AD. Its population peaked at about 10,000 inhabitants. It’s location near the sea suggests that trade was an important aspect of the daily life here, a theory upheld by the discovery of objects and materials from Mexico, Guatemala, and Panama.
Around 500 buildings have been recorded here, but the core of the site consists of two plazas and 13 structures. These structures have been extensively restored, exposing fine stonework. A magnificent tomb has been discovered beneath one of these structures, the Temple of the Green Tomb. Dating from 550 AD, this is a rich burial chamber containing over 300 objects including jade pendants, beads & earrings, obsidian rings, stingray spines, and jaguar skins along with the remains of a Maya codex.
The largest temple on the site is known as The Temple of the Masonry Altars. This temple is famous for more than its impressive history, it is also on the Belikin beer label (Belize’s own beer). This structure had been covered over with an even larger building, and expanded a least 8 times since it's creation in 500 A.D. Seven layers of tombs were found, with the most impressive being the earliest. Inside the intact crypt a jade head representing the Mayan sun god was found lying on the right wrist of the body entombed there. This object weighs almost 10 pounds and is 6 inches tall. It is the largest jade object ever found in the Maya world. A replica of this head is in the Museum of Belize in Belize City. The body was originally covered by Jaguar and Cougar skins and the entire tomb was covered in red pigment.
Outside the two main plazas are several other areas of interest which a good guide will point out, although little else has been restored. You can easily walk along a short trail from the ruin south to Rockstone Pond, the village that the ruin is named for. The pond was dammed in Maya times to form a reservoir, and near this pond stands the oldest structure at Altun Ha. Built in the second century AD it housed a cache that contained green obsidian blades and other offerings imported from the great city of Teotihuacan near Mexico City. These artifacts have been dated to 150 AD, evidence of the early contact between the Belize Maya and Teotihuacan.
Cahal Pech is just a 20-minute walk from San Ignacio and overlooks the town. This is a mid-sized Mayan complex that has undergone extensive restoration. Cahal Pech means “place of ticks” in modern-day Maya, and refers to the fact that the surrounding area was once used as pasture land. However, this was the royal acropolis-palace of an elite Mayan ruling family who lived here during the Classic period. Cahal Pech was settled around 1000 BC and abandoned by 800 AD.
The site consists of seven plazas and over 30 structures including temples, residential buildings, ballcourts, an altar, and a sweathouse, all situated on just 2 acres. A royal burial chamber was found in one of the structures. Inside the tomb a ruler had been laid to rest with the accoutrements necessary for the afterlife. Included in the find were shell & bone ornaments, pottery vessels, obsidian blades, and jade objects, the most impressive being a jade & shell mosaic mask. One of the temples in this small complex commands the best view of the surrounding Belize River Valley. The visitor center and museum has a model of the site, excellent paintings showing Cahal Pech in its heyday, and an interpretive film.
Caracol is located in the highlands south of San Ignacio known as the Vaca Plateau. Caracol is the most magnificent Maya site in Belize, and in fact one of the largest in the Maya world. It is not as extensively restored as other sites because it was completely lost in the rainforest for over 1000 years until its discovery in 1937. The first archaeologist who studied Caracol soon after its discovery named it “Snail” (“Caracol” in Spanish) because of the large numbers of snail shells found there, but the original Mayan name translated to “Three Hill Water”, making this one of the few Maya sites where the true name is known.
Habitation began approximately 600 BC and continued until 900 AD, or even as late as 1150 AD according to some sources. At its height, Caracol is thought to have been home to 150,000 people, with over 30,000 structures – a far greater density than at Tikal. It covered an area much larger than present day Belize City (the largest metropolitan area in the country of Belize) and supported more than twice the modern city’s population. Water to the ancient city was supplied by man-made reservoirs as they had no reliable river access. One of the reservoirs is used by on-site archaeologists & other personnel to this day. There are seven ancient causeways or roads leading to the site. The tallest structure in Belize - ancient or modern - is Caracol's El Caana (“Sky Place”) at a height of 137 feet. Over 100 tombs have been found at Caracol.
Caracol contains many hieroglyphic inscriptions, enabling scholars to piece together a virtually complete dynastic record of Caracol’s rulers from 599 AD to 859 AD. Especially significant are descriptions of ongoing conflicts with neighboring Tikal. So far only 10% of greater Caracol’s area has been mapped. What continues to puzzle archeologists is why the Maya build such a large city on a plateau with no permanent water source and how they managed to maintain it for so long.
For more information on the ongoing archaeological projects at Caracol, visit this excellent website: http://www.caracol.org/.
Cerros is a small but important site with an impressive location. Perched on a peninsula jutting out into the Bay of Chetumal, Cerros was abandoned early and never rebuilt. It is one of only two Pre-Classic sites with no later additions to its structures, and contains five temples, their related plazas, two ball courts and a canal system.
Cerros started as a small self-sustaining village in approximately 300 BC. Due to its location at the mouth of the New River, it was able to take advantage of an increasingly active trade. Development followed and in 50 BC it grew explosively from a small fishing village to a major city in only two generations. It is speculated that trade routes again were the reason for the site's decline as they shifted overland, although the decline of other sites during this same time period, while possibly coincidental, allow for other interpretations. By the years of the Early Classic the royal temples were abandoned and Cerros returned to a simple farming community before eventually being deserted altogether.
Lamanai is Belize's longest continuously inhabited site; pollen evidence places first habitation around 1500 BC. Located on the shore of the New River lagoon, Lamanai is upstream from Cerros and the two cities traded extensively. Submerged Crocodile is the ancient Mayan name of the site; the name was recorded by two Spanish priests. The city occupies 950 acres and 700+ structures have been mapped, but only 70 have been excavated. Many tombs have been discovered during excavation, and the "Temple of the Jaguar" has two jaguar masks flanking the stairway. The stelae at the site are in excellent condition and are spectacularly carved. This ruin is most easily accessed by a boat ride up the New River, through a bird reserve. The birding is a fantastic addition to a wonderful day spent at this site.
To read more about day trips to Lamanai out of Belize City, visit our Other Things to Do in Belize page.
Lubaantun is located in the far south, near Punta Gorda, Belize. The site sits on a high ridge and from the top of the tallest building you can just see the Caribbean sea over 18 miles away. Inhabited only briefly, from 730 to 890 AD, it nevertheless seems to have been a thriving administrative center. Jade & obsidian from the Guatemalan highlands have been found here along with the bones of deep water marine animals, signifying trade. Musical instruments, including many carved whistles have also been uncovered.
This is the site where the renowned Crystal Skull was uncovered, a skull carved from a single crystal of quartz. It is considered one of the greatest Mayan treasures ever unearthed, although there is also great controversy surrounding the truth of its origin. The daughter of the site archaeologist found it in 1926. She is now in her 80’s and living in Canada. She still has the skull, and promises to donate it to Belize when she dies.
There is very little in the way of structural ornamentation at this site and there are no carved stelae here, leading to the speculation of this as an administrative rather than ceremonial center. The majesty of its form -- its rounded corners and simple shapes -- are like no other Maya site. The blocks use no mortar but are carved with particular precision so that the stones stay together with no mortar.
Although located far from most tourism destinations, Nim Li Punit is a wonderful site with much to offer the visitor. To get there you drive past the turn-off to Placencia on the Southern Highway, and go almost to Punta Gorda. Nim Li Punit is mostly known for the many spectacular stelae discovered there. The onsite museum displays many of the stellae, and the others are in place at the ruin. The most impressive stelae depicts a ruler wearing a diadem or "big hat," after which the site is named.
Major settlement began around 400 AD and continued until 800-1000 AD. One of the more interesting structures is the Plaza of the Royal Tombs which was most likely a residence for the royal family, containing three tombs. One contains at least five people who were buried at different times. They were buried along with their pottery, stingray spines, jade and carved stone figures. Another tomb contained the remains of at least 6 people, a large animal and several ceramic vessels.
Tikal is in Guatemala, but in many ways it is easier to get there from Belize. Tikal is truly the supreme Mayan city. The sheer scale of Tikal as it rises above the forest canopy is overwhelming, with some 10 square miles of central Tikal having been mapped, revealing over 3000 separate constructions. Huge stones brought down by the rivers of the south coast served as the raw material for the carving of gigantic sculptures that have been found in this region. Tikal is dominated by five enormous temples, many which are steep-sided pyramids that rise up over 120 feet from the forest floor.
Tikal started as a village in about 900 BC, making this among the oldest of Maya sites. The Great Plaza is the most spectacular structure in Tikal and is surrounded by stelae and sculpted altars, ceremonial buildings, residential and administrative palaces, and a ball court. At each end of the plaza a gigantic temple looms above the rainforest canopy. The temple of the Great Jaguar is located on the eastern side of the Great Plaza and measures more than 150 feet in height. The temple was erected about 700 AD by order of Ah Cacao, whose tomb was discovered inside. What brought about Tikal/s final downfall remains a mystery, but by 900 AD almost the entire lowland Maya civilization collapsed, and soon Tikal was abandoned. Today Tikal is a National Park. This has created a huge nature reserve where monkeys, toucans, tapir, and other exotic jungle fauna reside.
Related blog post: How do I get to Tikal from Belize?
Xunantunich (pronounced "CHEW-nahn-too-neech") lies just eight miles from the Guatemala border. Xunantunich was a major ceremonial center during the Classic period of the Maya. Home to 25 temples and palaces including the second tallest Mayan structure in Belize, the site was the first opened to the public in 1954, and now it has a highly- praised on-site museum. The religion of the citizens of Xunantunich helped build this city up to the ceremonial center that it became. From the top of the pyramid El Castillo, one is provided a breathtaking view of the Macal, Mopan and Belize River valleys, as well as the rest of the ruins. From its perch visitors can also see into Guatemala.
The Classic Maya site of Xunantunich is by far the easiest to get to, and arguably the most impressive Mayan site in the country of Belize. The restored sections of this city contain a ceremonial center, residences for the wealthiest of the population, a middle-class residential area, and a ballcourt complex. The largest structure is The Castillo, rising 160 feet from the plaza floor. Built at the top of a hill, it dominates the countryside for miles around. The construction is typical Maya; a low terrace was designed to hold additional stone buildings, and on this level a temple was built. Later the entire temple was filled in and another was built on top of it. Because of the excavations of archaeologists, we get to see the various periods of construction. From information found at the site we know that Xunantunich was in power for only a few hundred years and abandoned after an earthquake. Beautiful stucco reliefs are on display and excavation projects continue.
We visit this ruin on our Belize Adventure Week package.
If you have a group of four and a full day, it is affordable to get a vehicle from a Belize City car rental and drive to Xunantunich yourself.
If you want a one-day trip to Xunantunich from Belize City, Slickrock offers this guided tour a few days of the week. Here are the parameters:
Minimum: 8, maximum 14.
Wednesday, Thursday or Friday only,
December through May
$195 US per person, no group discounts
Belize City pick up and drop off on your
schedule, park entrance fees, guide,
Minimum and maximum ages to participate:
6 and 75
$75 deposit pp (8 minimum) is due to confirm your space. This deposit is non-refundable. You may make your reservation by telephone, fax, mail, or e-mail. Checks, money orders, VISA, MasterCard, Discover, and American Express are accepted for all payments. The balance is due 60 days prior to departure.
After a reservation is made:
A Registration and Waiver of Liability Form is sent. The completely filled out form and the final balance is due 60 days prior to departure.
No exceptions are made to our cancellation policy for any reason. Your deposit of $75 pp x 8 persons is non-refundable. If we receive notice of cancellation 59-30 days prior to departure, 50% of total group trip cost will be retained. If we receive notice of cancellation 29-11 days, 75% of total group trip cost will be retained.; if notice is received within 10 days of departure, no refund will be given.
No partial refunds or credits will be given for unused services such as meals or transport. Our trips are quoted as a package; credits are not given for services not used. No refunds will be given for any reason once the trip has begun. Slickrock reserves the right to sell additional seats up to the 14 maximum to others who might want to join this tour.
Late arrival or departure:
Any conditions out of our control that delay your arrival or departure may add to your cost; all extra charges caused by delays (catching up with a trip in progress) or any variations from the itinerary (early departure, evacuation) will be at the customer’s expense.
Much of Belize' topography is composed of a 'karst' landscape, which consists of deeply eroded limestone hills. Karst lands are typically honeycombed with caves, and Belize is no exception. The country is famous among international cave explorers, who have discovered and mapped innumerable underground passages throughout the country. Belize contains the second largest underground chamber in the world, over 1/4 mile long!
Mayan society and culture was based on their religious beliefs, and many of their most important deities resided in the underworld, for which caves were the portal. As such, the Mayans held all caves sacred, and performed religious ceremonies in nearly every cave they found. Belize's caves contain incredible treasures from these ancient ceremonies, and the country's caves are famous among archaeologists all over the world. The thick rainforest cloaking the karst hills of Belize makes it difficult to find caves, and new discoveries are being made every year.
Here are just a few examples of the caves found in Belize. You can also read more on our Caves of Belize page.
The ATM Cave has become internationally famous as the showcase of Belize’s caves, having been featured in numerous magazine articles and on Nat. Geographic TV shows. Limited tours are permitted through the cave, which is located deep in the jungle and accessed by swimming into the creek that flows from the cave’s entrance. Inside the cave an amazing collection of ceramic offerings, ceremonial sites, and skeletons of sacrificial victims can be viewed. The main feature, however, is a complete skeleton of a young woman which has been encrusted with calcite crystals, know as the Crystal maiden.
This cave was discovered in the 1980’s by a hunter when his dog chased some game into what appeared to be a burrow; when the dog did not come back out the hunter investigated and found that the opening was a rock filled entrance to a cave. Since he lived nearby, he came back to investigate further and found a huge cave filled with Mayan ceremonial pottery and a deep ceremonial chamber. He soon started tours of the cave since it is located o his farm property, and today one can take a tour with William, the farmer who originally found the site, and see hundreds of amazing pottery offerings the Mayan shamans left in the cave.
This swim-in cave also contains artifacts and ceremonial chambers, along with spectacular dripstone formations. One ceremonial site contains a bench with a monkey head sculpture on its face, a very rare find. Far back in the cave, past the limit of the tours, is a set of footprints on a bench above the creekbed left by the Mayan shamans, giving the cave its name.