Caracol Mayan ruin is located south of the Belizean city of San Ignacio. 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.
Lamanai Mayan ruin 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 ruin, 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. 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.
This tour is a no-brainer if you are flying in one day early for our island package. They pick up at all Belize City hotels . A 1.5 hour bus ride takes you to the river where you are transferred into fast river cruisers that boat upstream about an hour to the ruins, stopping often to view the exotic wildlife along the river banks. On one trip our fantastic guide pointed out about 15 different tropical birds including: green-backed herons, olivaceous cormorants, jabiru stork, northern jacana, and purple gallinules. Crocodiles and blooming water lilies are also profuse. Arriving at the ruins, lunch is served and the tour that follows includes excellent interpretation.
The tour is about $120/person and can be booked at the Biltmore desk upon arrival, contact them directly for more info: firstname.lastname@example.org. What to bring: binoculars (a must!), money for the gift shop, rain and warm gear (the boat ride is cold, and if it rains you’ll get wet too), bug spray, your iPod for the boat ride (the engine is noisy). This is a fantastic tour, don’t miss it.
When you visit Belize, you have to explore at least one Belize Mayan ruin. You’d be crazy to go all that way and never visit one of these amazing ancient cities. Altun Ha is the closest ruin to Belize City, so if you don’t have much time, you can definitely see this one (about 45 minutes north of the international airport).
Altun Ha was occupied for around 1200 years and its population peaked at about 10,000 inhabitants. 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. This rich burial chamber contained 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.
Many companies offer half-day tours to Altun Ha, or you could rent a car, or take a bus. (For more info on Belize car rentals, visit our website.) For more information on all Belize Mayan ruins, visit our website as well.