The Mayan ruins in Belize are some of the best in all of Mesoamerica. For those of you that don’t know what Mesoamerica is, it is defined as the region and cultural area in the Americas, extending roughly from central Mexico to Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. The ancient Maya civilization flourished in this area and created sprawling cities with extraordinary trading channels that ran from north to south, east to west and vice versa. Their era of grandeur came to an end but they left magnificent remnants of what was once a great empire.
If you’ve been to a majestic Mayan site, you are already aware that Maya archeology isn’t only for history buffs, and if you haven’t, trust me, you’re missing out. Below I list the top six best Mayan ruins in Belize and also include two that are nearby, which you can visit when you’re in Belize.
Xunantunich is a cool site because getting there involves crossing the beautiful Mopan River on an old-fashioned hand-cranked ferry. The site grounds are handsomely maintained and the main temple, El Castillo rises over 40 meters above ground, offering spectacular views of nearby villages and also giving the explorer a glimpse of Guatemala. I love that this site is often unoccupied and perfect for meditating or spending time alone. However, I must warn you that over the past few years it’s becoming a favourite for cruise ship expeditions so it may be packed for a couple times a week…but certainly not on Sundays! P.s. Xunanantunich means stone woman in Maya.
I love Caracol because of its location. It is found in the Mountain Pine Ridge Nature Reserve that is home to many other natural attractions. A heavy-duty truck takes you to this granite and karst region which is the birthplace of many rushing rivers, most of them which are underground. When you get to Caracol, you will marvel at how big the city was and your jaw might just drop as you first glance on Ca’ana, it’s main temple. As of this date, it is the largest structure in Belize. P.s. Caracol means “Snail, Shell” in Maya.
Lamanai is a personal favourite because getting there involves one of the best experiences you can have – a boat ride that takes you along Orange Walk’s meandering New River, where you spot many exotic animals. Although most of this site remains unexcavated; visitors can explore the High Temple, which offers a stunning panoramic view from its summit, the Jaguar Temple, which features a Maya stucco frieze of a jaguar, and the Mask Temple, which fashions a giant stone mask of a Maya king. P.s. Lamanai means “Submerged Crocodile” in Maya.
Read more: belizeadventure.ca/lamanai
4. Cahal Pech
Located in Cayo overlooking the small town of San Ignacio and the Macal River, the site was first settled around 1200-1000 BC. Cahal Pech sits in a lush jungle setting only a short 10-minute walk from the town’s center, giving urban visitors easy access to an archaeological site where the remnants of a royal palace are particularly interesting to explore.
See my photo essay: belizeadventure.ca/an-afternoon-at-cahal-pech-ruins
5. Altun Ha
Despite its small size, Altun Ha — known as “Water of the Rock” in Maya — was a major ceremonial center during the Classic Period. Located just 31 miles from Belize City on the old Northern Highway, Altun Ha was an important trading center strategically located about six miles from the coast. An unusual characteristic of this site is that no stela were found. However, during excavation many valuables were uncovered here, including the largest Maya carved jade object ever discovered, the famous Jade Head, in 1968.
Lubaantun aka the “Place of Fallen Stones” in Maya is located a mile from the little Mayan village of San Pedro Columbia Village in Toledo. This unique site is constructed of cut stones laid and fitted without mortar. Lubaantun was a major center of religious, ceremonial, political and commercial activities during the eight and ninth centuries (730 A.D. – 860 A.D.). The famous Crystal Skull, carved from a single crystal of quartz, was found here in 1926.
Tikal is one of the largest Mayan sites in Guatemala and also Central America. It’s majestic ruins stand tall touching the sky and stretch for miles inside a national park teeming with protected wildlife. I always recommend a visit here for anyone who visits Western Belize, it’s only a short two hour ride away and also allows travellers to experience how different Guatemala is to Belize, particularly the culture and way of life. I don’t mean to scare anyone but these temples are very steep, caution is advised when descending from your climb – a few people have missed their step and plunged to their death. P.s. Tikal means “at the Waterhole” in Maya.
Read More: belizeadventure.ca/touring-tikal-guatemala
Chichen Itza, Mexico
Chichen Itza is located in the Yucatan Mexico and is one of the most visited attractions in the world with an estimated 1.2 million people passing through every year (wow, that’s ridiculously more than the amount of people who visit Belize). Here you can find various types of Maya architectural styles and a few magnificent temples, most notably The Pyramid of Kukulkan, where every Spring thousands of people gather to see the Maya snake deity (a.k.a. feathered serpent god), Kukulkan, “crawl” down the side of the pyramid. I personally love the Temple of Warriors since I find the 200 plus square columns fascinating. This site is near Cancun, which is perfect for backpackers since they usually fly into CUN and travel down to Belize. P.s. Chichen Itza means “at the mouth of the well of the Itza” in Yucatec Maya.
Contact me if you want to know more information on the sites…