Xuantunich Ruins
Ian Mackenzie

Exploring Belize’s Top 5 Mayan Ruins

Exploring Belize’s Top 5 Mayan Ruins

Oct 16, 2017|Natural HistoryTraveler Resources| by Savanna Kearney

The beautiful country of Belize boasts many stunning sights and locations, not least of which are its Maya ruins. The Maya date back nearly 5,000 years in Belize, and, although the civilization's peak has long passed, the striking temples and structures left behind, along with the Maya's modern-day descendants, allow us a glimpse into the rich culture of the region's indigenous people. 

  1. Xunantunich

 Xunantunich El Castillo 

Photo by Ian Mackenzie

Located on the Western Highway across the river from San Jose Succotz, this is the second largest ruin in the entire country of Belize. During the Classic period, between 300 and 900 A.D., Xunantunich was a major ceremonial center. Today, this site offers an incredible view of the Belize River Valley below. The name Xunantunich in Mayan translates to “maiden of the rock” or “stone woman,” and features an astronomical carved frieze, ancient sun god masks, plazas and more than 25 temples and palaces. Upwards of $500,000 has been invested in this site to fully excavate it and make it more visitor-friendly.

  1. Cahal Pech

 Cahal Pech

Photo by Rebecca Wilson

Although Cahal Pech means “Place of Ticks” in the Yucatecan Maya language, it offers much more than the name implies. Situated on a massive hill overlooking the towns of San Ignacio and Santa Elena, this site was inhabited sometime between 1000 B.C. and 800 A.D. It is one of the oldest ruins in Belize and contains 34 structures, including temple pyramids, ball courts, an alter and plain stelae, which are alters of sorts, built by the ancient Mayans to glorify kings.

  1. Caracol

 Caracol

Photo by Dennis Jarvis

This site is one of the most difficult Mayan ruins to reach, but the trek is worth it, thanks to the scenic route that leads to the impressive structure above. Caracol, the largest Maya City in Belize, is located at the western edge of the Maya Mountains on a tall plateau in the Chiquibul Forest Reserve. It holds the tallest man-made structure, a pyramid called Canaa or “Sky Place” at 140 feet. Experts have estimated that its highest point was once home to 150,000 people.

  1. Altun Ha

 Mayan Mountains

Photo by Chris. H.

Dating back to 200 B.C., Altun Ha was once home to 10,000 people, with 3,000 of those living in the central core of the city. The name translates to “rock stone water,” and the surrounding area boasts rich wildlife, including 200 species of birds, armadillos, foxes, tapir, bats and much more. At the height of its activity, Altun Ha was a major ceremonial and trade center, especially within two principal plazas. One of the site’s main attractions is the largest object carved of jade in the Maya civilization, the “Jade Head,” which represents the Mayan Sun God, Kinich Ahua.

  1. Lamanai

 

The Macal River

Photo by Wendy Frazier

This site is one of the largest Maya ceremonial centers, and its name means “submerged crocodile” in Yucatec Maya. Surrounded by dense rainforest on the banks of the New River Lagoon, Lamanai is situated on a major trade route. It is one of the longest occupied Mayan cities, as it was inhabited for over 2,000 years. Lamanai is home to more than 719 mapped structures, including two Christian churches from the 1500s and a complete sugar mill from the 1800s.