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Belize Mayan Ruins Excursion Tips

Xunantunich Mayan ruins. Credit: Wikimedia Creative Commons license
Xunantunich Mayan ruins. Credit: Wikimedia Creative Commons license

The high density of Belize Mayan ruins seems to show that the country was the center of Mayan civilization several hundred years ago.

A number of Mayan cities replete with temples and pyramids occur in Belize and minor archeological sites abound. Below are some of the more major sites that have been found so far.

Caracol, Belize

Caracol is often referred to as the most important Mayan site in Belize because it was one of the most important Mayan cities during the Mayan classical period in Belize. At its peak, it was also pretty big (ruins cover 65 square miles) and had twice as many inhabitants as modern day Belize City.

What is perhaps even more amazing is that this ancient metropolis remained hidden and forgotten in the jungles of western Belize for 900 years until a woodcutter came across it in the late 1930s. The true name of this ruined city is unknown but may have been “ox witz ha” (“place of three hills”). The people of Caracol would probably be appalled to learn that their once proud city is presently known as “caracol” (“snail”) because the curvy road up to the site left such a strong impression on one of its rediscoverers.

Caracol is 54 miles or about an hour and 15 minutes north of Belize City. Visiting Caracol is easily done on a tour because permits and a licensed guide are required to visit the site. The rough road up to the ruins takes at least two hours with a four wheel drive vehicle on a good day.  For this reason, it sees much fewer visitors than sites farther north in the Yucatan and farther south in Belize.

People that do make it to Caracol, however, are witness to pyramids (one of which is the tallest structure in Belize), temples, ball courts, and other thousand year-old structures that rise up out of the surrounding jungles in silent testament to the rich history of Belize.

Altun Ha

The most popular ruins for shore excursions lie at the smaller Altun Ha, which is about an hour north of Belize City. It covers about three square miles. The largest of Altun Ha’s temple-pyramids, the “Temple of the Masonry Altars”, is 52 feet high. A typical excursion price starts at about $100, but it may go higher if the trip goes to other destinations.

Xunantunich ruins, Belize

Xunantunich Excursion Map

While smaller than Caracol, the Mayan site of Xunantunich, Belize is easier to visit and showcases a huge temple-pyramid known as the “Castillo” (“castle”). It is an occasional shore excursion for Belize cruise ships, even though it is more than two hours and 77 miles southwest of Belize City.

This Mayan city near the modern borders of Belize and Guatemala was probably a center of trade and commerce and was occupied around the same time as Caracol. An earthquake in 900 AD is thought to be the main reason for the sudden abandonment of Xunantunich. Its name means “stone women” in the lowland Mayan language and stems from rumors that the ghost of a Mayan woman inhabits the temple-pyramid.

Besides its impressive temple-pyramid, Xunantunich is also known for well-preserved stelae (stone carvings) that have been found at the site and a restored stucco frieze that graces the upper parts of the “Castillo”.

Xunantunich, Belize is found just outside the busy town of San Ignacio, Belize and is easily visited as a day trip either on a tour or on your own. The trip to the site involves a hand-cranked ferry crossing and (for those without a vehicle), a hot, mile-long walk uphill.

The pyramid and other structures at Xunantunich can be visited without a guide, and an excellent visitor center houses three of the best preserved stelae in addition to other artifacts.

A typical cruise shore excursion to Xunantunich costs at least $90 per person and lasts seven hours.

Lamanai, Belize

The Mayan site of Lamanai, Belize was one of the longest-inhabited Mayan cities. Unlike other major cities that were abandoned around a thousand years ago, people walked the streets of Lamanai from 1500 BC until the 18th century. If smallpox hadn’t killed off the remaining citizens of Lamanai during the 1700s, it might have never been abandoned.

Like Xunantunich, the site is about 77 miles and more than two hours from Belize City.

Lamanai probably thrived for such a long period of time because of its strategic location on the New River lagoon. The lagoon provided the city’s inhabitants with stability in the form of a steady source of water for crops and also supplied them with fish.

Due to its long history, Lamanai is filled with interesting structures and sculptures such as the huge, intricate, mask-like carvings at the temple of masks and the jaguar carvings at (you guessed it) the temple of the jaguars. Crocodile-themed carvings are also a feature of this site since this animal was considered sacred by the people of Lamanai (indeed Lamanai means “place of the crocodile”).

Lamanai is near the town of Orange Walk and can be visited via a rough 36 mile track or as part of a tour that includes a two hour boat ride up the New River. Tropical wildlife such as Black Howler Monkeys, exotic birds, and crocodiles are often spotted on the boat ride.

The Lamanai ruins also are available as a shore excursion and will cost at least $100 per person. The excursion lasts about six hours.

Cerros, Belize

Cerros, Belize is one of the smaller Mayan ruins in Belize but is interesting because it is located on the Caribbean coast instead of inland like other larger sites near the Guatemalan border. Inhabited around 2,000 years ago, Cerros started out as a small fishing town until her people eventually followed the Mayan trend of pyramid and temple building. The small city lasted a few hundred years before being abandoned around the same time as the fall of the Roman Empire.

In addition to a large temple-pyramid that overlooks Chetumal Bay, temples with carved jaguar heads and intricately sculpted masks can also be seen at Cerros along with an extensive system of canals and raised areas that were used for agriculture.

Cerros is located close to the town of Corazal and can be easily visited from there as a day trip on one’s own or as part of a tour.

El Pilar, Belize

El Pilar, Belize is a Mayan site dating from the classical period that was probably linked to both Caracol and Xunantunich. Little is known about the site as it is still being excavated, but because it has more buildings than Xunantunich and is the largest set of ruins along the Belize River, it appears to have been a major city.

Unlike other Mayan ruins in Belize, most of the buildings at El Pilar are still covered with rain forest and hidden in the jungle. A few Mayan houses have been excavated, but for the most part, El Pilar is a site for visitors who want to experience a mysterious Mayan site with jungle trails that pass through unexcavated ruins.

El Pilar is easily visited by driving 12 miles north-west of San Ignacio to the Guatemalan border. The ruins actually cross the border and proposals have been made to declare El Pilar an international archeological peace park.

Scott S. Bateman is a professional journalist who has traveled widely throughout the Caribbean and the Americas. He is the author of four books about cruising in the Caribbean, Alaska and Mexican Riviera.
January 30, 2023

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