Hidden away in the verdant Belizean jungles, travellers to this pint-sized Caribbean nation can explore the crumbling pyramids of the ancient Maya. Humboldt specialist Clara lists the best sites to visit.
Home to a melting pot of cultures, modern Belize’s demographic makeup still includes a sizeable Maya population. The modern Maya are heirs to an incredible legacy of advanced civil engineering, architectural and artistic genius, and a complex cosmovision that explained the natural world they inhabit. Forming part of the ‘Mundo Maya’, alongside Guatemala and southern Mexico, Belize is the home to some of the Mayas most impressive citadels and temples.
Here’s how to the visit the most famous sites…
Perhaps Belize’s most well-known Mayan ruin, partyl due to the adventurous river crossing required to get there, Xunantunich (pronounced shoo-nan-too-neech and meaning ‘Stone Woman’ in Maya) makes for a wonderful day out in the diverse Cayo District. Crossing the Mopan River on an old-fashioned, hand-cranked ferry is all part of the experience, and the journey to the ruin, whether made on foot, or on horseback; is absolutely worth it for the magical moment the ‘El Castillo’ pyramid comes into view. The largest pyramid in the complex, ‘El Castillo’ rises 40-metres high and offers those brave enough to climb to the top a glimpse of neighbouring Guatemala across the border. Mesoamerican historians believe that Xunantunich was a ceremonial centre during the Classic Period of the Maya civilisation. Made up of six major plazas and more than 25 temples and palaces, Xunantunich is an expansive site and it is no wonder that it remains a favourite for visitors to Belize.
Where to Stay?
At the end of a scenic boat ride along the New River in Orange Walk, or a forested road-trip via San Felipe for those not keen on boats; you can find the mysterious ruins of Lamanai, meaning ‘Submerged Crocodile’ in Maya. Unlike many famous Maya sites, this name appears to have been the city’s original one as it was recorded by Franciscan missionaries as early as the 17th century. Thought to have been situated along a major trade route, archaeologists believe that Lamanai was occupied for over two millennia and has over 719 mapped structures although much of the full extent of the site remains unexcavated in the surrounding forest to this day. Visitors can explore the High Temple offering fabulous panoramic views, the Jaguar Temple with an ancient stucco frieze of a jaguar, and the famous Mask Temple, with its enormous carved face of a Maya king.
Where to Stay?
Actun Tunichil Muknal Cave
The name is a little bit of a mouthful, which is why the Actun Tunichil Muknal Cave is more often seen referred to as the ‘ATM Cave’. Making your way through this subterranean wonderland combines a little Maya history with a brilliant active adventure. Offering a true ‘Indiana-Jones-esque’ experience (luckily, minus the peril), swimming and wading through the cave allows visitors to sample the same wonder the Maya felt exploring these caves – which they believed were the entrance to the underworld, Xibalba. The ATM Cave is a site of geographical interest with many striking stalagmites and stalactites. Beyond this, visitors to the cave can catch a glimpse of the calcified remains of ancient Maya who were either laid to rest or sacrificed in the cave. A wonderful way of experiencing history with a bit of adventure, a trip to the ATM Cave will be the highlight of your trip to Belize!
Where to Stay?
If you are adventurous enough to enjoy the ATM Cave, you may enjoy the tucked-away-in-the-jungle feel of Chaa Creek Lodge. With beautiful forest views and a rustic-chic style, this is one of our favourites in the Cayo District.
Located in the Mountain Pine Ridge Nature Reserve, which is home to much of Belize’s tropical wildlife, Caracol is harder to reach than Xunantunich, but a much larger and more impressive site. In fact, the main temple at Caracol, Ca’ana, is the largest Maya structure in all of Belize at 43-metres high. Caracol was discovered in 1938 by loggers seeking mahogany in the Maya mountains and is around 2.5 hours by car away from the town of San Ignacio. The journey zigzags through the verdant jungles of Belize’s high plateau, the jagged ridges of the western mountains and many crystalline rivers before reaching the ruins. It is a picturesque drive and all part of the experience of exploring this isolated abandoned metropolis.
Where to Stay?
Blancaneaux Lodge is hidden away in a vast private reserve. Serving fantastic international cuisine and offering brilliant service, it makes for an exclusive luxury stay within driving distance of Caracol.
An ancient city almost on the doorstep of a modern one, Cahal Pech is located around 10-minutes walking from the centre of San Ignacio. Overlooking the town and the Macal River, Cahal Pech was likely first settled around 1200 BC and boasts the ruins of a royal palace which are particularly interesting to explore. The central part of the ruins provides a beautiful panoramic view and you can explore the exposed parts of thirty- four structures here, including temple pyramids, two ball courts, an altar and five plain stelae. All of aspects of Maya society are represented here: religion, royalty and sport: and all a stone’s throw from the town centre. Easily combined with another activity in the San Ignacio area, like chocolate-making for example, Cahal Pech is an easy site to work into a larger daytrip.
Where to Stay?
Whichever of the sites you plan to visit during your stay, scaling a Maya temple is an essential experience in Belize. Whether exploring the Maya world above or below ground, a visit to one or more of these striking archaeological sites gives you a tangible sense of the ancient grandeur of the lost civilisations of Belize’s pre-colonial history.
Are you planning a visit to Belize? Contact us today to plan your trip with one of our luxury travel specialists and discuss ideas for your holiday.