From the mysterious Crystal Skull legend which inspired the newest Indiana Jones movie, to the longest inhabited Maya civilization, the Maya sites of Belize have hosted tourists and archeologists alike for hundreds of years. With temples dotting the country-side, and ancestors spread throughout, the Maya spirit is still very much alive in Belize. Below is a list of the largest and best preserved Maya cities in the country.
Altun Ha means “Water of the Rock.” It was here that the largest carved jade object in the entire Maya area, a Jade Head, was found. This Jade Head represents the Sun God, Kinich Ahau, which can be seen in the corner of every Belizean banknote. Altun Ha was a major ceremonial center during the Classic Period, from 250 to 900A.D, and later functioned as a vital trading center linking the Caribbean shore with other Maya centers in the region. The 25 square-mile area housing these ancient Maya structures is located an hour north of Belize City.
The medium-sized Maya Center of Cahal Pech, meaning “Place of Ticks,” offers visitors a spectacular panoramic view of San Ignacio and the Belize River Valley. Situated along the bank of the Macal River in the Cayo District, Cahal Pech was a ceremonial center which held pyramid temples, palaces and a ball court. These temples are located in San Ignacio, making them easily accessible for tourists, as they’re only a short 10 minute walk from the town’s center.
Caracol, meaning “The Snail,” was discovered in 1938. This city is the largest archeological site in Belize, and one of the largest in the Maya world. Boasting Belize’s tallest man-made structure, a 140-foot pyramid, these extraordinary structures are a must-see for travelers. In 1986, an elaborately carved stone was discovered in Caracol, exemplifying a victory by Caracol over Tikal and exhibiting Caracol’s position of Belize’s supreme Maya city. Caracol is located in the Cayo district, about an hour southwest of San Ignacio.
Cerros is located on a northern peninsula in the Bay of Chetumal, across from Corozal Town. Cerros was an important coastal trading center for early Maya civilizations. With an incredibly sophisticated society, the residents used new forms of art and architecture that proved to be crucial for the formation of classic Maya designs. The Mayans living in Cerros also built an extensive canal system and utilized raised-field agriculture. Today, this site offers extensive history in addition to a beautiful aerial view of the surrounding bay.
The El Pilar, an archaeological reserve for Maya flora and fauna, is located just 12 miles north of San Ignacio, astride the Belize-Guatemala border. This site is not fully excavated, but offers a glimpse of how the Maya structures looked back when they were inhabited by the civilization. Hosting more than a dozen large pyramids and a wide range of buildings, El Pilar was one of the most important sites of the Maya civilizations, and is now said to be one of the best places for bird watching in Belize. El Pilar is the largest Maya center in the Belize River area, more than three times the size of the better-known center of Xunantunich.
The temples at Lamanai, which means “Submerged Crocodile,” have an aura of supremacy, distinguishing them from any other in Central America. The Maya site is located in the Orange Walk district, on the New River Lagoon. Surrounded by lush and beautiful jungle, it is no wonder that Lamanai was occupied continuously for over 3,000 years. Until at least 1650 AD, long after most other Maya sites were abandoned, this site is believed to have remained an imperial port city encompassing ball courts, pyramids and limestone mounds, housing thousands of Maya inhabitants. Arguably the most impressive way to approach the Lamanai archeological temples is via the New River, as visitors have the chance to enjoy sights of lush jungle and wildlife along the banks. Additionally, this route often provides the opportunity for a Morelet’s crocodile or iguana sighting, as the reptiles frequently sun themselves on the edges of the New River Lagoon, which lies as a widened, lake-like expanse of the New River.
Lubaantun is located in Punta Gorda in the Toledo district and means “Place of Fallen Stones” in the Mayan language. This site is rumored to be the place where Anna Mitchell-Hedges found the famous Crystal Skull, in 1926. The origin of this 8-inch cube of rock crystal, perfectly shaped like a human skull, remains a mystery to this day. Noted for their unusual style of construction, the temples feature large pyramids and terraces that were made entirely of stone blocks and without the use of mortar to hold the stones together. All of the pyramids’ stones were carefully measured and cut to fit perfectly with the adjoining stones. The buildings on top of the pyramids were made of perishable materials, therefore they no longer remain.
The slow-paced town of Corozal is built directly over the ancient Maya center of Santa Rita. This site was important because of its control over the trade routes that ran along the coast, and down the Rio Hondo and New Rivers. These rivers run from Lamanai, and were important for transportation of cacao, achiote, honey and vanilla – exports to Northern Yucatan. Corozal is easily accessible by public transportation, and a wide range of hotel accommodations are available in town.
Xunantunich (pronounced Su-nan-tu-nich) means “Maiden of the Rock.” It is the second tallest Maya structure in Belize, and the most famous. It’s located in the Cayo district, across the river from the village of San Jose Succotz. The largest monument stands 130-feet high and gives wondrous panoramic views of both the Cayo District and Guatemala. Xunantunich was a major ceremonial site, built on a natural limestone ridge during the Classic Period. This site has such detailed artifacts as a frieze on the eastern side of one of the largest pyramids, El Castillo. The frieze, a part of the classic structure of a pyramid, holds a central mask representing the sun god. The sun god is flanked by signs representing the moon, Venus, and different days.