One of the most amazing things about a visit to Central America is walking in the footsteps of the ancient Maya civilisation that ruled the region for millennia, exploring the uncanny ruins left behind, and tracing its influence on culture there today.
Belize was the centre of the Maya world, with some two million Mayan people – roughly five times the country’s current population – once calling it home. The remnants of this thriving culture, scattered throughout Belize’s abundant jungle areas, now serve as some of the most popular, fascinating visitor attractions on the continent.
Here are just a few that you shouldn’t miss.
Altun Ha is often the first stop on any Mayan ruins tour thanks to its convenient location just thirty miles north of Belize City. Covering roughly three square miles, including two central plazas bordered by classic examples of traditional Mayan pyramids, it’s the perfect introduction to the ingenuity of their architecture.
Much of the area remains covered by thick jungle vegetation, not only hiding further Mayan structures but also home to wildlife like armadillos, tapirs, crocodiles, and many more, making it a great spot to catch a glimpse of Belize’s incredible biodiversity.
A little farther from Belize City, roughly 70 miles west and close to the border with Guatemala, you’ll find Xunantunich. Accessible via hand-cranked ferry from the village of San Jose Succotz, the centrepiece of this former ceremonial centre is the 133ft tall El Castillo, possibly the ruling family’s ancestral shrine, decorated by remarkably well-preserved sun god masks.
Climb to the top of El Castillo and you’ll be treated to panoramic views across the surrounding landscapes, as well as of the six major plazas, temples, and palaces that make up the rest of the site.
Heading south from Xunantunich, a scenic drive through the foothills of the Maya Mountains will take you 500m above sea level to reach Caracol, formerly one of the most influential cities in the Maya world and now shrouded by the dense Chiquibul Forest Reserve.
In its prime, Caracol was twice the size (and twice as populous) as modern day Belize City, and today there remains 40 miles of internal causeways connecting to outer plazas. The focus for visitors is Canaa, the largest Mayan pyramid in Belize at 140ft high, although numerous structures on the site are accessible. Caracol’s size and archaeological importance make it an astonishing place to explore.
Lamanai is one of the biggest Maya sites in the north of Belize, and was inhabited for over 2000 years, so its 720 mapped structures allow visitors to explore different periods of their civilisation all in one spot. There are even 16th-century Christian churches and a 19th-century sugar mill, bringing its extensive history closer to the modern day.
Alongside its remarkable architecture, Lamanai boasts arguably the most dramatic setting, enclosed within wild rainforest and overlooking the New River Lagoon. The best way to reach the site is to take a water taxi along the river, giving you the chance to spot numerous species of water birds, and maybe some crocodiles and iguanas if you’re lucky.
Found in the south of Belize, the structures at Lubaantun are markedly different to those typically seen elsewhere, being built from black slate blocks laid with no mortar, their rounded steps decidedly steep. Buildings that would once have sat atop these pyramids are assumed to have been made from perishable material.
While perhaps not as striking as other sites to the north of Belize, Lubaantan offers a glimpse of the diversity of Maya civilisation at a time when it ruled this beautiful part of the world.
By Dave Owen