A Guide to Visiting Maya Ruins in Belize
Belize Mayan Ruins Map
The Top Maya Sites to Visit in Belize
The Mysterious World of the Ancient Maya
The land that is now Belize was once the heartland of the ancient Maya Empire. Although the various areas all spoke a common language and shared a common religion, the empire was actually a patchwork of ever-shifting kingdoms and principalities that formed alliances with or went to war against one another. The ancient Maya civilization surged and ebbed with periods of growth and prosperity mixed with periods of war, civil unrest, and even starvation. After several millennia of existence, the civilization began to break apart for unknown reasons between 600 to 900 A.D., leaving the once-mighty cities to be swallowed up by the jungle. By the time the Europeans arrived on the continent, the Maya civilization was almost completely gone.
Cahal Pech guided tours include visits to the top Maya cities and religious sites in western Belize. We offer daily tours to Xunantunich, Caracol, Cahal Pech and Tikal (just across the border in Guatemala).
Maya Ruins in Belize
Belize’s pleasant weather, rich soils, and abundance of marine life in the rivers and estuaries as well as the offshore Belize Barrier Reef fueled a population explosion during the time of the ancient Maya. Large cities were built that housed hundreds of thousands of people. The Maya used the Belize River as a “super highway” to transport goods throughout the country and connect with the big city-states in Guatemala. The powerful city-states of Belize traded with settlements further inland like Tikal.
In addition to the well-excavated ruins that can be found in Belize such as Caracol, Xunantunich, Lamanai, Nim Li Punit, and Altun Ha, many more other large cities are still awaiting exploration in the jungles and rainforests. Some of these cities have been identified from aerial photography but many more remain to be discovered.
Caves were important ceremonial sites for the ancient Maya, and many caves in Belize have been discovered filled with artifacts and treasures left behind by Maya priests. Archeologists have found altars, religious carvings, and the remains of sacrificial victims in some of these caves.
Today, many ethnic Maya continue to live in Belize, particularly in the southern parts of the country.
Belize’s most impressive Maya Ruins are: Altun Ha, Xunantunich, and Caracol.
Featured Belize Maya Ruins
Cahal Pech Maya Ruins
Cahal Pech means “place of ticks” in modern-day Maya, and refers to the fact that the surrounding area was once used as pasture land. However, this was the royal acropolis-palace of an elite Mayan ruling family who lived here during the Classic period. Cahal Pech was settled around 1000 BC and abandoned by 800 AD. The site consists of seven plazas and over 30 structures including temples, residential buildings, ball courts, an altar, and a sweat-house, all situated on just 2 acres. A royal burial chamber was found in one of the structures. Inside the tomb a ruler had been laid to rest with the accouterments necessary for the afterlife. Included in the find were shell & bone ornaments, pottery vessels, obsidian blades, and jade objects, the most impressive being a jade & shell mosaic mask.
One of the temples in this small complex commands the best view of the surrounding Belize River Valley. The visitor center and museum has a model of the site, excellent paintings showing Cahal Pech in its heyday, and an interpretive film. Read more…
Xunantunich Maya Ruins
Xunantunich was the first Maya ruin to be opened for visitors in 1950, because of its proximity to San Ignacio. Extensive archeological work has been carried out at the site providing a wealth of historical information about the Mayas.
Once a prosperous city state during the Classical Maya era, Xunantunich once was the home to 200,000 people, equivalent to two-thirds of Belize’s current population. The name Xunantunich, a Maya construct meaning “Stone Woman,” is a modern one as the original name for the city has been lost. Local Maya named the fading ruins “Stone Woman” because the site was regularly reported to be haunted by the ghost of a woman, usually depicted as being dressed entirely in white with glowing red eyes.
Abandoned by the Maya nearly 1,000 years ago for unknown reasons, Xunantunich was claimed by the jungle until archeologists in the colonial period began conducting excavations in the mid-1890s. Today, visitors approach the site by crossing over the Mopan River on a hand-operated ferry and then climbing up to the limestone ridge that serves as the foundation for the city. Read more…
El Pilar Maya Ruins
EL Pilar is a 100 acre Maya site situated 12 miles northwest of San Ignacio in the quaint Village of Bullet Tree Falls. The abundance of natural water sources in this vicinity is possibly the origin of the name El Pilar (“pila” being Spanish for watering basin).
A particularly intriguing feature is a causeway that extends from the eastern part of the ruins across the country border into Guatemala. Thus far, 12 pyramids and 25 plazas have been found at El Pilar. This is triple the number found in nearby sites such as Xunantunich and Cahal Pech. The site was occupied between (500 BC) and (1000 AD) periods. A variety of residential structures were discovered during excavations, in addition to elite household compounds and ceremonial structures.
In contrast to other nearby sites, El Pilar remains virtually the same way today as when it was discovered. Most structures are in the early stages of excavation. Currently there are five trail systems at El Pilar, three archeological and two primarily nature trail intended to provide insight into the agro-forestry of the ancient Mayas. Read more…
Caracol Maya Ruins
The largest Maya city ever excavated in Belize, Caracol is a huge site that features majestic temples that modern visitors can climb to enjoy a spectacular view of the surrounding Chiquibul forest reserve. Still an active archeological site, Caracol has revealed many of its treasures but much work is needed to uncover all of its secrets.
After exploring the impressive ruins of Caracol, enjoy a refreshing dip in the receiving pools of the Big Rock Falls waterfall or Rio on Pools in the nearby Mountain Pine Ridge Park. Thanks to an investment from the Belizean government, the roads leading to Caracol are in good condition and the drive to the site gives visitors a chance to marvel at the spectacular beauty of the flora and fauna in the Chiquibul Rainforest. Read more…
Top Ten Maya Sites To Visit In Belize
Making a pilgrimage to Belize to visit the top Mayan ruins isn’t just a great idea but a promise you make to yourself if this society fascinates you. Stay at Cahal Pech Village Resort to be in close proximity to most. All it takes is a request to your Cahal Pech hosts and they’ll arrange transport, guides, picnics and anything else you desire for your grand tour of the past.
Below are the best Maya sites to visit in the country:
Cahal Pech Maya Ruins. Don’t let the name Place of Ticks scare you; the area was once pastureland! A 1988 archaeological team unearthed 10 mounds at this site overlooking the towns of San Ignacio and Santa Elena. Mayan society flourished here circa 1000 BC to 800 AD. You’ll see 34 ancient structures located over two acres, so allow enough time to see it all.
Xunantunich Maya Ruins (Maiden of the Rock) isn’t far from the village of San Jose. Take a ferry there and find Belize’s second tallest ruin, sun god bas relief masks on building walls, six plazas and remnants of 25+ palaces and temples. Though the size of this site is only 300 square meters, Xunantunich is a tourist favorite because there’s so much to see.
Ask the Cahal Pech trip team to get you to Altun Ha where armadillos, bats, squirrels foxes and White-tail deer wander this major ceremonial and trade center sprawled across two plazas. The “Jade Head,” the largest Mayan jade artifact unearthed to date, is the big draw, but the sophisticated reservoir constructed by Mayans centuries ago deserves your attention, too.
Caracol Maya Ruins, situated on the edge of the Maya Mountains within the Chiquibul Forest Reserve, remains an active dig site, but it takes some effort to get here. The highlight of this ruin is Canaa (Sky Place), a 140-foot-tall pyramid. Come for the monuments. Stick around to see the cleverly engineered Mayan reservoir.
Santa Rita dates back to at least 2000 BC, so ruins offer a different perspective on Mayan culture. Santa Rita was a European contact point and hub for traders traveling between Mexico and Guatemala, so the artifacts left behind are unusual and include jade, mica, gold earrings, pottery, ceramics and agricultural tools.
The name Lamanai means submerged crocodile but you won’t have to wade in any water to see multiple ages and stages of Mayan history here. Your Cahal Pech host can arrange transport to this site by road or boat, but when you glimpse the largest Maya ceremonial center in the region with “more than 719 mapped structures” you’ll be glad you made the effort.
Cerro Maya was a vibrant coastal trading center thanks to its Bay of Chetumal location. It remained occupied longer than most Maya settlements thanks to a salt mining distribution enterprise that fueled area growth. Part of Cerro Maya is submerged, but what remains above the water line is spectacular: five temples, plazas and a canal system that winds around three architectural complexes over 52 acres.
Barton Creek Cave’s big attraction is its vast cave system that includes some of the most striking architectural elements in Belize. Since these caves were used for Mayan rituals, ceremonies and sacrifice, you can expect to see everything from human remains and hearths to artifacts when visiting here.
The Nim Li Punit archaeological and dynastic worship site boasts both the longest stela in Belize (No. 14) and a postcard-perfect vista, overlooking the Toledo coastal plain and rainforests. Wander the main plaza, ball court and other ruins, but it’s the stelae collection that will impress you most.
Lubaantun—Place of the Fallen Stones–is a Late Classic ceremonial center known for its unusual construction methods. Mayans at this location employed dressed stone blocks and organic materials, but they didn’t use morter. As a result, pyramids and buildings disintegrated, which is how this site, a mile from San Pedro, got its unusual name.
5 Must See Maya Ruins in San Ignacio Belize
The Belize Maya Ruins listed below are also available to visit:
Carozal District – Santa Rita & Cerros
Orange Walk District – Lamanai & Cuello
Belize District – Altun Ha
Cayo District – Caracol, Cahal Pech, El Pilar and Xunantunich
Toledo District – Nim Li Punit & Lubaantun