Because the ancient Maya culture collapsed around the year 900 AD, long before the arrival of Spanish conquistadores, many modern visitors mistakenly assume that the Maya people no longer exist. Simply put, this isn't true, as the Maya people form a vibrant part of modern-day Belizean society.
Today, there are three distinct communities of Maya people, each speaking a different dialect of the ancient tongue spoken by the advanced culture that built the hundreds of colossal temples, pyramids, and palaces that still dot the Belizean landscape. And while some Maya people have adapted to modern life in cities like Belmopan, many Maya in Belize continue to live traditional lifestyles little unchanged over the millennia.
According to archeologists, the ancient Maya culture first arrived in Belize around 4,500 years ago as they pushed down from their traditional heartland in what is now Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula. Over the centuries, the ancient Maya developed their own unique style of hieroglyphic writing, built advanced astronomical observatories, and used complex mathematics to create accurate calendars that encompassed the passage of tens of thousands of years.
The ancient Maya culture reached its peak in what is now called the Classic Period that began around 250 A.D. and continued to around 900 A.D. Most of the largest Maya temples and pyramids were built during this period. But for reasons still hotly debated by archeologists and historians, something caused the widespread collapse of ancient Maya society around the year 900 A.D., and nearly every city was abandoned and left to be reclaimed by the jungle.
By the time the Spanish invaders arrived in the 16th century, the Maya population was only a fraction of what it had been during its heyday. Despite being overwhelmed by superior technology, the Maya in Belize offered stiff resistance to the Spanish, using guerrilla warfare tactics to burn and destroy Spanish settlements. After nearly 100 years of unsuccessfully trying to pacify and convert the Maya in Belize, the Spanish retreated, which ultimately led English loggers establishing the first British colony in Central America.
Today, there are three groups of Maya living in Belize, the largest of which is the Yucatec Maya who migrated to northern Belize from southern Mexico around 200 years ago. The Mopan Maya, who now live in southern and western Belize are primarily from the eastern part of Guatemala. The smallest group, the Ketchi Maya, can be found in some eight villages in the southern Toledo District of Belize.