El Mundo Maya: Exploring Belize's Maya Ruins

Between 1500 and 900 B.C. the Maya people flourished in Central America, constructing reservoirs and elaborate temples, cultivating farmlands, and creating a written language, astronomical charts, and a calendar system. At its peak, the society is estimated to have numbered around 5 million people, populating more cities than ancient Egypt. However, modern archaeologists can only speculate about what led to the demise of this society around 900 B.C. Evidence of their empire covers most of Central America, but one of the best places to delve into the mysteries of the Mayas is the English-speaking tropical paradise of Belize.

Maya ruins stretch across the country's narrow spine, from Santa Rita at its northern tip to Pusilha near the Guatemalan border. Cerros, an important coastal trading center around 350 B.C., is situated on a peninsula in the Bay of Chetumal. A plaster-lined canal surrounds the ruins, tapping into the Rio Hondo and the New River. Explore the ruins by canoe in the wet season; during the dry season, it's an easy drive from Corozal. Further south in the Orange Walk District lies Lamanai, the largest ceremonial site in Belize. Hundreds of buildings have been mapped within its two-square-mile expanse, including a number of ball courts and the 99-foot-tall High Temple. Altun Ha, a short drive from Belize City, served as a trading center between the Caribbean outposts and interior cities. In 1965, the head of Kinich Ahau ("The Sun God")—a nine-pound sculpture made from solid jade, the largest jade Maya carving to date—was discovered in a burial chamber in Altun Ha's Temple of the Green Tomb.

Xunantunich, close to Belize's western border with Guatemala, rests on a natural limestone ridge overlooking the Mopan River near San Ignacio and has been intriguing researchers and tourists since its discovery in 1938. This is the country's most excavated site and lays claim to one of the tallest structures in all of Belize: the 135-foot pyramid, El Castillo. Caracol, further to the south, is probably the largest Maya complex within Belize. Covering over five square miles across the Chilquibil Forest Reserve, it can only be reached by trekking through the jungle.

The vast wealth of Maya treasures in Belize is continually expanding. New artifacts are discovered almost daily, and it's not uncommon for locals to have unexplored ruins in their own backyards. Some sites, like Lamanai and Altun Ha, are more accessible; others require considerable effort to reach, but will reward you with staggering glimpses of a civilization all but lost, save the enduring physical trace of its empire. If you opt for the less-beaten path while exploring Maya Belize, be sure to spec out the route conditions, dress for dense jungle trekking, bring lots of water, and equip yourself with a good map or an experienced guide.

Published: 15 Aug 2002 | Last Updated: 14 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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