From caves lined with skeletons to a temple next to a luxury jungle lodge, these 10 ancient sites are something you have to see to believe.
Belize’s Mayan archaeological sites may not generate the buzz that Mexico’s Chichén Itzá, Honduras’s Copán, and Guatemala’s Tikal receive, but they are no less grand. One of Belize’s greatest adventures is ogling at the impressive structures, which were built in the ancient Mayan era from the start of the Preclassic period (2600 BC) to the decline of the Classic period (AD 900). At its peak, an estimated two million Maya lived in what is today Belize, over five times the country’s present population. Here are Belize’s most famous Mayan ruins, bearing names in Spanish, English, or modern Mayan, their original names lost to history.
You’ve already seen Altun Ha—the name means “rock stone pond”—if you’ve imbibed Belize’s iconic Belikin beer. Its Temple of the Masonry Altar is right there on the label. Still, nothing beats visiting the real thing. Count on viewing wildlife here, with tapirs, armadillos, and white-tail deer calling the site home. Birdwatchers have logged some 200 avian species here, too. Compactness and ease of access from Belize City—Altun Ha is just an hour north—make this the country’s most visited Mayan site and a popular shore excursion with cruise visitors.
Although the name translates to “hills,” many of coastal Cerros’s 170 structures, including several temples, are partially submerged. The ocean water has seriously eroded the stone on many of the buildings. The site sits across the bay from the town of Corozal and is most conveniently reached by boat from there. Cerros is thought to have guarded important trade routes from jade and salt; shifts in trade led to its early abandonment.
The ruins at Chan Chich come complete with a snazzy jungle lodge—one of Belize’s top places to stay (and one of its most expensive)—on the premises. Several plazas here served as markets and as sites for ceremonial events. In theory, it’s possible to visit Chan Chich on your own, but its remoteness makes it difficult to do so without an overnight stay at the lodge.
If you visit the Cayo, you must see Belize’s largest and most significant archaeological site, which also happens to have the country’s tallest structure (Caracol’s Caana pyramid). The site measures 75 square miles (194 square km) and is the most remote of all the ruins. Caracol’s estimated 35,000 structures—most remain unexcavated—are thought to have made up a city of 200,000 inhabitants. Armed robberies have occurred over the years along the route to the site. The Belize Defence Force accompanies convoys to and from Caracol. You and your vehicle sign up at the meeting point at 9 a.m. and head out. Everyone heads back at 3 pm, giving you about four hours at the site.
Actun Tunichil Muknal
A hike, a wade, maybe a swim, and another wade—you need to be in good shape for this one—take you to the inner reaches of “ATM,” Belize’s most haunting sight, whose name nobody bothers to pronounce. The name translates as “Cave of the Crystal Sepulcher.” At the center of the cavern lie the remains of the so-called “Crystal Maiden,” a young female sacrificial victim. Carbonate has crystallized her bones over the centuries, and they sparkle eerily in the darkness. A licensed guide is a must. You’ll have your own helmet light, but cameras and smartphones are prohibited. While a visit here wins you “I conquered ATM!” bragging rights, do take a moment to ponder the terrible deaths met by Mayan sacrificial victims.
Barton Creek Cave
Picture a longer, more rustic, Mayan version of the “It’s a Small World” ride at the Disney parks, but without the song. Area tour operators canoe you into, through, and out of this ceremonial cave near San Ignacio. Barton Creek has been looted over the decades, but enough artifacts (pottery, tools, and weapons), along with some human remains, endure to give a fascinating glimpse into Mayan ceremonial practices. Half-day excursions take you one mile into the cavern, but the waterway is thought to extend an additional, so-far-little-explored 5 miles (8 km).
If you’re a woman, we suggest you don’t dress in white while visiting Xunantunich, lest you be mistaken for the all-in-white female ghost who allegedly haunts this site; you probably won’t have the specter’s reputed fiery red eyes, though. The site’s name, pronounced shoon-ahn-TOO-nitch, means “stone woman” and was given by modern archaeologists to honor the legendary specter. The massive El Castillo pyramid dominates the 26 temples here. And to illustrate how dynamic this field is, the archaeology world buzzes over the recent discovery here of the largest burial chamber uncovered in Belize.
Lamanai was featured on a 2012 episode of ABC’s The Bachelor; you might recognize it if you’re a longtime fan. Here is one of the few Belizean sites whose original Mayan name is known—it means “submerged crocodile.” By virtue of Lamanai being inhabited continuously over 3,200 years and well into the 18th century, you’ll see a variety of architectural styles here, even including the ruins of two Christian churches. A boat ride up the New River Lagoon offers the coolest, most “Indiana Jones” method of getting here, but the site is accessible by road too. Abundant wildlife, including a noisy troop of howler monkeys, top things off to create a thoroughly enjoyable visit.
Lubaantun’s is forever associated with one of history’s great archaeological hoaxes. British pulp writer F. A. Mitchell-Hedges captured the world’s imagination with his claim to have found a mystical crystal skull here. His refusal to allow the skull to be tested always aroused suspicion, though. Subsequent examination after his and his daughter’s deaths revealed an artifact created in the 1930s and not by the ancient Maya. Many New Age devotees still insist that the skull has paranormal powers. If anything, the deception adds to the intrigue, and Lubaantun remains southern Belize’s premier site and sight. Back to earth, Lubaantun’s 11 buildings are noteworthy for their rounded corners and precision cutting, requiring no mortar to fit the stones together.
Belizean couples come from all over the country to get married in Santa Rita’s pretty garden on the outskirts of Corozal. Presently one ruin structure, containing two burial chambers inside, is open. Historians continue to debate Santa Rita’s significance. The area was a center of cacao, honey, and vanilla production during pre-Columbian times, and Santa Rita may have existed to protect an important trade route. It may also have been the lost Mayan city of Chetumal, not to be confused with the modern port city of Chetumal just across the border on Mexico’s Yucatán peninsula.