By Briana Seftel
Think only Mexico has Mayan ruins? Think again. Its neighbor to the south, Belize, boasts the largest number of ancient Maya ruins in Central America. In addition to exploring world-class marine life like the Blue Hole and stunning caves, check out the top ruins to see in Belize!
Bow down in the presence of Xunantunich, which in Maya means “stone woman.” Getting here is a journey in itself; you’ll need to take a free ferry from San Jose Succotz village across the Mopan River (cars are allowed). Catch your breath at the top of El Castillo, Xunantunich’s largest temple, then continue exploring this beautiful site. Excavations continue to this day, so don’t be alarmed if you see archaeologists hard at work.
In northern Belize lies Lamanai, one of the oldest continuously occupied Maya sites in Belize. Situated 24 miles south of Orange Walk Town, Lamanai is just as prized for its ruins as its spectacular jungle setting near the New River Lagoon. In Maya, Lamanai translates to “submerged crocodile,” so keep your eyes peeled!
In the Cayo District lies the largest ruin in Belize: Caracol. This ancient city was once one of the most powerful cities in the Maya world and was home to about 120,000 people. Still today, the tallest man made building (Caana pyramid) in Belize can be found here. Spend a few hours exploring the 30 square miles of thick jungle, five plazas and astronomical observatory.
Travel tip: Only the last 10 miles of the one-way road to Caracol is paved. If you plan on driving, it is recommended to have a 4x4 vehicle.
If you’re looking for ruins that don’t require a challenging drive, head to Altun Ha. The ruins are the closest to Belize City and very easy to walk around - no steep hills here! Stroll on flat grassland land to Altun Ha’s two large central plazas and pyramids. Altun Ha is so beloved by Belizeans, it can be found on the face of the national currency and on the bottles of the country’s leading beer, Belikin.
Just outside of San Ignacio in the Belize River Valley, Cahal Pech makes an easy day trip if you’re staying in the popular Cayo District. While smaller than neighboring Xunantunich, Cahal Pech is still a fascinating Maya site to discover at a smaller scale. Originally built as a place for the wealthy, the complex consists of several pyramids, residence buildings, and seven impressive courtyards.
Image via Instagram user @tlatollotl
The largest Mayan site in southern Belize, Lubaantun is home to 11 limestone pyramids, 5 plazas and 3 ball courts. Unlike other ruins in Belize, Lubaantun was built entirely without mortar. Each stone was carefully measured and cut to fit the adjoining stone. Sound like the Incas? You wouldn’t be wrong! Many believe the site holds a mysterious crystal skull, but no discoveries have been made.
Nim Li Punit
Often combined with Lubaantun, Nim Li Punit is a smaller Mayan site known for its large stone columns (stelae) that are intricately carved with Maya hieroglyphs and pictures. In Maya, Nim li Punit means “the big hat."