Belize is part of the southern Mayan lowlands of the Mesoamerican culture area. The Maya civilization spread across Belize around 1500 BC and flourished until about 900 AD. The dominant Mayan population existed in Caracol, which was an urban political center that had up to 140,000 people.
Belize is estimated to have thousands of Maya ruins with few found and excavated by scientists but most are still undiscovered. Because of this, Belize is an ideal spot for archaeologists and tourists alike.
Here are some facts about the most popular Maya ruins in Belize.
Cerros is located on the sea coast across from Corozal Town in the Bay of Chetumal. It’s name translates to “the hills”. During the late Pre-classic period, Cerros was a key commercial center for Maya traders arriving by canoe through Chetumal’s Bay, and from up the Rio Hondo and New River.
Lamanai means “submerged crocodile” in Maya. This ruin is located in the Orange Walk district on the bank of the New River Lagoon. It is the largest Mayan site in Belize. The main attraction in Lamanai is the mask of a Maya leader emerging from a crocodile headdress. Lamanai was occupied for over 3,000 years until the Europeans took over.
El Pilar, Spanish for the “watering basin”, is a Mayan archaeological reserve near the Belize-Guatemala border. It got its name for the abundance of water in the area, which is a rare trait in most Mayan sites. During its peak, El Pilar was more than three times the size of the Xunantunich Maya ruin.
Altun Ha translates to “water of the rock”. This is the closest ruin to Belize City and was a major ceremonial center for the Mayas. During its peak, this ruin served as a central trading link between the Caribbean coast and Mayan centers inland during the Maya Classic Period. The famous Jade Head, that now sits in the Museum of Belize, was found at Altun Ha.
The Cahal Pech Maya ruin stands apart from all other Mayan sites in Belize, because it sits in the midst of a bustling town. Cahal Pech translates to “place of ticks”. This site is in San Ignacio Town and was once a ceremonial center with temples, palaces and a ball court. Visitors can enjoy a panoramic view of San Ignacio and the Belize River Valley.
Xunantunich means “maiden of the rock”, and was a major ceremonial site that was built on a limestone ridge during the classic period. This Mayan site has 6 plazas with over 25 temples. Xunantunich sits atop a hill which overlooks the Mopan River. It is 8 miles west of San Ignacio Town and is directly across the village of San Jose Succotz.
Caracol is one of the most popular sites in Belize with a rich history as a rival power to Guatemala’s Tikal ruin. Caracol translates to “snail” but its name refers more to the spiral shape of the snail’s shell which resembles the winding road that leads to the ruins. Caracol is known for its elaborate city planning as it spans an impressive 65 square miles. Caracol is located deep in the Chiquibul Forest Reserve in the Mayan Mountains in Cayo.
Nim Li Punit
Nim Li Punit means “big hat” and got its name from a carving on the longest stelae in the site. There are 26 stelaes in the site. The longest stelae has a carving of a figure wearing a large headdress and stands at about 30 feet tall, making it one of the longest in the Maya world. Nim Li Punit is located near Indian Creek Village in the Toledo District.