All posts in Mayan Ruins Belize

  • Xunantunich Mayan Ruins

    Xunantunich is a well excavated and easily accessible Mayan site, close to San Ignacio in Belize. The Xunantunich Mayan ruins are located atop a limestone ridge above the Mopan River, within sight of the Guatemala border. The central area is laid around three plazas surrounded by more than 20 structures.

    It name means “Stone Woman” in the Maya language and, like many names given to Maya archaeological sites, is a modern name. It refers to the ghost of a woman claimed by several people to inhabit the site. The ancient name is unknown.

    El Castillo, the second tallest structure in Belize.

    El Castillo, the second tallest structure in Belize.


    Xunantunich was a thriving Mayan city from about 600 to 900 AD. Evidence indicates that during the 10th century AD there was a disruption at Xunantunich, possible an earthquake, and the city and much of its sustaining hinterland was soon abandoned. The site was reoccupied centuries later while the structures were already in ruins.

    Map of Xunantunich

    The map shows the location of Xunantunich. The buttons on the left can be used to zoom in or out. Click and drag the map to move around.


    At 127 feet (39 m) the pyramid known as El Castillo is the second tallest structure in Belize, after the temple at Caracol. It’s a steep climb but the view from the top is worth it. The structure was probably built in three stages between the 7th and 9th century. At one time its frieze, a banded stucco decoration, extended around the entire pyramid. Today only a small part of the frieze remains which displays masks of the sun god flanked by signs of the moon, Venus and different days.

    Visit Xunantunich

    The Xunantunich Mayan ruins are located only a few miles west of San Ignacio. The Mayan ruins can be reached by taking the free ferry across the Mopan River. The entrance to the river ferry is right on the side of the Western Highway. The hand cranked ferry, which comes and goes on demand, takes you across in minutes. Then it’s about 1 mile uphill on a paved road to the ticket office.

    The entrance fee is BZ$10.

  • Altun Ha Belize

    One of the more easily accessible Mayan ruins from Belize City, Altun Ha is a small site featuring two large central plazas surrounded by midsized pyramids. Only a few of the most impressive structures have been uncovered while many more are still covered by the jungle vegetation.

    “Altun Ha” is a recent name, coined by translating the name of the nearby village of Rockstone Pond in Yucatan Maya . The ancient name is unknown.

    Photo credit: danielfoster437

    Photo credit: danielfoster437


    Altun Ha was settled around 200 BC until the 10th century AD. At its peak in the 3rd century AD, as many as 10,000 people may have lived here. The city was a major trading center and a large amount of jade and obsidian were found at the site, both of which do not occur naturally in Belize. The presence of jade also suggest that Altun Ha was a religious center as jade could only be worn or used by Mayans of great importance, such as religious leaders.

    About 900 AD several elite tombs were looted, which some think indicates a revolt against Altun Ha’s rulers. The site remained populated for about another century but no new major structures were built during that time. After this the population dwindled, with a moderate surge of reoccupation in the 12th century before declining again to a small agricultural village.

    Map of Altun Ha

    The map shows the location of Altun Ha. The buttons on the left can be used to zoom in or out. Click and drag the map to move around.


    Situated at Plaza B, the largest (though not the tallest) temple here is the Temple of the Masonry Altars. The temple was expanded many times with a new temple, complete with altar, built around the last one. No fewer than seven tombs have been found here, the oldest of which contained a magnificent carved head of the Maya sun god Kinich Ahau. The 10lb/4.5kg jade head is considered one of the national treasures of Belize and is locked away in a bank vault in Belize City. A replica of the head can be seen in the Museum of Belize.

    The unrestored Temple A-6 is truly the tallest building at Altun Ha. It is now a large grass covered mount with a few remains of the stairs in the center on the lower south side. A climb to the top of the temple provides an excellent view of the entire site.

    Altun Ha, Maya Ruins

    Visit Altun Ha

    Many tours run to Altun Ha from Belize City, Caye Caulker, or from San Pedro on Ambergris Caye.

    Besides an organized trip, the most cost effective method to visit Altun Ha is to rent a car and drive out there yourself. The Old Northern Highway connects Altun Ha to Belize’s Northern Highway. Be warned that the Northern Highway is a collection of potholes connected by small stretches of worn-out asphalt.

    The entrance fee is BZ$10.

  • Lamanai Belize

    One of the most picturesque Mayan ruins in Belize, Lamanai features three large pyramids, various restored stelae, and open plazas as well as a small but unique ball court. Also, the ruins of two 16th century Spanish churches are nearby. The site enjoys an isolated location in the jungle on the banks of the New River Lagoon, a river with numerous crocodiles.

    Since Lamanai was still occupied by the Maya when the Spanish arrived, it is one of the few sites in Belize to preserve its traditional name. According to the Spanish missionaries “Lamanai” means “submerged crocodile” although doubts have been expressed recently as to the accuracy of this translation. The less poetic “drowned insect” has been put forward as an alternative. Still, the large numbers of crocodile representations found in carvings and inscriptions suggest that, whatever the true meaning, the animal certainly had a very important role in the local mythology.

    The High Temple, Lamanai, Belize.

    The High Temple, Lamanai, Belize.

    History of Lamanai

    Lamanai has one of the longest histories of all the Mayan sites. It was continuously occupied from around 500 BC, for which there is ceramic evidence, until 1675 or perhaps even later. At its peak it may have supported up to 35,000 people.

    It was both a ceremonial and a trade center, and many copper objects were found here that came from western and central Mexico and lower Central America. Less is known about what Lamanai exported. It is also uncertain why Lamanai continued as an important center while other Maya sites in the region collapsed during the Postclassic period.

    Spanish attempts to convert the Maya to Christianity resulted in the construction of two Roman Catholic churches around 1570 AD. They were met at first with indifference and later with outright hostility. In 1640, the Maya launched a revolt, burning the churches down. The site was abandoned shortly afterwards and the city was gradually swallowed by the jungle.

    Map of Lamanai

    The map shows the location of Lamanai. The buttons on the left can be used to zoom in or out. Click and drag the map to move around.


    The High Temple is an enormous pyramid, rising 108 feet (33 m) above the plaza level. It was first built around 100 BC and modified several times but its impressive height was already reached in the initial construction phase. This makes it one of the largest securely dated Maya structures from the Preclassic period.

    A short distance to the south of the High Temple is a ball court, the only one in Lamanai, dating to around 900-950 AD. It has a circular stone marker which covers a mysterious chamber where liquid mercury and several pieces of jade were found.

    Structure N10-9, another of Lamanai’s massive pyramids, was initially constructed around 500-550 AD. Also informally referred to as the “Jaguar Temple” because of a jaguar mask found here, the structure is twelve feet shorter in exposed height than the High Temple. However a significant amount of this temple is under the ground.

    The smallest of the three excavated temples at Lamanai is the Mask Temple, named after a 13 feet (4m) high carved mask. It represent a humanized face with a crocodile headdress and dates to the late 5th to early 6th century.

    Visit the Lamanai ruins

    A scenic 26 mile boat ride from Orange Walk Town up the New River is the easiest way to get to Lamanai. A small museum exhibits local artefacts and provides a historical overview. Tourist facilities and small shops are available.

    The entrance fee is BZ$10.

  • Caracol

    The Mayan ruins of Caracol are the most extensive in all of Belize. After a victory over Tikal in the 6th century, Caracol flourished and became one of the largest Mayan cities. After its decline, the city lay hidden in thick, high-canopy jungle for centuries until a native logger came across the ruins in 1937. A year later two archaeologists visited the ruins. They named the site Caracol, Spanish for Snail, because of the large number of snail shells they encountered. The ancient Mayan name of the city was Oxwitzá, or “three hill water”.

    Excavations of the ruins did not begin until the 1950s while most of the work took place since 1985. The excavations have uncovered pyramids, royal tombs, dwellings, monuments and two ball courts.

    Plaza A at Caracol. Photo credit: Dennis

    Plaza A at Caracol. Photo credit: Dennis


    The earliest habitation of Caracol occurred between 900 BC and 600 BC, while the first Mayan temple, the Temple of the Wooden Lintel, dates from around 70 AD. The Caracol royal dynasty was founded in 331, and the city rose in power over the next two centuries.

    At first, Caracol was an alley of Tikal as witnessed by the appointment of a new lord over Caracol by Tikal’s king Double Bird in 553 AD. The relationship between the former allies turned hostile however when Caracol switched alliances from Tikal to Calakmul. An outraged Double Bird declared war against Caracol and defeated it, but not decisively. In 562, Lord Kan (Water) of Caracol, alongside its ally Calakmul planned a war in accordance with astrology against Tikal. Double Bird, was captured and sacrificed and Caracol experienced a boost in wealth and power.

    At its peak, Caracol maintained a population of over 140,000 people through the creation of an immense agricultural field system and through elaborate city planning. It covered an area much larger than present day Belize City and may even have exceeded that of Tikal.

    During latter reign, Caracol carried out a series of attacks on another former Tikal ally, Naranjo with mixed success. A period of decline followed due to Tikal’s resurgence and the downfall of Calakmul and its alliance. Caracol returned briefly as a major power around 800 AD during the reign of K’inich Joy K’awiil, who resumed both royal monuments dedications and construction activities.

    The Last recorded date at Caracol is 859 AD found on Stela 10. Evidence points to a great fire around 895 AD. Its inhabitants eventually dwindled away until the city was finally abandoned around 1050.

    Map of Caracol, Belize

    The map shows the location of Caracol Belize. The buttons on the left can be used to zoom in or out. Click and drag the map to move around.


    Caracol’s largest and most impressive structure is a hillside temple known as Caana, which is Maya for “Sky Place.” Rising 143 feet (43.5 meters) above the jungle, Caana is the tallest Maya building in Belize and still one of the tallest buildings in the country.

    Visit Caracol

    Most people visit Caracol on a guided tour but it is possible to drive here on your own, as long as you are prepared for a crazy, bumpy and muddy ride. All visitors, groups and individuals, travel to Caracol in a convoy that departs Douglas D’Silva ranger station at 9:30am every morning. On the return trip the convoy departs at 2pm.

    The entrance fee is BZ$15.