The vast majority of people who visit Belize come for some combination of scuba diving, snorkeling, sailing, fishing, eco-tours, or just plain relaxing in a gorgeous Caribbean setting, and nearly all of those visitors also have a chance to visit some fascinating archeological sites that were once home to the Maya civilization. Even if 90% of your Belize trip will be concentrated on recreation, you’d do yourself a favor to take a short break from that to see the remnants of the once-great culture that dominated this region over 1,000 years ago.
Beginning over 2,000 years ago, the Maya civilization began building cities and spreading throughout the region. The Belize area is one of the central hubs of this society so many important cities were in and around the region. But about 1,000 years ago the Maya civilization was already in serious decline for reasons archeologists are still piecing together. The society literally disappeared and it’s unclear if the remaining few migrated elsewhere or just died out in place.
In the 20th Century archeologists began uncovering the former cities beneath the thick jungles in the area. Only a tiny fraction has been unearthed, but these ruins have begun to help scientists start putting the pieces together. There are interesting Maya sites near many of the popular tourist areas today, including:
- Corozal – This small town sits overlooking a crystal clear bay that divides northern Belize from Mexico. The entire town was actually built on a former Maya civilization, but unfortunately only a small group of ruins are preserved. The good news is that they are right in town and easy to visit.
- Altun Ha – The most thoroughly excavated Maya site in the country, this group of 13 buildings surrounding two plazas is about 30 miles from Belize City. Guided tours are available starting in Belize City, and river tours include Altun Ha leaving from both Caye Caulker and Ambergris Caye, combining this site with other jungle sites.
- Cahal Pech – The name literally means “place of the ticks” and this is one of the more popular groups of Mayan ruins in Belize. It’s located in San Ignacio along the Macal River and is the main tourism site in that popular region.
- Xunantunich – Is another of the larger and more popular Maya sites in Belize. It’s located across the river from San Jose Succotz in the Cayo district. Tours of the site combining other area attractions are available from many different towns in the area.
- Tikal in Guatemala – Yes, it’s in Guatemala, but this is the grand daddy of all Mayan ruin sites and is the most popular attraction in the entire region. It’s easy to visit from Belize since buses from Belize City to Flores (near Tikal) leave daily, and stop in San Ignacio along the way. If you’ve got a day and only want to see one of these, this is the one.
While visiting any of these sights should be interesting to nearly anyone, they really come alive using a tour guide. Fortunately local guides (and plenty of English-speaking ones at Tikal) are always available and quite affordable. Some attractions can be appreciated just as well without a guide, but this isn’t one of those.