The best hidden-gem Mayan ruin sites in Belize

 

I didn’t realize I was a ruin exploring junkie until my trip to Belize. (As if watching Indiana Jones 58 times a year as a kid wasn’t a clear enough sign. Hindsight is 20/20.) It was characters like Indiana Jones, Lara Croft and Kate Ericson who fueled my passion for exploring long-forgotten civilizations and uncover the history of cultures that have nearly faced extinction. The history and importance of Mayan ruin sites in Belize run deep and your trip won’t be complete without a visit to one or two of the sites. 

These ruins, even though there are no longer inhabited by their vibrant communities, tell the stories and history of these cultures. In Belize, ruins all over the country told the dynamic history of the Mayan people who suffered for centuries from war, famine and other plights. The story of the Mayan Empire is one that is often glossed over in history books but makes up a significant chunk of history in Latin American countries. The retelling of these stories didn’t take root until I was standing at the base of a Mayan temple in Belize for the first time. As I admired the Mayan ruins in sheer awe, I started to learn how important Mayan history is in Belize.

 

 
 
 
 
 
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Astronomer, archaeologist or author — those are the three careers that appeared shiny to me as a child. Uncovering ruins to learn about ancient history = DOPE. 🤘 Studying big celestial phenomenons = RAD. 🤙 Annotating titillating thoughts and stories = BOSS. ✊ When playing The Game of Life, I always pleaded to choose a career that I was passionate about. I didn’t care about winning or how much money the career made — I cared about being happy! (If me not being able to cope with a fictional career that didn’t inspire me for 45 minutes doesn’t personify my endless ambition to be happy, I don’t know what else to tell you.) 😂 Though I don’t work for NASA, nor am I a modern-day Kate Ericson, I still enjoy these things! Sometimes, we have to take these shiny and “out of reach” brilliant daydreams and repurpose them to fit into our lives. I take time to adore the moon. I get lost in ruin sites scattered around the globe. I arm myself with a pen to jot down riveting epiphanies at lightning speed. Too often we’re lectured at and told to “pare down” what makes us tick. Fuck that. Stay complex, stay diverse, stay true to you! 🥰 How do you explore your other passions while you travel? . . . . . . #belizetravel #belize #belizevacation #unbelizeable #belizeit #visitbelize #belizephotos #explorebelize #youbetterbelizeit #belizeanbeauty #belizeitornot #belizeadventures #belizefinest #getlost #adventureseeker #beautifulmoment #exploringtheglobe #wanderlusting #postcardsfromtheworld #travelphotography #roamtheplanet #earthporn #cultrualdive #soulsearching #wonderfulplaces #goexplore #solotravel #ipulledoverforthis

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When I road tripped through Belize, I was prepared for the overzealous coastal hype, but not for the significant impact that exploring Mayan ruins would have. As cliche as it is to say, I was blown away. All my passions were converging. It was unforgettable.

Belize is often mistaken as a destination with only picturesque beaches and snorkeling. Furthermore, it is often dwarfed by its larger neighbors Guatemala and Mexico as an ideal travel destination. All these countries have rich histories rooted in Mayan ancestry that have nearly been eliminated. Transport yourself to another time and into a new kind of civilization by visiting the best Mayan ruin sites in Belize. 

Photo credit: Andy from Arex Travel

Altun Ha

Recommended by Andy from Avrex Travel 

Altun Ha was a thriving trading center within the Mayan territory for about 1200 years.  Its close proximity to the sea ensured it flourished with a population estimated as high as 10,000 people.

The Altun Ha Jade Head, the largest known Mayan jade artifact, was discovered here.

Today, the Altun Ha Mayan ruins are the most visited Mayan site in Belize. Its proximity to Belize City, 50 kilometers away, makes exploring its temples and ruins the ideal cruise excursion tour.

Most of Altun Ha’s visitors are on organized excursion tours from cruise ships anchored off Belize City.  For those not on a cruise, you can find several tour operators in Belize City that offer guided tours including transportation to the site. 

Should you want to get your own transportation, renting a car is the best option as there is no direct bus service to the ruins. The Altun Ha site is about 50 kilometers northwest of Belize City.

Once you arrive at Altun Ha, you can walk the grounds on your own.  On-site local guides for hire are available and ready to share their knowledge on the ruins and the Mayan way of life.

The Altun Ha site, with its well preserved and restored temples, is a great place to learn about ancient Mayan culture.

Xunantunich 

Getting to Xunantunich is an experience in itself. Xunantunich is protected by the Mopan River and visitors can only cross by a hand-cranked ferry. After crossing the river, it feels as an electric force field protects the serenity felt at Xunantunich. Once you cross the river, you are transported into another era. An era where Mayan communities were thriving and fueling societal progress. 

It’s unclear what the exact translation of Xunantunich is. Some experts say it’s Sculpture of Lady, Maiden of the Rock or Stone Woman

Rumors suggest that Xunantunich is inhabited by a ghost called Stone Woman, hence the possible translation of the ruin site’s name. Sightings of the Stone Woman ghost started in 1892. The ghost dons only white and has fire-red eyes. She is normally sighted emerging from El Castillo (the tallest ruin on the site), climbs the stairs and disappears through a wall. 

Xunantunich is best known for its impressive stucco friezes. Friezes are large stone carvings the adorn the walls of El Castillo, the main temple of the Xunantunich ruin site. The friezes on Xunantunich honor the sun god Kinich Ahau, as well as symbols that represent the sun and Venus. 

Climbing to the top of El Castillo offers an impeccable view of nearby Guatemala, San Ignacio and the jungle that still hugs and protects the ruin site. Xunantunich is the second tallest ruin site in Belize, standing only 130 feet shorter than Caracol. Ascending to the crown of El Castillo leads visitors through various rooms of the temple. It’s hard to not be in awe of the construction of this towering structure and how this was constructed during Mayan times without modern technology. 

Cahal Pech 

Belize’s Mayan ruins are often overlooked by tourists in favor of their neighboring ruin sites in Guatemala and Mexico– this is a huge mistake! Belize’s ruins are less crowded with tourists and definitely offer a realistic representation of how life would’ve looked when the Mayan royalty ruled. A smaller Mayan ruin site in Belize that’s often overlooked is Cahal Pech. Compared to Xunantunich, which hugs the Belize-Guatemala border, and Caracol, Belize’s largest Mayan ruin site, Cahal Pech is relatively untouched in terms of excavation and overtourism. 

Entering the ruin site you’ll spot one of the larger temples with trees going upwards from its peak. As you venture to the next plaza, the trees intertwined in a dense woven pattern overhead and shade the ruins from the harsh sun. You’ll feel like an archaeologist (Lara Croft, Indiana Jones, you take your pick!) as you meander through the dense overgrown brush and moss-covered stones of the temples. 

The ruin site was once home to Mayan nobility at the crux of the Macal and Mopan Rivers. Now, the site sits overlooking the bustling town of San Ignacio. This is one of the many Mayan ruin sites in Belize that you cannot miss. 

Photo courtesy of Mayawalk Tours as cameras not permitted in the ATM Cave.

ATM Caves 

Recommended by Holly from Globeblogging 

The ATM cave is a Mayan site of incredible archaeological significance. It stands for Actun Tunichil Muknal, which means the Cave of the Crystal Sepulchre. The site contains Mayan artifacts and skeletons within its chambers.

Approximately an hour from Belize City, access to the cave is tightly controlled by the Belizean government. As such, there is a limited number of guides authorized to take groups into the cave. I toured with Mayawalk, who were the first guides allowed to enter the cave. Located under a mountain in the Tapir Mountain Nature Reserve, tours hike through the jungle and cross three rivers to reach the entrance to the cave.

The Maya believed caves brought them closer to the gods and were the entrance to the underworld. They feared to go too deep, and evidence of their ceremonies deep in the cave showed their increasing desperation. Many of the earthenware still in the cave have been dated to the time when changed weather patterns made growing crops difficult, and it is believed the Mayans were summoning rain.

While the cave also contains several skeletons, not all are revealed on the tour. The most famous is the one from which the cave derives its name, The Crystal Maiden. A complete skeleton still resting in the position which she died, a thousand years of calcite giving her a crystal-like appearance.

It is a humbling experience to travel through that cave, with no sense of the passing of time and no light except a headtorch, and imagine how it must have been for the Mayan’s a thousand years before. I am uncomfortable in caves, and it is not an experience I would repeat, but it was an incredible experience I am not sorry to have had.

Caracol 

One of the wildest adventures I have been on is my journey to Caracol. Traveling to Caracol without a guide can be done, but it definitely is not for the faint of heart. As a solo female traveler, I got a lot of questions about why I was doing the trek by myself. Even my adrenaline-junkie self was in for a complete surprise. 

The trek to Caracol isn’t easy. It requires 3+ hours of driving treacherous terrain and being escorted by the Belizean Defence Force. Once on-site, there will be guards roaming the ruins to make sure everyone is safe. As a female solo traveler, the guards often approached me to make sure that I felt safe. One guard even took the time to escort me around a part of the plaza and tell me the history he knew about the ruins. 

I preface my experience with all this information because this is what made Caracol the most memorable stop on my road trip. Compared to the other Mayan ruin sites that I visited, Caracol dwarfed them in size and also in leaving a lasting impression. 

At the height of its reign, Caracol had more than 36,000 structures. Caracol is also famously known for defeating neighboring Mayan civilization Tikal. After that battle, historians found influences from Caracol in the site’s architecture and layout. 

Caracol is a hidden gem in Belize and deserves a full-day in your Belize itinerary. 

Belize is known as a small country graced with beautiful beaches and is an affordable stop on Caribbean cruises. But this small country is much more than that. The amount of vibrant culture and experiences that this country has is unlike anything I’ve experienced on my travel in Latin America. Steer clear of all the tourist traps on your Belize vacation and seek out experiences that will appreciate Belize’s eclectic and profound cultural traditions, including those of their Mayan ancestors. These are the best Mayan ruin sites to help you experience the real, authentic Belizean experience. 

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Quirky Globetrotter

Hi! I'm Martha! The mastermind behind Quirky Globetrotter a feminist travel blog. Quirky Globetrotter is devoted to telling narratives devoted to female solo travel and hidden gems worldwide with an emphasis on intersectional feminism and how that impacts travel on a global and local level.

18 thoughts on “The best hidden-gem Mayan ruin sites in Belize

  1. I must admit that when we went to Belize we were seeking beach time and scuba diving. So we did not even look for Mayan ruins. Good to know there are some in good shape for a return visit. The Altun Ha site looks fascinating with the detail in the middle of the rock structure. Crossing on a hand cranked ferry would certainly add an interesting start to visiting Xunantunich. And it sounds like it would be worth climbing to the top for the view. Good to know that we would need to book with a guide to see the ATM Caves.

    1. Hi Linda! There’s no shame in visiting Belize for its beaches and scuba diving — it does have one of the most impressive barrier reefs in the world! On your return visit definitely try to squeeze in some Mayan ruin sites. Altun Ha is the closest to Belize City where the major airport is and where more cruise ships dock. Xunantunich can easily be done on a day tour as well. I remember seeing some guide companies grouping ATM Caves with a quick visit to Xunantunich, so it’s doable to see both sites. Safe travels to you!

  2. Wow! This is amazing. I have always been fascinated with the Mayan Civilization and it would be cool to see this ruins in Belize. Thank you for sharing. Looking forward to visiting in the future.

  3. You’re absolutely right that growing up with Indiana Jones always made me intrigued with ancient civilizations and ruins. I am glad to learn about the Mayan ruins in Belize, because I usually only ready about those found in Tulum. Xunantunich sounds so mysterious and interesting. The fact that it is so remote adds to the mystery and intrigue. Would love to visit one day and explore these ruins for myself!

    1. Hi Cecilia! Sounds like there’s a little tribe of Indiana Jones wannabes! Ancient civilizations are definitely so intriguing to me, so whenever I visit, I’m enthralled and want to immerse myself in every detail of how they lived and their history. The remoteness definitely preserved the sites’ integrity and make sure that their history and legacy are not forgotten.

  4. I didn’t know that Mayan ruins were so prolific in Belize, having visited some sights in South America, I am keen to explore those in other countries that were a part of that ancient empire. Each site you describe looks well worth visiting, and I love that you road tripped between them, as that’s one of our favourite ways to travel.

    1. Hi Kavita! In addition to Belize being an overlooked destination, no one seems to roadtrip when visiting. Definitely a missed opportunity! Belize is so much smaller in size compared to Mexico and Guatemala that its Mayan history is often overlooked, even though their largest site Caracol did defeat Tikal is a monumental battle! Definitely hoping to continue my knowledge of Mayan history by exploring more sites in the future. Safe travels to you!

  5. What an awesome post! It’s great timing for me to read this. We were considering a trip to Mexico next winter (for the third time) when suddenly I looked on the map and offered Belize instead. You’re right, most people don’t consider Belize, and those who do often go with images of beaches in their mind. I’m a culture and history fiend, and I would LOVE to explore these ruins. I can’t stop looking at that photo of the skeleton on the ground, it’s so haunting!

    1. Hi Stephanie! I’m so glad that you are considering Belize, it’s such a sparkling hidden gem in Central American! Luckily, if you rent a car, it’s so easy to navigate to most ruin sites (Caracol being the only exception — but I still HIGHLY recommend it!) I actually preferred the ruins over the beaches in Belize. As a fellow culture and history fiend, I couldn’t get enough of the ornate buildings and their captivating history. Definitely planning on venturing to more ruin sites like these once we can travel again. Safe travels to you!

  6. You are right! While traveling the area I only focused on the Mayan ruins of Guatemala and the beaches of Belize. So sad to see what I missed out on.

  7. I have heard about Mayan civilization, read a couple of blogs too but I dint know about Belize. It definitely looks like my kind of place with beaches, history, cultural traditions, including those of their Mayan ancestors. This blog definitely made me curious. I could so relate to your instagram post where you say Astronomer, archaeologist or author careers interested you. I love the latter two. Culture and history are my favorite topics too. The tour of the ATM Caves, The Crystal Maiden, Xunantunich make the experience one of its kinds. Thanks for taking us on a virtual tour.

    1. Hi Majulika! Yes! Belize has such a vibrant culture and history. It’s often overlooked because it is so small compared to its larger geographical neighbors (Mexico and Guatemala). I have always had an interest in Mayan history, but it was so incredible to experience it first hand and climb the large stone temples and plazas that they constructed with no modern-day technology. Definitely a site that leaves your awestruck for a lifetime! Safe travels to you!

  8. Wow what an amazing tour! The Mayans have always been so interesting with this mystery about them. It’s crazy that it’s believed 10,000 people populated this area once. I enjoyed the ghost story and story about the crystal women. Loved this post!

    1. Hi Kaitlin! There are so many historic stories that you learn from exploring these ruins. That was why I absolutely fell in love with exploring them. I originally planned on seeing one or two sites during my trip, but quickly searched high and low for any Mayan ruin site I could tour! Definitely want to visit again and see the ones I missed!

  9. I have always wanted to get to the Mayan ruins and it good to know about these in Belize, especially since you say they are non-touristy and not so crowded. I would love to explore them in peace. The ATM caves look so interesting and a little spooky – though in a good way. I would love to even see the Xunantunich – especially the stone carvings that you describe.

    1. Hi Ami! I’m so disappointed I wasn’t able to visit the ATM Caves — next time though! Xunantunich was the first ruin site I visited and it completely blew me away! I hope you get to visit Belize soon to experience all the incredible wonders yourself. Safe travels to you!

  10. Wow! I had no idea that there are Mayan ruins in Belize. Just like you, I would immediately imagine enjoying the sun, sand and beaches in this city. Happy to know that there are guided tours offered. It would be a great and fascinating experience to see the Altun Ha ruins as well as the ATM caves personally. We hope to visit in the future.

  11. You are right! The Belizean ruins aren’t talked about much. While traveling the area I only focused on the Mayan ruins of Guatemala and the beaches of Belize because we didn’t find info on them. Out of this list, I wish I was able to Xunantunich, but no one ever mentioned anything about the ghost that is supposed to appear there. We would have definitely moved over to this side of Belize if we had known that. Cahal Pech also sounds like a place we would have enjoyed exploring. Such a shame that we weren’t able to find any information about these places ahead of time.

    Instead, we ended up visiting Yaxha-Nakum-Naranjo in Guatemala. don’t get me wrong, these sites were amazing, but I would have loved to see the Belizean ones too.

    I’m not sure if I would have been brave enough for the Caves though.

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