The Mayan civilization flourished from 2000 B.C. to about 900 A.D. During the classic period from 250 to 900 A.D., the Maya built temples, carved fantastic artwork from stone and jade, made astonishing discoveries in mathematics and astronomy, and devised the most sophisticated writing system in the Western Hemisphere. They also evolved a 1,500-mile-long trade route running the length of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, and continuing through Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, and El Salvador.
Some experts speculate that drought and wars led to the eventual decline of this great civilization; others believe that the Maya simply evolved into a less centralized lifestyle, abandoning great cities for numerous small villages. At the height of Mayan civilization, the population of what is now Belize may have reached one million, four times what it is today. Although their numbers are reduced, the Maya still live in Belize, still speak Mayan dialects, and still practice ancient crafts and healing techniques. Here are some areas of Belize where visitors can experience remnants of the classic Mayan period.
Located just across the Guatemalan border, Tikal is regarded as one of the most important archaeological discoveries of the 20th century. It is estimated that 1 million people worked over 1,000 years to build this city. At least 3,000 palaces dating back 6,000 years have been discovered here.
Although it was discovered in 1938, excavation efforts at Caracol only began in earnest in 1985. Archaeologists now believe it to be a larger site than Tikal. There are more than 4,000 structures spread across 55 square miles. The largest pyramid, “Sky Palace,” rises 140 feet and is the tallest human-made structure in Belize. More than 55 tombs have been discovered, including two belonging to a king and his royal family. A stele (inscription in stone) records Caracol’s victory in a war with Tikal. Caracol is located in the Chiquibul Forest south of San Ignacio.
“The Maiden of the Rock” is the name given to the site by present- day Maya. Just three miles from San Ignacio, the site is accessible by a short ferry ride across the Mopan River. El Castillo is a 130-foot temple with elaborately carved friezes showing monkeys, warrior masks, and the Mayan symbol for spring. From the top of the temple, visitors can see the rangeland and jungle of eastern Belize, the lowlands of Guatemala to the west, and the impressive Maya Mountains to the south.
Cahal Pech, located in the Cayo District along the west bank of the Macal River, consists of 34 structures in an area covering about two acres. Cahal Pech was first developed during the preclassic period (1000 B.C. to 200 A.D.) and abandoned around 800 A.D. The site offers visitors a panoramic view of San Ignacio and the Belize River Valley.
Located in the Orange Walk District of northern Belize, Lamanai is best reached by air or a boat ride up the New River. One of the longest occupied Mayan sites, Lamanai was settled around 1500 B.C. and was still inhabited into the 19th century. An incredible stone face etched into a temple here is widely included in many guidebooks to Belize.
This is the largest Maya site in southern Belize, dating to 700-900 A.D., well known for its unusual style of construction. All structures were made of limestone blocks with no visible mortar binding them together. Lubaantun is situated on a tall ridge above a valley cut by the Columbia River, about 1- 1/2 miles from San Pedro, Columbia, the largest Kekchi Maya village in Belize. Nim Li Punit and Uxbenka are among other Mayan sites that can be found in southern Belize.
Archaeologists believe Altun Ha was settled around 250 B.C., and continued into the 10th century. Some 10,000 Maya lived in and around Altun Ha, which was a significant trading center. Altun Ha, about an hour from Belize City, features two central plazas surrounded by towering temples that enclose a palm strewn area.
Chechem Ha Pottery Caves
Used by the Maya as a storehouse for grain, the cave contained enormous pottery storage jars, many still intact, some still containing maize. One chamber of the cave was used as a ceremonial center. The cave tour requires climbing rope ladders and is a strenuous activity.
Mayflower Archaeological Reserve
Nestled deep in the jungle at the base of the Maya Mountains, this Mayan reserve comprises three post classic ruins: Mayflower (Mayflower Camp), Tau Witz (dwelling of a local god of the hill) and Maintzunum (hummingbird). There are two hiking trails leading through the rainforest to waterfalls. The falls have several “dipping” pools, ideal for cooling off. The area has myriad birds, orchids and wildlife. It’s located off the Southern Highway between Dangriga and the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary.